Mystras: last outpost of Byzantium – looking out over the ramparts

On a spur off the main road from Kalamata to Sparti lies the curious promontory on which sits the ruined city of Mystras, one of the last parts of the Byzantine empire to fall after Constantinople itself.

The city is split into three main parts: the lower town, the upper town and the castle. And it’s the castle that is the origin of the Byzantine town and that I want to focus on for this initial post.

It’s a hot, but slightly overcast September day as we enter the ruined city through the castle gate which is above the upper town. It is a hard climb up the zigzag path right to the castle at the top, among the shells of old stone buildings with the rotundas of red-tiled

Byzantine churches peering above them here and there.

As you get higher up you get better views over the city itself and over the plain of Laconia, home of the feared and terribly weird Spartans. The walls of the castle are well-built and remarkably still standing after over 760 years.

The castle was built in 1249 by Guillaume de Villehardouin, rule of the Frankish principate of Achaia, one of the small states that were set up following the sack of Byzantium by the Fourth Crusade in 1204. He established his castle here as the centre of his authority over the Peloponnese. However, following the battle of Pelagonia in 1249, he was forced to surrender it the Byzantine Emperor who made it the base of his regional governor of the Peloponnese.

It was not until 1348 though that the Emperor, John VI Cantacuzenos, realising the strategic importance of the area, sent his son, Manuel, to Mystras with the title Despot of Morea (Morea being another name for the Peloponnese). The town grew up around this fortified centre, attracting inhabitants from Laconia by the security it provided.

The castle was kept in good order by the Byzantines and then later by the Turks.

Here are some views from the inside of the castle:

Finally, looking back to the brooding peak of Mt Taygetos behind the castle:

A little Byzantine jewel

A hot and sultry afternoon in Greece and we are exploring some of the mountain villages on our way back through the Mani from visiting Mystras. We park on the edge of the tiny village of Kastania (‘chestnut trees’) because the road doesn’t seem to go any further. Or rather it does, but I just don’t fancy chancing my arm in a hire car along what looks like narrow, steep tracks.

Kastania is on the western side of the Taygetos mountains in the area of the Peloponnese known as the Mani.

Kastania from the mountains - photo courtesy of John Chapman

Low cloud covers the tops of the Taygetos range as we walk in to the village square and flop down on rush-bottomed chairs in the cafe. Time for a cool drink and to get a sense of what this place is like.

The village has a small centre with the eighteenth century Doulakis tower off to the side. Kolokotronis, the Greek leader in the war of independence against the Turks, was almost betrayed here to the Turks, but managed to escape over the mountains.

The tower is a typical feature of Maniot architecture, built as a defended house at a time when feuds between whole families could go on for generations.

We set off through meandering high walled streets in search of the ‘many interesting churches in the village’ as the guide-book puts it.

In fact apart from the modern church in the square we only manage to find one at the top of the village, Agios Petros (St Peter), a tiny Byzantine church that dates from the eleventh or twelfth century. But it’s a little gem.

The church is built in typical Byzantine style, but the Venetian-style bell tower was added at a much later date in a completely different stone and looks weirdly out-of-place. The key is in a little niche on the left of the porch and it’s quite dark inside.

In the tympanum is a dark marble sculpture of a ‘stag being attacked by a Griffon and surrounded by large Ibis like birds.’ It feels quite sinister and out-of-place in a church.

The next thing that strikes you are the carved and highly coloured doors to the sanctuary. Again the mythological beast theme is repeated in the carving on the doors with the pair of green Griffons. The doors look ancient but, according to John Chapman whose website  ( is a tremendous resource on the Mani and its churches, the gates were only donated in 1854.

It takes a while for our eyes to get used to the inside of this small dark Byzantine church and I was not yet in a state to be able to make out the medieval frescoes. Suddenly the door opens behind us and an elderly village lady, dressed in black bustles into the church and proceeds to do some aggressive tidying up whilst pointedly avoiding any eye contact. She clearly does not welcome our presence and so, feeling intimidated, we make our exit.

Here’s a view of the right hand side of the narthex, looking out to the village:

and a detailed shot of the marble checkerboard decoration on the arch:

Outside again in the road, she soon follows us, closing the gate firmly behind her:

I was tempted to go back in again once when had disappeared, but was persuaded by my wife that this might be a bit provocative. So we walk round the exterior of the church and get a good view of its structure. It is so small and homely: in a strange way I almost understand the village lady’s protectiveness towards it against the visitors.

Interestingly the church is covered in slates rather that red Byzantine tiles and looks in reasonable repair (according to John Chapman it was last repaired in the 1980s). As we looked closer at the stonework we noticed a series of images, stars, suns, moons, leaves embedded in it. They are curiously touching and add a folk element to the formality of the Byzantine architecture.

I am still trying to find out the significance of these external decorations.

