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Panagiotis Konidaris
Author - Pharmacist

Excerpt from his treatise "Meganisi, a Journey through Time" (2013)

Εκδοτικός Οικος Λιβάνη

Meganisi, a Journey through Time

Panagiotis Konidaris Author - Pharmacist

"Who are you and where are you from? Where is your place and who are your parents?" [1] "And the goddess Athena answered at once, her eyes shining: Willingly and accurately, what you ask to know, I will tell you: Mentis is my name, son of the battle-hardened Anchialos, I myself rule the Taphian sailors" [2]. In the dialogue between Telemachus and Athena from Homer's Odyssey, the first written reference to what we now call Meganisi appears. Taphos Island was the first name of the island inhabited since Neolithic times, as evidenced by the thousands of finds of the recent archaeological research carried out under the supervision of Dr Nena Galanidou, as well as older findings in the Dörpfeld Museum [3], or even the remnants of a settlement at the southern end of the island that remain to be evaluated [4]. The name may derive from its first mythical king Taphios. Taphios was the brother of Teleboas. Their parents were the god Poseidon and Hippothoi, daughter of Lelex or in another version granddaughter of Perseus [5]. The most probable, however, is that Taphos was colonized, like all the surrounding islands, by Akarnanian tribes including the Leleges and Teleboans, and it was its “T” (“taph” in Greek) shape that gave it its characteristic name. The son of Taphios was Pterelaos, who bore a golden hair on his head, a gift from his grandfather Poseidon, which made him invulnerable. But the sons of Pterelaos got into trouble when they stole the cattle of the king of Argos, Electryon, and even killed his sons. Electryon then asked the help of the ruler of Thebes, Amphitryon, giving him his beautiful daughter Alcmene as his wife. Indeed, Amphitryon married Alcmene and set out against the Teleboans, together with Kefalos (the founder of Kefallonia) and Kreon. The Teleboan islands (i.e. all the islands in the surrounding basin) succumbed, except for the island of Taphos, which held out because of Pterelaos' golden hair. But the daughter of King Taphios, Kometho, by reason of being in love with Amphitryon, cut off the Poseidon hair and the island was conquered and became part of the kingdom of Kefalos, Odysseus' great-grandfather [6]. Herodotus mentions that he saw with his own eyes the votive tripod in the temple of Apollo Ismeneus with the inscription "Amphitryon offered me as part of the spoils of Teleboa" [7]. When Amphitryon returned to Thebes, of course, Alcmene was carrying Hercules, thanks to Zeus, so Taphos is responsible for the birth of the demigod, even if indirectly... Returning to Homer, we also come across the activities of the Taphians of the time: "Here with a boat and companions I arrived, ready to sail the purple sea, going to foreign-language people in Temessa: I'm looking to trade shiny iron that I bring, for copper."[8] And then: "Bread was distributed to them by Mesaelius [slave] The pig shepherd had acquired him himself (...) He bought him with his own money from the Taphians" [9], or from the confession of a Phoenician woman: "I was snatched and taken by bandits from Taphos" [10]. and more: "...who went to fight the Thesprotians with pirates from Taphos" [11]. Famous sailors of the time who engaged in trade as far as Cyprus and Phoenicia and who did not hesitate to carry out pirate raids and trade in slaves. The Taphians, who were well-versed in the world, also founded colonies, both in Greece and outside of it. Nisyros is also said to have been colonized by the Taphians, as “The first inhabitants were (...) Pelasgians, Karres, Leleges, Taphians” [12], while the same is true of Capria (present-day Capri), as Virgil mentions in the Aeneid. [13] Dörpfeld considers Homer's Ithaca to be Lefkada, Kalamos to be Taphos, while Meganisi is Krokylia [14], a view that is refuted as regards Meganisi by the strong arguments of Professor Kostas Palmos [15]. The huge boulders that can still be seen today in the port of Vathi demonstrate the maritime culture of the island during the Mycenaean period. According to I. Ragavis from 1854, "The largest and most excellent of the ports is called Vathi and is located on the north side where remnants of the ancient metropolis of Taphians can be seen" [16]. The same is confirmed by I. Rontogiannis, historian of Lefkada [17]. Thus, the Taphians could not have been absent from the Trojan War. They participated with forty manned ships, a formidable number, considering that Ajax or Odysseus sent only twelve each! [18] Euripides underlines this fact in Ifigenia i en Avlidi: "The belligerent white oars of the Taphians were ruled by King Megis, the