Exploring Meteora

Meteora 2Driving across the vast, flat plain of Thessalia, from Volos we are struck by the fertility of the soil and the variety of crops being grown. It feels strange after the landscape of barren soil and olive trees that we are used to in other parts of the country.

Feeling the effects of the scorching sun, we seek some relief by stopping off at Trikala, an unremarkable town famed as the birthplace of Asklipios, Greek god of healing. But the heat from the plain seem to be intensified in the streets of the town and even under the shade of the trees in the central square, it’s hard to cool down. We head off as soon as we can to Kalambaka where we have booked a room for the night.

The reason for this journey across northern Greece is to visit the famous monasteries in the air of Meteora. As we approach, Kalambaka massive grey rock pinnacles like elephants’ legs loom up out of the flatness and uniformity of the plain.  Relaxing on the balcony of our hotel room and recovering from the heat, we start to get a sense of the strangeness of these rock formations.

Meteora 1

The rock face is smooth and pitted, a bit like pumice, but these rocks aren’t volcanic in origin. They are the sedimentary remnants of a sea that covered Thessalia millions of years ago.

Meteora 2

Hermits started to inhabit the caves in the rocks in the late 10th century and in the 14 century two monks, Athanasios and Grigorios from Mount Athos came to live in the area. It was Athanasios who built the first monastery, the Megalou Meteorou in 1344.

Meteora 16

A winding 10km circuit roads with sharp bends takes you round the main monasteries. The first one you encounter on the clockwise circuit is the 14th century Agiou Nikolaou Anapausa, the smallest of the extant monasteries perched on one of the lower peaks.

Meteora 15

As the road climbs up out of the plain more of the monasteries come into sight and the next one on the route is Roussanou, a convent built in the 16th century and dedicated to the Transfiguration and to St Varvara.

Meteora 4

Continuing up the road we come to Varlaam, named after a hermit who scaled the peak and took refuge here in the 14th century, while the monastery started to be built about two hundred years later. It is the most Byzantine in style of all the monasteries in Meteora.Meteora 5

Every view here is a potential photograph and above Varlaam there’s a wonderful natural viewing platform.

Meteora 6

The light is also constantly changing, now spotlighting certain monasteries, now casting others in dramatic light, as in the shot below of the Megalou Meteorou. I could spend days, months even, photographing this ever changing scenery in its many moods. This monastery was founded by St Athanasios, the monk from Mount Athos in the late 14th century.

Meteora 18

It became the richest of the Meteora monasteries when the Serbian Emperor, Symeon Urfos, retired here to become a monk and donated all of his wealth to it.

Meteora 13

Access to Agias Triadas (first build in the 14th century), dedicated to the Holy Trinity, is via a cable car which looks quite old and rickety. Certainly not something you would like to use in a wind.

Meteora 7

The final building on the route round Meteora is the nunnery of Stefanou, first built in the 14th century.

Meteora 9

Despite c.1m visitors Meteora attracts every year  (we were there at the end of the tourist season), it has a wonderfully peaceful, silent atmosphere. I wonder how disruptive visitors are to the life of the monks and how much contact the monks have with them. Can visitors stay in the monasteries, as they can at Mount Athos? Do they have to follow the monastic regime? What is the monastic regime? How do they survive in such solitude? Do they grow their own food? I suppose they make their money from visitors (entrance fee is 2€).

It makes me think again that I would like to do a pilgrimage to the monasteries of Mount Athos. Time to start planning this trip – even if it takes a few years before I get round to it.

It is easy to see what is was that attracted hermits and monks to seek refuge here for contemplation and prayer. When Byzantium fell in 1453, icon painters sought refuge here (as well as at Mount Athos and in Crete) to be able to continue their work.

There are a couple of icon workshops at the bottom of the circuit that cater to tourist buses. Most of the pieces are mass produced, but there are a few icon painters work here. They paint on canvas, having sketched in the outlines first, applying the paint from the darkest to the lightest colours. The painted icon is then glued to an old piece of wood and gold leaf painstakingly applied. The whole process for an A5 size icon takes 2-3 days and they sell for 300€ apiece.

At the second icon workshop we fall into conversation with a Romanian girl who has been working in Greece for 8 years, and a Polish lad who works in Greece during the tourist season (May-October) and then returns home. Both love living in Greece because there’s no stress compared with their homelands. “I feel younger here”, says the Polish lad. They tell me about a senior executive from Siemens in Germany who has retired to this area with his wife to live in peace and quiet away from the stresses of corporate life. Apparently he has his own well and generates electricity from solar panels.

It seems as though Meteora is still attracting people who are seeking refuge from the pressures of daily life.

