Morea: Monemvasia and Mistra
From the New Griffon, A Gennadius Library Publication, American School of Classical Studies at Athens. Editor: Haris A. Kalligas, Director, Gennadius Library. Athens 2002.
OUR GREAT FRIEND SIR STEVEN RUNCIMAN was particularly fond of some places in Greece.
When I first met him 25 years ago, in Birmingham, during one of the first Byzantine Symposia that Anthony Bryer had started organizing and gradually became an institution, we talked about Monemvasia, the place where we have concentrated our professional as well as scholarly interest with Alexander Kalligas. He was moved and mentioned that it was the first place he had seen in Greece. "The tremendous beauty of the site was unforgettable", he mentions in the introduction he made me the honour to write for my book on Byzantine Monemvasia. He always stresses in his writings, how much he disliked, all over Greece, the well-known sites which attracted lots of tourists. When, towards the end of the 70's, many of the friends who teach Byzantine History in British Universities were interested that we organize summer courses in Monemvasia, possibly because he was afraid that this would influence the evolution of tourism, he said that Monemvasia should be left alone. But, apart from his bond with Monemvasia, his love for the imposing rock which went beyond his first impression, his interest covered also other places like Mistra and in fact the whole of the Morea.
In 1991 his book “A Traveller's Alphabet. Partial Memoirs” was published. Partial in what sense? Did he mean unfinished or biased? It is different from his other books, and, if I am not mistaken has not yet been translated into Greek. It is organized in 26 chapters, as many as the Latin alphabet, and at the end there is an extra chapter. Each chapter is dedicated to a place the name of which starts with the corresponding letter of the alphabet. For each one of these places which spread from Alaska and the United States, as far as China, the Philippines and Australia, comprising Egypt, Damascus, Rumania or ancient Ur, he condenses thoughts, experiences, reactions, comments. It is worth noting that no chapter is dedicated to his native land, the British Isles and Scotland.
Three chapters are connected with our neighbourhood. The first, in A, he dedicated to his beloved Mount Athos. Another chapter in I, to Constantinople-Istanbul, where he lived and taught, "with apologies to my Greek friends, he writes, I shall keep to Istanbul... which is in fact a corruption of the medieval Greek words 'stin polin'".
In Μ there is the chapter "Morea: Monemvasia and Mistra," which begins as follows:
” Greece is to me a second country. But were I to try to tell of all my experiences there, up and down the mainland and through the islands, there would be little room left in a book to cover my journeys to other lands. So I restrict myself to places that begin with the letter M. Happily they include many that I love best. There is Macedonia.”
Further on he mentions Meteora, Metsovo, Milos and other places.
” It is further still to the south that I am happiest in Greece. The great peninsula known to the ancients and again today as the Peloponnese, but for which I prefer the more mellifluous medieval name of Morea -"the mulberry tree".[...] It is the part of Greece where one is most conscious of the Middle Ages.”
Although his acquaintance with Greece started at Monemvasia, let us first examine his relation with Mistra, where he went for the first time in 1928.
I stayed for three days in Sparta, walking each day the four miles to the modern village of Mistra and a mile on to the entrance-gate of the old city. [...] I had the ruins almost to myself, except for an old goatherd who took his flock through the ruined streets each afternoon, and except, too, for the nuns in the monastery attached to the church of Our Lady Pantanassa. [...]
I was next in Mistra for the inside of a day in 1947.
In September 1976 the Fifteenth International Congree of Byzantine Studies took place in Athens. Earlier in the year I received a message telling me to arrange to come to Greece a few days before the opening of the Congress in order to attend a ceremony at Mistra. Soon I heard a rumour that they were planning to call a street after me in the little modern town below the ruins. When I had been in Athens, in charge of the British Council in Greece for two years after the War, one of my happiest duties had been to allot scholarships to Britain to young Greeks of promise. It was not difficult to find worthy candidates from amongst the generation that had grown up during the years when Greece had been isolated from the outside world. Most of them justified their scholarships and came to play a part in Greek public life. One of them was by now Deputy of Sparta. [...]
