Amykles Book, Excerpt: St. Nikon

This is the final post of excerpts from the book, Amykles, by Sarantos P. Antonakos.

“With the Ottoman conquest, the Greeks could only preserve their identity by remaining steadfastly faithful to the Orthodox Church.”  Steven Runciman[1]

Runciman’s observation answered a question I had long pondered:  how did my ancestors ever survive four hundred years of Ottoman rule–a period of harsh military invasion and grim Muslim occupation? To these enslaved people, their Orthodox faith was far more than a religion.For twenty generations, Hellenes endured the unendurable by clinging tightly to their Christian beliefs and trusting in God for deliverance.

For this, they can thank St. Nikon.

St. Nikon,the Metanoeite. Wikipedia.

Nikon, the Metanoeite (preacher of repentance) re-introduced Christianity to parts of Greece. Born about 930 A.D. in Paphlagonia (an area in Asia Minor, currently northeast Turkey) he became a Byzantine monk and was sent abroad by his abbott to preach the gospel and teach the Bible. He began in Crete in 961, re-christianizing the citizens whose religion had lapsed under Muslim rule.

He then preached in Athens and Thebes, eventually arriving in the Peloponnese. His ministry extended from Naplion and Corinth to Laconia. His impact in Sparta was so profound that Antonakos describes his work and influence in a chapter titled, St. Nikon and Amykles, translated[2] excerpts below.

“After St. Nikon came to the area of Lacaedaimon, he beheld the Byzantine state ‘and these barbarian Christians.’ He built two churches: one in Sklavochori and one in Parori. The choice of these villages were not random. He built churches to fight the pagan influences. In Sklavochori was the ancient Temple of Apollo–a pagan center. Parori was occupied by Slavs who believed in other gods.

Throne of Apollo in Amykles; photo from The Amykles Research Project

“Sparta became his second motherland and the base from which he taught the Holy Book throughout the whole Peloponnese. In Sparta and Lacedaimon (as it was well known back then), St. Nikon met great difficulties–first, from the reactions of the Jews and many corrupted people of Sparta; and on the other hand, he had difficulties spreading the Holy Book because of the Slavic influence in the western borders of Mani. St. Nikon was help by the bishop of Sparta, Theopemptos, and the great general of the Peloponnese, Vasileios Apokaukos.

“After St. Nikon established the two churches in Lacedaimon, he entered Mani, Kalamata, Methoni and others and he taught the faith of Christ. Returning to Sparta, he became sick and made a home in a cave in a location named Moros. After eight days when the Saint was good again, many people who had been there to receive his blessings became witnesses to a miracle that he did. The people were thirsty and there was no water in the area. St. Nikon, after praying, hit the land with his stick that had a cross on it and from the place he hit, much water started flowing like a spring, clean and clear and pure in taste.

St. Nikon, image from the Orthodox Church in America

“After the miracle, the Saint did not return to Sparta. He went to Amykles and people and elders came together to see him and they were inspired by him. In Amykles, St. Nikon found relief after physical exercise and spiritual testing. In this place, besides the spiritual power, we must add the love of the people of the village and their faith, something that St. Nikon was meeting very rarely in hostile areas around Sparta.The great respect of the people of Amykles towards St. Nikon can be proven from the fact that they were the first who came immediately by his invitation to help him build the temple of Sotiros at the Acropolis of Sparta. They gave him materials (limestone)–so much that some people said that it was taken from the ancient temple of Apollo in Amykles.

“A story is found in the monastery of Agios Tessarakonda in Sparta, written in the Will of this Saint:  ‘Even as I many times was building one step, the next day I found two. The next I was building two and finding four. When I had many materials, a man came from Sklavochori and promised to help me, but he was lazy and the temple was not being built. One night, St. Sotiris came to that man in a dream and told him “I am going to take your soul.” The man asked why, and St. Sotiris said, “I am Sotiris, the one that Nikon is building the Temple for Lacedaimon. You promised him materials [that you did not bring] but your house is full of blessings. For this reason, you are lazy. Bring the materials and you will have profit.” The man brought materials to St. Nikon and they worked together.

“When the Spartans heard that St. Nikon was in Amykles, they ran to him, begging him to return to Sparta and with his blessing, to save the city from starvation that had killed many people. Nikon willingly returned. He banned the Jews from Sparta and they settled in Anavryti and Tripi.[3] Later, these Jews were christianized and adapted socially with the local people.

