15 June 2020

A lost opportunity to
visit Bari, another
part of ‘Magna Graeca’

The Basilica di San Nicola in Bari … said to hold the relics of Saint Nicholas or ‘Santa Claus’ (Photograph: Wikipedia)

Patrick Comerford

Another planned city break has been lost this week due to the lockdown introduced in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Ryanair is advertising that Italy is ‘open’ from 1 July, but I was supposed to fly to Bari this afternoon [15 June 2020], with plans to stay in Bari for a few days this week and to travel throughout Puglia.

I had bought and read the guide books, and my plans included visiting the churches, spending time by the olive-green seas, enjoying the food of southern Italy, and visiting Lecce, the ‘Florence of the South,’ and some of the other beautiful towns of Puglia. I also planned to go in search of Jewish Bari too, and there were plans too to visit Alberobello and to stay overnight later this week one of the Puglian trulli or roundhouses.

Puglia is the ‘heel of the boot’ on the map of the Italian peninsula, and Bari, on the Adriatic sea, is the main city of the region. It is the second most important economic centre of mainland southern Italy after Naples, or the third after Palermo, if the Sicily is included.

This is a university city and the city of Saint Nicholas, and Bari was known to the Greeks as Βάριον and to the Latins as Barium. I was particularly interested in Bari because it was once part of Magna Graeca and the Greek-speaking world in classical times. It remained part of the Byzantine Empire until the Saracen invasions, and the church in Bari was a dependency of the Patriarch of Constantinople until the 10th century.

Greek people have been living in southern Italy for thousands of years, initially arriving in southern Italy in waves of migrations, from the Greek colonies of southern Italy and Sicily in the 8th century BC to Byzantine Greek migrations in the 15th century.

The Griko people (Γκρίκο), also known as Grecanici, are ethnic Greeks in Apulia and Calabria. They are believed to be descended from the Greek communities of Magna Graecia, although some scholars prefer to argue that they are descended from Greeks who arrived during the Byzantine period, or even as late as the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans.

Although most Greek people in southern Italy became entirely Italianised over the centuries, the Griko community preserved its Greek identity, heritage, language and distinct culture. However, exposure to mass media has progressively eroded their culture and language in recent decades.

The two distinctive Greek dialects, known as Katoitaliotika (‘Southern Italian’) and Grecanika, are mutually intelligible to some extent with Standard Modern Greek. The Griko language is classified as severely endangered, as the number of speakers has declined in recent decades. Today it is spoken by about 20,000, mainly elderly people.

The Italian-American singer Tony Bennett is descended from a Griko family. His father John Bendetto emigrated from the Griko town of Podargoni to the US, and Tony Bennett was born Anthony Dominick Benedetto in New York in 1926.

Before the East-West Schism, the Grikos were Catholics who adhered to the Byzantine Rite. Greeks from southern Italy in the Church included Pope John VII, Pope Zachary and Antipope John XVI. Today, most Griko people are Catholics.

Bari’s most famous saint, of course, is Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas of Myra, also known as Saint Nicholas of Bari. Early traditions say Saint Nicholas attended the First Council of Nicaea in 325, an legend says struck the heretic Arius across the face.

Saint Nicholas was first buried on the island of Gemile or ‘Saint Nicholas island,’ near present-day Fethiye. His body was later moved to Myra (present-day Demre), but when the city was captured by the Seljuk Turks in 1087, a group of merchants from Bari removed his body from the church and took it to Bari, where it is now enshrined in the Basilica di San Nicola.

With the cancellation of this week’s flights, I suppose I shall have to wait until Christmas before I see Saint Nicholas of Bari again.

Saint Nicholas Church on Gemile Island … was this is true burial place of Saint Nicholas of Bari? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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