Remember: May 29, 1453

Tonight my cousin, Panorea, invited me to attend a special program to remember the Fall of Constantinople on May 29, 1453 and the subsequent end of the Byzantine Empire. This event, 565 years ago, remains in the hearts and psyche of the Greek people and is marked with commemorative events throughout the country.

The music and messages paid tribute to the leader of the Byzantine Army, Konstandinos Palaiologos, and his heroic efforts to repel the Ottoman forces led by Sultan Mehmed II and to save their beloved Agia Sophia Cathedral–the center of Orthodoxy.

The music was offered by a choir of children and adults who sang with gusto and passion and by a Byzantine choir. The haunting resonance of the Byzantine chanting about this episode was evocative of the dirges of the Mani.

The spoken narrative related the historic events surrounding the capture of “The City.” The poignancy and sadness surrounding this siege is almost as painful to Greeks today as it was then.

Archbishop Efstathios of the Holy Mitropolis of Sparta and Monemvasia gave closing remarks. He bestowed the love and grace of God upon his people.

History is woven into the heart and soul of this land and people. It is something that may be understood intellectually, but must be experienced personally, to be truly comprehended.


Magical Mani

Today is a national religious holiday in Greece known as Holy Spirit Monday which marks the end of the Easter cycle. Except for cafes and tavernas, all businesses are closed. Since I could not work, I drove to Nyfi in the Mani peninsula to visit my friend Giannis and his parents.

To Mani

I always, always love being in Mani. Although the land has been occupied (and has remained unconquered) for centuries, it appears to be wild and untamed. It speaks of  strength, independence, determination, and fortitude—characteristics of the people who have made it their home. The –akos suffixes of my ancestors’ names are indicative of Maniate origins. Whenever I set foot in Mani, my soul senses roots. I wish I could trace my ancestors back to here, but I can’t get out of Sparta!

Rugged Mani

Narrow roads twist in hairpin turns around towering mountains. Hundreds of feet below, the aquamarine sea shimmers. Around each corner appears an unexpected and often spectacular view.

Twists and turns, and gorgeous views

These zigzag roads are evocative of the twists and turns of life—sometimes the road veers into a corner where no sunlight is visible, and you wonder how long you must remain in darkness. Suddenly, you bank a curve and the brilliance of the sun reflecting on the sea sends your spirit soaring. Always, the light slices through the darkness, and hope and joy return. Here, the ying and yang of nature coexist perfectly.

Into the light

Sometimes the unexpected is a “door to nowhere.” Although this is the entry to a field, the land hugs the side of a mountain and counters any definition of farmland.

The door to nowhere

Maniate homes are built of stone and are as rugged as their people. These structures can withstand any tempest or force of nature.

House of stone

Churches everywhere! These small churches are built by families to commemorate a saint who is special to the family, or to give thanks to God. Giannis told me that this church was erected on the spot where two young people fell off the cliff–and survived!

Thanks to God for saving two children

Mani is known for its towers–fortresses built by families long ago. These edifices stand as sentinels against any threat by invading forces or pirates. They signify security and strength. They are unlike any other buildings in Greece.

Abandoned and partially destroyed tower

Nyfi, home of towers and the Michalakakos family

Before I returned to Sparta, Giannis had me drive a tiny narrow road down a mountainside to the “port” of Alipa. Actually, it is a cove, but it is called a port because this is where ships from Gytheio brought goods to this area until 1980, when a road was built connecting the two towns. Descending the road, there is no indication of life anywhere. Then the magic of Mani happens–suddenly, crystal water and brilliant sunshine appear. You have arrived in a special place of light and beauty. A small taverna anchors the end of the road. One church sits on the left, and another on the right, flanking the “port” and a few houses.

Secluded port of Alipa

The serenity of the environment lured me into a state of non-activity. I was perfectly content to sit, gaze and chat–and this is certainly not me!

Guest house in Alipa

As difficult as it is to leave Mani, it will always be here–unspoiled in all its glory–when I return.

Mystras–Old and New

Mystras holds a special place in my heart–it is the village of my maternal grandmother’s family, Eftaxias. It is a Byzantine city which holds a long and glorious place in the history of Greece. Mystras was founded in the 13th century after the Crusades and conquest of Constantinople. The Frank prince, Villehardouin, ruled the Peloponnese and built a mighty and forbidding stone fortress at the top of the mountain Mytzithras (Mystras).

The mighty Mystras fortress rules the Taygetos mountains and overlooks the valley of Sparta

However, after his capture in battle by Byzantine emperor Paleologos, Villehardouin exchanged the castles of Monemvasia and Mystras for his freedom. Mystras became an important military center, and from the mid-1300’s to the mid-1400’s it served as the capital of the Morea (now Peloponnese).

