Traveling Classroom Foundation
Tuesday May 26th 2020

Paros – A Bit of History

The morning after the great pageant in Tinos we pack our bags and drive into town to return our rental car. The rental agency is kind enough to store our luggage for the morning (the ferry is not due in until 12:40).

We explore the Tinian archeological museum, which has a few interesting exhibits, but the morning goes rather slowly and we spend much time seeking cover from the meltemi winds. By the time the ferry arrives we are ready for a change … and the trip to Paros is a short one.

We will tell you more about Paros later, but it might be good for you to have some context or background. This, then, is a brief overview of Parian history:

The island has been inhabited since 3200 BCE and many artifacts from that time have been found in Saliagos, an islet situated between Paros and Antiparos. It is believed that the two islands used to form one single land.

According to mythology, the first to dominate the island was Alkaios of Crete. He built a city situated where the actual capital of the island, Paroikia, now stands. He colonized the island for its central position in the Cyclades and its fertile plains. At that time, Crete was trading with Egypt, Assyria and the Balkans, so the position of Paros was of great strategic importance.

A naval station was built on the island and it was given the name of Minoa, which is a title of honor given only to royal Cretan cities.

Later, around 1,000 BCE, the island was occupied by Arkadians led by Parios, who gave to the island its definitive name. In the 8th century BCE, Paros became a maritime power, started trading with the Phoenicians, and even created a colony on Thassos, a northern island rich in metal deposits. It was a flourishing period.

Tribute to Archilochus, the warrior-poet of Paros (680 – 645 BCE)

Paros was the birthplace of many poets. The most famous was the lyrical and often satirical poet Archilochus who invented several poetical forms used in modern poetry. It is said that he once wrote a series of satirical poems that destroyed the reputation of a wealthy man who had prevented his daughter from marrying Archilochus. Sadly, only fragments of his poems survive.

In those times, Paros was famous in all the Mediterranean for its high quality semi-transparent marble which has been used in many masterpieces as the Venus de Milo, the Temple of Apollo on Delos.

In 338 BCE the Macedonians took control of Paros and, after the death of Alexander the Great, the island fell under the control of the Ptolemies and, successively, by Mithridates and the Romans.

As the Roman Empire declined, the island was converted to Christianity and became part of the Byzantine Empire. Many churches, monasteries and chapels were built at these times on the island. The most famous of them is the Church of Ekatontapiliani (which means “100 doors”) in Paroikia. It is said that the church was built by St.Helena, mother of Constantine the Great. It is considered the most important Byzantine monument in Greece.

Ekatontapiliani – Church of a Hundred Doors

From 1207 to 1389, Paros became part of the Duchy of Aegean by the Venetian Marco Sanudo. There are many examples of Venetian architecture on the island – most especially the castle (kastro) in the town of Paroikia. But even castles do not guarantee permanence. After the Venetians the island fell under Turkish rule.

Whitewashed fortifications of the Paroikia kastro

During the Independence War of 1821, Paros played a key role in naval actions against the Ottoman Empire. One of the most famous female captains is honored on Paros, where she lived after the war.

More about our travels in the next installment.

The ‘Greek’ Island

Tinos is often said to be the “most Greek” of the Aegean islands, probably because foreign tourists seldom visit. It has other names as well: Tinos of the windmills … of the 1000 pigeon-houses … of the Venetians … of sculptors and painters … of the basket weavers. It is also the home of Aeolus, god of the winds. On the morning we arrived Aeolus was working up a full throttle “meltemi” wind.

As soon as we step off the ramp from the ferry we are approached by a woman who introduces herself as Nikoleta. She shows us a photo album of photographs of her “domatia” (rooms for rent), and the rate was quite reasonable. She claims the place is only 500 meters from the waterfront, and she has a car to drive us (and our backpacks). We agree to take a look, and (as promised) she delivers us to the rooming house in a few minutes.

After settling into our room, we walk back to the waterfront to explore the town, which extends not more than a kilometer from the sea. The capital, also called Tinos (a common practice in the islands) is where most of the population lives. A broad paved street leads from the harbour to the low hill, on top of which stands the magnificent church of Panagia Evangelistra.

