A short photo essay on olive tree trunks photographed in one place in the Peloponnese. I have no idea how old these particular trees are, but as they grow older they become more full of character.
The site of Ancient Aptera is in western Crete, not far from Khania, high up on a plateau with beautiful views towards Souda Bay. It’s an interesting site because it has such a wide range of buildings reflecting the fact that it has been occupied since Minoan times, though most of the site that is accessible today seems to be Roman.
From the Classical Greek period onward it was a city right through the Hellenic period of the Roman occupation. Indeed the monastery of Agios Ioannis Theologos (pictured above) was occupied right up until the 1960s. In the courtyard of the monastery, rather incongruously, is a pile of stone cannonballs:
One of the most impressive things to see on the site are the Roman cisterns, designed and built so well that they are still remarkably well-preserved. The cistern openings do not give a true idea of the size of the underground cisterns themselves.
There’s no sign of water anywhere on the site today, so it is hard to imagine how there was sufficient water in the past to store in the cisterns and to feed the Roman baths below. In amongst the baths are other buildings whose purpose is difficult to make out from the remains:
On the wall of one of these buildings is a stone block with chisel marks on it. I am not sure but I think it may be Minoan, as it reminds me of blocks with similar markings that I have seen at Knossos.
On its own on a promontory overlooking the bay itself is a Turkish fort, unfortunately fenced off so that I can’t get closer to have a look inside.
To the rear of the site is are the remains of a small amphitheatre, probably Greek:
and this may be a Greek temple with niches to hold statues of gods:
Finally, I found one of the most evocative parts of the site the remains of a Roman villa, strewn with the debris of its columns. There was a particular atmosphere on this spot and I seemed to get a sense what it must have been like for the people who lived there with its views looking south towards the White Mountains.
Today the site is extremely hot under the scorching midday Cretan sun and there’s very little shade to provide any relief.
It’s some while since I last did a post on the links between Greece and Russia, so I am going to pick up the theme again with this post about the Orlov Revolt in the 1770s. This was an attempt by Greek exiles in Russia, supported by Catherine the Great, to foment an overthrow of Ottoman rule in Greece.
One of the interesting aspects of this episode in Greek history is that some of its key scenes took place in Messinia, an area of the Peloponnese that I know a little, and specifically the harbours of Koroni, Methoni and Pylos.
It’s hard to find good material about the Orlov Revolt, so I am indebted to David Brewer’s book, Greece, the Hidden Centuries (2010) for the main lines of what happened.
The idea of a revolt against Ottoman rule was first raised in Russia in 1762 by Giorgos Papazolis, an artillery officer. Given leave of absence from the army, he went first to Venice and then on to Greece in 1766 to canvas support for the idea of an uprising, promising that the Turks would be overthrown and the Byzantine empire re-established.
Papazolis involved two brothers in the scheme, Aleksei and Fyodor Orlov. Aleksei had distinguished himself in the service of Catherine the Great by deposing and then murdering Catherine’s husband, Tsar Peter III. Fyodor was a distinguished general. It may be that their involvement with the Greek cause came as a result of the views of a third Orlov brother, Grigory, who advocated Greek Christian freedom from Ottoman rule.
Since the seventeenth century Russia had three key objectives to its foreign policy: to gain access to the Baltic (achieved through Peter the Great’s founding of St Petersburg); to acquire land to its western border as a buffer; and to gain access to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Curiously it was the second of these, rather than the third which sparked conflict with the Ottoman Empire. In 1768 Catherine managed to have her favourite, Stanislav Poniatovsky elected to the crown of Poland, to the outrage of the Polish nobility who appealed to France and the Ottomans for help. When Russia ignored an ultimatum to withdraw, the Ottomans declared war.
It was at this point that the Orlov brothers, Aleksei and Fyodor went to Venice to raise money and volunteers for a Greek revolt. In 1769 Catherine the Great made Aleksei Orlov Commander-in-Chief of the Russian forces involved in the rebellion. Whilst he was still in Livorno on a separate mission for Catherine, his brother, Fyodor, arrived with the first Russian fleet of 9 ships and 60 men at the harbour of Itilo in the Mani (having for various reasons already lost 10 of the ships with which he had left the Baltic).
Fyodor established two armies under Russian command, called the Eastern and Western Legions. The Eastern Legion besieged Mystras in March 1770 until it surrendered after nine days, leading to the slaughter of 1,000 Turks and the capture of a further 1,000. One of its main achievements was also to set up a provisional government under Antonios Psaros.
