Saturday, November 13, 2010

Mani Get Your Gun

Vathia, a Mani fortified settlement

 If Mystras (see last Saturday’s post) was the heart of Peloponnese history, Mani was its fist.  It is the mountain-spine middle peninsula on the trident tip of Greece’s most southern mainland part, on the same latitude as Sicily and pointing across the Mediterranean at Libya.  It is where ancient Spartans are said to have settled, and if you’re wise, do not quarrel with a Maniot who makes that claim.

Unlike much of the Peloponnese, Mani has no grand, established sites such as Mystras or Epidauros, but nor did ancient Sparta, whose inhabitants lived a warrior life disinterested in the great edifices so important to their northern neighbors and Athenians.  Besides, much of what Spartans built disappeared amid the region’s earthquakes and millennia of scavengers for building materials.

A Maniot fighter

What Mani does offer is a present day spiritual presence giving life to a history far grander than most legends.  Say “Mani” to a Greek and the usual response is “tough, proud, enduring people.”  Greece’s war of independence against the Turks began there in 1821, and though the history of the Peloponnese (and Greece as a whole) is largely one of occupation by foreign powers, the story goes that Mani was never occupied (essentially true), never paid taxes (at least not that much), was a refuge for the politically persecuted (willing to fight, I assume), and in some parts has not seen a piece of land sold to foreigners (tough to verify, though proudly claimed). 
Mesa Mani landscape

A few weeks ago I was in the southwestern part of Mani, called Mesa (inner) Mani doing “inspirational” research for a new book.  Mesa Mani runs inland from the Ionian Sea, across arid, rugged land, onto the majestic, north-south Taygetos mountain range.   This is where ancient stone towers loom practically everywhere above the land, an ever-present reminder of a violent past. 

Mani tower
The generally four to five story tall towers (each a pyrgos in Greek), offered defensive positions to families against bandits, pirates, and foreign invaders.  But far more often they served to protect families from their neighbors, for Mani was a land where the concept of family vendetta was so deeply engrained in its culture that rules existed on how, whom, and when not to reek vengeance against an offending family.  For example, those lucky enough to be a doctor or a priest were considered too valuable to the community to serve as a permissible target for vengeance by another family.

There are said to be 800 ancient towers still standing in Mani, some with roots back to the 13th Century.  That might explain why many find Maniots among the friendliest and most courteous people in Greece.  It’s probably a serendipitous, positive result of living in a society where to offend likely led to something far worse than a nasty letter to your boss.

Gerolimenas harbor with Hotel Kyrimai at point

Road to spiritual experience
I stayed in Gerolimenas, a picture-postcard harbor village of less than sixty inhabitants, at a world-class inn once a seafront warehouse for agricultural commerce between Peloponnese and the outside world.  The same family that built and ran the warehouse in the early 19th Century created and now runs the inn.  On the morning of my departure to Athens, the owner suggested I travel south a bit more, toward Cape Tenaro at the very tip of the peninsula, where the Ionian and Aegean seas meet.  “It is a spiritual experience that will take you back in time,” he said.  And so I did, toward I knew not what. 


The photograph at the top of this post is not a painting, nor is the one to the left.  They are of the hillside village of Vathia.  It exists exactly as you see it.  As I stood there, contemplating a Harry Potter scenic against the region’s Mad Max-like history, a funeral procession passed out of Vathia directly behind me.  Mani has mesmerizing landscapes, charming places, and friendly people, yet I could not help but wonder if that funeral bore some relation to its fierce history.  I’m just cursed with such thoughts: I think murder is everywhere.

Pause for groaning to subside.

A final resting place

I never made it to the southern tip, for on the way there I passed the funeral procession.  Cars were parked along the side of the road, at the top of a steep, rocky incline.  Men below were carrying the coffin toward a mountain church along the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea.  I saw no cemetery, just the church.  The only other visible sign of life was up ahead, an isolated, distant taverna on a tiny beach.  I stopped there, but didn’t get out, just sat for a while.  I turned around and drove back toward Athens. I had no need to go further, I’d found my inspiration.  Besides, I’d be back; there were too many mysteries here to ignore—past, present, and future.  