The complex is built around a miraculous icon which according to tradition was found after the Virgin Mary appeared to a nun (St. Pelagia), and revealed to her the place where the icon was buried. The icon is widely believed to be the source of numerous miracles. It is by now almost completely encased in silver, gold, and jewels, and is commonly referred to as Megalochari (the Graced Madonna). The church is often called the same, and is considered a protectress of seafarers and healer of the infirm.  Also, since the icon was found within a few days after the creation of the modern Greek State, Megalochari was declared the patron saint of Greece.

The edge the street leading to the church is carpeted with a narrow strip that extends to the top of the hill. This is to accommodate people who come to pray at the icon and invoke its healing power. It is said that the icon has cured many illnesses over the many years since it was uncovered.

The most devote supplicants literally crawl up the hill to the church on their hands and knees (hence the need for carpeting). However, even with the carpeting, those who do not use padding on their hands and knees are often bloodied by the time they reach the hilltop. We saw several elderly women in obvious pain – praying for a miracle as they crawled up the street.

Even Greeks say that Tinos is a very religious island. Because of the occupation of the Venetians many centuries past, a large population of Roman Catholics co-exist with the Greek-Orthodox. Tinos is called the island of the 800 churches, Tinos of Megalochari, Tinos of the Monasteries, of the religious refugees.

After speaking with the proprietor of a book exchange, we discover we have arrived on the island at a most propitious time – the anniversary of the discovery of the famous icon. We are told the public presentation of the icon on July 23rd is a really BIG affair.

Queen of the Cyclades

As reported in the last message, we got off the ferry on the wrong island, so we decided to make the best of it.

Syros is a rather small island, but its capitol, Ermopouli (which means “City of Hermes”), is a beautiful neoclassical city. We have visited here before, so it’s not difficult to find a pleasant room near the market street. After stowing or luggage, we set off to explore.

The first thing we do is walk to the harbor and check on schedules for outgoing ferries to Tinos – our original destination. We purchase the tickets, and then focus our attention on our current situation.

Having climbed the two high hills of the city, we decide to stay on flat ground for a while and explore the wonderful buildings of the city. We also visit the small archeological museum, which was interesting more for its history of archaeology and archaeologists on Syros than for its meager collection of antiquities. Most of the “good stuff” discovered in Greece is transferred to the national museum in Athens, leaving the local museums with leftovers and copies.

We stop for an iced coffee frappe at a cafe in an alley off the quay. While we sat there, a familiar couple walks past on the street … it was Jeff and Elizabeth Carson, our friends from Paros island. We invite them to join us, and they explain they were returning from a writing project on the islands of Chios and Lesvos. After nearly 13 hours on a ferry, they landed on Syros and were now ready to catch the first high-speed ferry home. We part with a promise to meet again when we arrive on Paros.

Land of Centaurs (Part Two)

On our last day with a car (a little 1.2 liter Attos) we scaled Mount Pelion, the densely forested natural fortress that looms above the plain of Thessaly and the city-port of Volos. Between every village we encountered small glens and canyons where water comes tumbling down in rivulets, streams and waterfalls. Surprisingly, there is water everywhere. Flowing from springs that punctuate the landscape, it promotes the growth of dense forests of huge plane trees and other deciduous species. Higher up the forests become dominated by pines.

The entire area is also a treasure trove of legends, myths, history, culture and tradition. Since time immemorial it has been trodden upon by gods and goddesses, demigods and centaurs, titans and giants, nymphs and hamadryads, kings and queens, princes and princesses, heroes and warriors. It was the battleground of “gigantomahia” (the battle of the giants against Zeus) and also the summer resort of the Olympian gods.

Pelion's lush forests are watered by many springs and streams

Pelion was where Thetis (the immortal Oceanid) was married to the king Peleus. Their son, the famous Achilles, was part of the Achaean expedition against Troy. Homer tells us, in his epic poem “The Iliad,” the war was caused by the abduction of Helen of Sparta by Paris, a prince of Troy. Others suggest this is just a pretty myth to justify the Greeks’ expedition against the Trojans, who levied heavy tolls on all merchant ships passing through the straits of Hellispont.