child of Phyleas,  who left the islands, the Echinades, where the sailors do not dare approach"! [19] The data that exist for the subsequent centuries are essentially minimal, since it seems that Taphos ceases to be an independent kingdom and thus its fate coincides with that of Lefkada. Especially after the arrival of the Corinthians in the 7th century B.C., when it became a colony and ally, its naval and military force followed the Corinthians in hostilities. Indeed, Lefkada took part in the Persian Wars, sending three ships to Salamis and an army to Plataea. [20] During the Peloponnesian War, it was inevitably on the side of the Corinthians and thus of their allies the Spartans, who were in need of expert naval forces. In the Hellenistic period Lefkada joined the "Akarnian League" and became its capital (272-168 BC) [21]. Apparently, Taphos also participated in this confederation. After 168 BC and the arrival of the Romans, the region declines. However, it is considered a transit station, as shown by the passage of Apollonius of Tyana on his return from Rome [22]. Pliny the Elder calls Meganisi Taphiusa. He claims that miraculous stones are found in it. "Of the fourth kind it is called Taphioticos. It comes out near Lefkada, in Taphiusa (...) It is found in the rivers and is round and white" [23].  During the Byzantine period the whole area was a theme (i.e. a fief) and was administratively part of the Despotate of Epirus. Since then Lefkada has changed many masters, passing through the hands of the Orsini (Counts of Kefallonia), the dynasty of the Angevins of Naples (who were the ones who gave it the name Santa Maura, after their French patron saint), Valteros Vryennios, Gratianos Zōrzēs and the Tocchi. In the time of the Venetian Zōrzēs, in 1357, the revolt of the peasants known as the "Revolution of the prod" broke out, which five centuries later would inspire Aristotle Valaoritis' "Foteino" ([24]. The Florentine priest C. Buondelmonti mentions in his travel descriptions in the mid-16th century:  "Finally, to the east [of Lefkada] there appear some uncultivated islands once inhabited by Brothers [monks?], but which as a result of pirate attacks are now deserted" [25]. In a period of predominantly feudalism, therefore, Meganisi retains few inhabitants, and not permanently. The arable land is limited and usually belongs to owners from Katochori, Poros or Fterno. Let us not forget that the lack of political stability leaves room for waves of pirate raids, making the unprotected Meganisi an opportune target for plunder. The folk song: "Turlos has saved the people and once again it will serve its purpose" which has survived the ravages of time, as well as some place names, testify that there were even rudimentary fortifications, especially on the tibid of Turlos (a alteration of Trulos), where a low stone wall still survives, apparently built for defensive purposes [26]. The monastery of Agios Ioannis seems to have played an important role in the life of the island during this period and, like all monasteries of the period, not only carried out its pastoral work but also maintained a dorter (guesthouse) for the hospitality of travelers and certainly participated actively in social and commercial activity (e.g. festivals). The church was destroyed in about 1477/9 (obviously by the arrival of the Turks and the enslavement of the whole of Lefkada), as the inscription on the western lintel testifies:  "1877. RESTORED AFTER 400 YEARS" [27]. Its present form does not allow any kind of secure conclusion about the first church, but archaeological estimates place its foundation at least two centuries before the 15th century destruction [28]. St. Constantine was a metochion of St. John [29] and its built iconostasis places its construction in the 14th century, although the earliest frescoes that survive - albeit in a sad state - are from the 17th century [30]. After the Venetians prevailed in 1684 under the commander-in-chief Morosini, the situation seems to have changed. In his order of 7 October 1684 it is stated: "The elders of the villages of the island of Lefkada, Fterno and Poros, complained to me that although the island called Meganisi belongs to them, they are harassed from time to time by various Kefallonians and Ithakians, who of their own volition claim to sow the land there..." [31]. Finally, by decree of the Venetian Senate in 1691, the General Governor of the Ionian Islands granted the land of Meganisi to Anastasios Metaxas, a native of Kefallonia, along with the title of Count. In 1716, the lands were transferred to the locals and Metaxas' staff, and in 1719 to refugees from Chios (around 130 people, Catholic in religion), always with the obligation to pay rent to the Venetian administration [32]. At the same time, settlers arrived from Acarnania, Ithaca, Kefallonia and Lefkada itself. The scattered huts were joined together and the first two small settlements emerged: the "Kato Meri" and the "Apanou Meri", which corresponded to Katomeri and Spartochori [33].  "Some Greek families from Xiromero came to the isle of Meganisi and built two small villages, consisting of about a hundred huts" [34], says General Administrator F. Grimani in a letter of 15-11-1760. This fact is also supported by Dimos-Tselios-Ferentinos himself: "There were three families of inhabitants. Thiacs, Xeromerites and Kefallinians" [35]. The following decades seem to flow calmly and in poverty on an island struggling to stand on its feet in an uncertain and insecure environment. Ragavis reports that Napolitan coral fishermen surround the island at this time, as its coastline is "a big farm of beautiful corals" [36]. This allows us to assume that the local element must have gradually turned back to the sea, as its tradition dictated. Of course, Meganisi does not have the population nor the means to man a worthy fleet, however, in the Revolution of Orlof of 1768 we find two Meganissians among the 43 denounced rebels [37].  The arrival of Revolutionary France in the Ionian Islands in 1797 causes initial enthusiasm, but the economic measures are unbearable, and the Napoleonic rule is ephemeral. Thus, in 1798 the Russo-Turkish fleet gradually occupied the Ionian Islands and in 1800 the independent State of the Ionian Islands was founded, though in name only, since it was a tributary of the Sultan [38]. Meganisi then appears to have some form of self-governing representation, in the form of Elders [39]. Its two settlements are called "Diministres" (‘two months’ - from the wheat that ripens in two months) for Katomeri and "Vagenospilia" for Spartochori [40]. Its geographical location makes it an ideal refuge for those expelled from the lands of Ali Pasha, but also for a multitude of Armatoloi (guerrillas), including such illustrious names as Kolokotronis, Karaiskakis, Androutsos and Lepeniotis. "With all the two hundred men of Lepeniotis, I took the boats and we invaded Meganissi, and we chased the French, and we made a revolution there", Kolokotronis mentions for the year 1810 [41]. The revolutionary and nationalist flame that was burning throughout Europe did not leave this corner of the Ionian Sea unaffected. In small-scale uprisings for more rights and less taxation participants from Meganisi can also be found. The English occupation since 1815 is nevertheless ironclad and the rebels are punished in an exemplary and heinous manner. Under the shadow of the gallows, several escape to Xeromero to take part in the armed struggle that comes of age. This is because the population of the island belongs to the "popolo" (people) and not to the privileged "archontoloi" (lords). Rear Admiral W.H. Smyth reports: “Among the dependent islets, Meganisi holds the first place, as its name imports. But since, in the insurrection of 1819, it became a station for spies, I was under the necessity of disarming the inhabitants and, for a time, restricting intercourse with their neighbours”.  [42]. And as for the general situation on the island, things were not rosier: "On the first night we stopped at Meganisi and had an opportunity of seeing a considerable part of this poor and barren island with a population of five hundred souls, concentrated in three villages, in rougher conditions than those residing in the mountainous region of Jante (Zakynthos), generally poor, impoverished and dirty. The men are said to be very languorous, while the women are industrious and overburdened. They depend on two wells near the coastline for their supply of drinking water..." [43]  an English traveler will write. Under these circumstances, participation in the Greek Revolution of 1821 is probably imperative for the Meganisians. The most intense presence of the Meganissians in the Revolutionary period was embodied by the chieftain Dimos Tselios, later known as Gero-Dimos. His real name was Dimos Ferentinos, as he reveals in his fragmentary memoirs to Tertsetis, which survived the fire:  "I was born in Meganisi of Santa Maura. A Metaxas came and inhabited it. Our grandparents, four brothers of Ferentinoi, lived there" [44]. Born in 1785, at an early age he lost both his parents in accidents and became a stepchild in a home in Santa Maura. He returns to the island as a teenager, determined to sail on the merchant ships of the time. In fact, his brother owned one of them. Along the way, however, a Klepth-Armatolos  named Zafiris rouses him and persuades him to join the struggle. This happened in 1804. A year later he meets Katsantonis and a little later Karaiskakis: "We continued the thievery then, various wars. They were coming