Distant Cape Tenaro where the Ionian meets the Aegean

If you’re interested in more about this fascinating part of the world, I came across Mani: A Guide and History, on a website created by John Chapman.  He seems to have spent a large part of his life immersed in Mani’s history and ways.  Though I cannot vouch for the accuracy of his observations, nor do I dare challenge them, for in describing how vendetta vengeance could be taken against any family member of the perpetrator, he writes, “The only exception to this 'collective' form of vengeance was in the case of slander where vengeance had to be meted out on the perpetrator.” 

I’d prefer not to test that sort of thinking.

Jeff — Saturday


  1. The pictures are stunning. Was any of the land arable? Man cannot live by fish alone.

    The towers reminded me of those in Ireland. In 1995, Thomas Cahill published a book entitled HOW THE IRISH SAVED CIVILIZATION. St. Patrick needs to be acknowledged for more than driving the snakes out of Ireland, bringing Christianity to the island, and giving his name to a day commonly known for green beer and drunkenness.

    St. Patrick brought education to Ireland and he established monasteries which often included round towers. They were built from the end of the ninth century through the twelfth century. Their purpose was to protect documents, books, chalices, and church related objects that escaped destruction when the barbarians invaded Rome.

    Some of the towers were built far away from the monasteries so that Viking invaders wouldn't realize they existed. I saw one that was very deep in the countryside in 1972. How much more remote was it in 1010?

    The towers didn't have a ground level door. The entrance was 9 ft above ground. The monk would climb a rope ladder into the tower and then pull the ladder in. Supplies were delivered when a basket was lowered and then filled with food, water, and whatever treasure was being protected or documents copied.

    There were a number of floors inside. some having windows. At the very top, there were four windows that corresponded to the points of the compass. It was a bell tower and the bell would be rung if the monk saw enemies approaching.

    I can't imagine how lonely and insane one man would get in a place like that.

    By the way, the groaning didn't start with the "murder is everywhere" line. "Mani Get Your Gun" is the most groan inducing line I have come across in a long time.


  2. Beth,

    Your piece just towers over mine. Amazing again. No more show tune jokes. I know, Promises Promises. Do you ever get the feeling it's just us on this comment page?

    As for the towers themselves, yes, travelers often noted similarities to medieval Irish and "European" towers, but the ones in Mani were for protection from battle, not of church property. They did serve as residences and were used by "kin" for life events,(marriages, baptisms, funerals) but I found nothing to indicate ecclesiastical purposes.

    As for the land, in the pictured part of Mani the absence of arable land in part led to the violence. Too many people for the land to support. But in other other parts of Mani there was rich agriculture. In fact, to this day Mani olive oil is considered a very valuable commodity. But please don't ask what's under the trees.

  3. "Your piece just towers over mine. Amazing again. No more show tune jokes. I know, Promises Promises. Do you ever get the feeling it's just us on this comment page?"

    Did you do stand-up in a past life?

    I think it is likely that there are a lot of readers who aren't ready to set themselves up as straight-men (women). Once people are ready to jump in, you will have to work hard to keep up.

    It is important to keep in mind that I knew something I could use in a response. On 99% of the things you will post on this blog, I won't have anything to add.


  4. That's because on 99% of my posts I won't have anything to say! If you can't dazzle them with brilliance just baffle...hmmm, maybe I should be more careful, just in case someone else is actually following us...

    Or maybe I should just include a few NSA buzz words to ensure a readership...

  5. Paranoia and the NSA mentioned in the same post? Anyone who reveals a connection with the NSA can end up sleeping with the fishes if there are any in the Potomac.

    The NSA is the group the CIA really hates because the NSA really does know secrets.


  6. I guess someone's trying to tell me to get out of town...

  7. It can't be soon enough:) Safe travels, my friend. See you in the Spring.

  8. Mani should return to its roots. Enough TROIKA bs. Seal the borders, weaponize. Live or die trying.

  9. Don't we just love it when people anonymously make wild statements? They often make themselves sound so courageous, but they don't have the courage to say who they really are. Just sayin'