With continuous threats of foreign invaders, people sought security and began building homes within the stone walls of Mystras. The first wall was named Chora and the second one Kato Chora. The cathedral of Sparta was also taken to Mystras.1

The Cathedral of Mystras

Through subsequent years until 1825, Mystras was subjected to invasions by Franks, Slavs, Turks and Albanians. Albanian Turks massacred the population and destroyed the site in 1825. After the War of Independence in 1831, King Otto established the new city of Sparta and people began to resettle there. As late as the 1950’s, a few families remained in Mystras until the government annexed the land.

Today, historic Mystras is a focal point for visitors who relish the opportunity to explore antiquity.

But Mystras is also a story of the new generation. Tomorrow, the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of the U.S. will dedicate the newly completed and palatial Mystras Grand Palace Resort and Spa. Government leaders and dignitaries will converge to celebrate this venue which will draw visitors world-wide. Its majesty and decor perfectly complement the ancient edifices and exude a spirit of “new beginnings.”

Mystras Grand Resort and Spa

Estate grounds

Splendid at night, too!

As Greece recovers from its current economic crisis, entrepreneurs and visionaries will converge to combine the old with the new, building bridges from ancient to modern in this majestic land.

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One Day in Lesvos

This trip to Greece took an unexpected and delightful twist when my friend, Bill Burgi, asked if I would meet him in Mytilene. He had volunteered to review the genealogical records kept by the Greek Orthodox Mitropolis of Lesvos and the Town Hall of his mother’s village of Agiasos for potential preservation purposes. I was excited to have this opportunity, and invited my research colleague, Giannis Michalalakos, to join us.

My flight to Athens landed at 10:30 a.m. on Monday (the 21st) and at 8:30 that night, I returned to the airport with Giannis to head to Lesvos. One hour later, we were enthralled to be on this island. Even the darkness could not hide the beauty of the harbor.

The next morning, I awoke to a city of splendor.

My desire to explore was over ridden by our appointment with Archbishop Frantzi, a man whose eyes and demeanor radiated pure kindness. Despotebthe refugee situation on a continuing crisis level, he maintains a sense of compassionate responsibility to those who have lost everything. I felt that he was a man of his times, placed in this position by God to help those whose needs are overwhelming. He told us that he was leaving the following morning for Bosnia on a humanitarian trip. Bringing food, clothing, and various supplies, he will be working with others to see what can be done for the refugees in that country as well.

Bishop Frantzi has been concerned about the state of the records in the metropolis, and one of his clerks had begun to scan pages of the most recent books. These books are big, heavy, and very difficult to position on a flatbed scanner. We hope to be able to help the Bishop preserve his precious documents.

We then headed to Agiasos, a lovely village nestled in the mountains an hour from Mytilene. We drove through terraces of olive trees–some extremely old and others newly planted. We later learned that Mytilene’s olive oil ranks among the best in Greece.

In Agiasos, we had lunch and walked the streets of Bill’s mother’s family. The town is a mix of old and new, as is evident throughout Greece. Families whose ancestors left the village are now returning to restore and renovate their family, or non-familial, homes. It is one indicator of the start of a new beginning for Greece.

We visited the Dimarheion, and spoke with the clerks about records preservation. Their enthusiasm was so encouraging, and we could see how desperately this work was needed.

Although it can be discouraging to see the state of these records, it is certainly encouraging to see that people are now realizing the importance of archival preservation.

It was late afternoon, yet we decided to drive to Mythmna, a village for its ambience, nightlife, and beautiful views of the sea. Each part of Greece has its own unique beauty. Although we are drawn to our ancestral village, it is delightful to explore and experience other areas.

I hope that keepers of the records throughout this beautiful and ancient land will soon realize that there are resources readily available to assist them in preserving the documents of their history and their people. It is a daunting task, but one that must be undertaken–and soon.

Off to Sparta!

I am on my way to Sparta, Greece where I will spend two months at the Greek Orthodox Mitropolis of Sparta, preserving and digitizing old and fragile marriage records. These documents range from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s. I have researched in the index boooks for these marriages in previous years. The books are abbreviated compilations of documents sent to the Bishop by the priests of all the villages around Sparta.

The index books list the marriage license date, the name of the bride and the groom, the church where the wedding was to take place, the best man, and the name of the priest. The marriage documentation which I will be preserving this summer has much more information. There are letters from the priest in the village requesting permission from the bishop for the couple to marry, a letter from the bishop back to the priest granting that permission, and often other documents. I have seen dowry contracts, male registers, and other records in these collections.

Although the index books are marvelous to view, the marriage documentation will provide much more information of great value to researchers.

I am very grateful that my colleague, Gregory Kontos, has diligently sought permission from the bishop to get these records preserved. Bishop Efstathios has given his consent and his blessing to this project. Years ago, he himself organized these documents, carefully sorting them into boxes categorized by year. He is pleased that his work will be preserved. He is a meticulous archivist and is proud of his record collections.

I will post regularly about this trip, my work and experiences. It is my hope that others who are researching in Greece will be encouraged in knowing that things are happening in Greece to bring records out of the Archives and churches and onto the internet for the benefit of those who are seeking to learn about their family.

This is a selfie taken at Dulles Airport outside Washington DC where my journey begins. Thank you for being with me on this adventure!