 

Fire and Ice: similarities and differences between Greek and Russian

It’s some time since I last did a post in my little Fire and Ice series looking at the links between Greek and Russian cultures. This time I would like to have a look at the similarities and differences between the two languages.

As noted in a previous post the most obvious similarity is in the alphabet: Greek was used by SS Cyril and Methodius as the basis for providing a written form of Slavic languages to facilitate the translation of religious texts. The second most obvious similarity is in the religious terms that Russian borrowed following the conversion of Vladimir of Kiev, as priests, monks, translators, icon painters and church builders headed north to support the country’s Christianisation. So we find bible, icon, monk, monastery, angel, patriarch and liturgy.

However, Greek and Russian have different linguistic roots and the similarities that we see in vocabulary are due to these borrowings, rather than to common root forms. In other ways the languages are quite different. They sound quite different for one thing. Greek has sounds for ‘th’ and ‘ps’ which Russian lacks. Equally Russian has sounds for ‘sh’ and ‘ch’ which are not present in Greek. Greek has definite and indefinite articles, Russian does not. Russian has an infinitive, but although Ancient Greek had one, modern Greek does not. It fell out of use during the Byzantine period: one of the odder linguistic losses that a language can sustain.

Also on verbs, Russian has personal pronouns which go with the verb (though verbs can also be used without them) whereas Greek does not.

Both languages though are stressed. Greek, very helpfully for foreign learners includes the stress marks as part of the spelling (indeed it is considered a spelling mistake to miss them out). How I wish that Russian, which to a foreign leaner can seem to have a capricious stress system, has a similar approach. In Russian, you only find the stress marks in dictionaries and texts for foreign learners. Both languages are also inflected (the endings of nouns and adjectives changes depending on their function in the sentence and on whether they are singular or plural). Russian has six cases, Greek has 3 (4 if you count a vocative that only has any noticeable impact on masculine singular forms).

There is one other curious similarity between the languages in terms of their use of verbs. Russian has two forms of the infinitive, an imperfective and a perfective form which relate to whether the action they refer to is ongoing / iterative or completed. There is something similar in Greek where in the construction used to express an infinitive form, you use the indicative for an ongoing / iterative action and the subjunctive form of the verb for a completed action. As far as I am aware this is coincidental and not due to some mutual influence.

 

Upholsterer, Chania, Crete

Chair repairer

Wondering around the back streets of Chania I came across this man re-upholstering some old chairs. It seemed a strange place for him to be doing it, as it wasn’t outside a shop and the doors of the building behind him were padlocked. He was quite happy for me to photograph him as he worked, but this was the only decent picture of him looking up from his work.

Chair repairer 2

Chair repairer 3

 

The tomb of Philip II at Vergina

Caption: Hades abducting Persephone, fresco in the small royal tomb at Vergina (with acknowledgement to Le Musée absolu, Phaidon, 10-2012)

This fresco is from the small temple to Philip II at Vergina and is very similar to the one found recently at Amphipolis.

Vergina, about 50 miles west of Thessaloniki, is a small, unremarkable, modern village. As Aigai however it was a leading city of the Macedonian kingdom, the location of royal palaces and royal burials. Little about the place prepares you for the stunning treasures contained within its Great Tumulus.

The tumulus had been known since the early nineteenth century and there had been various small archaeological excavations. But it was not until 1977 that the Greek archaeologist, Manolis Andronnikos, began excavating here, convinced that the tumulus was the site of the Macedonian royal tombs.

Mound at Vergina

The museum is built into the Great Tumulus and doesn’t detract from the quite beauty and peace of the setting.

Mound entrance at Vergina

Inside the museum has a dimly lit, temperature controlled environment and is built around the tombs. Like many Greek museums I have visited, It is very well laid out and labelled in Greek and excellent English. The displays start with a series of grave stele of ordinary people which were used as infill for the mound. I say ordinary people but I suspect that those who could afford to have such stele erected in their memory must have been of a certain social status.

The heart of the museum is the tomb of Philip II and the artefacts found in and around it. The tomb is not open to the public but by descending a wooden staircase you can get down to see the entrance to it in the rock face. The front of the tomb is sealed with a white stone outer door with a column on either side.

Entrance to Philip II's tomb at Vergina 2

The style of the entrance to the tomb strikes me as vaguely Egyptian, though I find it hard to identify why. It is actually quite small-scale though and not a tomb designed to impress by its size. The most striking aspect of the entrance is the wall painting that runs across the width of the facade.

Entrance to Philip II's tomb at Vergina 3

The painting depicts a hunting scene with an older and a younger man on horseback, possibly Philip II with his son Alexander the Great (on the right in my picture below).

Hunting painting with Philip & Alexander

It is in poor condition now, but the amazing thing is that it still exists as very few paintings have survived from Ancient Greece.