The Western Legion’s main task was to join up with the Russian ships that were besieging the port of Koroni which the Russians wanted as a base for their fleet. Koroni was defended by a large fortress built by the Venetians which, following the fall of Byzantium in 1453, had enabled to hold out against the Turks until 1500. The Russian siege of Koroni, led by Fyodor Orlov, lasted for six weeks and achieved nothing.
Some other parts of Greece joined in the revolt, mainly Corinth, Patras, Nauplio, Monemvasia, Kiparisia and Crete. In the meantime Orlov was sending reports back to the Russian court claiming to be in control of the whole of the Peloponnese.
However, at this point, as the Ottomans were being pressed by the Russians on other fronts outside of Greece they resorted to using Albanian mercenaries to relieve the sieges in Corinth, Patras and Tripolis. The Albanian mercenaries managed to raise the siege of Tripolis but then turned on the Greeks, slaughtering 3,000.
The Russians succeeded in capturing Navarino Bay, a great natural, sheltered harbour at Pylos.
At last in April 1770 Aleksei Orlov arrived in the Peloponnese and attempted to rally the Greek leaders by addressing them “all Orthodox Christian Greeks who are subject to the tyranny of the Turks”, promising them the Russians wanted the Greeks “to remain always under her care and protection”. But it was too little, to late. In May Aleksei Orlov attempted and failed to capture the fortress at Methoni.The Albanian mercenary forces started moving south from Tripolis to restore order, and the game was up. Many people in Messinia fled towards the Russian fleet at anchor in Navarino Bay seeking escape on the Russian ships, until Aleksei Orlov, closed the gates. He had by then decided to withdraw from Greece and abandon the Revolt, and on 6 June the Russian fleet set sail, leaving behind many thousands of Greek refugees to face the consequences.
For the next nine years the Albanian mercenaries devastated the Peloponnese, claiming they had not been paid. It is estimated that c.20,000 Greeks were seized and sold as slaves and a further 50,000 Greeks (about one sixth of the pre-Revolt population of the Peloponnese) fled to the Ionian Islands, Italy, other parts of Europe and to Russia (especially Crimea and Odessa). It was not until 1779 that the Ottomans were able to restore order in the Peloponnese.
The Russo-Turkish war was eventually brought to an end with the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca in 1774. The war had inflicted serious setbacks for the Ottoman Empire on land and sea and the peace treaty brought Russia significant land gains in the Southern Ukraine, the Crimea and North Caucasus. In addition it gave Russia status as official protector of Orthodox Christians within the Ottoman Empire.
The outcome for Greece was a disaster: large parts of the Peloponnese were devastated, thousands of Greeks, Turks and Albanians were killed and a large proportion of the Greek population forced into exile. However, there were two key learnings that came out of it that were applied fifty years later in 1821 during the Greek War of Independence.
The first is that in order for independence to be achieved, there had to be a political structure in the form of a provisional government, to provide direction, consensus and cohesion amongst the rebel forces. Second, it provided a clear warning of the dangers of allowing foreign powers to interfere in Greek affairs. During the Orlov Revolt it became clear to the Greeks that they were at risk of swapping Ottoman rule for Russian overlords and this bred a distrust of the intentions of other countries’ support for Greek independence.
In a recent Greek lesson, my tutor, Maria, introduced me to this powerful song by Mikis Theodorakis. So I thought I would share it and provide my own translation of the lyrics which are also by Theodorakis.
In the orchards, amidst the flowering gardens,
As once we did, we will set up a round dance,
And we will invite Charon
To drink together and sing with us.
Take hold of the clarinet and the zourna [type of folk clarinet]
And I will come with my little baglama [small bazouki]
Oh, and I will come along…
You took me in the heat of battle, Charon.
Let’s go to the orchards for a dance.
In the orchards, amidst the flowering gardens,
If I take you along, Charon, to drink wine,
If I take you along to dance and sing songs
Then give me the gift of life for one night.
Hold your heart, sweet mother,
For I am the son who came home for a single glance from you.
Oh, for a single glance…
When I left for the front, dear mother,
You didn’t come and see me off.
You went out to work and alone I caught the train
That took me far away from life.
The odd thing about the song which took me a while to register is that it is being sung by someone who has died. In fact he died fighting on the battlefront during the Second World War and from that state invokes the figure of Charon, the ferryman across the River Styx in Greek myth and the personification of death in Greek poetry and song.
The song vividly conjures up his love of life and longing for a chance to live again just for a night. I get the sense that the mother he invokes may be a personification of Greece itself as well as his own mother who didn’t see him go off to war.
