Thursday, 21 April 2011

The Throne of Potamon

(The Throne of Potamon; photo from the internet)

In a few days it will be Easter and this year it will be celebrated on the same day in both Orthodox and Western European countries. In Greece, the summer season starts with Easter. Everywhere people are busy making everything ready for the tourists and on Monday the 11th all the villagers seemed to have fled their homes in order to clean the streets and beaches. Not only in Molyvos, but everywhere on the island, the municipalities have no money for cleaning – so lots of people have volunteered to drag huge garbage bags to to every nook and cranny and to pick up the mess. Schoolchildren were free to participate, so everybody worked together to make the island ready for the season. In this, the crisis has been good for at least something; because the roads and beaches have never looked this clean.

Serious tourism on Lesvos started only in the Seventies. Greece was then still a cheap country to visit and most of the tourists were backpackers and island-hoppers travelling from one island to another. Now this group has moved in the direction of Asia where life still is cheap and most tourists visiting Greece now have pre-booked their hotel and plane before they start travelling.

Centuries ago this was different. Then the word tourist did not exist. You had travellers, of whom small numbers were going around the world. Some of them were writing diaries about their travels and some even published their experiences after they came home safely.

Possibly the very first travel guide was Description of Greece (Ἑλλάδος περιήγησις) written around the second century BC by Pausanias, a native of Lydia. In the 18th century diaries of travellers, like those of Thomas Cook, were very popular and in the 19th century it was the novelists (like Gustave Flaubert, who wrote about about his travels to Egypt and Greece and George Sand who published Un hiver à Mallorca in 1842) who started to travel and publish tales of their adventures,

In earlier times travelling was far more dangerous than nowadays and you had to be a real adventurer to take to the road. When you read the chilling stories of the Englishman William Allen in his travel book The Dead Sea (1855), you would definitely prefer to stay home. It was just here in the Aegean Sea that he was twice attacked by pirates and once was shipwrecked.

The Dutchman Jan Somer, who departed for Spain in 1590, not only visited many countries, but nearly drowned and was captured and enslaved. He had many adventures in Constantinople (now Istanbul). He is one of the few people at that time who wrote a little about the island of Lesvos in his journal Reise naer de Levante.

However, according to Frans R.E. Blom, a researcher at the University of Amsterdam, the very first real Dutch tourist visiting Lesvos and writing about his experiences was the son of a Dutch regent: Gerard Hinlopen from Hoorn. This young man departed in 1670 for a two year journey towards the unknown world and after seeing Spain and Italy boarded a fleet with the destination of Smyrna (now Izmir) in the Ottoman Empire. In Smyrna, having had enough of his travel companions, he disguised himself as a Turk and set off with a Turkish shipper along the coasts en route to Constantinople.

This is how Gerard Hinlopen came upon the island of Lesvos and he wrote down entertaining descriptions amongst others about the castle of Mytilini, the hot baths, the aqueduct of Moria and, as he was a bachelor, he praised the Lesviot women. Then he made a great discovery. Monks showed him a stone chair that they had dug out of the earth. It was beautifully carved out of a single piece of marble. Its inscription was carefully noted down by Hinlopen. On his return home he had the inscription translated and after some archaeologists discussed the matter they agreed that this was the Throne of Potamon. Potamon was the son of Lesbonax, a famous orator who was also known for his advocacy of Lesvos during his long stay in Rome at the court of Cesar Augustus, where he tried to winkle out some favours for his island.

When the rumours hit the grapevine about this archaeological find, more and more visitors came to Lesvos in order to see this marble throne: it became the first attraction of Lesvos, described by more than one traveller (Old Tracks and new landmarks by Mary Adeleid Walker [1897] and Travels & Discoveries in the Levant by Charles Thomas Newman [1865]).

If we believe the travellers of many centuries ago Lesvos was famous for its antiquities. After the occupation of the Ottomans however not much was left. Greek cultural landmarks were destroyed or used to make new buildings. Today, Lesvos’ biggest attraction is thousands years older than all those cultural antiquities - but it is a geographical treasure: the Petrified Forest that opened to the public in 1994. Reading the old travel diaries we get a glimpse of how Lesvos used to be (for instance Mary Adeleid Walker’s description of her difficult travel from Mytilini to Molyvos and Petra). Thanks to these reports we also know that Lesvos used to be famous for something quite different than the Petrified Forest: the Throne of Potamon.

When more and more travellers came to have a look at the throne, the marble block was placed in the house of the archbishop. Even then people were trying to lay hands on it, like the French ambassador to Constantinople, Marie-Gabriel Choiseul-Gouffier. The famous Lord Elgin, although he did manage to get part of the Parthenon front, did not succeed with the Throne of Potamon. The throne still sits on the island.

During Easter the archbishop would sit on the Throne of Potamon to distribute Easter eggs to the people and to drink to their health. The throne has now been placed in the Archaeological Museum in Mytilini and will remain empty during Easter - no leader nor tourist will remember the Throne of Potamon.

Happy Easter!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

No comments:

Post a Comment