and we were growing. We were still going on. Antony grew up, Turkey trembled. In 1805, Karaiskakis came" [45]. Dimos Tselios consistently continues his activities as a Klepht and rises in the hierarchy and acquires a close friendly relationship with Karaiskakis: "Karaiskakis left the prison of Premeti. He went from place to place and arrived to Agrafa. He also became first rank, as I did (...) Then with Karaiskakis I acquired a loyal love. Since then. We killed Liasakas Veligekas. We were forty, they were a thousand" [46]. Throughout the period until the Revolution, he did not stay away from Meganissi. Although he is already married (he eventually had six children), he usually visits the island with other chieftains: "In the winter we stayed in an olive-mill in Meganisi with Karaiskakis and Odysseus. Karaiskakis told me about the Society, that it will be held in the spring. My family was in Meganissi. I went outside. We went outside."[47] Meganisi remains for Tselios the "inside", the place of peace and rest from the battlefield, the place where he finds the warmth of his family. With the outbreak of the Revolution, not only his strategic prowess and bravery, but also the unlimited esteem in which others held him, began to become apparent. "The Lefkadians under Dimos Tselios went on a campaign to Epirus and pursued the Turks, taking refuge in Valton and Xeromeron."[48] the historian K. Machairas mentions and elsewhere it is written: "Lieutenant General Dimotzelios has now again shown his bravery and merit, and we have no doubt that we shall always have reason to praise a warrior so brave and yet so modest" [49]. From 1821 to 1829, the chieftain participated in twelve campaigns, twelve sieges and thirty-nine battles, the most important of which were those of Vonitsa, Mytikas and Lesini, which he fortified, turning it into an impregnable fortress until liberation. He took part in both sieges of Messolonghi, from which he left due to illness, but he never stopped fighting from outside [50]. Perhaps his most important honor was given to him verbally after the battle of Arachova, by the mouth of Karaiskakis himself: "The activity of General Dimos Tzelios was unmistakable, who captured the important man alive, killed about 15 alone, and because the killing of the enemy is numerous, I do not know, perhaps he killed more. This only I tell you that every time he shows great bravery" [51]. After the liberation and the advent of Otto we find in 1836 Dimos Tselios leading a movement demanding the expulsion of the Bavarians who were plaguing public life and the drafting of a Constitution. The movement failed and he exiled himself to his native land, impoverished financially and morally depressed. Tertsetis mentions: "The day before yesterday I saw in the street of Athens in meagre clothes, very meagre, sunk in sorrow, the look of his face was similar. I saw the chieftain Dimotselios (...) neither letters of the lackeys, which I read, nor fear and gifts of the enemy persuaded him to betray the flag, which he even wore around him as a shroud of death. Poor Greece. Your true children are fed with their tears, they are delirious or talk by themselves in the streets" [52]. Tselios died in 1854 in Agrinio. The ranks that had been taken away from him were restituted in 1843, while his remains were transferred to Messolonghi in 1901 and later to the Garden of Heroes. His statue was erected in Meganisi, looking out over the lands he liberated only in 2006... Until the Union of Eptanisa (the Ionian Islands) with the rest of Greece in 1864, the traditional feudal system prevailed in Meganissi, where some noble families owned most of the land and the means of production (windmills, olive mills, boats, etc.), such as the family of Aristotle Valaoritis. It owned one of the six windmills that today dominates above Katomeri and is called "Paliomilos" (Old mill) [53], as well as many estates that, as was customary, were sublet. The poet himself often came to the island and even had Meganisians in his employ. It is reported that the first phrase of the dithyramb about Patriarch Gregory V comes from the lips of a Meganisian fisherman [54]. Meganisi has had a municipality since 1829 and was officially recognized after the Union by royal decree in 1866. It has two villages (Vathi, Spartochori) and includes the islands of Skorpios, Madouri, Cheloni, Kythro, Thileia, Agios Nikolaos, Sparti and Petala [55]. The municipality was abolished in 1912 and returned to two communities: "Vatheos" (Vathi and Katomeri) and "Spartochori". The economy is based on domestic production of oil, flax, wine, barley, wheat, while fishing and trade are gradually increasing. The trade in stone is mentioned in particular, which is used for building Lefkadian mansions [56]. Religion continues