Sunday, 25 January 2015

January 23 – Saying goodbye

(The cemetery of Molyvos)

Last year the biggest grave ever in Greece got opened in Amphipolis, an ancient town close to Serres in the north of Greece. The grave was guarded by a large statue of a lion and two sphinxes and it has different rooms, most of them sealed off. A team of archaeologists are now slowly opening these rooms, which were closed for centuries. Its a bit like discovering the grave of Tutankhamun. The big question is: who is buried in the grave? Some people hope that it will be Alexander the Great, even though he died long ago (in 323 BC) and far away in Babylonia. Other people think it might be his wife Roxanne buried there.

Last summer the media were full of speculation and news items of Amphipolis. But now that the world has other worries and Greece is under the spell of the latest election, news about the excavation of the grave has lost its place on the front pages. Even though recently 5 skeletons were discovered; that should have excited the world - but did not. Who was the woman over 60, the 35 and 45 years old men, the child and the other man?

They must have been important people, because the beautiful grave with mosaic floors, statues and different rooms, was far too large for the normal grave of those times. In the very ancient times Greeks could bury their dead as they pleased: they went through the towns in big processions trying to gather as big a crowd as possible, hired people to lament loudly and the graves were built as big as money could afford.

But in the 6th century BC the Athenian statesman Solon made laws to reduce the noise of funerals so that public life was no longer disturbed and graves could not surpass a building that could be built within 3 days by ten workers (which seems to me to still be quite a building, but I guess that Amphipolis would have needed more than 3 days of building). Since then graves became more simple, with standing gravestones or pillars (stele) pictured with the deceased.

Around that same time the tradition of funerals arose that was also adopted by the Romans: preparing the body at home (prothesis), the procession to the grave yard (ekphora), the burial and then there was a small party at home (perideipnom) to thank all the people that participated at the funeral.
Nowadays this has not changed that much: the deceased is made ready for the bier, the open coffin is taken to the graveyard in a small procession, the burial takes place and is followed by a small gathering home or in a cafenion for the family and friends.

Ancient Greeks sometimes buried their dead with their slaves, women and/or horses; pets also have been found in some graves. Later it became only things the dead might need for their travel to Hades, the underworld. Besides food, a coin (obol) was placed in the mouth, to pay the ferryman Charon who has to take the dead over the river Styx to Hades. Nowadays it's only flowers that are thrown in the coffin.

Once buried at the graveyard, you are not allowed to stay for too long. To save space the Greek State says that a buried person has to be removed from the grave after 3 years. The bones are washed with wine and given to the family or placed in a local ossuary. Which sometimes can be an honour;  there are some famous ossuaries in the world where they make pure art out of the bones. In the Czech town of Sedlec there is an ossuary where you find beautiful lamps, candlesticks and other decorations all made of bones. In the little Portuguese towns of Alcantarilha, Evora en Pechão the local churches have chapels built with walls of bones. Should the dead person no longer have any family, or is just simply forgotten, the bones are thrown on a big heap or simply destroyed.

There is a superstition that when a corpse is dug up, the bones must be white and clean. When not, it is believed that the person had a life in sin. Or even worse: it could be a vampire! There are graves found in Mytilini in Lesvos that became famous as those of vampires.  People were so afraid that vampires would resurrect that they drove huge pins through bodies in the coffin (see: The island of Dracula!).

You would think that in Greece cremation would be encouraged due to shortage of burial space. In ancient Greece cremation was as normal as was burial in the earth. There even was a time that it was an honour for soldiers to be cremated and many heroes of the Trojan war were this way rendered to ashes. It was in fact the Greeks who introduced cremation into Europe, but since the Orthodox Church rules over Greece cremation is highly forbidden. If you wanted to be cremated, you lost your membership of the church. In 2006 however the government decided that cremation was no longer illegal. But, to date, there is no crematorium in Greece and people who want to return to ashes have to travel to other countries like neighbouring Bulgaria.

It are hard times in Greece and the number of suicides are fast on the rise. Already in the first month of this new year three people took their lives here on the island. Even though the Orthodox Church forbids suicide and per case judges if the deceased person should be allowed to have a proper farewell. I do hope that the Church will consider the crisis sufficient reason to allow that a suicide is still worthy of burial.

