Tuesday, June 25, 2019


Monastery Cells up against the west wall of Koroni Castle Keep looking north

Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355 CE) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar Ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian, Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of Ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have been lucky to take in past years. 

This Rihla is about the verve and vertigo of history in a place that Venice once called (along with Modon/Methoni) one of the “eyes” of the Republic.
I like going into Mediterranean ports for the first time, particularly those where you descend off the escarpment, down into the folds and history of the shoreline, where at the last moment a port reveals itself. Many of the old ports are really old, surviving both coastal piracy and the politics of millennia that drove people inland… or away. Oftentimes for me the arrival is like opening a new jar of honey: the smell is familiar but the scent or sense is different: a different flower, a different pasture, a different experience. More intense nowadays, that I have laid aside my pipe after 40 years of puffing. Where ports are concerned the aroma from the quaysides of café’s and drying nets, of freshly caught and cooked fish, of the local olive oil seem to differ slightly (in Koroni’s case the famous eponymous Koroneike variety), of local tobacco sometimes; a difference created by the intersection of soil, vegetation, sea, wind and human toil. 
Coronelli's map showing Venetian bombardment of Coron (Koroni) castle in 1685. The village sketches down the North west slope to the port.

Koroni’s quays are one of those that are somewhat difficult to access. You descend a single-lane, narrow arteriole of road to wind round its heart, the small church square (The Church of Agios Dimitrios), which at any moment could be plugged by the fibrillation of a punctured tyre, the atheroma of a dodgy fish or watermelon truck, or a flushed faced driver in determined lederhosen. 

Koroni town is pretty, its lanes part cobbled and slated, with rustic sienna tile atop layers of white washed houses cascading from the acropolis to the sea. There is also a newness, that is unexpected, the illusion created by the rebuilding of the town over centuries following recurrent seismic shifts and the application of whitewash. 
Koroni town from the north west

On the quays of Koroni the fishermen – of Eos, the dawn Goddess and mother of the Winds – have returned to port in the morning twilight and having discharged their catch, and checked their nets and long–lines have retired to an off quay café for breakfast, before heading home to sleep.  The main street, the Periklis Rallis Street, running east to west is mostly in shadow, with traditional cut-throat wielding barbers and baklava bakers, craft makers and banks, supermarkets and café’s all plying their trade in a street that is 100m at most. And also there one building demolished behind hording, perhaps a reminder of impermanence from the last earthquake.

The North Gate and Fisherman's Cottage

Southern Walls of Koroni Castle- the Vertigo

Predrag Matvejevic wrote in his seminal Mediterranean – A cultural Landscape that there are places in the Mediterranean where,
    “…ecstasy and sacrifice derive from more  than beauty
     or despair, where there is a   verve at work, a vertigo,
     that the Mediterranean dares not name and that 
     the maps too pass over in silence.”
This is my sense of the port of Koroni, or as Matvejevic would have it, a limen autophyés, a self-occurring harbour, created by the “will of the sea”. It is also a sloping, white-walled, narrow-passaged spill-over of a town from within what was once the sanctuary of the outer ward of the acropolis above, tumbling seawards to nestle on the north-western slopes of a promontory that juts bullwarked into the Messenian Gulf. It is a location that provides shelter from sudden summer Sirocco storms … and the vertigo
Map of Koroni Castle

Above the town, an acropolis reached by passing an immaculate white-washed house draped in vukamvilia (bougainvillea) and a white bearded net-mending old man of the sea in a Lacoste tee-shirt, is the theatre of “ecstasy and sacrifice”, where Mycenaean, Lacedaemonians, Dryoponian, Messenian, Macedonian, Roman, Byzantine, Frankish (1205), Venetian (1207-1500, 1685 -1715), Ottoman (1500-1685, 1715-1828), Knights of St John, Spanish (1532), Algerian, Austrian, French, Arvanite, Greek Independent and German World War II memories dissolve into the cracks in the masonry. It is an acropolis where salvation and sacrifice co-existed. There is a sense that it is as it always has been, solid, immutable, defined. But not so! The solidity of the Venetian and Ottoman walls surrounding the town’s acropolis belie the topographical enigma of Cornoeae/Corone/Coron/ Koroni etymology over time and makes you wonder whether its fluid identity meant it was determined to be forgotten, to be left alone.