“After the movement of the Jews from Sparta, St. Nikon with the help of Bishop Theopemptos began to build a church devoted to Sotiros, the Theotokou and St. Kyriaki. A man named Aratos, who was doing business with the Jews, was against this. Aratos got a high fever and he died. After this miracle, many people adopted Christianity. In 981, St. Nikon went to Corinth where he healed the heavily injured Apokaukos [a general of high rank and political power, mentioned above]. Upon returning to Sparta, he performed more miracles.

“St. Nikon died in 998 and according to oral tradition, he was buried in Amykles. ‘His name is known in Lacedaimon in glory for mortal people and he is a spring of miracles.’  To the people in the land of Sparta, the Saint will forever be the ‘father and guardian‘ of them.”

During the Turkish occupation, St. Nikon’s ministry in Greece was generally forgotten except in Sparta. After the Revolution of 1821, Father Daniel Georgopoulos composed a service honoring the Saint. In 1893, the Diocese of Monemvasia and Lacedaimonia recognized him as their patron saint when a church in Sparta was dedicated to him. His life is commemorated yearly on November 26.

Antonakos’ history of Amykles has captured the times, spirit and resiliency of these extraordinary people. The more I read, the more I want to learn! I have been counseled by a wise teacher that we must first know the history before we can understanding our ancestors. And, I might add, ourselves.


In 1982, Sarantos P. Antonakos published Amykles, a history book about his native village. Amykles is one of my ancestral villages, too–the birthplace of my 3rd great grandfather, Panagiotis Zarafonitis. I am beyond excited to have found this book in the Central Library of Sparta, and I copied some of the pages relevant to my family. With sincere thanks to Giannis Michalakakos for his translations and history lessons, I am learning much about this beautiful village and the lives of my ancestors. 

To read part one about the village of Sklavochori, click here.
To read part two about Machmoutbei, click here.
To read part three about the Battle of Machmoutbei, click here.

[1] Runciman, Steven. The Lost Capital of Byzantium: The History of Mistra and the Peloponnese. 2009: Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, pp. 102-103.
[2] My deepest appreciation to Giannis Michalakakos for his translations.
[3] Andonakos’ perspective on this issue:  there was a Jewish presence in Mystras because the city was a commercial center. When St. Nikon began proselyting, this caused both religious and political tensions between the Jews and the Orthodox church. When sickness and starvation permeated Sparta, St. Nikon attributed that to the Jews, using this opportunity to ban them from Sparta and send them to Anavryti and Tripi.



Amykles Book. Excerpt: The Battle of Machmoutbei

This is a continuation of the previous post about Machmoutbei. These posts are excerpts from the book, Amykles, by Sarantos P. Antonakos, with translations by Giannis Michalakakos

Thirty ordinary men successfully resisting the Egyptian army of Ibrahim Pasha? This is the stuff of action movies! And this story is true. During the Revolution of 1821 the people of Sklavochori, with support from other Laconians and Maniots, wrote a heroic but not well-known page in the history of the Revolution of 1821.

After the catastrophe of Missolonghi, Ibrahim Pasha returned to the southern Peloponnese. Humiliated after three defeats by the Maniots, Ibrahim brought in Egyptian army reinforcements and began a full assault in Laconia.

Ibrahim Pasha; Wikipedia

In 1826, his army of 25,000 men reached Mystras. He found the city abandoned as its citizens had fled, hiding in the caves and crevices of the Taygetos mountains. After looting Mystras, the army spread throughout the Evrotas valley where it did not leave “one rock upon a rock.” Ibrahim devastated the region and burned everything in his path. The villages of Sklavahori, Agios Ioannis, Magoula, Parori and Anogia faced, for the first time, sheer catastrophe.

General Panagiotis Giatrakos and his Laconian captains led their forces to battle in the villages of Perivolia, Georgitsi and other areas. But the most serious resistance against the Egyptian armies was made in the tower of Machmoutbei. Thirty people–volunteers from the region led by a priest, Panagiotis Roussos, and Captain Giannakis Theofilakos–entered the tower.They were well prepared with stores of food and ammunition, and a fierce determination to repel the Egyptian forces.