On January18th, Giorgos Giannakos died of pneumonia and he is going to be greatly missed in Molyvos. This dear friend loved to go into nature to gather horta or mushrooms. He knew every fish in the Aegean and even in Africa, he was a soulmate of the sea. It did not came as a surprise that he opted to be cremated and so his last journey will be to Bulgaria. When his ashes are returned to Molyvos, they will be scattered over the largest grave of the world: the sea. Goodbye, Giorgos!

Beyond the sea, beyond the sea,
My heart is gone, far, far from me;
And ever on its track will flee
My thoughts, my dreams, beyond the sea.

Beyond the sea, beyond the sea,
The swallow wanders fast and free:
Oh, happy bird! were I like thee,
I, too, would fly beyond the sea.

Beyond the sea, beyond the sea,
Are kindly hearts and social glee:
But here for me they may not be;
My heart is gone beyond the sea.

(Thomas Love Peacock)

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

January 7 – Happy New year

(Snow in Anemotia; photo: Takis Xatzidiakos)

The New Year presented Lesvos with a thick layer of snow; especially in the higher regions and the mountains where it was plentiful. It got Agiasos renamed Small Switzerland: even without snow this little mountain village is picturesque, but with a layer of snow it is like an Alpine paradise and photographers can’t get enough of it. I also saw pictures of Anemotia in the snow, nearly as beautiful as Agiasos.

The first winter I spent on Lesvos was also pretty cold and had mainly lots of sleet. As soon as the snow whirled down, all the villagers came out to see the spectacle: snow in Molyvos is very rare they said. However the next winter, in 2004, was even worse: you couldn’t count the snow falls anymore and Molyvos coloured white more than once. I then concluded that Greeks must have bad longterm memory, because they pretended the snow was very special, but I had then seen snow two winters running. There was so much snow that even Eftalou and her beaches were white and of course nobody claimed to ever have seen that before.

I must admit that since then winters have become a lot milder. Since then I have not seen snow in Eftalou. Even though the highest peaks of the island, Mt Lepetymnos and Mt Olympus have, now and then, gathered some snow, last winter they remained green. And whilst Agiasos once or twice has turned into a Christmas postcard, it was never for long, nor as beautiful as this year.

It is clear that you cannot trust Greek winters. On any one date temperatures can vary immensely. Take for example New Years Day. In 2010 temperatures reached 23 ºC and in 2007 they went down to minus 7ºC. Last New Years Day the thermometer barely reached 3 ºC and last few days it has descended slowly to below 0, so that in many places - even at the seaside – there were frozen water flacks and many broken water pipes.

Low temperatures do not have to be a problem. What’s really unbearable is the windchill. At the beginning of this year a wind from the north turned into a nasty storm and made being outside nearly impossible. And this Voreas keeps on blowing his icecold Siberian breath over the island: what a chill!

Personally the new cold year surprised me with a nasty flu and so I did not enjoy all the beautiful sights with the snow nor did I go for a walk in the snow. Buried deep into a warm bed yesterday my thoughts were in the harbour of Molyvos (and all over Greece), where Epiphany was celebrated. The priests, while most of the villagers were present, blessed the sea. During these kind of celebrations everyone dresses up and from deep under my pile of blankets I could feel them shivering in the almighty cold. The low temperatures, feeling even lower due to the wind, did not prevent a group of boys from standing ready in bathing suits to dive into the water, looking for the cross which the priest throws into the sea. Not even a mighty Ice Queen can halt this tradition.

Armed with a hot water bottle at the feet and hundreds of Kleenex around my head I have lots of time to muse about this New Year. Just like the weather reports that cannot get rid of the cold, the political barometer also tends to storm. The news of the attack at Charlie Hebdo (the French satirical magazine that I used to read when living in France, but for years now lost sight of) hit my bed like a heavy earthquake. I was wondering if this magazine would have already prepared for next month a special issue about Grexit, a Greece without the euro or Europe without Greece. So I slumbered away into a world where the drachma would re-appear.