The centaur is a mythical resident of the Pelion region

Mount Pelion was roamed by centaurs (kentauroi in Greek), a race of mythical beings who were half man and half horse. The most famous of these was Chiron, a great teacher renowned for his knowledge and wisdom. Practically all demigods, princes and heroes, including Hercules, Achilles, Orpheus, Jason and Asklepios were instructed in Chiron’s cave – not only in the warrior arts of archery, combat and leadership, but also in the path of virtue, knowledge and compassion. He also taught his students about the hundreds of medicinal herbs and plants, which still grow on Pelion today. According to legend, Asklepios surpassed his master in the medical arts, and became the founder of healing centers throughout Greece.

Zagora became a secret learning center during the Ottoman era

In later history, Pelion became a natural fortress for Greek culture. After the sacking of Constantinople [now Istabul] and the fall of the Byzantine Empire to the Ottomans, Greece fell under 400 years of Turkish occupation. Thanks to its geography, its inaccessibility and defensibility, its luxuriant vegetation and fertile soil, and an abundance of water, Pelion became a refuge for many of the thousands of intellectuals, educators, administrators, priests, monks, merchants, artists, craftsmen, free spirits, freedom fighters fleeing Turkish rule. They established settlements, villages, schools, libraries, churches, monasteries, businesses, navigation, new trade routes with renaissance Europe. Pelion prospered and grew in autonomy and relative independence. By the 1700s and 1800s, it became the most densely populated area of Greece.

Churches, homes, and even caves became schools, teaching Greek culture and planning the overthrow of Ottoman rule.

Pelion became one of the champions of Hellenism by teaching generations of progressive individuals who kept the Hellenic language, history, culture, customs and faith alive. Poems and songs were written about Pelion’s beauty and riches. Generations of stone masons created a unique architectural style, while painters, skilled craftsmen and icon painters decorated monasteries, churches and mansions with frescos, paintings, murals and wood and stone sculpture. At the risk of torture or execution, great teachers taught at schools, or – during dangerous times – in inaccessible caves where they gathered students. They created the “Secret School,” which has a special place in the Greek psyche. Some of them were among the patriots who first organized the Greeks’ uprising against the Turkish oppression in 1821.

Andonios Kiriazis was a "secret school" student

One of the better known graduates (and teachers) of the Secret School was Andonios Kiriazis (also known as the folk poet Rigas Feraeos). He was a pioneer of the Greek cause and writer of a great rousing poem called “Thourios (Battle Song). He was involved in planning insurrections, but was eventually captured by the Turks and executed in 1798. His students went on to raise a rebellion against the Ottoman Empire and win Greek freedom .

Today, most places on Pelion and its vicinity still have the same names they have had for millennia, thus preserving the continuity of their and the Greek culture’s identity. As we drove upwards through multiple and extreme hairpin turns, we discovered the many variations of the mountain and its villages. The small towns seem to hang on the edge of the mountain – totally exposed to gravity – but they have been there for centuries.

After exploring the mountain for many hours, we stopped in a village of Hania for food (goat soup). Then, after lunch, we began our journey back to Volos – a terrifying story of rapid descent that I will not relate to this tender audience.

Ancient Cities

Today we are driving into the hills west of Volos in search of archeological sites in the region. Our goal is the town of Sesklo (a neolithic settlement) and the city of Iolchus, the port from which Jason set out with 50 Bronze Age heroes in search of the Golden Fleece.

We start out early – to avoid the mid-day heat – and so our first priority is coffee and breakfast. We continue towards Sesklo without seeing a single place to eat. Driving through rolling hills covered with olive and fruit trees, we pretty much give up on the idea of eating – until we  arrive at the modern village of Sesklo. It is a farming community with a church and a cafe on a small stone-paved plateia (square).

We park and walk directly to the cafe, listening to the church service in progress. Orthodox services sound rather like Gregorian chanting … very beautiful. At the cafe we order two frappes (iced coffee drinks) and two tyropitas (cheese pastries commonly served up for breakfast). The owner says she has no tyropitas, so we tell her we’ll settle for the coffee. Just as we settle down at a table in the shade, the woman steps outside again and hails a young boy running across the square. She gives him some quick instructions and sends him off in the other direction. He quickly comes trotting back with a sack bearing the insignia of a bakery.

