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Saturday, March 24, 2007

SOME STOPS ALONG THE WAY

It's been four years since I last visited Parga, a beautiful little town on Greece's west coast. We're going to stop off there for a couple of days on this trip and I'm really looking forward to being back there again. Mainly, I want to make a second journey to the Rock of Zalonga. I was there in the mid '90's but didn't write a story about it. And back then I wasn't keeping an on-line blog or diary so my memories of it are just what I wrote in my hand-written personal journal. It's a spectacular place and the memorial for the Soulioti women is outstanding.
Here's some notes taken from my emails home back in 2003, about my visit to Parga and on that trip, my second visit to the Nekromanteion (Oracle of the Dead).

PARGA.
This is a gem of a little town on the sea just a bit south
of Corfu. I've been here before but I'm amazed at how it's expanded.
Quite a popular resort for Italians and also Brits but some other
Europeans here too.

A bit of back history which involves the infamous Ali Pasha I
mentioned in Ionannina. This town ued to be a British Protectorate
at the time of the Ottoman occupation. Ali Pasha convinced the
Brits to give Parga to him for his expanded empire. The deal was
that he signed an edict stating that he would not harass or punish
the Souliote resistance force who had been fighting against the
Turks up the in the mountains near here. Of course, being the nasty
devil that he was, the edict wasn't worth the papers it was written
on. So he sent his men after the Souliots who were just south of
here at a place called Zalonga.

When the Souliotes learned the Ali Pasha's men were coming the men
holed up in a monastary to fight to the death and the women and
children climbed up on the mountain to a ridge that overlooked the
monastary. The Ali Pasha's men came and killed all the rebels in
the monastary. When the women saw that their fate was sealed (either
rape, being carted off to a harem or worse) they began a circle
dance, some of them holding their babies, on the top of the cliff.
As they danced round and round, singing their Souiiot freedom songs,
they came closer and closer to the edge of the cliff and one by one
they lept off onto the rocks far below. Only two babies survived
and these were later cared for by nuns of the monastery. The Greek
army has erected an immense monument to the Souliote women on top of
the cliff where they threw themselves off. I've been up there,
climbed up quite a lot of stairs to get there but it was worth it.
Quite an experience to be on the edge there and look down at the
rocks below and understand what happened.

This time I'm not going to Zalonga though I'd love to return. But
tomorrow I'm going on a boat trip up the Acharon River which
represents the Styx in Greek mythologdy, to the mouth of Hades where
the Necromanteion (Oracle of the Dead) is located. I've been there
before too, but this is a research trip. So I'll write more about it
later.

I VISIT THE ORACLE OF THE DEAD

Near Parga there used to be an ancient Bronze Age city called Ephyra
which was situated on a lake (now dried up) which was fed by two
rivers, The Ac heron and the Kokytos. This was te site of an
ancient cult of the divinity of death, the Nekromaneteion.

On a hillside, protected by cyclopeon Mycenaean walls and an inner
circuit of polygonal masonry, dark passageways led to the mouth of
an underground cavern which was believed to be the entrance to the
realm of Hades and Persephone. Ancients came here to consult the
souls of the dead who, on leaving their bodies, acquired knowledge
of the future.

I boarded a launch at Parga for a trip up the River
Acheron (symbolic of the mythical Styx) for a visit to the
Nekromanteion. It was an interesting voyage. My fellow passengers
were other tourists: German, Swedish, British, and included sev eral
children. Capt. Kostas was a good natured old salt who kept us
entertained as well as involved int he cruise.

The west coast of Greece, The Ionian Sea, is truly one of the most
beautiful areas of Greece, and I wonder why tourists bypass it
in favour of the more barren Cyclades Islands of the Aegean.
The coastline is magnificent, with high limestone cliffs riddles
with caves, geologically fascinating, where the earth has been trust
unwards due to volcanic action. All along the coast were great
jagged rocks jutting out of the sea like the sharp teeth of giant
sea monsters. (You know where many of the myths come from when you
see this kind of landscape.) We passed secluded coves with dazzling
turquoise water and white pebble b eaches. Tall spiky cedars and
deciduous trees cover the mountainsides that rise up from the sea.