I dreamt about a procession of strangely dressed people, straight out of a Jeroen Bosch painting, who swarmed through the narrow and snowy streets of Agiasos. In each street more people gathered. They merrily waved with big piles of drachmas and started to make a fool of the Greek Gods. Their behaviour became more and more obscene and their screaming louder until the village and the snow disappeared because of the huge congregation of people and everything became a pretty straggly gruel.

In a few weeks the Carnival will start and for the Greeks this means the opportunity to satirize everything they do not like in life: the Greek carnival are The days of Satire, because on those days nothing will be spared, even the Holy Church. Beautiful Agiasos is especially known for its incisive political satire. And I am sure there will be lots of laughter this year during carnival, because the worse life is in a country, the better the satire. And no Kalashnikov nor any other violence will prevent the Greeks from this great carnavalesque criticism.

The best wishes for 2015

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

December 15 – Greek Christmas carols

Greek Santa Claus (A & L:

After a period of impetuous weather, suddenly the sun appeared for a few days causing bright clear views, where mountain and hilltops strongly contrasted against a cobalt blue sky. These are the beautiful winter days where dew dresses the trees in glistening coats and when amidst the pine trees there is the pure scent of Christmas trees.

There are quite extended pinewoods on Lesvos and you may be thinking that those pine trees would end up in Greek homes as a Christmas tree. But let’s face it: pine trees are not fir trees, which, with their close knit branches, are excellent trees for Christmas. Fir trees are rare on the island and the tradition of having a decorated Christmas tree is not widely known in Greece and has competition from another traditional Christmas decoration: the Christmas Boat (karavaki).

The Christmas Tree in Greece was introduced by the from Bavaria native Greek King Otto, who had his palace in 1833 decorated with fir trees. Greeks never have been too enthusiastic about their kings (The last King had officially to throw down his sceptre in 1973) and that may be a reason why there are not too many songs about the Christmas tree in Greece. The sole song that I found about this so praised tree of the Christmas Season is a heavy but also funny hardrock version of O, Tannenbaum (O, Christmas Tree) from Plokami tou Karcharia: O peuko.

The Christmas Boat has a much longer history in Greece. It is said that it is the boat that brought Dionysus in December, the month where in ancient times this God of parties and wine was much celebrated. Also Saint Nicholas has his much celebrated name day in December (December 5). This bishop, originally coming from Antalya (Turkey), is now the patron saint of seafarers and his ship is a popular symbol. Decorating the Christmas Boat may also derive from a very simple tradition: when the sailors (and there are many in Greece) returned home for Christmas their wife and children decorated a little boat to welcome him.

For hundreds of years on Chrismas Eve children go around the Greek villages to sing Christmas carols, kálanda, for the more prosperous people, for which they are rewarded with dried fruit, sweets and – nowadays – with money. Along with instruments like a triangle or drum, they carry a little wooden ship. There might have been a candle in the boat to light the way, or it was used as storage for the sweet they got.

It is said that these Greek Christmas carols were already being sung in Homeric times (then they were called Eiresioni) to celebrate Dionysus’ arrival by boat. Nowadays the kálanda are about Christmas, New Year or Epiphany (January 6). Here is a kálanda from Mytilini, not performed by children but a choir of adults, accompanied by beautiful instrumental music: Κάλαντα Μυτιλήνης – Καππαδοκίας. The next singer may have been in a hurry, waiting for a glass of ouzo, giving it an extra dimension (including a beautiful picture of children singing a kálanda): Κάλαντα Χριστουγέννων από τη Λέσβο. These songs do not always have to be sung so quickly, listen to the gentlemen from Kalloni who are not in a rush singing Καλαντα πρωτοχρονιας ‘Καλλονησ Λεσβου’.

During the last century foreign Christmas songs also sneaked into Greece. Helena Paparizo as well as Anna Vissi sing the originally Austrian religious song Silent Night: Agia Nixta and Agia Nuxta. Since the Fifties, American Christmas songs became very popular and in Greece they are mainly sung by children, especially when there are things like a snowman involved: Frosty the snowman. Rudolph, the reindeer with the red nose has been taken a bit more seriously: Ρουντολφ το ελαφακι has been honoured with a song by both Kaiti Garbi and Thanos Kalliris (although I personally prefer the Swedish version of Rudolph songs like: Rudolf med den røde tudd). Kaiti Garbi even published a CD full of translated Christmas Songs (Χριστούγεννα με την Καίτη) amongst others Ο χειμώνας ο βαρύς (Winter Wonderland) and Χριστός Γεννάται (Sleigh ride). Thanos Kalliris has his own Christmas song Ta Xristougenna Me Sena..., but also sings the American classic O Ai Basilis Pali Tha 'rthei (Santa Claus is coming to town).

