28 August 2009

Why Byron could never ‘fill high the cup of Samian wine’

Samos remains unspoiled and a typical picture postcard Greek island ... and the El Greco taverna serves unique Samiot food (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Greece and Turkey are close to one another in the narrow Aegean waters that separate Samos and the Anatolian coastline, where the gap is only a mere kilometre. The nearest Greek island, Ikaria, is 15 km miles away, leaving Samos the most easterly of the Aegean islands and a natural continuation of the coastline of neighbouring Asia Minor. But, while the waters are narrow, the people have been separated by thousands of years of geological change and a political chasm that has narrowed only in recent years.

This area has been the interface between Europe and Asia since Xerxes and his Persian sea forces were ruined in the straits between Samos and Anatolia after the battles of Marathon and Plataea.

Staying in Kusadasi on the western Anatolian coast this week, I look out across to Samos from my balcony the first thing each morning, and each evening I watch the sun setting in the Aegean beside the island. And so, on Wednesday morning [26 August 2009], I took an early morning ferry across to Samos for my fourth visit to this Aegean island.

Samos is 475 sq km, has a coastline of 159 km, and a population of 40,000. There was no hint of the forest fires that devastated other parts of Greece until early this week, or of the heavy rain that has caused flooding in Thessaloniki. Water is abundant here, the hills are green with the trees that provide abundant crops of fruit and olives, and the wines of Samos are celebrated in literature throughout the world. It was this wine that came to mind when the poet Byron wrote:

In vain – in vain: strike other chords;
Fill high the cup of Samian wine!
Leave battles to the Turkish hordes,
And shed the blood of Scio’s vine!

But Samos has charms beyond Byron’s wine that have been discovered only in recent years by the package holiday industry, centuries after it had been a holiday destination for Anthony and Cleopatra.

The island of Pythagoras

The island was said to be the birthplace of Hera, who was worshipped in Samos not as the wife of Zeus but as the goddess of nature and fertility. Samos was also the birthplace of Pythagoras (580-500 BC), the ascetic philosopher who taught us that the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides of a right-angle triangle. It was the birthplace too of Epicurus, the philosopher who sought happiness as the chief human good through freedom from anxiety and fear, and of Callistratus, who produced the 24-letter Greek alphabet – the basis of all our modern European alphabets.

Samos was the home of early scientists and explorers, including Aristrachus, who, centuries before Galileo, taught that the world revolved on its own axis around the sun, and Kolaios, who was the first to sail safely to Egypt, to reach the Pillars of Hercules and to sail out into the Atlantic.

After the conflicts between the Byzantine Empire and the advancing Turks and after a series of devastating earthquakes, the entire population of Samos was evacuated to the neighbouring island Chios by the Genoese in the 15th century. For a hundred years, Samos remained isolated and deserted until 1562, when a Turkish admiral, Kilic Ali, invited the descendants of the original Samiots to return home.

In a rare decision for an Ottoman administrator, Turks were excluded from Kilic Ali’s initiative, and his re-colonisation of Samos attracted Greeks from all over the Sultan’s Empire. Along with the descendants of the original Samiots, the island also attracted Greeks from the neighbouring islands and from Asia Minor and the Peloponnese. Subsequent generations inherited a rich and varied heritage, reflected in the island’s folklore, folksongs, village names, and its unique Epiphany carols. The village of Pandrosos was known until recently as Arvanites, reflecting the Albanian ancestry of many of the villagers, while the village of Mytilini was settled by people from the island of Mytilini or Lesvos after an earthquake destroyed their homes.

Unique island crafts

The new settlers brought crafts no longer found in other parts of Greece. Potters in Mavratzaioi make the unique maskara bardak, a container with a series of holes on top; when liquid is poured in, some of the holes must be stopped with the fingers, but the liquid pours out on all sides if the wrong holes are closed. Another design, the dikia koupa, also known as the Pythagorean cup, has holes in the bottom and spills over if the liquid inside goes above a level marked on the side – making it impossible for Byron to fill high his cup of Samian wine. Today, Byron’s insights are often forgotten and the secrets of these vessels are now known only to a few, so that it may be a dying craft.

In the 18th century, Samos enjoyed a brief period of independence and Greek rule under the Laskaris family when the island was liberated by the Russians, but three years later in 1774 it was retaken by the Ottoman Turks. Kilic Ali’s enlightened settlement policies and the special privileges enjoyed by Samos from 1774 may have made the islanders more kindly disposed towards their Turkish overlords and neighbours.

However, the people of Samos joined the Greek War of Independence in the 1820s, and the island was part of the first modern independent Greek state for a few short years from 1828. Despite the objections of the Irish Philhellene, Sir Richard Church from Cork, the Great Powers forced the return of Samos to the Sultan in 1830.

The Lion Monument was erected in Pythagoras Square in Vathy in 1930 to mark the 100th anniversary of the uprising against the Turkish occupation of Samos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

During the third phase of Ottoman rule, Samos enjoyed a limited degree of autonomy for 80 years under Christian princes nominated in Constantinople and an elected parliament until the pro-Turkish Prince Kopasis was assassinated on 2 March 1912. The last Turks finally left Samos on 23 September 1912, and free elections were held a week later on 30 September. The new assembly met in the Church of Saint Spyridon in Vathy, the island declared independence on 11 November 1912, and reunion with Greece was confirmed on 2 March 1913, a year after Prince Kopasis was killed. A copy of the declaration of enosis still hangs on a pillar in the Church.

