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  • Writer's pictureAlex King

A Brief History of the Old National Library in Athens

What is the Old National Library?

The Old National Library in Athens is the former headquarters of the National Library of Greece, designed by Danish architect Theophil Hansen in the late 19th century.

National Library in Athens

Old National Library History

During the 400 years of Ottoman rule over Greece, churches and small libraries were the chief repositories of Greek language and culture. After the War of Independence began in 1821, Greeks across the country were eager to express their national and religious identity, suppressed for so long by the Ottoman Empire, of which Islam was the official religion. The creation of a National Library was seen as crucial to the resurrection of Greek cultural and linguistic pride. In 1824, Swiss Philhellene Johann Jakob Mayer wrote an article calling for a National Library in his newspaper Ellinika Chronika, which both Mayer and Lord Byron used as a vehicle for championing the cause of Greek independence. Mayer’s vision caught the attention of Ioannis Kapodistrias, the first governor of the new independent Greek State. The same year the Ottoman Empire was forced to sign the Treaty of Adrianople recognising Greece’s autonomy, Greece’s first National Library was established in an orphanage on the island of Aegina in 1829.

In 1834 the capital was moved from Nafplio, in the Peloponnese, to Athens; a top priority for the city restored to primacy in Greece was the creation of a new National Library, befitting the fledgling nation’s illustrious ancient past and reflecting its grand future ambitions. After finding temporary homes in the bathhouse in the Roman Agora (hardly an emblem of Greek-ness) and the Little Metropolis church, the National Library merged with the Athens University Library in 1842.

In 1888, the foundation stone was laid – finally – for the National Library’s first dedicated home, in a grand new building here on Panepistimiou Street. Designed by Danish architect Theophil Hansen, the building’s construction was funded by three brothers, born on the island of Kefalonia and now part of the enormous Greek diaspora: Panagis, Marinos and Andreas Vallianos. It’s their surname which gives the National Library building its alternate name, the Vallianeio Megaron, and it’s Panagis whose statue stands in front of the grand double stairway.

When it opened in 1903, the National Library completed, as its final member, the ‘Athenian Trilogy’ – three Neoclassical buildings that sit side-by-side on Panepistimiou Street and which were all designed by Theophil and his brother Hans Christian Hansen. Athens University opened in 1864, followed by the Athens Academy in 1887 and finally the National Library. Theophil’s designs were finished by the mid-19th century, but it was not built until funds were assembled much later. Its construction was supervised by Theophil’s student Ernst Ziller – who also boasts a number of impressive Neoclassical buildings across Athens. Ziller designed the interior furnishings, such as the distinctive cast-iron bookshelves and galleries.

The National Library contains many treasures, such as the first printed book in the Greek language, which dates from the 15th century, right at the beginning of printing itself. Its collection includes over two million books and periodicals, 4,500 manuscripts and the Archive of National Liberation Fighters, which alone amounts to 200,000 historical documents.

Eventually, the collection outgrew its purpose-built home and the library’s directors began to look for a building more suitable to the needs of 21st-century readers. In 2018, the majority of the National Library’s collection was moved to a new state-of-the-art home inside the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre in Palaio Faliro, which is well worth a look for both bibliophiles and architecture-lovers alike.

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