We approached the delta of the Acheron and you knew you were
entering into a mysterious place. The river is narrow and
slow-moving, a dark jade green colour. Both b anks are thick with
reeds and willows dip their branches into the water. Turtles bask
on lily pads; black, peacock-coloured and emeral green dragonflies
dart over the surface. I wondered if this river once had
crocodiles. Y ou almost expected to see one emerge from the
shallows. It reminded me of the Bayou in Louisianna without the
cypress trees and menacing alligators. Unfortunately, my camera
battery expired as we began our voyage up the river. ***note to
travel writers: always go prepared!!!

We tied up on the shore and had to climb up a steep em bankment to
get to the road. Capt. Kostas informed us we must walk the 2 kms to
the Nekromanteion. He didn't mention that the last kilometer was
uphill. It was about 40 degrees that day. Hot as Hades! But we
slogged along through the corn fields and eventually reached our
destination: The Oracle of the Dead.

I was here once before, and not a lot has b een done since then,
but I was sorry my camera had died, because I wanted to record a few
more details as this was a research trip for the last part of my novel.

I could only imagine what it was like in the ancient times. Back
then y ou would come through the thick entrance gates into a dark,
torch-lit hallway. There were three chambers for supplicants,
separated b y a bathing room and a purification room. For sev eral
days the supplicants were kept isolated, questioned by the priests,
and fed a special purification diet of beans and lupins, some of
which were likely hallucenogenic. The visitors had to be prepared
psychologically and physically, since contact between the living
and the dead was dangerous.

Later they would be taken out to make sac rifices before being led
down a narrow, dark labyrinth which was filled with hallucenogenic
smoke. There they would enter the Palace of Hades to meet the souls
of the Dead.

From the central room, you climb donw stgeep stairs into a long,
narrow underground chamber which is formed by 15 arches. This
sacred room is the Palace of Hades and Persephone where the ghosts
of the dead appeared to communicate with those consulting the
oracle. It gives you a creepy feeling even now to climb down into
the crypt. Yoiu can visualize what went on back in thos ancient
times. Odysseus visited the oracle to consult the ghost of
Achilles. I wondered if perhaps Olympias had come there to consult
the soul of her dead son, Alexander.

Many objects have been found at the Nekromanteion, the most
important of them from the basement room, the sacred crypt. They
are on display in the museum at Ionannina. Among them is a device
like a crane used to make the figures of the deceased appear. This
may be why the walls in the main sanctuary were so thick, making it
possible to create sec ret passageways along which the priests could
move unobserved. In Roman times, 167 B C, the Oracle was uncovered
as a huge scam (like our seances) and the Nekromanteion was burned
down.

After communicating with the dead, visitors departed from the
sanctuary by a different road and were required to keep silent ab
out all they had seen and heard to avoid being guilty of impiety
towards the gods of the Underworld.

I'm not sure that I confured any ghosts while I was there, but later
that afternoon when we stopped at a beach to swim, I heard Olympias'
voice speak to me and wrote down her words to use in "Shadow of the
Lion".

The cruise back to Parga was fun. The sea was choppy and it was a
rough ride. Capt. Kostas who sails this coastline sev eral times a
day, kept the boat so close to the cliffs that you could almost
reach out and touch them. He took the boat into one of the sea
caves and encouraged two of the young boys to jump in for a swim.
Inside the cave there is a blue reflection from the crystal clear
water. The boys had a great time swimming and of course, teasing
Capt Kosta pretended he was taking the boat out without them. I'm
sure they had a lot of stories to tell their friends later.

Then we pulled into this lovely beach for a swim and lunch, a long
stretch of pebbles so smooth they were like polished gems. I
rented a beach chair and basked in the sun, had a delicious swim in
the warm sea, and then we set sail again for Parga. Certainly a
very interesting day!

I posted a story about the Ionian Islands on my writer's blog.
www.wynnbexton.blogspot.com

You can read a published version of the Nekromanteion trip on www.travellady.com
You'll see how valuable these journal notes are when it comes time to write an article about the adventure.

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