Inside a church in Vathy ... the events in 1912-1913 saved the people of Samos from the atrocities suffered by their neighbours in Smyrna and Asia Minor a decade later (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

That turn of events probably saved Samos from “ethnic cleansing” during the Greek-Turkish conflicts that erupted within a decade. With the deportations and exchanges of Greek and Turkish minorities in 1922 and 1923, refugees from Smyrna and other parts of Asia Minor settled on Samos, bringing new skills and crafts.

During World War II, the island was occupied by the Italians and later by the Germans. Samos was not saved from the economic blight that hit Greece after World War II and the Greek Civil War, and wholesale emigration saw the population of many villages dwindle to the point of disappearance within a generation.

Economic revival

Now the mountain villages are prospering again, and modern tourism has brought a welcome economic revival. Samos is no longer “the forgotten island,” but the people here have not forgotten their myths and ancient history, which still play key roles in the islanders’ self-consciousness and their perception of their island’s unique attractions.

Over half a century ago, Tigani – the island capital under Polykrates – changed its name to Pythagoreio to mark the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the world’s first school of philosophy by Pythagoras. The old name meant “frying pan” – a reference to the summer heat in the town; but today’s Pythagoreio is a picturesque fishing harbour with elegant, restored traditional houses and mansions and the island’s only marina.

The shape of the statue of Pythagoras by Nikolaos Ikaris in Pythagoreio is a reminder of the mathematical and philosophical genius of Samos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Out at the edge of the pier in Pythagoreio, the shape of the 1989 statue of Pythagoras by Nikolaos Ikaris is a reminder of the mathematical and philosophical genius of the island, who lived on Samos during the reign of Polykrates. Pythagoras, who was an ethical vegetarian, dissented from the tyrannical ways of Polykrates, and he was accused of atheism. But Pythagoreans believed in a superior divinity, the One, above all others, and it was Pythagoras who gave the word “cosmos” to the universe on the basis of his concepts of order and harmony which he believed govern all things.

The name of Polykrates is recalled in the charming seafront cafés of Pythagoreio (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

During the reign of Polykrates, Samos was at the height of its prosperity, with a lively artistic and cultural life. Polykrates commissioned the tunnel built by Eupalinus, a unique engineering achievement often described as the “eighth wonder” of the ancient world. The tunnel took ten years to build and is 1,350 meters long, and the tunnel builders, who started at opposite ends, met each other with a degree of accuracy that defies even modern engineering. Polykrates also built the Temple of Hera, described by Herodotus as “the largest and the richest of all the temples in Greece.” However, his reign came to an end when Oroites of Magnesia captured Polykrates and crucified him on a wooden cross in 522 B.C.

Early Christian visitors

In the fifth century BC, the power of Samos rivalled that of Athens, but it was often caught between the warring armies of Athens and Persia as it tried to maintain its independence and a floundering democracy. Later, Samiots would claim, the island was visited by both Christ and by Saint John the Divine, who spent his exile on neighbouring Patmos. Kantili on Mount Kerkis at the western end of the island takes its name (“Candle”) from the legend that John the Divine passed this way on his way to the Seven Churches of Asia, and that since then a sweet light has been seen from Kantitli at night, guiding sailors and fishermen off the coast.

Certainly Saint John’s concept of the cosmos can be traced to the original thinking of Pythagoras. But legends aside, we can be sure Samos was visited by the Apostle Paul around 58 AD. Ever since, the island has had a rich heritage of churches, monasteries and convents. Four years after the island was resettled by Greeks in the 16th century, two monks, Iocovos and Makarios, built the Monastery of the Panayia of Vrontiani, or Our Lady of Thunder, the oldest monastery on the island, 3 km from the village of Vourliotes. The Monastery of Our Lady of Spiliani was built over the cave that was once the home of the Samian sibyl Photo, while pillars from the classical city of Miletus in Anatolia were used to build Aghia Zoni, which has outstanding wall paintings.

The former convent still dominates the harbour front in Vathy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The monastery of Aghios Ioannis (Saint John) the Almoner, near the village of Paliohori, is an unusual ecclesiastical oddity, coming under the jurisdiction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

On Wednesday afternoon, above the port of Vathy, I visited the Church of Saint Theodoros in the quieter backstreets of Vathy. This is an unusual church, with both a double nave and a double iconostasis. But the pulpit only faces towards one half the church, and while each nave has a dome, only one is illustrated with the image of Christ Pantokrator surrounded by the 12 Disciples.

But perhaps the island’s most unusual monastic and religious community was to be found among the tiny minority of Roman Catholics. The nuns in this community founded an old people’s home, which is still flourishing. The nuns have abandoned their former convent, although the old building still dominates the harbour in Vathy, as it has since the Palace of the Princes was levelled and replaced by the Hotel Xenia.

A narrow laneway beside the convent leads to the island’s only Roman Catholic church, almost hidden and open only occasionally to serve the members of a dwindling minority and some tourists. Few of these tourists probably ponder Pythagoras and John the Divine or their insights on the wonders of the cosmos as they try to “fill high the cup of Samian wine” and watch it spill over the sides of the Pythagorean cup.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin

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