Phillip II was assassinated in 336 BCE as he entered the theatre at Aigai during the celebrations of his daughter Cleopatra’s marriage. The funeral arrangements were made by his son, Alexander the Great and were very impressive. Philip’s body was cremated on a huge funeral pyre wearing a gold oak leaf crown with acorns. Precious oils and fruit were thrown onto the pyre, and horses and many other types of animals were sacrificed and their bodies also thrown into the flames. One huge display shows examples of all of the different types of things found amongst the ashes of the pyre. His bones were then washed in red wine, wrapped in a purple cloth, covered with the oak leaf crown and then placed in a gold casket called a larnax.

The casket was laid on a wooden couch decorated with gold and ivory figures and scenes  and placed in the inner part of the tomb. The wood of the couch for the most part rotted away long ago, leaving the decorative figures. Philip was buried with his weapons, a range of swords and spears, a huge shield, his suit of armour, and a large quantity of silver and gold jugs, dishes and plate. The quality of the workmanship in the silver and gold metal working is just stunning and they look as if they have just been made, not been lying in the ground for over 2,500 years. Most breathtaking of all is the work of the goldsmiths who made the royal crown: the work is so delicate and intricate.

In the outer chamber of Philip’s tomb, was found a larnax containing the remains of a woman, possibly his wife, who sacrificed herself on his pyre. The larnax also had in it a remarkable gold crown of what looks like myrtles. In addition there is a further tomb that has been identified as that of the Prince (Alexander IV), son of Alexander the Great, who was assassinated after his father’s death in 323 BCE.

The entrance to the tomb is similar to that of Philip’s but smaller and with no painting over the facade. The Prince’s remains were placed in a large silver jug and a large, gold, oak leaf crown placed over its neck.

The display ends with more grave stele found in the infill.

Museum of Byzantine Culture, Thessaloniki

This modern museum, built probably in the past 10 years, contains some interesting artefacts from the Byzantine era. Like many Greek museums it is very well laid out and excellently labelled in Greek and English.

It covers the history of the eastern empire as it affected Thessaloniki through early Christian tombs through it icons, old printed books and every day items, such as this tableware:

Byzantine tableware

 

One of the most interesting aspects are the early Christian tombs. Initially the tombs are internally decorated with scenes from nature, depicting animals, fish and plants. Unfortunately, the lighting in the museum is too dark for me to get any acceptable pictures of them. But as time goes on they become simpler and then suddenly they start to depict the Cross.

Stele with cross

There are some interesting medieval icons:

Byzantine icon-3

Byzantine icon-2

Byzantine icon

But after the 15th century there is a definite fall off in quality with a heavy Italian influence that just does not look right.

One display focuses on the mission of Cyril and Methodius to the Slavs which set off from this city and was the focus of one of my earlier blogs entries in the Fire and Ice series.

From Georgian drinking song to ‘Long live the Emperor!’

 

Constantine XI Dragases Palaiologos - last Emperor of Byzantium

Constantine XI Dragases Palaiologos – last Emperor of Byzantium

The leader of our local community choir is very keen on Georgian music and we have over the years performed some astonishing songs from that part of the world. The soundscape of this music is initially a bit alien to western ears: the bass part is often just a drone, the individual parts on their own sound a bit odd and the harmonies frequently clash in a completely unexpected way.

Also it often calls for singing in a calling voice, imagining that you are trying to make yourself heard across fields or on the other side of a valley. That takes a bit of practice as, at least to begin with, it feels like being asked to shout. But there is an energy and vitality to it that completely carries you away.

This week we really enjoyed a piece called Mravaljamieri which we thought was a Georgian drinking song. It was such an exciting and uplifting piece that I started to look for more information about it – and it turns out to have an interesting origin.

Mravaljamieri ‘ means ‘many years’ and is the Georgian version of the Greek Orthodox Polychronion. This is a chant sometimes performed at the end of the Divine Liturgy in honour of a bishop, priest or a member of the laity or just as a celebration of an event.

It reminded me of the time when I used to sing in a Russian Orthodox Church choir and we would sometimes break into this at the end of the service. In Russian it is called the Mnogaya leta.

In the Greek Orthodox Church it is used in a similar way, with the cantor or priest saying the name of the person to be commemorated and then the choir responding by chanting 3 times. It originated in Byzantium when the Polychronion was used as a chant to greet the Byzantine Emperor when he entered Haghia Sofia through the Imperial Doors and at the end of the Divine Liturgy.

In fact it is an adaptation of the Latin acclamation Ad multos annos (Many Years) used by the people to acclaim the Roman Emperor. It is remarkable that through singing and celebration we have this living link with such a remote past.