Realizing that in the sunny Greek Islands you can enjoy a warm sun outside until deep into wintertime, it may be difficult to imagine that there are also Greeks (and me) who are dreaming of a White Christmas (Χριστούγεννα λευκά), just like Dakis and Jorgos Stafanakis.

Present singers however not only sing Christmas covers but have their own Christmas songs. For example Stergios Kottas who uses his attractive smoky voice for a real Greek Christmas Tearjerker: Αυτα τα χριστουγεννα. Fifos Delivorias sings his Christmas song like all his other ones: when you do not understand the text you may even not be aware it is a Christmas song: Χριστούγεννα. Like in all other countries, also in Greece, you have these totally trashy songs like the one from Effi Sarri who sings Xristoygenna protoxronia: not only the song but also the video is huge Christmas-trash. Last but not least, a real swinging Greek hiphop song: Imiskoubia with Τα Χριστούγεννα σημαίνουν...

I love Christmas music, I probably got that from my brother who is a serious  collector of Christmas songs. Each year he gives me a new Christmas-CD with his newest finds, containing beautiful, crazy or humorous covers and new songs. Listening to Christmas songs not only makes you sentimental, but can be hugely entertaining. When you are done with all those famous songs, do something different! Here are some Greek versions that may make you laugh: a radio broadcast of the Christmas hit All I want for Christmas is you.
Obviously Last Christmas by Wham is also was pretty popular in Greece. The first parody is a real Greek Christmas Shepherd Blues about a shepherd who could no longer pay his taxes and the government took his sheep away, so he was all alone for Christmas: Pindo’s nightingale. Also HipHopcrecy made a very merry and swishing song out of Wham’s Christmas hit: LaST ChriStMaS, a modern fairy tale with an entertaining video.

Have fun listening!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2014

Saturday, 6 December 2014

December 4 – About black little bullies and pirates

(Barbarossa of Lesvos; Photo: internet)

In Holland, December 5, the name day of Saint Nicholas, is a big celebration day especially for children. On this day they receive lots of presents and candy, distributed by Saint Nicholas (who somewhat resembles Santa Claus) and his black valets: the Black Petes. Because of the Dutch past as slave traders, since last year there have been big discussions in Holland about the skin colour of Black Pete. Because he is the valet, people no longer want him to be black.

Last week, visiting a Greek friend, I thought I saw a puppet picturing a Black Pete hanging on the chimney. When I looked at it closely it indeed had a black face but looked more like a troll. I completely forgot that, similar to the Black Petes in Holland, in December in Greece there are also creatures entering houses through the chimney: the kallikantzaros.

These are little monsters which live underground where they try to cut down the world tree. At Christmas, when they are nearly done with their job, they are allowed to come above ground and they love that so much that they forget all about the world tree. However they have to be careful with water, fire, light and a cross. At Epiphany on January 6, soon as the priests bless the sea, rivers and other waters the kallikantzaros return underground, where they discover that the world tree has become renewed and they have to start sawing the tree all over.

Kallikantzaros are a kind of black gnome, but they may also have goat legs, a donkeys tail or other animal aspects. What they enjoy most is to spoil food or drinks, haunt houses and frighten people by moving furniture and so on.
There are different ways in which to keep those little bullies outside the house: lighting a fire in the fireplace and keep it lit throughout the night (in some regions they even lay a special log in the fireplace that keeps burning for days). You can put a black cross on your front door or hang a sieve or a bundle of flax at the front door (Kallikantzaros love to count, but only up to two; this way you keep them busy outside).
 A child born on Christmas Day means real trouble, because a Christmas child can change into a Kallikantzaros. The way to protect it is to cover the poor baby with garlic.