Early in the morning of 2 September 1976 we set out from Athens in a procession of three cars. I travelled in the Ministerial car with the Minister. In the second car were Madame Trypanis and Professor Dimitri Obolensky from Oxford and in the third the Director of Antiquities. [...] We were allowed a few moments at the hotel in Sparta to tidy ourselves before going to Mistra.
There, in the main square, Palaeologos Square, the whole population of the little town seemed to be gathered. There was a small street that ran off to the west, and on the wall of the building at the corner, facing the street, a Greek flag was draped over something, and on the wall facing the square there was a Union Jack. As I stepped from the car a buxom blonde lady came up and presented me with a bouquet of pink roses, in the name of the women of Sparta - an undeserved tribute, as I had never done anything for them. Remembering how royalty behave on such occasions, I handed it to Madame Trypanis to carry for me. Then the local schoolmaster, who was Mayor of the town, delivered a speech of welcome in such careful katharevousa Greek that I barely understood it. He was followed by the Minister who, at the end of his simpler speech, pulled a string, and the two flags came down, revealing a plaque giving the name of the street in Greek letters, where the Greek flag had been, and in English, where the Union Jack had been. I then gave a short address in Greek, which had been vetted for me, and almost entirely rewritten. [...]
The Mayor of Sparta had given me a document proclaiming me to be an honorary citizen of the town. I did not know how to show my grateful appreciation, except by writing a book about Mistra and dedicating it to him and his townspeople. “
He ends the description of his last visit to Mistra in 1986 with these words:
” I left Mistra impressed more than ever by its beauty and its atmosphere, and happy to see how well the work of conservation was maintained, though a little alarmed by grandiose plans to restore the Palace of the Despots.”
Among various other places in the Morea mentioned in the Μ chapter, like Modon, Mega Spilaio, Merbaca, he makes a few comments on Mani. They give the impression of being slightly negative concerning Maniot hospitality, possibly because he did not have the chance to become acquainted with the local hospitality and could not imagine that it is at least equally warm as the hospitality offered in the same area by his friend Patrick Leigh Fermor, although of course not in the least equally entertaining. I happened to have the experience of Maniot hospitality during my student years, lavish somehow under hard conditions, but at the same time frugal, laconic in spirit; I had on the other hand the experience of the hospitality in the beautiful Fermor's house in Kardamyli, with its alternation of quick conversation, bursting laugh and excellent food with abundant wine. The departure for the first visit there was from Monemvasia in the summer 1982 with Steven Runciman, who had come specially to give a talk for our Monemvasiotikos Homilos on the Crusades.
” But we should start talking about Monemvasia from the beginning.
My parents had borrowed my grandfather's yacht, a three-masted schooner called Sunbeam, famous in the 1870s as having been the first yacht to circumnavigate the world, under its first owner, Lord Brassey. We had set out from Naples in March 1924, on our way to Istanbul. [...]
On a perfect day in early April we sailed past Cape Matapan and round Cape Malea into the anchorage below the rock of Monemvasia. Its bulk, a thousand feet in height, rose out of the sea, joined only by a narrow causeway to the mainland. Its name in Greek means "one entrance". To the Franks with their inability to twist their tongues round local wording, it became Malvoisie, which the English translated as Malmsey; and in the later Middle Ages it was above all known for the rich wines of the Morea, which were exported from its harbour. Indeed, the barrel in which the Duke of Clarence met so sad an end must have passed through the bay in which we now were anchored. From the sea it was all beautiful; but when we landed we came into a melancholy town. It sprawled along the southern side of the rock, between a steep precipice and the sea. Walls still protected it at the eastern and western ends, and there was a long wall along the shore. To the north it backed on to the precipice. The entry was through a vaulted passage beneath a great bastion. But inside the walls, apart from a few churches in ill repair, the narrow streets were lined with deserted houses, some of which had been handsome in their day. More and more, we were told, the population was moving across to a new settlement on the mainland, where modern amenities such as drainage and electric light were promised. The churches were locked, and no one seemed to know who kept the keys. [...]
