Seeking a Byzantine rebirth

All Greece is absorbing and rewarding. There is hardly a rock or stream without a battle or a myth, a miracle or a peasant anecdote or a superstition; and talk and incident, nearly all of it odd or memorable, thicken round the traveller’s path at every step.

Patrick Leigh Fermor, Mani, x

There is more to the Peloponnese than retracing the footsteps of Homeric heroes, as a visit to Nafplion reveals. Today, the lower town spreads beside the sea, while Byzantine walls still defend the upper town.

Like many archaeologists, I find a fenced-off excavation too inviting not to peep at what has been found. I am addicted to old trenches with their wheelbarrow plank-runs left in place. Furtively trying to make sense of what has been found is irresistible. Besides, the excavated past belongs to all of us, I tell myself, as I peer down from outside the trench, taking care for deep holes. The opportunity to work out the puzzle of walls and stratigraphy is far more appealing than doing any ordinary puzzle. So, five Easters ago, I snuck onto the saddle-backed promontory that was the first Nafplion, perched on the coast of the Greek Peloponnese. I sketched and mused and kept a sharp eye out for some official or other to spy me, and deeply intrigued I left to ponder what I had seen. Five years on, this excavation in the unofficial capital of the Peloponnese still nagged away at me. What exactly was there? Did I really see, sketch, and photograph what lingers in my memory, or have I let my imagination run riot?

On New Year’s Day 2018, a cyclone bomb – bringing snow and mayhem – is hitting the United States as I return to the Peloponnese to ramble around its sites. Greek friends say it will be cold here too, and the tavernas will be shut. American and British friends genially curse me, such is their envy. The high mountains of distant Arcadia are tipped with snow, but the skies are a limpid blue and cloudless. Carpets of yellow flowers are shaping to bloom under the endless acres of orange groves in the Argolid. With the Christmas holidays over, tourists are scarce. It is a glorious time to be visiting archaeological sites in Greece, and my mind inevitably turns to the dig on the high promontory above the busy little planned port of Venetian-Ottoman Nafplion.

Mycenae’s famous Lion Gate.

To my surprise, the dig is no longer off limits. Notwithstanding Greece’s unending austerity measures, funds have been found to open ‘my’ dig to the public. Thus began a week of touring this sublime region, armed with New Year’s optimism for Greece and its archaeology.

Return to Nafplion

Nafplion was Greece’s first capital, its government housed in the town hall that overlooks the Venetian piazza, a stone’s throw from the seafront. The town, 5km from the great Mycenaean palacefortress of Tiryns and 25km from Mycenae, has origins in the Bronze Age. The high saddle-backed hill above, now completely empty and covered in part by an immense thicket of prickly pears, was used by Bronze Age settlers and their Hellenistic descendants to control the great arcing bay that reaches north to Argos with its remains of a Roman port. Not surprisingly, Nafplion’s hill was commandeered for the first town here in Middle Byzantine times. When exactly was this? That was the question I was furtively trying to answer when I sneaked up five years ago. Today, all is clear: neat new site-panels with good graphics accompanying the conserved excavations describe cogently what had long intrigued me.

The first Byzantine town was founded around AD 1000, and was a thriving port by the time Anna Comnena wrote her Alexiad. Where the hill dips at its eastern end, a narrow entrance gate exists within a closure wall reinforced with three high bastioned towers. One bastioned tower still stands tall, constructed of rubble and with faux lancet windows. The real hallmark of this first Byzantine town is to be found at the base of these towers: footings made from signature large blocks taken from earlier, Hellenistic buildings. No tile is present in their concrete bonding. I first spotted this building fashion in the new 11th-century town at Butrint some years ago, and here it was again.

The 14th-century frescoes in the Peribleptus monastery at Mistra offer a rare and remarkable glimpse of late Byzantine art.

No less importantly, the earliest Byzantine buildings in the excavation trenches that stuck in my memory have thrown up an urban insula. Here, the first town dwellings were surmounted on similar reused orthostats. The seemingly anonymous orthostats run alongside a little paved street – Nafplion’s first – next to which are the foundations of the church of St Theodorus of Kithira. Look carefully: the three-aisled church and associated houses are all confected from small rubble and thin tile – that is, in another, more-resilient construction style, belonging to the later 11th or 12th centuries.

My fetishism for this arcane world of orthostats has a reason. They belong to a moment when the Byzantine state created major fortifications and streets here (and at Butrint). These are indices of planning, marking a key moment after five centuries when town-life – and with it Mediterranean commerce – returned to the Peloponnese (and, indeed, to Greece).

The Hellenistic and Roman theatre at Epidaurus has excellent acoustics. It was here that the celebrated opera singer Maria Callas enchanted Aristotle Onassis in 1957.

Nafplion, of course, sits in the midst of the cradle of Western civilisation, making this Dark Age story all the more perplexing. Motor to Mycenae close by and take in the density of urban-like dwellings around the great terraced palace (dating to 1300 BC) with its Homeric view of the Argolid, or look at the wealth of traded objects found in the accompanying excavations, now in the fine museum. Then bear in mind Nafplion’s modest post- Roman renewal along with Hellenistic and Roman Epidaurus, the immense Asclepian sanctuary 30km to the east. This sprawling centre possessed its own port at nearby Paleà Epidaurus, terraced into a coastal promontory – a magical site.

A port in a storm

Satisfied with having made sense of Nafplion’s intriguing archaeology, I headed over the mountain passes, along new sweeping roads, by way of Sparta with its avenues of orange trees, then glorious Mistra, the Frankish and Byzantine capital of the Peloponnese – perfect for anyone with a passion for measuring steps – and on to Monemvasia. Monemvasia is a Nafplion-size rock, but joined only by a causeway to the Aegean coast. On arriving, a fierce January squall covered the great Byzantine, medieval, and Ottoman port with crepuscular sheets of rain, followed by swirling mist. Its passage was swift and heavenly skies followed, soon bringing out redstarts and finches.

Monemvasia: a great outcrop rising from the Aegean, which is only connected to the mainland by a causeway.

The lower city of Monemvasia is today a thriving red-roofed town – a miniature Dubrovnik – its lower fortifications punctured by a narrow Venetian gate. Precious rainwater gushed down the network of narrow and steep cobbled streets to fill invisible cisterns throughout the tight townscape. Apart from cafes and little tourist shops, there is a new museum in Elkomenou Square in a refurbished Ottoman mosque. While the maniacal storm lashed the exposed rock, this refuge was a treat. It contains a good selection of Byzantine, Frankish, and Ottoman decorated glazed wares, besides Ottoman clay pipes. Of the church sculpture, pride of place goes to the decorated marble iconostasis from an unknown excavated 11th-century church in the lower town.

This is an extract from the full article in featured in issue 88 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.