The secret underground passages between languages

In his talks, a friend and teacher sometimes expressed amused astonishment that the Russian word for bread is khleb. When visiting Moscow he remembered seeing this word on the side of delivery lorries and its odd sound tickled his sense of humour.

He wasn’t making fun of Russian: he was making a wider point about  the variety of arbitrary names we hang round the neck of experiences and processes to turn them into ‘things’ so that we can handle them with our minds.

Browsing through a Russian etymological dictionary one day, I came across the entry for khleb, first recorded in Russian in the eleventh century and coming from Gothic. In the 3rd and 4th centuries the Goths from Southern Sweden invaded the land between the Vistula and the Dnieper, bringing Western European words with them in their language. In this case, Russian khleb derives from Gothic hlaifs.

So far so good. But the dictionary went on to point out that hlaifs is related to the Old English word hlaf, from which we get the modern English word loaf.

Bizarrely, through the Old English hlaefdige which means kneader of bread, hlaf is also linked with another modern English word, lady. Presumably this was because ladies were the breadmakers of the home.

Ultimately, all these words derive from the Indo European word khloibo (bread baked in pans). Indo European is the hypothesised language of a nomadic, early agrarian society that lived more than 5,000 years ago in southern Russia. It’s from this group and their related dialects that many European and Asian languages derive.

So khleb, bread (loaf) and lady, although on the surface of it so very far apart, are actually linked through these secret underground passages of language and ultimately to a single source.

John, I wish I had been able to share this one with you!

In memory of John Crook

Voices from another shore

I read somewhere that Tsar Nicholas II spoke accentless English and some years ago a Belarusian friend gave me a book of the letters of the Imperial family written when they were held in captivity by the Bolsheviks. Some of the letters Nicholas wrote to his wife were in flawless English. This set me thinking about some of the interactions between Russian and other languages.

Pushkin spoke mainly French to his parents and it was his old nurse, Arina Rodionovna, who spoke Russian to him and told him old Russian fairy tales. This, coupled with his native genius, influenced him to write in Russian and thus help to develop, almost single-handedly, a modern literary Russian language.

Studying Pushkin at university, we learnt that he was influenced by Byron. I remember trying to read some of Byron’s shorter poems, such as The Giaour and dipping into Childe Harold to try and get a sense of what it was that Pushkin actually got out of this verse which now seems to me at least turgid and virtually unreadable. He must have read it, either in a French or Russian translation, since there is some debate about how good his English was, evidenced by the fact that his English grammar book had only had some of its pages cut.

Turgenev spoke very good French, spent a long time in France and was a friend of Flaubert. To Dostoyevsky, speaking French was an affectation and inauthentic. This is perfectly captured in his characterisation of the writer Karmazinov and his ludicrous ‘Merci’ speech in The Devils, believed to be an attack on Turgenev and his liberal views.

I remember reading the obituary of a Russian emigre who became an academic economist in America. He came from a large, aristocratic Russian family of prodigious linguists and was considered rather slow because he only spoke 12 languages. The obituary recorded his insatiable appetite for knowledge: if he came across something which sparked his curiosity, for example weaponry, he would study it in such depth that he would become an expert in the subject.

When Mstislav Rostropovich died in 2007, Desi Dillingham, his friend and neighbour in Little Venice (London) for the last 18 years of his life wrote in his Guardian obituary:

“He was a delight, often phoning to ask for a special favour – and often one that would not be easy to deliver – such as a dinner party for 10 in his flat that evening. The request would always end with “if you can’t help me, I suicide immediate”. He spoke, it was said, 10 languages, none of them well.”

I love that last sentence. Because even if you don’t speak a language well, at least you’re making the effort to communicate, which is after all the purpose of language.

The writer who has come closest to bridging the linguistic divide is Nabokov. He was brought up trilingual, speaking Russian, English and French and claimed that he knew the English alphabet with its letters on his toy building bricks before he learnt Russian. He is an astonishing example of a writer who wrote brilliantly in another language. I am sure there are other examples but only Conrad (who only learnt English from the age of 18 and even then it was his fourth or fifth language) and Beckett (who considered writing all his work in French) come to mind.

One of Nabokov’s life long ambitions was to write a poem in either Russian or English whose meaning, nuances and rhythm could all be exactly translated from one language to the other. He is probably one of the few people who could have done it, but he never succeeded.

New picture of two of the greatest monsters of the twentieth century

Fortunately they were only look-alikes of Lenin and Stalin I photographed on the edge of Red Square in Moscow.

Also managed to get one of “Nicholas II”:

Uncanny likenesses all round.

My wife took one of “Stalin” emerging from a portable loo, but can’t put my hand on it at the moment.

Don’t cry for me, Mother Russia

Recently I was at the Guardian’s Open Weekend at King’s Place in London: a fabulously stimulating event consisting of talks, music, poetry and reader engagement on the future of the newspaper in the digital age.

