Take Care: Mineralization, Hydrochemistry and the Environments of Greek Thermalism

Lydia Xynogala
Prof. Dr. Philip Ursprung

The scientific analysis of mineral springs, rocks, and soil in Greece in the late 19th century led to a new understanding of the country’s landscape and resources: its airs, waters and places. In a process of conceptual mineralization, the terrain was documented as a broad chemical network with healing properties. Doctors, chemists and geologists constructed knowledge through fieldwork, laboratory studies and treatises. From geochemical evaluation to proposals for actual buildings, minerals such as sodium chloride, magnesium, sulfates became the impetus for a major construction endeavor. Greek Thermalism – a nationwide taking the waters – had its peaks in the interwar and in the postwar eras. The state sought to take care of its citizens through the promotion of natural treatments for a wide range of medical symptoms. Minerals were the matter of care. State-funded bathing towns at hot springs, so called Loutropolis’, emerged across the country. Tourism flourished in these new urban centers; the water bottling industry, roads and railway networks, as well as other infrastructures grew around them. 

My research discusses translations from scientific writings to built environments. It investigates the manifestation of the movement as it is materialized in the field surveys and laboratories, institutions, hydrotherapy buildings, parks, kiosks, hotels and factories. These environments of Thermalism incorporate definitions of nature blending pagan and modern visions. This analysis enables me to connect material transformations to the historic circumstances in which they occurred: nation building, a search for identity and socio-urban changes. I examine these phenomena through “petrography”, the writing through stones. From ground to water to the body, minerals are simultaneously medium, actants for transformations and loci for care. As non-human agents in their various states and forms - seismic, volcanic, geologic, tectonic, healing, steamy, vaporous, liquid, muddy, sublime- they mobilized a scientific, medical, political, institutional and legislative apparatus. In the process of its creation, new social relations and forms of leisure emerged.

In decline since the 1970’s, this scientific and cultural effort with its built artifacts remains largely undocumented. The recent financial crisis in Greece with its healthcare cuts has further accelerated disuse and deterioration of the buildings. My dissertation uncovers their significance as evidence of a larger environmental movement, as a network of places, and as individual architectures.