As far as I know there are no people in Greece who care about how a kallikantzaros looks. There are regional variations, but they are mostly black. Greece however has no past with black slaves. Most slaves in ancient Greece were white and even also Greek. Since the ancient times there were slaves in Greece, because where there was war, there was looting and along with expensive goods, taking the losing people as slaves was common practice. It was like that in those times all over the world and so ancient Greek writers and philosophers did not see harm in it. During the Roman Empire slavery was booming and in each town you could find a slave market. After Rome, the biggest market was in Ephesus (now in Turkey, near the shores opposite Samos) and the Greek island of Delos was also known for its slave market.

The first Gattilusio who took power over Lesvos originally was a pirate. One century later the last Gattilusio of the Italian family reigning over Lesvos murdered his brother to become ruler, but that did not bring him luck: a little later, in 1462, the Ottoman Empire conquered the island and he and his family were taken to Constantinople as slaves.

Pirates were already known in Roman times, but from the 16th century piracy became a serious plague around the Mediterranean, because of political chaos in North Africa; small Berber communities no longer listened to the sultans and started seafaring, attacking ships and looting the coasts. The biggest booty was the people taken back to North Africa as slaves. The historian Robert C. Davies has calculated that from the 16th until the 19th century, in the area around Algiers, Tripoli and Tunis only, there must have been 1 to 1.25 million slaves (in contrast to about half a million African people captured as slaves and transported to America)

The pirates around the Mediterranean were known as the Barbary corsairs. After many sea battles and attacks on the pirate settlements (the biggest and last one being Algiers) sea powers like England, Spain, France, Holland and the just founded United States (see: Barbary Wars) managed around 1830 to get the coasts and the sea safe.

Corsairs not only came from the Ottoman Empire or from Africa. Youd better not have bumped into the Englishman Jack Ward, or the Dutchmen Simon de Danser (Zymen Danseker) or Ivan Dirkie de Veenboer (Sulayman Reis). However, the most notorious pirates came from Lesvos: Oruç and Hizir Hayreddin, better known as the brothers Barbarossa. This did not mean that the inhabitants of Lesvos did not have to fear the corsairs. Also in Mytilini there used to be a slave market, and as on all Greek islands nobody was crazy enough to live at the seaside in an unprotected village. Possibly the people in Petra thought they were safe because of their Maria-Glikofiloussa church. In 1675 the French corsair Hugo de Crevellier visited this little village and not only left it in ruins but also took 500 villagers and sold them on as slaves. The Taxiarchis Monastery of Mandamados also was once attacked by pirates, but the story goes that the monks were murdered and the sole survivor created an icon with mud and the blood of his brothers, an icon now still is said to provide miracles.

Pirates have of course nothing to do with Christmas, nor with kallikantzaros. Although, when you look at an etching of Barbarossa, he could have been a big kallikantzaros, or even a Black Pete. The difference between the slavery around the Mediterranean and in America was that in America most were black slaves, but in Europe it were mostly white Christians who became the slaves of the darker muslims. May that be a reason why the kallikantzaroi are little black men?

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2014

Monday, 24 November 2014

20 november – There were the Romans

(Part of the aqueduct near Lambou Mili)

The American writer John Williams (1922-1994) left three finely written novels; their subjects differ considerably. Butchers Crossing (1960) is about the slaughtering of the buffalo in the USA, Stoner (1965), about a farm boy who became a professor at the university and his last novel Augustus (1972) is about the Roman Emperor Augustus and won in 1973 the National Book Award.

The great Augustus only had one daughter: Julia. He manipulated her marriages to gain political stability or to reinforce the position of somebody he wanted as heir to the throne. As a two year old girl Julia became engaged to Augustus’ adversary Marcus Antonius. He however fell madly in love with the Egyptian queen Cleopatra and a few years later had an illustrious death. Eventually Julia was married to her cousin Claudius Marcella. When Augustus wanted to fortify the position of his best friend Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa as heir of the Roman throne, she was then married to this much older Roman general. There was no love involved.

