An Excursion To Sparta And Maina
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
As we approached Sparta, the road descended to the banks of the Eurotas. Traces of the ancient walls which restrained the river still remain in places, but, in his shifting course, he has swept the most of them away, and spread his gravelly deposits freely over the bottoms enclosed between the spurs of the hills. Toward evening we saw, at a distance, the white houses of modern Sparta, and presently some indications of the ancient city. At first, the remains of terraces and ramparts, then the unmistakable Hellenic walls, and, as the superb plain of the Eurotas burst upon us, stretching, in garden-like beauty, to the foot of the abrupt hills, over which towered the sun-touched snows of Taygetus, we saw, close on our right, almost the only relic of the lost ages—the theater. Riding across the field of wheat, which extended all over the scene of the Spartan gymnastic exhibitions, we stood on the proscenium and contemplated these silent ruins, and the broad, beautiful landscape. It is one of the finest views in Greece—not so crowded with striking points, not so splendid in associations as that of Athens, but larger, grander, richer in coloring. Besides the theater, the only remains are some masses of Roman brickwork, and the massive substructions of a small temple which the natives call the tomb of Leonidas.
We spent the night in a comfortable house, which actually boasted of a floor, glass windows, and muslin curtains. On returning to the theater in the morning, we turned aside into a plowed field to inspect a sarcophagus which had just been discovered. It still lay in the pit where it was found, and was entire, with the exception of the lid. It was ten feet long by four broad, and was remarkable in having a division at one end, forming a smaller chamber. as if for the purpose of receiving the bones of a child. From the theater I made a sketch of the valley, with. the dazzling ridge of Taygetus in the rear, and Mistra, the medieval Sparta, hanging on the steep sides of one of his gorges. The sun was intensely hot, and we were glad to descend again, making our way through tall wheat, past walls of Roman brickwork and scattering blocks of the older city, to the tomb of Leonidas. This is said to be a temple, tho there are traces of vaults and passages beneath the pavement which do not quite harmonize with such a conjecture. It is composed of huge blocks of breccia, some of them thirteen feet long.
I determined to make an excursion to Mains,. This is a region rarely visited by travelers, who are generally frightened off by the reputation of its inhabitants, who are considered by the Greeks to be bandits and cut-throats to a man. The Mainotes are, for the most part. lineal descendants of the ancient Spartans, and, from the decline of the Roman power up to the present century, have preserved a virtual independence in their mountain fastnesses. The worship of the pagan deities existed among them as late as the eighth century. They were never conquered by the Turks, and it required considerable management to bring them under the rule of Otho.
Starting at noon, we passed through the modern Sparta, which is well laid out with broad streets. The site is superb, and in the course of time the new town will take the place of Mistra. We rode southward, down the valley of the Eurotas, through orchards of olive and mulberry. We stopt for the night at the little khan of Levetzova. I saw some cows pasturing here, quite a rare sight in Greece, where genuine butter is unknown. That which is made from the milk of sheep and goats is no better than mild tallow. The people in-formed me, however, that they make cheese from cow's milk, but not during Lent. They are now occupied with rearing Paschal lambs, a quarter of a million of which are slaughtered in Greece on Easter Day. The next morning, we rode over hills covered with real turf, a little thin, perhaps, but still a rare sight in southern lands. In two hours we entered the territory of Maina, on the crest of a hill, where we saw Marathonisi (the ancient Gythium), lying warm upon the Laconian Gulf. The town is a steep, dirty, labyrinthine place, and so rarely visited by strangers that our appearance created quite a sensation.
A broad, rich valley opened before us, crossed by belts of poplar and willow trees, and in-closed by a semicircle of hills, most of which were crowned with the lofty towers of the Mainotes. In Maina almost every house is a fortress. The law of blood revenge, the right of which is transmitted from father to son, draws the whole population under its bloody sway in the course of a few generations. Life is a running fight, and every foe slain entails on the slayer a new penalty of retribution for himself and his descendants for ever.
Previous to the revolution most of the Mainote families lived in a state of alternate attack and siege. Their houses are square towers, forty or fifty feet high, with massive walls, and windows so narrow that they may be used as loop-holes for musketry. The first story is at a considerable distance from the ground, and reached by a long ladder which can be drawn up so as to cut off all communication. Some of the towers are further strengthened by a semicircular bastion, projecting from the side most liable to attack. The families supplied themselves with telescopes, to look out for enemies in the distance, and always had a store of provisions on hand, in case of a siege. Altho this private warfare has been supprest, the law of revenge exists.
From the summit of the first range we over-looked a wild, glorious landscape. The hills, wooded with oak, and swimming in soft blue vapor, interlocked far before us, inclosing the loveliest green dells in their embraces, and melting away to the break in Taygetus, which yawned in the distance. On the right towered the square, embrasured castle of Passava on the summit of an almost inaccessible hill—the site of the ancient Las. Far and near, the lower heights were crowned with tall, white towers.