to play a major role in the lives of the inhabitants, since at the beginning of the century an epidemic of smallpox led the faithful to carry the venerable Skull of St. Vissarion (1489-1541) from the Pili of Trikala to Meganisi for prayers. Since then, he has been considered the patron saint of the island and in 1910 the church of the same name was built [57]. The cultural activity is also present since from 1880 onwards "Erotokritos" of Kornaros and later other public theatrical performances such as "Golfo" and "Sklava" (Slave) by Peressiadis were performed in Katomeri [58]. This in itself leads us to the conclusion that the standard of living is significantly improved compared to the rest of Lefkada, which is also indicated by the population of the island: In 1920, 1644. In 1928, 1650, and in 1940, 2054, while other villages of Lefkada barely exceeded three hundred souls. In addition, Meganisi has the highest percentage of high school graduates, higher than the capital Lefkada! [59] The stagnation of the population during the interwar period has to do with emigration, a phenomenon that will intensify after the war. It is estimated that in the first decade of the 20th century alone, 210 people (mainly men) emigrated from Meganisi to America or South Africa, i.e. 1/8 of the population! [60] In the historical turning point that the Second World War will mark, the island is not left unscathed. In the initial conscription, about forty or so Meganisians set off as if on a festival for the Albanian front [61]. In the end, no one's participation in the hostilities is mentioned. However, Meganisi is not unmoved and despite the monetary crisis and the requisitioning of its boats, it sends clothing to the soldiers.  The name of the cave of "Papas" is often confused with that of the submarine "Papanikolis". The truth is that the natural cave was named not because it served as a base or hideout for the famous submarine, but because it was a hiding place for the medieval believers and their priest from pirate raids. However, the action of other submarines in the territorial waters of Meganisi has been reported, as well as the torpedoing of an Italian scout boat in 1942 [62]. At Easter 1941, a group of high-ranking military officers of the Serbian staff, led by Marshal Simovic, took refuge in Meganisi [63]. It is presumed that among them was the future Marshal "Tito", who at the same time fled via the Ionian Sea to the Middle East. The arrival of the Italian fascists in the same year changed the lives of the inhabitants. The Italian force numbered only twenty men, but they used harsh methods such as curfews and blackouts and did not hesitate to drag dissidents into prisons or beat them up. There is also no shortage of black marketeering at this period, albeit in small numbers. A rudimentary commercial bridge with Central Greece is still maintained, either illegally or with the acquiescence of bribed carabinieri and members of the "Finanza". In the same period (early '42), the Resistance began to organize itself in the well-known triadic method. In essence, Meganisi is a resistance link between Lefkada and Xeromero. In the records of the EAM  of May '43, Meganisi is referred to as the "5th sector". In 1943, the EPON  of Meganisi was also founded and undertook social (soup kitchens) and cultural (staging "Foteino") activities. In fact, it was the first time that women performed on stage in a village of Lefkada in 1944 [64]. The island was frequently bombed, and after the Italian capitulation, the Germans occupied the island, with just four soldiers. The Resistance flares up and several Meganissians take part in armed action, such as the saboteur Varnakiotis, in Aetolia. Eventually the island pays its own blood tax to Freedom as two of the resistance fighters are arrested in Nikiana and transported to Agrinio where they are executed by hanging on 27-7-1944. They were Dimitris Maroulis and Nikos Amarantos... [65] During the civil war period we find exiles from Meganisi in the hellhole of Makronissos from 1947-50 [66]. The economy of Meganisi tries to get back on its feet by relying on olive oil production, domestic animal farming and fishing. Gradually, however, it turned to shipping and immigration. Transport to Piraeus is by sea and the transport is carried out by the famous boat 'Glaros'. Rondogiannis describes the Meganisians as "courageous ship-owners" [67]. Meganisi then gives "a certain impression of prosperity, in contrast to the deep impression of poverty that almost all the villages of the mountainous Lefkada give" [68]. Indeed, the existence of 22 trading boats with a wide range of activities is mentioned [69]. At the same time, there is a shift towards education and scientific training, which will eventually bring out the new dynamic