For centuries the Romans dominated Lesvos and its surroundings. One of the few remnants of this time is the aqueduct, whose greatest remaining part can be admired in Moria. In John Williams’ story, Julia followed Agrippa on one of his journeys across the Orient. In those times it was not ‘done’ for a general to take his wife on his tour of duty, but Julia wanted badly to see more of the exotic regions of the extended Roman Empire. As the wife of the Second Citizen of Rome and as the daughter of the emperor Julia was welcomed on some Greek islands as a goddess and the biggest reception she got was on Lesvos, where she was named after Aphrodite. This made such a big impression, that later on, when her husband had to go and defend the frontiers of the Roman Empire, she chose to wait for him on Lesvos. According to Williams’ story, she got involved in the rituals of a secret cult for women, adoring a highly secret and almighty god. Part of the ritual was a retreat for three days in a shabby hut with a young man.

I was wondering which secret god that could be. I have never read about a secret Greek god. The family of the Gods of the Olympus is already large enough.
In the book The Cults of Lesvos by Emily Ledyards Shields, the 12 main gods of Lesvos are named, and some smaller ones but no secret ones. It appears that Apollo was the most worshipped god and Artemis the most important goddess. Artemis is now known as the goddess of the hunt, but on Lesvos she used to be the goddess of the thermal baths. There used to be an important Artemis temple in Thermi. Hera also belonged to the 12 most important gods of Lesvos. For a time she was especially beloved for beauty contests. However not much remains of a temple nor writings about a cult for Aphrodite are found, although she was the protector of the neighbouring town of Troy. There are a few scientists who think that in Mesa there once was a temple for Aphrodite and another one close to Mytilini. Sappho wrote different poems for this Goddess of love and even named her daughter after her, just as Augustus’ daughter was honoured with her name.

I guess that Julia, after so many arranged and loveless marriages, finally decided to have a go. Maybe she entered a cult in honour of Aphrodite or maybe even Dionysus, who was worshipped amongst others in Mythimna (Molyvos) with a festival partly for women only, which also had some erotic elements. Whatever she did, it was so wild that it was reported to her father who ordered her back to Rome.

Parts of the book Augustus are fiction, which is also its charm. This way it became a portrait of a normal man with his dilemmas, his sadness and his health problems. Thanks to the fictional correspondences between important Roman people around Augustus, along with parts of diaries (some of them from Julia), Williams created an inspiring image of the time around the man who was worshipped as a god, yet had to ban his beloved daughter because of her lewd behaviour. The case was that Julia, once back in Rome, never forgot Lesvos and continued with an unhinged life, even though she married again after the death of Agrippa, this time to her stepbrother Tiberius. I wonder why Wiliams imagined Julia in Lesvos participating in primitive rituals, far away from the intrigues and bacchanalia in Rome? Did he think that the Greek islands then were not yet civilized?

It is indeed true that even in Roman times heroes or mighty people such as the emperor Augustus were worshipped as real gods and were honoured with festivals. But Lesvos, or Mytilene as it was called in ancient times, was in those times both cultured and wealthy, an island where orators, philosophers and scientists were often best friends with politicians, like Theophanes of Mytilene, who traveled for years with the Roman leader Pompeius the Great. This friendship saved Mytilene from severe punishment, after a war in which the Lesvian city chose to fight against the Romans. During the times of Augustus, Lesbonax, a beloved writer who wrote political discourses and historical documents about the war between Athens and Sparta, lived in Mytilene. His son Potamo was best friends with emperor Tiberius (Julia’s last husband) and was a respected visitor of Rome.

In his book Rom und Mytilini, Conrad Cichorius writes about the relations Lesvos had with the Roman empire and about which Romans lived on the island. The book also contains lots and lots of names of archaeologists and important Romans, which I do not know so well, so I became a bit dizzy reading all of it. This is a book for scientists. But just a casual reading gives a great revelation into how scientists reconstruct ancient history and with a little effort you even can imagine how life was during the Roman Empire on Lesvos. Not bad at all, because plenty of people chose the island as a place to study or to sit out their exile. And if we believe John Williams, also a place to go crazy.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2014

Sunday, 9 November 2014

November 6 – Fire signals

(A pyramid near Nifida)

A cold wind and more than a week of leaden grey clouds has made it clear: winter is on its way. The last tourists have all left the island shivering. Some weather prophets predict that the inclement weather forewarns the coldest winter ever in Greece; but that is what they say each year.

