Aρχαιο is a word bandied about in Greece a lot. I don’t mean by historians or archaeologists but by the lay person It’s a glamorous word. It’s impressive and esoteric and marks a place, statue or artefact as important. Technically it means ancient but does it always mean Ancient Greece?
Greece has a very long history of habitation by people expressing different cultures: pagan, Christian, Muslim. Wherever you visit, if you indulge the locals they will regale you with stories about their place’s monuments, topography, churches, ruins etc. Not all of the ruins are well documented. Their history may be filed away in an archive somewhere with nary a signpost to explain why a tumbled down tower has been allowed to stand. A local yarn may be as good as you’ll get.
Chalkidiki in northern Greece has many towers I’m told. On the road to the αρχαιο, yes-if-really-is ancient, archaeological site at Olinthos stands the recalcitrant ruins of a tower. I’m told that it’s αρχαιο.
I’m also told that once upon a time it was the lookout tower for Olinthos. Sentries would be posted atop to watch the sea for pirates or foreign invaders. Sounds convincing? Hmm… I found no mention of it in all of the information on display at the archaeological site. Maybe it’s not that much, αρχαιο?
I’m told that, once upon another time when a polis was being attacked, the queen was spirited away through a subterranean tunnel system that ran from the city to the coast via this tower. But which queen, in which era? And how long was the tunnel system? Was Olinthos the starting point or was a settlement further inland? And did the tunnel reach the tower all the way at Nea Fokeas?
Did you know that it’s said that one αρχαιο king actually buried his treasure beneath one of the towers? Truly, what I’m telling you sounds a little far fetched even to me, especially when you consider that night, that summer, when Johnny was coming back from the club and came off his motorbike right through that lower window. Johnny said that the tower was full of hard dirt – his head can testify to that. No treasure, no tunnel. Local lore needs to satisfy the ever expectant tourist.
If the locals can speculate, why not I? So…if you were to light a beacon on the battlements of the tower at Nea Fokeas could a sentry atop the Olinthos Tower see it? And if not Olinthos what about that Byzantine ruin in the beach at Potidea? And from Olinthos could it be seen further inland by Galatista? Could these towers have been part of a beacon relay from Thessaloniki to Constantinople?
Leo the Mathematician (c.790-869CE) was said to have developed the beacon system that spanned Asia Minor from Constantinople to the Cilician Gates and warned the capital of an invasion within an hour of its sighting. Leo was the Metropolitan of Thessaloniki between 840-843 CE – why wouldn’t he instigate a warning system for his city, the second city of the Empire? Theassaloniki does have that old, dare I say αρχαιο, iconic White Tower – what more could it be appropriate for? Could all of these towers be that old? Where are the other towers in Chalkidiki?
When in doubt consult the internet. The White Tower of Thessaloniki is an Ottoman construction over the site of a Byzantine tower mentioned in medieval literature. The tower at Olinthos is the Tower of Mariana and displays a cross in the configuration of its brickwork, on its far side. And it’s Byzantine. No mention of who Mariana was, if she was a queen, when she lived nor whether she had to escape a siege through a tunnel. As it stands it was built in 1374 – too late for Leo.
The tower at Nea Fokeas is also Byzantine, St Paul’s, after the monastery complex on which it stands . It also overlooks the sea. Did St Paul visit it? When was it built? Is it connected by subterranean passage or merely styling to Mariana’s Tower? Built originally in 1407, it too, is too late to be from Leo.
The ruins in the beach at Potidea may or may not be part of Byzantine fortifications built in 1407 by Ioannis VII Palaiologos – the same year as St Paul’s! The other tower further inland at Galatista is also Byzantine. Together, could they all have been part of a later warning system?
Speculation, hearsay and local lore – heart warming hearth stories feeding the need of history devouring holiday-makers! They should probably be taken with a draught of ale, mug of hot chocolate or dragged out slowly overlooking an Aegean beach with a bottomless frappe on the table.
Occasionally local traditions can inform history. Have you heard the one about baklava?