post-war generation, the other face of the island. Nevertheless, the population is on a downward trajectory, explained once again by the new large wave of emigration to Australia (mainly) and America. The devastating earthquake of Kefallonia in '53 leaves Meganisi unaffected, as do other major earthquakes thereafter, probably due to its geological (limestone) infrastructure. In the sixties, a new type of illicit trade flourished, that of smuggling cigarettes, which brought dangers but also a large income to those involved. Of course, during the period of the Junta, we find in the cages of Gyaros a representative from Meganisi, Lambros Daglas [70]. In the period after the Junta, the island begins to change its face, mainly technologically, although the population maintains its downward tendencies, due to the internal migration this time towards Patras and Athens. So, in November 1974 Meganisi was electrified for the first time and got a telephone connection two years later. Water supply, however, still remains difficult and is provided by wells or even by ships, while almost every household has a private cistern. In 1977 and until 1980 the island was the subject of anthropological study, by then Lecturer and now Professor Roger Just of the University of Melbourne and University of Kent, UK. His book "A Greek Island Cosmos" is a vivid portrayal of Meganisian society before the advent of tourism. In 1980, a high school was established for the first time on Meganisi and became an important lever for the revitalization of intellectual and social life. In combination with the establishment of the Association of Pan-Meganisians "Mentis" (already in 1976), which is active mainly in Athens, Meganisi seems to be breaking the cocoon of its cultural introversion. The 1980s is therefore the transitional period that bridges the post-war Meganisi with that of modernity. Olive-oil production gradually declines, and the economic scepter is passed to the maritime currency [71]. Tourism goes from being an occasional activity to having a certain organization. In 1984, the first Meganisian ferryboat was put into service, with three more to be built later, modernizing transport. In 1985 the water from Vafkeri arrives on the island, solving the permanent problem of water scarcity. At the end of this productive decade, the communities join in a voluntary union and form the Municipality of Meganisi again after eighty years (1990). In 1993, Meganisi has the honor of being represented for the first time in the National Parliament, in the person of Panos Palmos. Since 2002, senior high school classes have been added to the school curriculum. The gradual depreciation of shipping turned economic activity towards the tourism product with all the positive and negative consequences that this entails. Construction activity is growing and non-Meganisians are becoming owners of large tracts of land, while hotels and tourist accommodation are constantly being built. In the 2001 census, the island's permanent population was 1092 and in 2011 it was 1042. What weight does the island's new multilingual identity carry in relation to its natural beauty? What kind of coexistence is that of children playing carefree in the street and innumerable cars? Of modern shops and grandmothers in their traditional costumes, immaculate like a second skin? Of the reinforced concrete and the freshly whitewashed courtyards with potted basil? Is the Meganisi of today the place of contrasts? Is it still searching, after so many centuries, for its identity and its footsteps, or is it still deluding itself in the cradle of its lost innocence? Will it forever be "a green coral thrown on the apron of the Ionian Sea"? Time will tell. And if we return to the question that began our journey through time, "Who are you and where are you from? Where is your place and who are your parents?", then for the people of Meganisi, the well-traveled and therefore deeply nostalgic and eternally in love with their island, the words of Gero-Dimos are worthy, not only as a historical echo, but mainly as an imprint of their collective soul: "It was our home in Meganisi (...) a beautiful island, as if it were in Paradise" [72] ... Translator’s notes: [1] Klephts were thieves and brigands of the time who became self-appointed anti Ottoman insurgents and joined the Armatoloi - who were irregular soldiers appointed by the Sultan to enforce his authority but later turned against the Turks. The actions of Klepths and Armatoloi during the Ottoman Empire are blurred and controversial, however in the last years of the struggle they joined the revolution and played a key role in its success. [2] ΕΑΜ: National Liberation Front [3] ΕPΟΝ: United Panhellenic Organization of Youth

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