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Messenian Life: Recent & Distant

Messenia, Kalamata & EnvironsMessenian Life: Recent & Distant

Times gone by become accessible via Kalamata’s three museums.

The Benaki Archaeological Museum, as it used to be known, has had a chequered history. Until very recently, it was housed in an eighteenth-century Venetian-style mansion, which once belonged to the distinguished and wealthy Benaki family, founders also of the famous eponymous museum in Athens. Last month the Kalamata collection moved into beautifully renovated premises almost next door to its former home. (Benaki and Aghiou Ioannou streets, Kalamata 241.00. Tel: 27210 262209. Email: Ihepka@culture.gr. Note that it is now called the Archaeological Museum of Messenia. Like many museums in Greece it is closed on Mondays and hours are curtailed in the winter: 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Summer: 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.)

As a result of the disastrous earthquake of 1986, during which 20 percent of Kalamata’s buildings were wrecked in less than ten seconds, the museum collection, most of it mercifully undamaged, was carefully wrapped up and taken to Athens for safekeeping. It came back eventually, to the aforementioned mansion. But by 1998, other plans were afoot: the covered market, part of Kalamata’s life since 1929, had been badly damaged in the earthquake, but in 1998 its future was decided, and it has now begun its second life as home to the Benaki collection.

The Archaeological Museum of Messenia

The museum always had a fair claim to be one of the great small museums of the world and now that claim is strengthened, for the new design makes a tour of the museum such an easy, culture-consumer-friendly experience. As do the prices: 2/1 euros, depending on age and citizenship: at such rates you can visit several times during your stay, and so avoid the dread museum fatigue. For this writer, such fatigue sets in at about the hour mark. So the possibility of several visits is a welcome thought.

The former covered market has been beautifully renovated and designed, so that the collection is shown to great advantage. A mixture of natural and artificial light and a flow of movement within the area adds to the pleasure, while computer technology provides a plethora of information: an Apple screen, for example, shows Kalamata at the time of the earthquake, and also gives a summary of events since ancient history; film about landscape and historic churches will keep the average visitor with a lot to do entranced for possibly far too long. Time-lines show the development of the area from prehistoric times to the Byzantine era: one grave omission, however, is that of a simple and clear map: it is hard for the neophyte to grasp the facts of geographical divisions or the location of the many archaeological sites.

There are four divisions with the prefecture of Messenia: Kalamata, Messene, Pylia and Trifylia, and each receive their fair share of attention within the museum. The layout of the building is designed to remind the visitor of the Pamisos River, which meets the sea at Bouka, a popular swimming spot near the market town of Messini. At 43km, the Pamissos is one of the longest in the Peloponnese, and was navigable for at least a certain distance by ships in ancient times. It also had great power: Pausanias wrote that children were healed in its springs, and a Doric temple dedicated to the river-god was situated very close to the village of Aghios Floros, which is 20km north of Kalamata, on the Athens Road. The god himself is depicted as a bull, the standard rendition for river deities, on the well-preserved stele that is on display in the museum; there are many exquisite votive offerings also exhibited.

Delicate grave steles and relief plaques showing funerary feasts are a feature from sites such Malthi and ancient Koroni. Greeks always honored their dead, so that no grave was left unmarked. Statue bases and inscriptions are also on display, along with a fine Roman mosaic floor, with its design of Dionysos, satyrs, and a panther in colors of warm brown, beige and lemon.

The finds from tholos tombs, in particular the hoards of bronze shields and weapons from the graves of warriors, are another fascinating feature of the collection. Ancient but everyday life also receives its due here: the metallurgy, the pottery, the weaving. But then there are the extras that made and still make life worth living. Exquisite jewelry, found in chamber-tombs, and made from gold, rock-crystal, carnelian and amethyst glimmer and glow from their cases and from thousands of years ago. An important place is given to a Neolithic female figurine, no more than two inches high. Nude and seated, this remarkable piece was made from a sandy-colored marble, and was probably worn as a pendant.

In this charming building with its meticulous planning and care, the visitor is able to imagine long-ago life and the shared pattern of settlement, which emphasized agriculture, trade, stock-breeding and cottage industries, and will also understand once more the way in which succeeding generations seek and preserve memory. Aphorisms placed at intervals along the walls are also to be pondered: The adventure of excavation does not end in the soil. Investigation is ownership and each excavation, introspection.

The visitor can own a little of Messenian life after even a short time in the museum, and can also practice the noble art of introspection for a long time afterwards.

The exhibition is organized according to themes, and on the well-proportioned ground floor, its elegant floor tiled in a traditional design, are artefacts connected with agricultural life, dating from a time when most domestic establishments were almost self-sufficient. Here are the huge pottery urns used for storing oil and wine, a wine press, the equipment needed for bread-making, a variety of handmade tools and the implements used during the wheat harvest. Wall displays show enlarged photographs of agricultural life as it was lived in many local areas as recently as 50 years ago.

Spinning-wheel of yore

Rural life depended on the existence of craftsmen and tradesmen, some of whom were permanent residents of most villages, such as the saddler and the blacksmith, who were often one and the same. Others, like the tinker, the chair-mender and the knife-sharpener, were itinerant: when I first lived in Messenia, their cries could be heard regularly along village streets. Many of their tools of trade are exhibited here.

That same rural life was a hard one, yet effort was still expended on making it a little easier, on bringing a measure of softness and beauty into it. So the ground-floor exhibition also contains spindles, a traditional spinning-wheel and loom, embroidery, examples of the silk for which Kalamata remains famous, and filament-fine crochet work. Of the upstairs rooms, the most enchanting is that given over to a collection of icons and other items connected with that most powerful force in Greek life, the Orthodox Church. The icons, personal ones for the home, were not painted by professionals, but by devout amateurs, and the resultant idiosyncrasies—such as the quirky expressions on the faces of the saints and the more than occasional error in proportion—give them a humanity that is often lacking in the more formal examples found in churches.

Opened a little over a year ago, the Military Museum is located in a new building at 10 Mitropolitou Meletiou, a street very close to the Kalamata Cathedral. Spread over two floors and well-organized, the displays give the visitor a historical overview, from the time of the Turkish Occupation to the Greek Army’s current involvement in Afghanistan. Be warned that the paintings depicting the protracted ordeal of the Turkish Occupation, which began in 1460 and lasted nearly 400 years, are quite strikingly lurid.

Revolutionary War hero

Two national servicemen give visitors a guided tour in Greek, but there are speakers of English available on request. As one would expect, the displays are of weapons, military dress, some of which is quite splendid, medals, letters, and the variations on the kit and caboodle that military men have never been able to do without. Military history enthusiasts will want to spend a whole morning here; half an hour might well be sufficient for other people.