It was sad to see the decay in such a lovely setting; and it was a relief to climb the path that went zigzag up the precipice to the ruins of the upper town on the summit. There, half-hidden in the scrub, you could see the foundations of churches and mosques, barracks and houses, Byzantine, Venetian and Turkish, carpeted round about by a profusion of spring flowers. One building stood intact, the church of St. Sophia, built on the edge of the northern cliff at the end of the thirteenth century on the orders of the pious Emperor Andronicus II. It was in good repair, though the frescoes in the interior were fragmentary and fading. It stood solid and dignified among the desolation.
We sailed on that evening to Syra, then Myconos (one of my less favourite Ms). [...]
Fifty-eight years passed before I came again to Monemvasia. I kept away from Greece from 1967 to 1974, during the rule of the Colonels, not wishing to see the country that I loved so cruelly misruled. Soon after they fell, I went to Athens. Mr. Karamanlis, the provisional Prime Minister, kindly found time to see me. In the course of our talk he asked me when I had first come to Greece. I said I had been in Monemvasia in 1924. He then told me that the town was rehabilitated and that I ought to be given a house there.
We often wondered whether Constantine Karamanlis's offer was vague or more precise and if a certain house of Monemvasia was offered to him, and which could this be and why nothing happened. “
In his account text, after doing us the honour to comment on our architectural work there, he continues with references to his subsequent visits to Monemvasia. During his visit in the summer of 1982 he was pleased to be lodged in the house he stayed in:
” When I stayed there in 1982 I was housed in what remains of the building in which the Emperors lived on their visits to the town.”
One of his next visits was in June and there was a full moon. He enjoyed the moon like a child on the little terrace of Bobo's taverna, and his enjoyment continued as we stood gazing towards Cape Malea in the open space in front of the church of Chrysaphitissa. He referred to the church in what he wrote about his first visit:
” I wished specially to see the icon of Our Lady Chrysaphitissa, which had flown one day from a church in the village of Chrysapha, near Sparta, to take up residence in Monemvasia. “
In 1991 the members of Monemvasiotikos Homilos decided to organize the 4th Symposium of History and Art in honour of Steven Runciman and many of his friends and admirers came on this occasion. He and the participants were moved when, after all the addresses in his honour, he was proclaimed an honorary citizen of Monemvasia.
During the Symposium an extremely interesting exhibition was held in the old mosque of the lower city: "From Wilibald to Runciman. British Travellers in the Peloponnese". It was curated by Ms Leonora Navari and Dr Fani-Maria Tsigakou and was inaugurated by the Minister of Culture, Mrs. Anna Psarouda-Benaki. The publications of the papers of the conference and the catalogue of the exhibition have recorded in a more permanent way these memorable events.
Sir Steven Runciman continued to follow with warm interest all that happened in Monemvasia. He always wrote back when he received the programmes of the Symposia and stressed his wish to attend. When in 1997 the theme was "Piracy " he mentioned that his grandfather had contributed to the extinction of piracy in the Aegean. We asked him to send us a small text on the subject to be read at the Symposium, but it did not arrive. We repeated our request, to have it for the publication of the proceedings. His answer in September 1998 was as follows:
” You are kind to suggest that I might contribute a short article on my grandfather's experience with pirates in the Aegean. He wrote his account of the episode in a fictional form, thinking that that would be more acceptable to a 19th-century public. [...] I am prepared to give you a copy of my grandfather's account, with my own notes. But I really don’t think that the result would be of the scholarly value and integrity that your Monemvasia publications maintain. [...] I am becoming very decrepit. I even find it rather difficult to climb up the winding stone staircase to my library in my tower here... But otherwise I am glad to be still alive and still able to take an interest in the things that have mattered to me - of which the Gennadius Library is one. I don’ think that I shall manage to come to Greece this year. Next year, if I survive, I hope to manage it.”
However, he did not come.
* I very warmly thank Thames & Hudson for granting me permission to quote from A Traveller's Alphabet. Partial Memoirs, London, 1991, as well as Dr Ann Shukman. The letter at the end of this text was addressed to me in 1998.