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Monastiraki and the Athens Flea Market

Sometimes antiques can be more fun than antiquities. What is the appeal of stands and (often scruffy) shops stuffed with second-hand furniture, bric a brac, china or just plain junk? A psychiatrist could probably tell us but there’s no denying that flea markets are the star attraction in the cities that have them.

When I first came to Athens in July 1963, my first stop was Monastiraki (little monastery). I had no idea that the drab church in the (round) square is all that’s left of a grand monastery (convent) that was demolished in the mad search for antiquities after Independence, or that the domed building between the church and the elegant train station was a mosque and is now a folk art museum.

Ever since antiquity, much of the area adjacent to the Classical Agora and the Roman Forum was the bazaar, the city’s main market. Back in the 60s, many of the shops belonged to metal workers – a reminder that the Theseion, actually a temple of Hephaestos, their patron, lies just across the train tracks in the Agora. Nowadays, they have been replaced by shops dedicated to fancy sneakers, camouflage outfits, souvenirs, T-shirts, etc., though a few fusty places remain with collections of old books or LPs. Luckily, the real thing still exists, virtually unchanged in a square within this small district, called Plateia Avyssinias.

It was here that, when I moved to Athens, nine years later, a Greek friend brought me to buy furniture for my new home. She ignored the wares spread out in the open, leading me into dark “showrooms” and even darker basements. After some deliberation and much haggling, we decided on a round dining-room table, bent-wood chairs and sofa, a desk, and a heavy wooden cradle – impractical but quaint – that served me well.

Abyssinia Square, still the exclusive domain of antique dealers, has preserved that traditional atmosphere. Tables and chairs are still stacked higgledy piggledy, surrounded by a miscellany of things on the ground: a mini cannon, an old sewing machine, a gaudy lamp, a Chinese ivory reindeer, spare chandelier crystals, a 1940s toy . . . among 1001 other things you can’t live without – or with. And impervious to all, two men will be playing backgammon, while others look on.

But why Abyssinia? It seems the square has a dual connection to Ethiopia: it was officially named Avyssinia in honor of Haile Selassie’s aid in 1922 to Greek refugees from Turkey, while a colony of Abyssinians is said to have lived here in the more distant past. At some point it was also called Yousouroum after a well-known Jewish shop owner, for this was once a Jewish district and the old synagogue lies just a few blocks to the west.

On Sundays, the square plays host to a bigger flea market that spills all the way down the sidewalks of Monastiraki to Kerameikos. This continues the tradition begun a hundred years ago of holding Sunday auctions of second-hand goods in the neighborhood.

When you’re finished snooping, take a break at Café Avyssinia, and enjoy delicious food in Athens’ only restaurant that is furnished and decorated with antiques

-Diana Farr Louis

Directed by Mihalis Dimitriou

Mihalis Dimitriou holds a dual US and Greek nationality. He has received a master’s degree with a specialization in acting and directing, and Magister Artium in theatrical studies from the Open University of Cyprus where he graduated with honors in 2019. He received a B.A. in film studies from the University of Greenwich, also with honors, as well as a Certificate in Film & Television Studies from New York College, Athens Campus.

He is involved in the development and production of films, documentaries, TV series, commercials, and music videos. In 2019, he wrote, directed, and co-produced with the Greek Film Centre (GFC) the short film “Cloud” which won the first audience award at the Micro μ Festival (IMμF), was presented at the 42nd Short Film Festival, the 25th International Short Film Festival in Drama in September 2019, the “Athens International Film Festival”, and won the Cinematic Achievement from Thess International Short Film Festival.

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