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Tuesday, July 05, 2011

EXPLORING THE MANI

Mani Tower House


I visited the little town of Areopoli (Ares town) a gateway to the Mesa Mani in the Peloponnese.  Formerly called Tsimova, it was given its new name "Town of Ares" (God of War) because of its efforts during the War of Independence.  It was from here that the leader (Bey) Petrobey Mavromehalis declared the uprising.  A statue of him is in the town square.

Areopolis is a typical Maniot town with stone built tower houses (some recent, others restored). The sights here are typically Maniote. Aigia Taxiarches cathedral has primitive reliefs above the door from 1798.  There are tower houses restored to look like those of  the Medieval times but built in the 1800s.



 I wandered the narrow cobbled streets admiring the unusual architecture, fuchsia bougainvillea and coral hibiscus spilling in a colorful array over the stone walls; old wooden doors painted green, blue, purple and orange.  There were several tiny churches dating around the 1796 era to the early 1800's.



 The Mavromakalis family church is in a little plateia, the interior is lined with frescoes.  There is also a Byzantine Museum in the Pikoulakis Tower but I didn't visit it this day.


What is the Mani and Who are the Maniotes?


Scenery in the Mani



This southernmost peninsula of Greece stretches from Gythio in the east to Karathamyti in the west, terminating at Cape Tenaro, a mythical entrance to the Underworld.  It's spine is the vast stony mass of Mount Taiyetos and its southern extension, Sangias,  a wild landscape with an interesting idiosyncratic culture and history.

This part of Greece seems to still be close to its violent medieval past which carried on until the end of the 19th C. and remains somewhat isolated.  Despite this it's one of the most hospitable parts of Greece.  There are two parts of the Mani, the Exo (outer) and the Mesa (inner). Mesa Mani is the part of the peninsula south of Gythio, classic Mani territory, a jagged coast and land mass of rocks.  The mountains are key in Maniot history forming formidable natural barriers providing refuge and bastions of resistance over the last two millennia.

The Dorians never got this far south in the wake of the Mycenaean. There was some Roman occupation later and even Christianity didn't take root until the 9th C. (500 years after the estabilishment of Byzantium).Thru the years the Venetians and Turks took control of the Peloponnese and there were constant rebellions climaxing with a Maniot uprising March 17, 1821, a week before the War of Independence was officially declared.
Tower House pension
Along with their national assertiveness, the Maniotes were known for their extreme traditions of blood feuds which were exploited by the Turks.  These blood feuds were the result of a feudal society that developed around the 14th C.  After arrival of Byzantine refugee families, known as Nykians,  various clans developed, forming strongholds in tightly clustered villages. Over the centuries these clans clashed frequently and violently, claiming land, power and prestige.  As the feuds grew more complex, strongholds were built -- these stone battle towers raised only by those of Nykaina descent many of which still remain.
From these fortresses, the clans (sometimes based in the same village) conducted vendettas according to strict rules and aims, the object being to annihilate both the tower and the male members of the opposing clans.  The favored method of attack was to smash the tower roofs.  Because of this,the towers rose to heights of 4 and 5 stories.  These battles could last for years with women bringing in food, ammunition and supplies.  They would end in the destruction of a family or total surrender of the clan.
I've always been curious about this area of Greece and it's unique history so it was a special thrill for me this trip to at least visit Ariopolis, the gateway to this turbulent but fascinating area.  Next time I'm here I hope to travel right down the spine of the Mesa Mani and see some more of it.  It's worth the trip, quite different from the usual island tours and other Byzantine sites of Greece.

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