Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Traditional Greek Houses

Think of Greece and what images come to mind? The Acropolis, perhaps? Or white, cube-like houses dazzling in the sun against a backdrop of an azure sky on an island in the Aegean Sea? If you’re in Mykonos, Santorini or Paros in the Cyclades Islands, then it is likely that is what you will see, but visit many of the other islands or the mainland and the Peloponnese and you’ll find the traditional architecture to be very different.

You could be amongst the austere tower houses built by warring clans in the rugged Peloponnese; elegant neo-classical villas on Syros built by exiles from another island; fortified, walled villages on Chios that are almost exactly the same as 14th-century northern Italian settlements; solid mansions built by blockade-running sea-captains in Hydra and Spetses; mansions built by tobacco barons and fur-traders in the north; or houses built by Venetians or Turks anywhere from Crete in the south to Thessaloniki in the north.

To outsiders, Greece appears to have a strong, homogenous national identity, forged in part by the region’s ancient history and by its common language and Orthodox religion. But regional differences, created by geographical, historical and cultural factors are still in evidence. And these influences have produced an architectural heritage richer and more varied than one might suppose.

There are no postcard-pretty houses in the Mani region of the Peloponnese – except for more recent examples built primarily for the holiday trade. The Mani is the middle of the three “fingers” that protrude into the Mediterranean. Hemmed in by mountains to the north and the sea on the three other sides, it was cut off from the rest of the country. Turkish rule and influence was minimal; instead it was dominated by clans who were almost constantly at war with one another in an effort to protect meagre resources, mainly grazing land.

They built towers into which families would retreat at the first sign of trouble. In the early days, from the-mid 15th to early 18th centuries, these were basic and functional, but they got more elaborate with time. Typical features include thick walls, small and few openings, stone canopies on corners or façades with holes in the bottom through which boiling oil could be poured down on enemies. Doors were not at ground level, but a few feet above, and accessed via three stone pegs projecting from the wall, so raiders couldn’t easily batter down the wooden doors and leap through. The living quarters were on the first and second floors, and accessed via a step ladder that could be pulled up and the hole closed with a trap door as further protection.

Defence was the major reason behind the construction of the fortified, walled villages of Chios, an island in the eastern Aegean. They are remarkably similar to those built in northern Italy in the 14th century for a very good reason – they were the work of the Genoese who invaded the island and took over its lucrative mastic gum industry

The “mastic villages” in the south of the island, Pyrgi, Mesta and Olympi in particular, were located well inland, out of the way of surprise attacks by pirates. The houses turn their backs on the outside world, crowded into narrow, labyrinthine alleys in roughly concentric circles and connected across these lanes by arches. These fulfilled two functions: they allowed villagers to move around above ground to confuse and evade raiders, and they helped prevent earthquake damage. They vary in width from a foot or so to being wide enough today to carry balconies, terraces, rooms, and, in one case, a stone oven. The maze of alleys was designed to confuse invaders – today, they still befuddle tourists!

You can spot patterns symbolising pomegranates carved into the lintels over many doors. It is a tradition in Greece to break open a pomegranate fruit on New Year’s Day and scatter the seeds in front of the house to bring happiness to the occupants for the coming 12 months. The houses of Pyrgi village, however, carry a far more elaborate outer decoration: many of them are covered in grey and white patterns formed by a technique called “xysta” or “sgraffito”. The wall is covered with a mixture of cement and lime, and while it is still wet a fork-like tool is used to scrape away parts of it to reveal the white surface below. Most of the patterns are geometric, especially repetitive lozenges, hourglass shapes, rhombi, zigzags, triangles, scallops, waves and simple six-leafed flowers, but others feature more elaborate vases of flowers or storks.

Researchers have found parallels between these patterns and those seen in the Anatolia region of Turkey. Many Greeks migrated from Anatolia to Chios in the mid-18th century, and they probably bought the idea and technique with them. Some researchers consider that the tassel-like patterns that often appear at the bottom of a section of xysta are reminiscent of the tassels on kilims, the carpets that Turks often hang on walls.

There’s a world of difference between these medieval houses of Chios and the neo-classical mansions of Syros, approximately 170 kilometres to the west, but there are in fact many connections between the two islands. The Syriot houses with their grand façades, marble pediments, balustraded balconies and ceilings painted with mythical scenes were commissioned by ship builders, owners and traders who fled Chios in 1822 following a massacre by Ottoman rulers.

Syros was a predominantly Catholic island (and even to this day has a sizeable Catholic minority), which gave it a measure of protection from the Turks, mainly from the French. The indigenous population, however, didn’t want to be overrun by the newcomers and refused them permission to build houses in the main town, Ermoupolis. The Chiots first built structures on wooden pontoons in the harbour, but thanks to their relative affluence and the influence of engineers and architects who came to Greece with the new King Otho, who hailed from Bavaria and was installed on the throne by the allies in 1833, they set about building new homes. This is also how Ermoupolis comes to have two cathedrals – one Orthodox and one Catholic.

Marble from neighbouring islands was used extensively as a building material – and some of the streets are even paved with it. The mansions were a manifestation of the prosperity of the owners, the confidence that came as the result of the Greek War of Independence, and an indication of Syros’s important role in the new country. It was Greece’s leading port and second largest city thanks to its position as a trading hub for the Eastern Mediterranean. All that changed following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1893, and Syros fell into a decline. The legacy remains today, however, and an upswing in Greek island life in recent years has seen many of these magnificent old buildings – including the magnificent Apollon Theatre – restored to former glories.

The Saronic Gulf islands of Hydra and Spetses, southwest of Athens, have also forged strong connections to sea-faring life. Mariners from these islands played a key role in running the British blockade during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century and in the Greek War of Independence. They too built imposing mansions, or arhontika, but theirs were more solid and less adorned than the Syros houses. They were often surrounded by large gardens populated with lemon trees, whose fruit helped prevent scurvy on board ship, and featured courtyards decorated with patterned pebble pavements. An eel was sometimes placed in the water tanks in these gardens, in order to keep the water clean; but only one eel – other wise they would multiply and overwhelm the tank!

It is thought that the long, narrow shape of early examples of the mansions was based on the dimensions of ships, so that the same timbers could be used. In winter families lived on the ground floor, but in summer they moved upstairs, usually occupying one large room where windows on all four sides could be flung open to catch the breeze. Bedding was stored in built-in cupboards and brought out at night. The most striking feature of arhontika is the paintwork around the windows. The outer frames and bars of the windows are painted in pale blue, dark blue, black or grey while the inner sections are a dazzling white.

The Maniot towers, the “mastichoria” of Chios, the Syrian neo-classical mansions and the Hydran and Spetsian “arhontika” are but just a few of the many different styles of houses – and which are still lived in – all over Greece. By all means, keep your mind’s-eye picture of those little whitewashed cubes, but just add a few new ones next time you visit the country!

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