Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Light Towers

(The lighthouse of Molyvos)

For centuries pirates terrorized the Aegean. And it wasn’t just the sea that was not safe; these sea faring thieves regularly raided the islands. That’s why on Chios the mastic villages like Pyrgi, Mesta and Olympi were built as real forts with thick walls all around. And just like on Lesvos, they were not built at the seaside, but hidden inland so that they were not easy prey for the pirates.

On the east side of Lesvos, just outside of Mytilini, tower houses, or pyrgelia were built, where goods and cattle could be stored and families could have a safe haven there. Originally they were built as watchtowers. With a broad view over the sea they could warn the villagers when foreign ships came into sight.

By the Seventeenth century these pyrgelia became en vogue as houses: with a windowless first floor, but a large entrance that could be securely closed (some houses even had secret hiding places for the women and girls, in order to save them from a pirate raid) and an upper floor which served as the living space where the light flowed in through windows and with a characteristic wooden extension.

Those towers were not built everywhere. Elsewhere they lit fires on the mountaintops along the coast, as a warning of approaching pirates.
Maybe this old warning system can be considered as the precursor of the lighthouse.

One of the eldest and best-known lighthouses from history is the Pharos of Alexandria, built between 297 and 283 BC by Ptlomeus I Soter on the island of Pharos just in front of Alexandria. The town was conquered by Alexander the Great and Ptolemeus was one of his generals. When Alexander died, Ptolemeus proclaimed himself King of Egypt and started building the lighthouse, which became one of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World. It is said that the tower was 120 – 140 metres tall and that its light could be seen from 50 kilometres away! This was, for ancient times, an unusually tall building; however, it wasn’t resistant to the earthquakes of 926, 1303 and 1323 and after a Sixteenth century Egyptian Sultan built his palace on top of the remains of the tower, nothing is left to be seen of this legendary Greek tower.

Even elder is the Maiden or Leander Tower that can still be visited close to Istanbul, on a small island in the Bosporus. This one was built around 408 BC by an Athenian general. He built it as a watchtower in order to keep a close eye on the movements of the Persian fleet. The Maiden Tower was rebuilt several times and for centuries it served as a lighthouse. Today it’s a restaurant.

There is an ancient Greek myth about this tower: the story of Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite who lived in a tower in Sestos, a little town on the Turkish peninsula of Gallipoli at the entrance of the Dardanelles. At the other side lived the boy Leander who fell in love with Hero and he swum across to her each night. Hero lit a candle so that he could find his way. Leander convinced Hero that she could lose her virginity without insulting Aphrodite; so they made love for a whole summer. Until one day when a big storm blew out Hero’s candle and Leander got lost at sea and drowned. Hero was so distraught that she threw herself from the tower.

Because the Dardanelles and the Bosporus are so close and similar, the ancient Greeks and Byzantines believed that the Maiden Tower was in fact the Leander Tower.

The Turks have another story. It’s about the daughter of a sultan and an oracle had predicted that she would die on her eighteenth birthday from a snakebite. Her father built a tower in the middle of the Bosporus, so that she was far away from the land and the snakes. On her eighteenth birthday, glad that the prediction could not happen, he sent her a huge basket with all kinds of exotic fruits. But amidst the fruit was hidden a viper and, of course, the prediction did come true.

Lighthouses were not built as watchtowers for pirates. In some cases they may even have been extinguished in order that the pirates and their ships would be smashed against the rocks and perish.

There was no need for the ‘lighthouses’ on Lesvos to be put out, because they were not as old and legendary as the lighthouses of Alexandria and Istanbul. The oldest tower is from 1947 and is on the islet Megalonisi (Nissiopi), outside the harbour of Sigri. In fact, it is the replacement of an old iron lighthouse of 19 metres, built in 1861 by a French company, during the Ottoman occupation and destroyed in the Second World War. On the cape (Akra) Korakas, close to Skala Sykaminia, there was a similar tower also built by the French (in 1863). Nowadays you can only see the house of the lighthouse keeper. The sea is now made secure by a modern kind of lighthouse, similar to the one that stands guard on the Cape of Molyvos. The five metre tall lighthouse of Agrelios, at the mouth of the Gulf of Gera, was built in 1930 and has more or less survived history. Mytilini even has two remaining lighthouses: the Fykiotrypa, just in front of the castle, where there once was another tower from 1863 and there is also one in the harbour of Mytilini.

During the Second World War most lighthouses in Greece were destroyed. Before the war there were 206 and after the war only 19 remained. During the Fifties they started to rebuild some of them, others were left to perish or replaced by light beacons. It is only on the island of Ios that a lighthouse has been turned into a museum. Nowadays there are 120 traditional lighthouses in Greece and one of them is the one in Sigri. One hopes that with the forthcoming opening of the Nissiopi to the public, the lighthouse will also attract visitors. And I can imagine that when the tourists tire of viewing all those petrified trees, they will be in need for a drink. So why not turn the lighthouse into a tavern? Finally the Leander Tower has turned into a famous restaurant.

(With thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2012

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