This blog entry is about the state of Russia following the recent elections which returned Putin to the presidency for potentially another 12 years. It’s based on a session chaired by David Hearst (Guardian foreign leader writer) and involving Masha Karp (freelance journalist), Sir Andrew Wood (former British Ambassador to the Russian Federation) and Luke Harding (former Moscow correspondent of the Guardian).

The origin of the unrest was not the Duma elections in October 2011, but Putin’s announcement on 23 September that he was seeking election to the presidency. This meant that he could potentially be in power for a further 12 years, as he had change the constitution to increase presidential terms from four to six years.

No other challengers were allowed to register and any opposition candidates were hand-picked by Putin.

It is clear now that there was large-scale fraud, including the use of phantom polling stations. This was particularly the case in Nizhny Novgorod and St Petersburg: both cities which would have returned less than 50% support for Putin. In Nizhny Novgorod 16 of these phantom polling stations were in place in non-existent factories and even a cemetery. This managed to boost the vote for Putin up to 86%.

Chechnya polled a 99% vote in support of Putin. Incredible in view of the fact that it was Putin who started the 2nd Chechen war.

The post-election period has been characterised by crackdowns on the opposition. Aleksey Kozlov, a Moscow businessman accused of fraud in 2008 after falling out with a very influential business partner has been re-arrested and sentenced to five years in a penal colony. His case has been something of a touchstone for an independent judicial system after the original charges against him were dismissed by the Russian Supreme Court. Thanks to his wife, Olga Romanova, a journalist, his fight for justice became well-known and in her own right she has become one of the leading opposition figures.

Members of the feminist punk rock collective group, Pussy Riot, were arrested after an unsanctioned five-minute performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, during which they called for the Mother of God to chase Putin out. Three of the band, mothers of young children, are being held until the end of April and are being threatened with seven years in prison.

A propaganda film shown by official TV claimed the protests were carried out for money by a foreign power, the implication being that it was the USA.

As a result of the protests, fear of the government amongst the people has started to go away. It has also once and for all exploded the myth, prevalent in the west, that the Russians love Putin. People no longer accept that the government is legitimate and there is concern about the fact that the west is happy to deal with Putin on his terms.

But who exactly are the opposition I wanted to know? Masha Karp characterised them as a mixed group of liberals, communists and people who just want change. There is a growing clamour for change from young people who want a better future for Russia.

Sir Andrew Wood felt that the elections had not decided anything, but had opened up new opportunities and dangers.On the surface, things don’t look too bad. Putin has a complacent Duma ready to rubber stamp legislation. He has “won” a majority vote. He’s in office for the next six years and the economy is going quite well. But there is no doubt that he has been weakened by recent events. Suddenly he has become an accountable politician in a system that is incapable of holding him to account.

The opposition reflects a widespread demand for accountability, predictability and the rule of law. None of which Putin is capable of delivering. He was taken by surprise by the opposition reaction to the elections and you can tell when he is rattled by the fact that he starts using coarse language.

The fact is that Russia has changed more than he realised or imagined. If the system were opened up to enquiry and investigation, then it would be very difficult to answer a lot of the issues that would come up, eg what happened at Beslan, the Nord Ost theatre siege, the Kursk disaster, and many other issues. It would expose many of his team and his cronies who do not rule through the rule of law.

It is more likely that there will be a re-shuffle of his team with the liberal elements being weakened and the military and security services elements (the siloviki) being strengthened. Also there is unlikely to be any modernisation of the Russian economy which would result in the mass closure of uneconomic factories and wholesale unemployment.

The current economic model just about works but has no long-term prospects. Any changes are therefore likely to be cosmetic rather than fundamental. GDP will slow down and the price of oil will make it difficult to balance the budget. There is the real possibility of increasing urban discontent swelled by working people which would make Russia more difficult to govern.

There are no longer any institutions that could make changes. Putin and his team are victims of a system they have created, at the heart which lies corruption. They have to cling to power, as the alternative is too dreadful to contemplate. It’s interesting to note in this regard that after the fall of Libya, Putin was quite appalled by the way that Gaddafi met his end.

It has been estimated that Putin is one of the richest men on the planet with assets of more than $43bn and the ruling regime are known to be off-shoring assets, in London amongst other places. Luke Harding suggested that the sight of botox-treated Putin shedding a tear at the post-election rally is evidence that he is increasingly unhinged.

Russia is globally therefore at risk of instability and perhaps looking for a foreign adventure to try to unite the country. It still suffers from an imperial syndrome and outlook. It has never gone through a process of ‘de-Sovietisation’ and is still like a Soviet state but without the underpinning ideology. This is particularly evident in the way it treats its citizens.

But as Sir Andrew eloquently put it , “Russia deserves far better. It is our moral, intellectual and political duty to empathise with Russia as it is. Our relationship is with a whole strata of ideas and structures beyond the merely political level. Don’t judge Russia purely at the intergovernmental level. Russia has always been badly governed and now it is shockingly badly governed!”