Antonakos writes:
When the first soldiers of Ibrahim Pasha reached the tower, the Greeks started a rain of fire. Even though the Egyptians used stronger aggressive attacks against the tower, Papa Roussos, the priest, showed heroic resistance and pinned them with great damages. Very dangerous for the people inside the tower was the artillery of the Egyptians, which was posted in the cliffs near the tower and was very successful against the building.

A critical moment for the Greeks was the death of their leader. On the 16th day of the siege, Papa Roussos tried to fix an opening in the tower at midnight, using a candle. At that moment, an Arab sniper hit him with success and killed him. Despite this  loss, the defenders of the tower continued their resistance. After 16 days, Ibrahim saw that even his artillery was not effective against the tower. He ordered his mechanics to dig ditches in order to place explosives and blow up the tower. The defenders of the tower understood what was happening, and in order to be safe, they decided to make a heroic exodus [exit the tower]. When darkness fell around 10:00 on Day 17, they opened the doors and went down to the yard of the tower. There, they stayed until midnight. Under the leadership of Dimitris Karagkioules, a heroic fighter with seven wounds from previous battles, they took only their swords and with the help of the darkness and cover from the tower walls, they escaped. When they met Arab patrols, Karagkoulies, who knew the Arabic language, tricked them into thinking the men were Ibrahim’s soldiers.  

In this way–with no casualties–they escaped from the tower. When they reached Socha Kalyvia, they shot the last patrol of the Egyptians and celebrated their freedom. Then, they moved to the mountain Taygetos and went to the camp of Panagiotis Giatrakos. Of the 30 men who were in the tower of Machmoutbei, two were missing. One was the leader, Pappa Roussos, who was shot while trying to close a gap in the wall, and the other was a man named Kokkinakis who had been seriously injured in the foot and could not follow the exodus.  

The morning after the Greeks exited the tower, the Egyptian soldiers were afraid to enter. When they did, they found that the only defender left was the injured Kokkinakis. They were disappointed that General Panagiotis Giatrakos was not there. Ibraham Pasha gave orders to demolish the biggest part of the tower. The marks of this destruction were obvious and the older people in the area still remember them.

The profound significance of this event is encapsulated by one sentence of the Certificate of Aristeia [an honorary award] given to Anastasoula, the daughter of Papa Roussos:  Through this siege, they [the defenders] bought time and the Christians of Lacedaimon were saved from captivity by the Arabs. 

Aristeia certificates, signed by the Giatrakos brothers (all of whom were Laconian captains) were also issued to Giannakis Theofilakos and Dimitris Karagkioules.

Unfortunately, I could not find a picture of the tower of Machmoutbei. However, this photo is representative of an Ottoman tower built in the Peloponnese; circa 1808, in Monemvasia.

Tower built by Ottomans, c. 1808; Monemvasia.; sent by Giannis Michalakakos.

After the Revolution, the Tower of Machmoutbei was taken over by the Giatrakos family, and eventually purchased by Sarantos Antonakos. The tower has now been demolished and its materials were used to surround the field of St. Paraskevi. During the demolition, pieces of ancient stones with architectural designs were found embedded in the walls. It is likely that these fragments were part of the ancient sanctuary of Amykles, a site currently under archaeological excavation (see this website).  For two hundred years, the Tower of Machmoutbei had stood as a mighty fortress and a symbol of strength through many battles and sieges, including those of World War II.

This is a photo of a well built in the 1800’s in Machmoutbei. It stands outside the house of Savva Antonakos (Savvenas).

Translation: Well of Machmout Bey, outside the house of Savva Antonakou (Savvelas). Source: Amykles, Yesterday and Today, published 2016 by the Women’s Syllogos of Amykles

This story of the Battle of Machmoutbei touched me deeply. It is not just general history–it is my history, as my Zarafonitis family lived there during this time. There are innumerable stories of heroism and fortitude that will never be found in formal history texts. I am grateful for authors such as Antonakos whose works bring perpetuity to their villages, and edify descendants with both knowledge and pride.

The last post in this series will explore the ministry of St. Nikon in Amykles and the villages around Sparta.  
To read part one about the village of Sklavochori, click here.
To read part two about Machmoutbei, click here.

