Sunday, 28 September 2014

September 22 – Ayvalik


Finally, after a lot of wrangling, the international customs post in the harbour of Petra has been opened. The only remaining question is: for whom? Is it for sailing boats from Turkey? The post has been created for an excursion boat, which however has not yet shown up and probably will not arrive this year. So now we have a custom post with officials who have nothing to do and it is still impossible to go to Turkey from Petra.

If you want to visit our neighbouring land from the north or south of the island, you still have to travel very early in the morning to Mytilini to take a ferry to Dikili or Ayvalik. Although it still is worth going, especially to Ayvalik which is a nice place with historical interest to visit.

Once Ayvalik, also called Kydonies, was even pretty famous in Greece. In 1773 this little Ottoman city, with a majority of Greek citizens, had so many privileges that it could operate like a free city. This came about because a Greek priest saved the life of a Grand Vizier. Hospitals and all kind of schools were built. Education was taken so seriously that Ayvalik soon became the Greek literature centre of the whole of Asia Minor. The Greek Language School was reknowned for its number of well known Greeks teachers, like Benjamin of Lesvos.

In those times there was also plenty of commerce between Lesvos and the Anatolian coast. On both sides people lived from trade in oliveoil, soap, leather, fruit and fish and many boats sailed between both sides of the Aegean. There were no customs barriers and the only obstacle was the possibility that you had to pay a small harbour fee.

In 1821 the Greeks started their revolt against the Ottoman occupation. Many pockets of resistance sprung into life, amongst them one in Ayvalik with about 600 members. However the Greek fleet did not succeed in liberating the eastern islands and the coast of Asia Minor, where many Greeks lived. Only part of central Greece managed to shake off the Turks. After some attempts Ayvalik was besieged by the Sultan’s army and put on fire. Most of the inhabitants fled the city (it was estimated to have a population of 40,000) to find security on the nearby islands (one of which, I guess, was Lesvos). However in 1832 the Sultan allowed the citizens of Ayvalik to return to their city and they started to rebuild the town and their fields.

Soon Ayvalik flourished again thanks to its commercial and cultural life. But at the beginning of the 20th century Turkish nationalism arose, which caused Ayvalik to begin to lose its privileges. When the Ottoman Empire choose the side of Germany in the First World War, lots of Greek Ayvaliotes were conscripted into the army and priests and wealthy civilians were accused of being spies and executed. According to Wikipedia there were so many men taken that the production of oliveoil came to a stop. Because the Greek oil from Ayvalik and Edremit was so famous, some 4500 Greek families were ‘imported’ to ensure the continuation of the production of this quality oil.

Turkish Nationalism grew even more after the loss of the war, partly because of the humiliating Treaty of Sevres. The Greek – Turkish war of 1919-1922 (in which both parties were guilty of massacres) ended with a large population exchange (exodos) between Greece and the new state of Turkey. More than a million Greeks, whose families had lived for centuries in Asia Minor, were forced to move to Greece. The majority left for the Greek mainland, but some sixty thousand of them ended up in the North Aegean islands (amongst them Lesvos). In Mytilini there is a commemorative statue of a refugee mother and children and in Skala Loutron there is a small museum displaying all kind of artefacts brought by the refugees.
Some 40% of the Greeks now claim that their ancestors came from Asia Minor. The Greek inhabitants of Ayvalik were sent to different parts of Greece, while the Turks from Lesvos (and from Crete and Macedonia) settled in Ayvalik.

From most parts of the island (excepting the south-west) one has a view over Turkey. It is strange to realise that the far side of that country is now overrun with hundreds of thousands of refugees. For years now smaller numbers of refugees enter Greece (including Lesvos). But what’s happening now at the Turkish-Syrian border resembles a biblical catastrophe and reminds me of the masses of refugees during and after the Greek-Turkish war, when warmongering produced such fear that large groups of people fled their homes and lands.

Now, not even a century later, the old world is again on the move and conflicts flare up everywhere. Even though for some people the conflict seems to be far away, it has reached the Turkish borders. And soon enough the whole of Europe will be involved,  just like in the times of the first World War and the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

I have just been reading a novel that takes place in that time when the nationalists led by Kemal Atatürk were fighting the Treaty of Sevres and did not listen to any of the Allies who occupied Istanbul: L’autre Rive du Bosphore (as far as I know not yet translated in English) from the French writer Theresa Révay. Historically, it is reasonably well researched and gives a good opportunity to learn about that frightening time. A book, praised by everybody, that describes the international politics of that time even better is from the American journalist Giles Milton: Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922. It’s a bloodcurdling report about the heartbreaking fall of a beautiful city, not a century ago. If we may believe the report of an Ottoman doctor in Tracing the memoir of dr. Şerafeddin Magmumi for the urban memory of Ayvalik, then Ayvalik once was a little Smyrna (now Izmir): with colourful inhabitants, a lively nightlife and a big cultural life. The above mentioned document shows that there remains plenty of the old Ayvalik, so it is still worthwhile travelling to Mytilini and boarding a boat to a part of Turkey that for such a long time was so Greek.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2014

Friday, 12 September 2014

September 10 – Cloud theater

(Cloudy sunset at the Gulf of Kalloni)

When I awoke this morning and went outside, it took me a while to see what was missing. Many times I have looked out over the sea and mountains, but today there were no clouds in the sky. Would this day be one of the very few cloudless days of this summer?