 The sun took some effort to blow away all those clouds, but she finally managed. Now the sky and the sea are again competing for the best colour blue and the dominating green colour on the land begins to cede more and more to the yellows and the reds: fancy autumn has arrived and when you look out over the sunny landscape you will notice more than one plume of smoke reaching for heaven. That means that people are cleaning their fields and preparing for the olive harvest.

The Greeks were not the inventor of the telephone an apparatus that nowadays for some people seems to be the extension of an arm but they had in ancient times other smart ways to communicate. For instance the message of the victory over the Persians at the battle at Marathon in 490 BC was brought to Athens by the running courier Philippides who ran so fast that he dropped death after reporting the message. In his honour the marathon runs were created, a sporting events that is nowadays especially popular.

Somewhat less known, was the system that was used many centuries earlier during the Trojan war (12th or 13th century BC), as described by Homer, Aeschylus and Vergil. In a few hours the Greek victory was reported to the city of Mycene, some 600 kilometres away, using fire signals, a system called fryktories. I can imagine that the Lesvorians had plenty to say about what was going on in Troy: the fire signals line began right opposite Lesvos, starting at the top of the mount Ida (the Kaz Dagi in Turkey) and the signals carried along to mountaintops on Lemnos, Athos, Makistos (now Kandilion on Evvia) towards the mainland and to the mythical city of Mycene (that used to be a little down from Corinth). I am not sure if they were then using the ingenious system of the two towers with five torches, which enabled them to write the whole alphabet.

But it is a fact that fire signals have been used for centuries. The fryktories were the precursors of the lighthouses. They were not only used to help ship navigation but also as a warning system against enemies. The Greek islands especially were for centuries threatened by pirates and on the neighbouring island of Chios there remain plenty of old watchtowers. They must also have been on Lesvos and probably you can find some remnants of such towers in various places.

When last week we were driving around a little and at Nifidia beach, we took an unkown path which seemed to go towards the very end of the Gulf of Kalloni. On a mountaintop I thought I saw a pyramid. It was no optical illusion because when the road reached the coast again there was the very same construction: a six sided massive tower. Further on there were even more. When we looked around we also discovered three other pyramid-like buildings on the other side of the water. What were they? Were they some kind of platform on which to light a fire? The flat top however was not spacious enough for any firewood. And I can imagine that, on a windy day making atop a fire, may cause the surroundings to go up in flames.

Were these constructions part of a warning system against for example pirates? This seems to me a bit odd because from the rest of the island you could hardly see them. Or was it a system of beacons for the ships to pass safely through the opening of the Gulf of Kalloni? While most of these towers stood at the seaside, one of them was a bit higher, pressed against a rocky hill, another one stood high on a mountaintop, and one on the other side of the Gulf overlooked the water from high on a ridge. If this was a beacon system for the seafarers it must have been a very clever system for them to safely reach a harbour.

A few local fishermen have confirmed that it was a beacon system. It was very old, so old that the towers are now restored with plenty of cement. Whatever they are, and from whatever period, I am sure that these outstanding pyramids of Lesvos spread out in the rough landscape of red stones were a kind a communication system.

During the summer there was some annoyance about the lasers that were nightly sent into the air by the discotheque OXI. I am wondering what is the point of these lights: are the lasers meant to be a beacon in the night for clubbers? It might be an idea to, instead of using these sky piercing polluters, to build some of these pyramid towers along the roads going to the OXI. That would be less of a nuisance and also a nice tribute to history.

The plumes of smoke you can now see everywhere in the Lesvorian landscape, can be interpreted as the message 'here is work going on', but of course they are not meant as fire signals. Or maybe there are farmers, who by the means of a smoke column, warn their wives back home that they are soon coming home, so the food must be on the table. This could be the case, because a modern mobile phone does not work in all places on the island, so you have to be inventive. Now just consider what amazing things the ancient Greeks did!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2014

Friday, 31 October 2014

October 28 – Coming and going (2)

(Goats at the road)

(By: Pip)

Now that the tourist season has finished, it’s also time for me to take a plane homewards. After I check-in and walk towards the gate, the check-in clerk calls me back and asks me to take my suitcase. Oops, I forgot. You have to move your suitcase yourself to a scanner about ten metres further along. That is the way they do it on Lesbos.