The small Byzantine church of S. Sophia built on the North apse of the older basilica.
The church and former mosque of Agios Haralambos in background

According to Pausanias 2ndCentury Description of Greece (IV 34. 4-6) ancient Corone (near the port of modern Petalidi) was originally called Aepeia, one of the seven cities promised by Agamemnon to Achilles for taking part in the Trojan campaign (Homer II. IX.152). In 371 BCE, following the expulsion of the Spartans and re-establishment of the Messenian kingdom, Aepeia was repopulated by the oikist Epimelides, and renamed Coronea, after the oikist’s home village in Boeotia. According to Pausanias, who was able to visit Epimelides tomb 500 years later, the settlement became known as Corone instead of Coronea because the locals did not pronounce it right or because a bronze cow (korone) was found when digging the foundations. It became part of the Achaean League (by conquest) and then part of Rome’s province of Achaea following defeat of the League in 146 BC. 

Modern Koroni, on the other hand, the town and castle seen today on a promontory on the SE of the Messenian peninsula was originally called Asine having been populated by people of Dryoponian descent (from the descendants of Dryops, a mortal son of Apollo). This tribe, originally from the Sperkheois valley in Thessaly, had migrated first to Southern Euboea but then were enslaved (by Hercules!) and offered to the Apollo shrine at Delphi. They were subsequently allowed to establish at Asine in the Argolis but here their luck also ran out. The original Asine was destroyed by the Argives and following the Spartan annexation of Messenia in the late 8th/ early 7thcentury BCE the Dyroponians were offered re-settlement at neo-Asine (the modern site of Koroni castle and town) in Messenia. Here they established a shrine to Apollo and also a sanctuary of Dryops, where the mysteries were held every second year, on the hill summit above the town and were allowed to remain in situ even when Sparta was expelled from Messenia in 371 BCE.
The tiny cell of the Monk Theodoulos

Following Pausanias’ visit to Messene, Corone and Asine (Koroni) the territory appears to be have enjoyed a long period of relative isolation. Then, in 395 CE Messenia became part of the East Roman or Byzantine Empire and shortly afterwards, in 397CE with the Visigoths, and continuing with the Slavic and Avar invasions of Messenia in the early 6thcentury, and most acutely with the coastal piracy raids by militant Arabs in the mid-7thcentury on a poorly defensible port, ancient Corone appears to have suffered repeated traumas. It is most likely that the people of ancient Corone at this point abandoned their own town and moved south 24 km to the acropolis of the more defensible site and port of Asine, which may or may not have been deserted, and taking their ancient name with them applied it to the new settlement. Much of their previous history, the history of ancient Corone is held in the archaeological museum in Kalamata today. 

Shortly after the migration from ancient Corone, in the mid-8thcentury, the Byzantine Empress Irene’s chief minister Staurakios subdued the Slav’s and a re-Hellenisation and Byzantine re-building of the Messenian peninsula begun.  It is at this time that the main Byzantine fortifications of the acropolis of renamed Corone were completed and the building also included, just outside the walls of the inner citadel the erection of a three aisled basilica on the site of the former Dryoponian Temple of Apollo. The basilica was dedicated to the Virgin Mary Theotokos, who had been declared the Bearer or Mother of God for the final and determinative time at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE. 

The central apse of the 8th century basilica

Today only the outline of that early 8thC 3-aisled basilica with a stairwell to a gallery on the south aisle can be made out along with some of the incorporated columns from the former Temple of Apollo lying about. In 1154 Corone appeared as one of 16 Peloponnese towns on the Kingdom of Sicily’s cartographer Muhammad al-Idrsi’s World Map, the Tabula Rogeriana. At some point however, before the Venetian occupation in 12thcentury, the basilica appears to have collapsed, or partially collapsed perhaps in an earthquake that Koroni is prone to (such as the one on August 27, 1886 or Oct 6, 1947) or at a later stage bombarded into final destruction by Ottoman, Spanish or French guns. The former is more likely as part of the north aisle and apse of the original basilica was turned into the tiny early 12thByzantine Church of Agios Sofia,  which still exists on the site today. 