Clouds arise when humidity is sufficiently high that water vapour high in the sky condenses into raindrops and ice crystals. Clouds seem to do whatever they like and often make unexpected moves. Yesterday, I had a telephone conversation with a friend and I told her that at any moment there could be rain on the island, because huge thundering cauliflowerclouds above Turkey where attacking the Lesvorian coast. When the call was finished and I went outside, the threatening culprit had totally vanished and the clouds had retreated far into the Turkish countryside. Now you probably think the telephone conversation was hours long, but the disappearing act took only fifteen minutes.

This cloud theatre above Turkey is not new. Over the summer, more than once, you could enjoy a performance that consisted of attacking and retreating rumbling thunderclouds, while the island didn't get hit by even one drop of rain. But equally it also happens that this voluptuous mass continues its surprise attack so quickly, that before you can run for cover, you will be soaking wet. And they are smart, those clouds, because after discharging their water, they disappear as quickly as they dropped the rain and suddenly you will be looking into a cloudless sky.

This summer the cloud theatre was pretty active in Greece. Many a tourist did not appreciate their performances at the beginning of the summer, because the rain continued repeatedly until the middle of June. But also in July and in August clouds were hanging out in the sky, a bit bored but ready for some action. They were just like naughty kids: as soon as they saw an opportunity, they caused some uproar. They made it rain on several occasions in July as well as in August, which is very rare for a Greek summer.

Some weeks ago they even presented a very special night performance, so unusual for Lesvos. One night, I had dinner with some friends in Vafios and when we were driving back down to Molyvos we saw low clouds besieging the village with long stretched fingers. Our first reaction was that there must be a big fire somewhere, but upon approaching the village, there was so much condensed humidity that it could only be clouds that seem to have fallen from heaven. It did not roll out of the sea, like sea mist, but came in a mysterious way from the land. First the castle was swallowed and then the entire village and when we arrived in the village you could not see a hand before your eyes (a Dutch expression saying that the view is very poor). The people that we could see roamed around in a kind of chaotic way, because nobody knew what was happening. For a while Molyvos seemed to be the village out of the famous movie The Fog (1980), where a coastal village gets engulfed in a thick fog, bringing with it the ghosts of mariners who had died in a shipwreck.

It could have been a nice finale for the summer theatre season, but obviously the clouds were not yet ready to give up showing their tricks. As soon as September started, they ganged together, multiplying themselves and took the colours of frightening grey and black. This time they were ready for some heavy 'pop-up' performances. So when I wanted to show the beautiful place of Agia Anayeri to friends, we were surprised with a thunderstorm play that was so heavy that for a few seconds I was afraid that the Mt Olympus (on Lesvos) had joined the play with a volcano eruption and for days after my eardrums were still roaring. The show did not move from the mountains and had us captured for ninety minutes in the local taverna, where we happily found shelter, and drank lots of coffee.  After we finally were able to be on the road again, in half an hour we reached the coast and you probably will guess it: all clouds had disappeared from the sky.

This cloud company stayed for many days above the island and enjoyed itself with many such performances all over the island. They even frightened tourists who had fled the island in May or June due to the bad weather and who had returned to the island hoping for a second chance holiday and a cloudless vacation. The rains also woke up the snails much too early (they usually finish their big summer sleep after the first rains at the end of September or in October) and drunk from the rain they were chased onto the roads where they were picked up by greedy Greek hands to be thrown into the stew pots. Snails are said to taste the best just after their summer siesta.

The advantage of a summer full of clouds is that on most evenings you will be presented with a sparkling sunset. To be honest: a cloudless sunset is boring and these water masses are the ones who can add spectacular colours at the sky as daylight is fading. Even the last Supermoon, who performed this summer three times, was less sensational than the cloud theatre. Last night he shined big, bright and yellow over the Lesvorian landscapes, but the orange ball going down into the Aegean Sea was just as impressive due to some clouds.

I am wondering if sardines like clouds. This summer most of the sardine nets in the Gulf of Kalloni, remained empty. It seems that there are some years that sardines do not come to the island in their usual big numbers and so my favourite dish of salted sardines (sardelles pastès) was hard to find this summer. Was it the clouds that stopped them from coming because they could not show off their silver coats in the sunshine or was it a bunch of dolphins guarding the entrance to the Gulf, feasting upon all the sardines trying to get in? This year for sure one speciality of Lesvos will be rare: tinned salted sardines from Kalloni.