The flight is going well. When I look out of the window just before landing, I already know that I will miss Lesbos. If you had to judge a culture of a land and its inhabitants from the sky, I would think the Netherlands and the Dutch are pretty tight and rectilinear. All parcels of land are properly demarcated by fences or ditches. The roads are at right-angles, as are the canals and even the cows seem aligned in the same direction. I am back into a country where everything is organized and regulated. A country where, for ten years now, a discussion has been going on about whether an ambulance should arrive within fifteen or thirty minutes. A country where people receive financial compensation, if for part of the day they are without electricity. A country where people of a district protest against the arrival of another big supermarket. A country where dogs are no longer allowed in parks, lest a playing child steps into a turd. And it even gets more crazy: on my return to the centre of the city there appeared bicycle coaches who have been appointed to ‘advise’ me where I can park my bike.

What a change from Lesbos! Where the landscape is overwhelming: all mountains, a chestnut forest, pine trees and olive groves; it is beyond me how the Lesvorians can have built any roads at all. Driving along the roads, it is swinging through one curve after the other. Sometimes you get stopped by goats roaming freely over the road — or a stoic donkey, crossing snakes, foxes, dogs and cats, or a shepherd with his flock of sheep. On spotting their little piles of dung, you can trace where they crossed the road. The only hospital is in the capital, in the southeast of the island. When being in the North or West and there is an emergency, you’d better drive the person in your car in the direction of the hospital, so that an ambulance can take-over midway. The only Lidl (big chain supermarket) on the island is also in the capital and in the mini-supermarkets elsewhere food stuff – much of it bought at Lidl – are relatively expensive. And you cannot always be sure of warm water, electricity or a good internet connection.

Despite these geographical and logistic inconveniences, life on Lesbos is relaxed and good. I am pretty amazed by how good everything works and how often you do have warm water, electricity and internet. The shops are well provided. Cars and scooters may be parked criss-cross - where they should or not - but its place measured on the centimetre. Large vehicles like vans or buses always manage to just squeeze by. Bus drivers are real steering artists. I seldom saw collisions. You best be prepared for a little patience when travelling by public transport. It can happen, as I once witnessed, that the driver takes a detour through a village in order to pick up a tin of olive oil or to fill-up at a gas station. But in the end you will always arrive where you want to go.

As a big city habitant, who barely knows my neighbours, I love the friendly and helpful people on the island. Because I was not prepared for a cold spring, someone gave me a warm blanket, another person a woollen waistcoat. When I had parked my scooter a little clumsy on a slope and I was unable to get it off its stand, I was helped by a shaky old man, who could barely keep to his feet. When I was unable to start my scooter, there always appeared a boy to do the job for me. When I was stung by a wasp, out of nowhere, there appeared a lady with some ointment. When I decided to walk, cars always stopped to offer a ride. Due to a minimum of physical exercise and the many invitations to join a Greek dinner party on a terrace, my body shows off how good life was for me on Lesbos. People take care of each other; crowdfunding to help people out is pretty normal. And it is admirable to see how many animal lovers take care of the street dogs and cats.

Now back into my hectic ‘normal’ life, I might be a danger of idealizing Lesbos too much. Let’s be honest: life there is not always, nor for everybody that easy, especially in the winter, when a large number of the islanders are without work. And the fact that within an hour, half of them know where you have been, what you did and with whom, can also be annoying. But for me I consider Lesbos as a pearl in the Aegean Sea that has to be cherished.
New developments, like the much discussed and criticized tourist train that runs between Molyvos and Anaxos, will do no harm. When in the Netherlands you sit in a train full of sulky commuters or are stuck in a traffic jam with reared motorists, it is hard to imagine that people could have problems with this slow going train full of merry tourists. Or am I mistaken?


This is my last column about my personal experiences and meanings about life on Lesbos. I enjoyed writing them. Without any scientific substantiation, my wish was to inform, amuse, tickle and provoke a discussion. For some the subjects were recognisable, for others amusing and for some it hurt a little. Thank you for reading and all your reactions. My special thanks are for Julie for having made a place in her blog for me. 
I wish you all a good winter!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Pip