I love the heft of Giota Negka’s voice in this song and her ability to control its power to add light and shade to the narrative, as the music moves between stately and solemn tread to intense longing.
Two other things to note from this recording. The first is the fact that the TV celeb audience to a man mouth the words with the singer. This is something I’ve often noticed when watching audiences in Greek concerts and it always surprises me. I don’t think this is anywhere near as common in the UK for example and is a specific cultural difference. I wonder why this should be the case?
The second thing is the way that, particularly at the end of the song, one of the celebs on stage raises his arm. Again I’ve noticed this at live performances in Greece and it sees to be at points in the music where someone identifies with the music or the sentiments being expressed (‘einai se kefi’).
Anyway, it’s a great song.
I love learning Greek. It’s the first language I have learnt since school. True, I did dabble with Arabic at one stage and would have gone on with it, if the evening class I was in hadn’t folded. I loved getting to grips with the script and (to someone used to European languages) the counter-intuitive direction of travel of the words on the page. I briefly dipped my toe in the deep waters of Japanese and, had I pursued a different path, might have gone on to study it intensively.
I wonder sometimes what the attraction is of learning another language, particularly when once again I am struggling to get my head round irregular verbs. For me, it’s something to do with having another window on the world and looking at the world through the lens of another culture.
A desire to learn Greek came from my first visit to the country, 4 short years ago. I was so frustrated that I couldn’t communicate, it made me want to learn the language. I looked around for an evening class and found one right on my door step. It provided a great grounding in the language, but after a year I needed something more intensive and one-to-one, so I found my current tutor, Maria, who is Greek.
It has its frustrations though. As it’s not a major league language, it does not have great selection of language learning texts. There are numerous books around, but many are aimed at the learner who just wants to be able to say a few words on holiday. I wanted a deeper engagement with it than that. There’s a great grammar book (Greek - an essential grammar of the Modern Language by Holton, Mackridge and Philippaki-Warburton) which is very detailed, but nothing for the intermediate learner. Nothing very much on verbs. There are Greek texts for foreign learners of the language, but they tend to be all in Greek. I recently bought an excellent Greek book on verbs which came from Athens.
One of the big gaps though is in language listening material. I have no evidence to back this up, other than my own experience, but my perception is that Greek is spoken very fast. So it’s hard to find material that helps my understanding of the spoken language. My tutor and I have, off and on, been watching a Greek comedy, called A Greek woman in the harem. I find it very hard to hear the words, let alone understand them, but repeated listening does make some of it clearer. Greek TV and radio programmes are available on the internet, but again the machine-gun speed of delivery makes it virtually inaccessible.
That’s why I like songs and poems on You Tube. It’s easier to find the words and follow along. I find it really helps me remember words and grammar.
Of course, there’s no substitute for going to the country and having some total immersion. I’d like to be able to go there in September, but we’ll have to see. In the meantime, back to my books!
One of the things that helps me to learn Greek is listening to songs and reading poems. It’s a useful way of learning words and, even though poetic language often uses contorted syntax, a good aide-memoire for grammar points. Over and above that though is the short cut it provides to the culture of the country, what it celebrates and values, its feelings, its way of thinking and how it expresses itself.
I’ve even been known to take a poem or the text of a song with me on holiday to Greece to commit to memory. One I’ve tried to learn is Cavafy’s poem Ithaca, but at the moment it’s just too long and its language a bit too much of a stretch for my level of Greek. It is a beautiful poem though and like many poems that draw you in, there’s something mysterious about it, something that you can’t quite grasp no matter how many times you read it, something elusive like Ithaca itself for Odysseus.
My Greek tutor, Maria, tells me that this is one of the first poems that Greek children learn at school. I can’t think of a better one to start the journey of life and learning.
For me too it evokes Greece in the summer: sea shading from light to dark blue and emerald, ozone and its salty tang, cloudless azure skies, blinding light, fierce heat. Standing on harbours, looking into clear water, watching yachts, cruisers, fishing boats come and go, each on their own journey of discovery, you get a sense of what the search for Ithaca means in the poem.
As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
Translation by Edmund Keeley / Philip Sherrard
The road to Mycenae climbs gradually upwards until it just peters out at the site of the ancient city that is hard to pick out against the mountain side until you are nearly on top of it.
It is only as you get closer to the city’s walls that you start to get a sense of the site and the skill of its builders. The stones they used for the “Cyclopean walls” (as the encircling city walls are called in Greek) are massive, some of the biggest weighing several tons.