The Serinisìma Repùblica Vèneta controlled Coron from 1209 until 1500 and again from 1685 to 1715. It primarily acted as a “nest” for Venetian Galleys, but also had a significant silk and oil exporting industry. The other church near the ruins of the basilica is the Catholic Venetian Church of St Rock, converted into an Ottoman mosque during Turkish control and then into the Orthodox Church of Agios Haralambos (when the minaret became a bell tower), a Saint from Magnesia in Asia Minor who was tortured to death. In 2012 a fire in this church caused massive destruction, which is only now being partially restored.
Looking south east over Monastery (nun's convent) of St John the Baptist
in inner ward of Koroni Castle

Within the 1918 Monastery Convent of St John the Baptist (Timios Prodruma, the Forerunner) there are hermit cells and painting nuns and also a number of smaller chapels perched on the walls including that of one dedicated to the memory of the Greek Independence fighters in 1824 who tried, to climb the Resalto tower on the southern flank to try and capture the citadel. They were discovered and massacred. A walk through the monastery gardens, within the old keep of Koroni Fortress, and along the curtain walls is a must. Most impressive are the number of underground cisterns scattered about.

Apollo, to whom the Dyroponians of Asine dedicated their temple, was the most Greek of all the Gods. In addition to being the god of truth, and archery he was also the god of colonists and seafarers ( a tradition carried on by the Church of Agios Nikolaos – the patron saint of seafarers in the town today), as well as being the protector of foreigners and refugees. It is no wonder that the Dyroponians dedicated their primary temple to him. His intercession however did not prevent the Venetian massacres of the Ottoman defenders and their families in 1685 and of later Ottoman reprisals from occurring: a sacrifice to the sea, the Mediterranean sea of both dreams and death, then and today. 
   “When the ships spread their sails and our land was lost
     to the eyes, all the men with a sigh and with a wail
     cried out: Get out Ghost! Devour us! Oh my Morea! 
     Oh Arberia.”
Lament for Coron

Migration of people, settlement names, and migration identity, was always a feature of Greek history, even on the Greek mainland. Koroni, despite its layers of occupation, including the German Army in World War II has yielded up surprisingly little in the way of archeological finds, thus we are dependent on the memory of migration. When the Spanish abandoned Koroni in 1534, only 2 years after taking the town, they took with them 2,000 inhabitants who were of the Arvanite or Arberore community, an Albanian dialect-speaking group of Byzantine Greeks from the Theme of Dyrrhachium (in modern Albania) and resettled them in Italy and Sicily, where other Arvanites had migrated 70 years previously. A German historian many years ago suggested that the ethnic make-up of the Peloponnese was Slavic rather than Greek but modern genetics investigating the Messenian region show that the fishermen of Koroni’s closest relatives exist in populations of southern Italy and Sicily, rather than the Slavic hinterland of Serbia and Bulgaria. Memories in contrast, are intangible. I thought of this as I passed a sign near the small children’s playground at the east end of Koroni's waterfront.

In 2010 Koroni was declared by the UNESCO as one of the communities who were to be “guardians” of the Mediterranean Diet. In the Decision (5.Com 6.41 2010) confirming this the Intergovernmental Committee declared that it,
Takes note that Spain, Greece, Italy and Morocco have nominated the Mediterranean diet for inscription on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, described as follows:

The Mediterranean diet constitutes a set of skills, knowledge, practices and traditions ranging from the landscape to the table, including the crops, harvesting, fishing, conservation, processing, preparation and, particularly, consumption of food. The Mediterranean diet is characterized by a nutritional model that has remained constant over time and space, consisting mainly of olive oil, cereals, fresh or dried fruit and vegetables, a moderate amount of fish, dairy and meat, and many condiments and spices, all accompanied by wine or infusions, always respecting beliefs of each community. However, the Mediterranean diet (from the Greek diaita, or way of life) encompasses more than just food. It promotes social interaction, since communal meals are the cornerstone of social customs and festive events. It has given rise to a considerable body of knowledge, songs, maxims, tales and legends. The system is rooted in respect for the territory and biodiversity, and ensures the conservation and development of traditional activities and crafts linked to fishing and farming in the Mediterranean communities which Soria in Spain, Koroniin Greece, Cilento in Italy and Chefchaouen in Morocco are examples. Women play a particularly vital role in the transmission of expertise, as well as knowledge of rituals, traditional gestures and celebrations, and the safeguarding of techniques.

One of the many cisterns in Koroni Castle St John the Baptist's monastery.

I like to think that within its curtain walls and whitewashed beauty Koroni’s destiny is always going to be linked to migration, as a diaita, as a way of life.