Greek bakery emblem is also a religious symbol

A few moments later the proprietor serves our frappes and tyropitas – still warm from the bakery oven. After an enjoyable breakfast listening to the church service, we continue towards ancient Sesklo.

We find the archeological site a short distance from the modern village. It is located on a small hill overlooking some of the finest farming land in Thessaly. Sesklo was built around 9,000 years ago by farmers who appreciated good soil. It was occupied for more than 4,000 years and grew to possibly 800 households, larger than modern Sesklo.

Sesklo hilltop archaeological site in Thessaly

The town was enclosed – after a fashion – but these walls would offer little defense against invaders. They were probably built to protect their children and livestock from wild animals.  For thousands of years, the town dealt with neighboring towns and perhaps even foreign traders, without the need for a military. Of course that was before the rise of the Mycenaean empire during the Bronze Age.

Artist’s reconstruction of the neolithic town of Sesklo

After exploring the town for about an hour, we drive to our next investigation: the Mycenaean city of Iolkos. Unfortunately, we cannot enter Iolkos itself, because archeologists and diggers are diligently excavating buildings and streets. No outsiders allowed – not even with our passes from the Ministry of Culture. Instead, we are directed to the neolithic settlement of Dimini on the hill above Iolkos.

Walking through the stone labyrinth that was Dimini

Dimini is better preserved than Sesklo, but it came much later in history. The site staff make it more interesting by giving us a hand-held electronic guide, which provides a complete lecture on all the important features of the town and its excavation. It is easy to walk from house to house and imagine how the inhabitants had lived during the late stone age. The town was only lightly populated by the 3rd millennium, but it continued to be occupied even after the Mycenaeans arrived in the middle of the 15th century BCE.

Dimini was protected by a series of walls within walls

As the city of Iolkos grew to huge proportions, the little town of Dimini became a necropolis (city of the dead). There are tholos tombs for the Mycenaean kings and graves for the citizens. Of course the Mycenaeans did not last as long as the earlier neolithic cultures – despite all the military weaponry and defensive walls. Iolkos was destroyed by fire in the 12th century BCE.

Exploring a Bronze Age tomb in the neolithic town of Dimini

What remains of Iolkos is the famous story of Iason (Jason in English) and the voyage of the Argonauts. In case you have forgotten, this is it:

Long ago, King Aeson of Iolkos in Thessaly, surrendered his throne to his ambitious brother Pelias. Some say Pelias usurped his brother’s throne, others say that Aeson had grown tired of his responsibilities and had voluntarily relinquished his rule to Pelias, under the condition that he in turn surrender the throne to Aeson’s son Jason once the boy came of age. Whatever the case, Pelias certainly did not intend to give up the throne once he had it. Jason’s mother, not trusting Pelias sent Jason away to be raised in secrecy by the famous centaur Chiron.

A harsh, suspicious ruler, Pelias had no fear that his own subjects would overthrow him. He only feared the prophecy that said a stranger wearing one shoe would cause his death. Once Jason came of age, he was told of his right to rule in Iolkos, and he set out to claim his throne. Along the way he encountered an old woman who begged him to help her get across a river. Jason politely took the old woman onto his back and began to swim. The current was so strong that it swept one of his sandals right off his foot. Meanwhile, the old woman, who had at first seemed as light as a bundle of twigs, grew heavier as he swam – a lot heavier.

By the time he reached the other side of the river, Jason was exhausted. Helping the old woman down from his back, he discovered that he had actually been carrying the goddess Hera. She had disguised herself as a helpless old woman to test Jason, to see if he was worthy of her patronage. Thus he a gained a benefactress, the queen of the gods. Pelias was undoubtedly distressed when Jason arrived at his court and announced that, as Aeson’s son, he had come to claim his throne.