It is an astonishing feat of engineering which raises questions about how the Mycenaeans learnt their masonry skills and how they managed to quarry and move such enormous stones. Clearly this could not be achieved by trial and error: they must have had some way of planning and calculating how best to build on such a massive scale.
The entrance to the city is through the Gate of the Lions, an impressive gateway with huge stone uprights and lintel, surmounted by what appears to be two lions rampant. Actually there is some dispute as to whether the animals depicted are lions at all or something more exotic like gryphons. Whatever they are, it is also claimed that the heads were made of precious stone – which may account for the fact they they are now missing, perhaps the victims of later looting.
The original city doors were made of wood and you can still see holes in the walls where they fitted. Just inside the city gates there’s a hollowed out space in the rock that could be a sentry box or perhaps a shrine room.
The road into the city is up a steep ramp and as you climb, you pass, on the right, a grave circle where Schliemann found a skeleton wearing a gold mask that he called the ‘mask of Agamemnon’. One problem with his excavation of Mycenae is that he was keen to fit the archaeology to the ancient myths, rather than interpreting Mycenae in the light of the archaeology on the ground.
A series of steep ramps lead to the top of the site which is occupied by the megaron (palace complex).
The ruins are difficult to interpret and is not well signed. The site itself is much smaller than I had imagined: the megaron occupies the largest area of the city and there are comparatively few houses, most with tiny rooms.
So it looks as if the city was meant for the leader (or king) and his household: the nobility’s houses are believed to have been at the front of the site and perhaps some artisans houses at the rear. It does not look as though it was a city built to house a whole cross-section of Mycenean society. So where did they draw on the manpower for their mammoth building works?
As you climb up to the megaron you also get a clear view of the surrounding countryside and to the south-west, standing on its own rocky promontory, you can see the ancient site of Argos.
The rear of the site has some really interesting features. At one point in the city walls there is an entrance which originally must have been some form of gateway access. The gap today shows how thick the city walls actually are.
Then there is a postern gate with massive stone uprights and a lintel, similar to the Gate of the Lions, but without any decoration.
But the most impressive feature is the entrance to a water cistern which shows Mycenean building skills at their most impressive. Steps cut in the rock lead down to a corbelled entrance, again with stone uprights and lintel, and then down a steep passage to the cistern itself. Clearly the Mycenaean were very concerned to protect their water supply against enemy attack.
The cisterns demonstrate the Mycenaeans’ mastery of building skills and use of technology to move the building material. You can even still see at various points the marks of their chisels on the face of the rocks.
The well designed museum displays many of the items found on site, though the more prestigious items (the mask of Agamemnon and other gold items, swords, armour, etc.) are now in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. There are some amazing carved figures, some of which are jointed like puppets., and cult objects similar to the Minoan snake goddess figures found at Knossos. The bright colours used and the fragments of frescoes found show the influence of the Minoan civilisation of Crete. Mycenean culture only lasted for a short period of time (1500-1100BC) after which the city was abandoned, although there is archaeological evidence shows that the site had been inhabited since 6000-5000BC.
Its strange to think that this from this small site the Mycenaeans once dominated mainland Greece. It has also had such an enormous influence on European culture through its links to the ancients stories about the house of Atreus, Agamemnon, the sacrifice of Ifigenia, the murder of Clyemnestra, Electra, Orestes and the Furies. Of course it’s impossible to tell how these stories were linked to Mycenae historically and what events they were actually based on.
Not far from the museum and outside the city walls lies a tholos, a beehive tomb, called the Lions’ Tomb. It provides an excellent example of Mycenaean building skills: massive uprights and a stone lintel, smooth stones, a very high structure built in the shape of a beehive which would have been topped off with a massive stone. It is not the easiest structure to build and we can only wonder why they chose this particular shape to memorialise their dead.
Back down the road leading up to Mycenae lies what is referred to as the Treasury of Atreus (the name was give to it by the 1st century AD traveller, Pausanias). This is another massive tholos with a long formal entrance way, huge beehive structure and side chamber (possibly an ossuary). No one knows what the structure contained as it was looted in antiquity, though some of the decorations from the exterior of the entrance are now in the British Museum.
These massive structures and the size of the grave circle in the city itself seem to indicate that the Mycenaeans practised some form of ancestor worship which drove them to devote so much time, energy and resources to the building of tombs for their dead.
The area is dotted with other smaller, but still impressive reminders of Mycenaean building skills. We came across this bridge up in the mountains that doesn’t seem today to be very important in terms of its location, but which must have taken a long time to build. Clearly, though, they thought it was worth the effort.
