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A Dip into Messenia’s History

A Dip into Messenia’s History

Kazantzakis also gave it as his opinion that “the face of Greece is a palimpsest bearing 12 successive inscriptions: Contemporary; the period of 1821; the Turkish yoke; the Frankish sway; the Byzantine; the Roman; the Hellenistic epoch; the Classic; the Dorian middle ages; the Mycenaean; the Aegean; and the Stone Age.” All these layers may be lifted and sifted in Messenia: Neolithic settlements here date back to 7000 BC.

The first inhabitants of the area are thought to have been the Pelasgians and the Leleges, tribes that pre-dated the arrival of the Greeks. The name Messenia itself is taken from Messene, consort of the region’s first king, the mythical Polykaon. Invasions and immigrations, and surgings and fadings of power too numerous to mention mark the region’s ancient history, which is indeed so lost in time and so remote as sometimes to defy the imagination. Messenia is fairly littered with Mycenaean tholos tombs, for example, the earliest of which date from 1600 BC, while King Nestor’s fleet set out from sandy Pylos for Troy round about 1191 BC. There are villages along the Athens road, only about 12km from Kalamata, which are mentioned in Homer.

Laconian sherds 5th-4th Mill. B.C.

Messenia’s history finally begins to take on shape for dwellers in the post-modern era in the 8th century BC, when the neighboring Spartans, who had a surplus population problem, cast covetous eyes on the fertile, well-watered Messenian plains. Thus began four centuries of war, Spartan domination, and exile for the locals, who were really only secure and settled again when the Theban general, Epameinondas, victorious over the Spartans in the battle of Mantineia, in 369 BC, established the new settlement of Messene near Mt. Ithome, which is located very close to the modern village of Mavromati, about 40km from Kalamata.

The next of Kazantzakis’s “inscriptions” are evident in the ruins and the buildings left behind at various stages: the excavations at Ancient Messene show what a thriving and bustling settlement it must have been, while successive invaders have left traces everywhere else: Roman baths, Frankish and Venetian castles, and Byzantine churches which became mosques and then were changed back to churches after 1821.