In 1982, Sarantos P. Antonakos published Amykles, a history book about his native village. Amykles is one of my ancestral villages, too–the birthplace of my 3rd great grandfather, Panagiotis Zarafonitis. I am beyond excited to have found this book in the Central Library of Sparta, and I copied some of the pages relevant to my family. With sincere thanks to Giannis Michalakakos for his translations and history lessons, I am learning much about this beautiful village and the lives of my ancestors. This is the third  post with excerpts from the book.

Amykles Book, Excerpt: Machmoutbei

In 1982, Sarantos P. Antonakos published Amykles, a history book about his native village. Amykles is one of my ancestral villages, too–the birthplace of my 3rd great grandfather, Panagiotis Zarafonitis. I am beyond excited to have found this book in the Central Library of Sparta, and I copied some of the pages relevant to my family. With sincere thanks to Giannis Michalakakos for his translations and history lessons, I am learning much about this beautiful village and the lives of my ancestors. This is the second post with excerpts from the book.

Machmoutbei–what an odd-sounding name! My curiosity was further piqued when this word was found in conjunction with the village of Sklavachori/Amykles during the Ottoman occupation. A bey is the Turkish word for a chieftan, who oversees a certain area of land in a province under Ottoman rule. Thus, Machmout was a Bey who governed an area of Sklavachori/Amykles.

Machmout Bey was one of the richest Ottoman officials who ruled in the Peloponnese. He had married the daughter of a well-known Turkish patriot, also named Machmout Bey, who lived in Corinth and owned land throughout Laconia and Arcadia. From this marriage, our Machmout received a dowry of land in the fertile plains which were watered by the springs of Agios Ioannis, and was located in the area of Sklavachori. Machmout built a tower in this plain, and the area around it became known as Machmoutbei.

In contrast to other beys, Machmout was one of the few who was “beloved” by the Greeks under his dominion. He was esteemed for his charitable behavior towards the native population. His peaceful demeanor and tactful diplomacy enabled him to manage sensitive issues in the region and to maintain good relations with the Greek elders of the community.

One of these elders was Panagiotis Krevvatas, a well-known politician and elder of Mystras who later became a member of the National Council. Many times, Machmout Bey saved his life by protecting Krevvatas from both Turks and other Greeks. During one incident, Krevvatas had left Mystras for “commercial reasons” when in actuality, he had been targeted by Turks for his part in the Orlov Revolt and had fled the area to escape an assassination plot.  Machmout bey gave an order to give Krevvatas every honor and protect his life. Whenever Krevvatas was in the market or other public place, four Albanians mercenaries–two in front of him and two behind–served as his bodyguards.

Besides Krevvatas, Machmout Bey ordered that other Greek elders be protected,   particularly Giannakis Kyrousis and Sarantos Maltziniotis of Agios Ioannis. Kyrousis had married the daughter of Maltziniotis, and both were powerful families in the region. Maltziniotis was the only Greek who had erected a tower which still stands in Agios Ioannis.

Maltziniotis Tower, Agios Ioannis, Sparta. July 2014.

Of special fascination to me is that there is a relationship between my Papagiannakos ancestors and the Maltziniotis family, both of Agios Ioannis. Imagine my shock when I read the name Sarantos Maltziniotis in this book; suddenly, this history became very personal to me!

Why would Machmout Bey care about developing good relations with the native Greeks? A bey who rules in a hostile area is wise to cultivate rapport and build alliance with the region’s strongest families. These relations act as a hedge against conflicts and problems with the native population and may protect the bey against insurrection. Machmout tried to keep balance between the Ottoman Pasha and the local population.

Further information about the life and activities of Machmout Bey were not documented by Antonakos. Tradition states that Machmout was killed by other Turks during a celebration–something that is likely to be true because of his friendly relations with the Greeks. Upon his death, songs were written to honor him, and one that is especially well known is still sung by the elders of the area:

In the tower of Machmoutbei men drink and eat. They bey is killed; his horse is in mourning and his horseshoes are hitting the ground: wake up my master and wake up my bey they are asking for you and the other captains. Why do your arms and silver rifles have rust? [rough translation]

According to another tradition, the assassination of Machmout Bey was planned by the powerful Giatrakos family who were seeking the beautiful women of the Turkish officials.

To read the first post about the village of Sklavochori, click here.
The next post will discuss Machmoutbei and its tower during the Revolution.