Although it seems strange that the theatre at Epidauros is in such a remote place, the theatre is in fact a side-show to the main attraction. The theatre was built from the donations of people who came to Epidauros primarily to be cured at the Asklipeio and to provide entertainment.
Epidauros was said to be the birthplace of Asklipios, the god of healing, an honour also claimed by Trikala in Thessalia. Asklipios was the son of the god Apollo and Koronis and was killed by a thunderbolt from Zeus for bringing Ippolitos back from the dead and was eventually made a god. His family embodies different aspects of healing: his wife is Ipioni – goddess of the soothing of pain and his daughters are Igeia (goddess of health, cleanliness and sanitation), Iaso (goddess of recuperation from illness), Akeso (goddess of the healing process), Aglaia (goddess of beauty, splendour, glory, magnificence and adornment) and Panakeia (goddess of universal remedy).
I find the cult of Asklipios and its practices fascinating for several reasons.
The practices used by the priests of the cult are at the origins of medical treatment. At the small on site museum and at National Archaeological Museum in Athens there are large number of medical instruments on display that were used by the priests as part of their treatment of the sick. Many people were trained in healing and it must also have helped to create a corpus of knowledge and experience about diseases, different treatments and what worked and didn’t work.
Secondly, there is a curious link with modern psychoanalysis in the way that treatments were determined. After undergoing ritual purification practices, mostly involving water and eating communal meals, the sick were taken by the priests of the cult to a building called the Avlaton. Here they laid down to sleep amongst sacred snakes and waited for the god to appear to them a dream to give them a sign for their cure. Also the sick were read stories about those who had found incredible cures, so perhaps there is an element of subconscious suggestion and prompting about the dreams. The dream sign of course had to be interpreted and the appropriate cure administered by the priests.
In the iconography of Asklipios he is usually shown holding a staff around which curls a snake – this is the origin of the caduceus – still used to indicate European pharmacies.
At Epidauros there are examples in the small museum of the types of problems cured. For example a man with a poisoned toe dreamt that the god touched his toe and he was cured. Also there are thank offerings for cures and replicas of statues that stood in the Asklipeio, the originals long since moved to Athens.
The Asklipeio at Epidauros is enormous. In addition to the buildings of sacred and ritual significance, there are huge buildings used to house the large number of visitors who came in search of a cure for their illnesses.
There is one round building on the edge of the site whose function is not clear, it has an underground section which may have been used as a labyrinth for priestly initiations or as a sacred snake pit. It has even been conjectured that this snake pit / labyrinth was used to administer shock therapy to people suffering from what we would call today mental illnesses.
The Asklipeio was looted by the Romans. It managed to survive, for several years alongside a Christian church, until eventually it was closed down during the Theodosian campaigns against paganism in the 4th and 5th centuries AD.
Epidravros is in a beautiful, peaceful location, the air heavily scented with pine resin and oleander flowers, the classic mixture that immediately recalls Greece.
The theatre is on part of a much larger site at the top of a slope reached by pine shaded steps. It is smaller than I imagined and it has an amazing symmetry. You can distinguish quite clearly between the two parts of the seating: the lower set of tiers of 30 or so rows of the original theatre were built by the Greeks in the 4th century BC, and the upper 20 tiers were added by the Romans. The Roman part seems to me to be more roughly finished, as if they could not quite equal the mastery of the original builders, but overall the theatre is a remarkable feat of engineering.
All of the seats are made out of local limestone and are amazingly regular.
The exception to the use of limestone are the seats at stage level which are made from a red rock (or perhaps limestone with a red colour to it) and were used by dignitaries.
The stage is a large circular space made of beaten earth in the centre of which is a disk that marks the original site of an altar to Dionysos. Behind the stage area is a space that was used as a backdrop and to store materials.
Beyond the stage area is a magnificent panorama of countryside and mountains: it must have been hard at times to concentrate on what was happening on stage.
One of the remarkable features of the theatre is its acoustic. When we were there visitors obliging stood on the stage and clapped or declaimed poetry, so it was easy to discover that wherever you sit in the theatre, not only do you have a clear view of the stage but you can hear sounds very distinctly too. Apparently tests have shown that the limestone used to build the tiers of seats has a peculiar property: it filters out low-frequency sounds (eg from the audience) allowing the actors on stage to be heard more clearly. In addition the masks used by the actors allowed them to project their voices so that they could be heard clearly round the theatre. It is strange to think that the theatre was only discovered again in the nineteenth century.
But why build such an elaborate theatre capable of holding over 10,000 spectators out in the middle of nowhere? I’ll cover that in my next post…