It was bad enough that Jason wanted to take his place as king, but there was also the matter of the missing shoe. Pelias knew trouble when he saw it. Pretending to welcome his nephew, Pelias slyly suggested that before taking up the responsibilities of kingship, Jason should first do a little traveling, see the world – and maybe complete some sort of heroic quest, to make a name for himself and to show his new subjects how worthy he was to be their king. Naturally a suggestion like that appealed to the brave young man, so he asked Pelias what sort of deed he should perform. Pelias spun a tale about how king Aeetes of Colchis had stolen the Golden Fleece, which rightly belonged to Greece, and that Jason should redress that wrong by returning the prize to Greece. Pelias was lying, but Jason had no idea the Golden Fleece belonged to king Aeetes, not to Greece.

Jason aboard the Argo in search of the Golden Fleece (by Fridayeve)

Jason hired the master shipwright Argus to build a ship large enough to hold 50 men, and strong enough to withstand a voyage to unknown waters. The ship was named the Argo, and those who sailed on it were The Argonauts. Jason sent out a call to all the bravest most noble warriors of Greece, who flocked to Iolkos to join Jason. They knew the voyage would be long and dangerous, but such a glorious quest would bring them honor and fame.

Among these warriors was Hercules. When they reached Colchis, Jason told King Aeetes that he had come for the Golden Fleece. The king did not reveal his annoyance, but told Jason he must earn the Fleece by proving his courage and strength. He must harness a pair of bulls, sow and then harvest a field before sundown. Jason accepted the challenge, but his heart sank when he saw the two huge fire breathing bulls with razor-sharp brazen hooves.

Fire breathing bull of Colchis (by Fridayeve)

Now Hera still favored Jason, so she told Aphrodite to have her son Eros (Cupid) shoot an arrow into the heart of Medea, King Aeetes’ daughter. Struck by Eros’ arrow, Medea fell instantly in love with Jason. Now Medea wasn’t just any beautiful princess, she was also a priestess and a powerful skilled sorceress – just like her aunt Circe, who (in another myth) transformed Odysseus’ men into swine.

That night Medea approached Jason and secretly slipped him a container of magic oil, which would protect him from the hooves and the fiery breath of the bulls. The next day, Jason fearlessly approached the bulls and harnessed them. With such powerful bulls, Jason made short work of sowing the bag of seed he had been given. Sowing the seeds as quickly as possible, Jason didn’t realize that what he was sowing was actually not seed, but dragon’s teeth. From each sprang an armed warrior, until the field was crowded with armed men.

The oil Medea had given Jason gave him some protection from the warriors, but he soon grew tired. Medea decided to help him again by tossing a rock into the crowd of soldiers and hitting one of them in the back of the head. Thinking it was another warrior that has struck him, the first one attacked his comrade. After a few more well placed rocks, the entire army fought each other until there was not one warrior left.

Medea calms the dragon guarding the Golden Fleece (by Fridayeve)

Medea knew her father would not give up the Fleece, so that night she led Jason to the sacred grove where the sleepless dragon guarded the Golden Fleece. Near the dragon, she uncorked a vial containing a powerful potion. When the dragon smelled the fumes, it immediately fell asleep , and Jason was able to grab the Golden Fleece.

Accompanied by Medea, Jason and the Argonauts sailed away on the Argo, pursued by Aeetes. Expecting pursuit, Medea had persuaded her younger brother to come with them. As Aeetes gained on the Argo, Medea killed and dismembered her own brother and scattered his body parts all over the surface of the sea, so her father had to stop to gather his son’s remains in order to give him a proper burial.

Once they arrived in Iolkos and married, Jason asked Medea to use her magic to take some years off from his own life and add them to his father’s, for Aeson had grown quite old and frail. Medea told him that she would not shorten his life, but would gladly add years to his father’s. After preparing a pot with a magical brew, she cut up an old ram and threw its pieces in the boiling potion. Out jumped a young frisky lamb.

Having seen this test, Aeson agreed to let Medea take a knife to him. She put his remains into the pot, said her magic words and out jumped Aeson, strong and youthful. Medea had let the daughters of Pelias to witness this act of magic, so they would approach her to do the same for their father. They knew he was suspicious, so Medea gave them a sleeping potion to use in order to get him to submit to the process.

Once the king was asleep, his daughters took him to Medea, who proceeded to cut him up and place him in the pot. But instead of saying the magic words, she simply left him to boil in front of his daughters.

… So much for dysfunctional families.

Next time we will tell you of our journey to Mt. Pelion and the realm of centaurs.

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