Meanwhile some minuscule clouds have appeared over the horizon. But they look friendly and innocent - in Holland we call them sheep clouds. I hope they predict a beautiful end to the summer, free from a cloud theatre: kalo ftinopero!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2014

Monday, 1 September 2014

August 28 – Nothing new under the sun

(The castle of Mytilene)

For years nothing has really happened on the island and suddenly there is a sparkling summer full of new events: at Sigri lots of new petrified trees have been found, Anaxos got connected with Molyvos by train, the opening of the OXY has put the island on the map for partying youngsters, many new charter flights have made the number of tourists grow. A few days ago the island got a new ferry between Mytilene and Izmir in Turkey, and the Spanish company Iberdrola started working on the creation of a so-called energy landscape: the windmill park in the west of the island. This part of the island will be turned into a new tourist attraction: listening to the buzzing rotation blades and looking up at the 67 meter high windmills, that will (just like the sequoias many millions of years ago) reach high into the sky. And all this is happening in a UNESCO geopark!

Lesvos (and Chios and Limnos) must be a Valhalla for Iberdrola where they can pick the money out of the air. It is not a facility but a commercial business: the electricity generated by the 153 windmills on Lesvos will be sold to the highest bidder party and this certainly will not be the island. In a Dutch tv-series (Ik vertrek; ( about emigrating Dutch people they showed a family that went to Spain and had to wait more than one year to get connected to the electricity net of Iberdrola, who owns most of the electricity facilities in Spain. Or maybe the family is still waiting to be connected. So I guess this island must be dealing with a bunch of smart and trustworthy men.

Another novelty on the island is the custom office in the harbour of Petra. Gates and buildings are all ready to receive tourists who want to make an excursion to Turkey. But the capital Mytilene is not ready at all: they, of course, prefer to keep this boat connection in their own harbour, afraid that otherwise no tourist will ever visit Mytilene. As of now, there are no custom officers available for Petra.

In ancient times Lesvos consisted of a small number of city-states, although it was Methimna (the original name of Molyvos) and Mytilene who dominated the island power structure.  When you read the history of the island you will see that lots of different people held power, like the mythical king Macaras, Amazons, Persians, Athenians, Egyptians, pirates, Romans, the Italian family of Gateluzzi and the Ottomans. Changing powers on the island was never peaceful, and sometimes Mytilene and Methimna supported opposing sides.

Mytilene used to be an island connected to Lesvos by a small strait that connected the harbour in the south with the one in the north. For pedestrians they say there were beautiful marble bridges. Some archaeologists think Mytilene used to be the Venice of the East. However the strait silted up and it was decided to fill it up, this way improving the defences of the castle. Nowadays the main shopping street Ermou runs where the strait used to be.

To be honest I have no idea where Methimna got its power and wealth. Like Mytilene, the city had its own coins, a large and strong castle, but no commercial harbour. But the two cities regularly fought for the power over the island.

In the year 428 BC Mytilene, a new member of the Delian League (a league composed of different Greek states), planned a revolt against Athens, which as the head of the Delian League, had misused its members. They first tried to get all city-states of Lesvos together but Methimna, a good ally to Athens, did not want to support the revolt. Mytilene secretly reinforced its fleet and bought extra grain in readiness for war with the Athenians. But even in those times there were spies and before Mytilene was ready, word reached Athens, and Mytilene was soon surrounded by Athenians.  The Athenian Assembly or ecclesia had to decide about the fate of Mytilene. Well, to be honest, it was a much more complicated situation, but the fact is that Athens decided that all men from Mytilene should be put to death and the women and children be sold as slaves. They started with slaughtering some thousand prisoners, but then the Athenians started wondering how they had become such barbarians. They asked for another session of the ecclesia and there a certain Cleon said that the punishment should be carried out, but another speaker Diodotus pleaded that it would be better for Athens if the Mytilenians were kept alive so that they could remain a future ally for Athens. The citizens of Athens agreed with Diodotus and that is how the Mytilenians were spared.
I bet that in those times a citizen of Methimna was not welcome shopping in Mytilene. But in any case, this second debate of the ecclesia has gone down in history as the Mytilenian Debate.

If today you were to organize an ecclesia here on the island, it probably would still be a matter of decisions being taken by the party who has the best speaker. For instance there were lobbyists from Iberdrola who spoke to the citizens of West-Lesvos, promising them that the windmill project would provide them with lots of jobs and money. I guess the speaker of the other side, amongst them environmental defenders, had probably nothing to offer but a warning of a natural disaster. The inhabitants of the west said yes to the large project, maybe not fully realizing that their habitat will be changed drastically by the building of 100 of kilometres of new roads, six metres wide, that are needed only for the installation of the windmills - windmills that will soon terrorize Nature with their flapping sounds.

A citizen assembly is also needed for the question of the tourist boat going from Petra to Turkey. It will be the Mytilenian shopkeepers opposed to those in the north and the travel agents. I say first they should all read about the Mytilenian debate, so that reason will win. Most tourists who stay in the north and west do not come to the island for Mytilene and just get irritated at having to travel so far in order to take the boat to Turkey. Mytilene should not complain because they have just got a brand new connection with Izmir, along with different planes from Istanbul.

Even though Lesvos is nowadays one municipality, it looks like the mayor favours his capital. He should realize that it will be better for the whole island when tourists spend more time in the villages and less time on the road and in buses. It seems to be the old song: Mytilene against Methymna. I wonder if Athens will have to intervene

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2014