|Writer nearby the Entrance to Hades|
Once upon a time in a far, far, far away land there lived a fair Queen.
Sorry, Mykonos, this isn’t about you. I’m focusing on the Peloponnese, Greece’s southernmost mainland peninsula about the size of the American state of Massachusetts; though I guess these days it’s technically an island after the four-mile long (by only seventy-feet wide) Corinth canal severed it from the rest of Greece in 1893.
Think picture perfect harbor, nestled up against the Aegean’s Laconian Gulf halfway along the eastern coast of the middle prong of the trident-shape southern tip of the Peloponnese (make it easy, look at the map). I’m talking about Gytheio, largest town in the southernmost Peloponnese region of the Mani and municipal seat of East Mani.
Twenty-five-hundred years ago this spot served as the port for nearby ancient Sparta, and during Roman times it thrived as an export center for such valuable commodities as the deep purple dye so revered by royalty that it gave rise to the phrase, “born to the purple.”
But in the early Third Century BCE, Gytheio’s reign as a port center ended in a massive earthquake. It remained abandoned, serving as but a small village, until refugees from Greece’s 1821 War of Independence escaping to the Mani brought with them the renewed growth that ultimately returned Gytheio to glory in the 1960s with its new port.
To the the ancient Spartans—and Greek classicists—this area wasn’t known as Gytheio but as Cranae, the name of a tiny, arrow-shaped island two hundred yards from shore at the southern end of Gytheio’s modern harbor. From Cranae, ancient Sparta launched its ships (a bit of a hint for those who haven’t already guessed the soon to arrive punch-line).
Today, Cranae connects to Gytheio by a narrow, two-hundred yard-long concrete causeway, is approximately five-hundred yards-long, east-to-west, by one hundred yards wide at its broadest point, and is made up primarily of dirt, rocks, and pine trees.
Aside from a couple of fishing shacks (and I do mean shacks), and a taverna and restaurant close by the island end of the causeway, only three structures remain standing on Cranae: A lighthouse at its eastern edge, Saint Petros (Peter) Church on its western end looking across the sea back at the harbor town (a very popular site for weddings), and roughly equidistant between the two, a four-story stone tower built in 1829 later expanded to house the Historical and Cultural Museum of Mani (currently closed because of the financial crisis). [Cranae photos by Panos Kazanells]
|St. Petros Church|
So, where’s the Queen fit into all of this, you ask? I’ll let Homer tell you.
NO, NOT HOMER SIMPSON, Everett. The other teller of tales. The Iliad names Cranae as the spot where Queen Helen of Sparta and her abductor, Paris of Troy, spent their first night fleeing Helen’s husband King Menelaus of Sparta, in the process giving Homer the story line for the world’s best known epic tale of romance, action, and intrigue, catchy phrases for advertising execs such as “The face that launched a thousand ships,” “Trojan horse,” etcetera, and Peter O’Toole the chance to make a movie with Angelina Jolie’s (not yet?) husband.
But there’s another story to Gytheio. World War II took a great toll on this region. In 1942 merciless bombing devastated the area—skeletons of bombed out buildings can still be found along some hillsides—and its villages were among the first wiped out by the Nazis in reprisals for partisan attacks on German soldiers. Along the roadside between Gytheio and modern Sparti are monuments erected to the memory of those murdered Greeks
As one villager told me, “A lot of family trees lost entire limbs to the Nazis. They did almost as much harm to us as the Turks, but in a hell of a lot less time.”
So, I have a question: With so much suffering endured by their ancestors at the hands of the Nazis, why is there looming above Gytheio’s central harborfront square a banner proclaiming that location as The Mani’s headquarters for Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn), the neo-Nazi political party in Greece’s parliament openly praising the architects of Nazi methods that once brought so much suffering and death to so many of their countrymen and to Gytheio in particular?
I’m not going to suggest an answer. That’s too easy to address with a nod, a shake or a shrug. No, I’d rather you think about an answer. And to help get you started, here’s a story reported in the US by National Public Radio on September 4, 2013 on the impact the rise of Golden Dawn is having on the tiny population of Greek Jews that remains after 87% of their 67,000 population saw extermination by the first round of Nazis to take a shot at destroying Greece.
It portends a future no thinking or remembering Greek could want. For it is guaranteed to end in tears.
Xronia Pola and L’Shana Tova.