As the road down the coast of Mani sweeps southwards the land becomes more arid and stony. John Morritt who travelled this way in April 1795 noted, "The whole of this tract is as barren as possible the villages seemed more bare and savage than any we had passed." I doubt if the present inhabitants of the village of Ag. Nikon would thank you for the epithet 'savage' but the countryside is certainly far less lush. One passes a vast cistern to ones right which in spring and early summer has water in it and a miriad of amphibious life, many bright green tree frogs. and, naturally, the birds which feed on them. This is probably the 'lac' mentioned in the late 1820s by the members of the French Scientific Expedition to the Morea who were travelling around Mani looking for ancient remains.
A 1770 map of the bay of Itilo
The approach to Itilo used to be marked by a delightful deserted motorised cantina van beside the way before the road drops in a number of bends to the village of Itilo overlooking the large inlet of the Bay of Itilon. Itilo (Oitylon is its normal transliteration but I prefer to drop the redundant 'O' and drop the formal final 'n' - it was also called Vitylo or Vitulo in the past) was a town of some importance in the past though nowadays is a sleepy place. It is perched mainly on a promontory overlooking the Milolangada ravine to the south, the large fortress of Kelefa on the southern wall of this chasm. To the south-west it looks out over Itilon Bay towards Limeni.
The town was a major Maniate centre in the 17th and 18th century and got the appellation 'Grand Algiers' due to its thriving slave trade. There was an ancient city here, Oitylos, named in Homer, and it is reported by Pausanius that the town was worth visiting for the sanctuary of Sarapis and a large wooden idol of Apollo in the marketplace. The latter has long gone but the town is dotted with ancient columns and capitals built into later buildings and the likely position of the temple to Sarapis is the church of the Soter a wonderful niche in the cliffs below the acropolis of Itilo. There is thought to be the remains of an early Christian period basilica down by the shore at Karavostasi and the town obviously had significance in the Byzantine period as it was used by the Byzantine navy as a harbour. There are references in medieval chronicles to Gulfum Witum. This could possibly refer to the Bay of Itilo but others feel that it in fact referred to the entire Gulf of Messenia. Constantinos Spanis, the ruler of the Drongos of the Melingi (i.e. the Exo Mani) in the 14th century, who decorated the church of Ag. Nikolaos at Kampinari also donated funds for the decoration of a churches in Itilo. Cyriaco of Ancona, an Italian merchant and avid collector of ancient inscriptions visited what he called 'Bitylon' in October 1447 where he was ceremoniously welcomed by John Palaiologos, Governor for the Byzantine despot Constantine (soon to be the last Byzantine Emperor). Cyriaco was shown a number of ancient remains and described a 'citadel built by later inhabitants out of ancient buildings'.
The Turkish chronicler Evliya Celebi gives a long description of the village in 1670 when the Turks re-established their hold on Mani. For a village of a thousand houses Evliya claims that the inhabitants owned three thousand ships and were great traders mainly with western Europeans whom they resembled in dress. The men wore, "black hats which look Frankish", and although the women were more conventionally dressed by Mani standards, they too wore Frankish influenced dresses and shoes and decorated themselves with many gold coins. Evliya also claims that the inhabitants of Itilo were neither of the Christian nor the Jewish millet (the Ottomans divided their empire's population along religious boundaries calling each a 'millet') and were "of no religion". This seems to have been his conclusion from the even handed or cynical practice of the Itiliotes of selling Christian prisoners to the Muslims and Muslim prisoners to the Christians. This observation was repeated by Bernard Randolph, a merchant in the Levant who wrote in his 1686 volume The Present State of the Morea, "If they take any Turks, they sell them to the Malteses and Legorneses as they do the Christians to the Turks".The harbour below must have been much more active than today. Evliya reports that the bay took over one thousand ships and that the Venetian fleet was a regular visitor assisted by the people of Itilo.
Vista of Itilo looking SE and the vast cistern just to the north of the town with distant view of Kouskouni
In the 17th century there were two major emigrations from Itilo. The major Turkish incursion of 1670 and the building of the fortress of Kelefa a cannon shot away from Itilo and dominating the bay must have sorely cramped the locals' dealing in Muslim slaves, and trade with the west would have been taxed mercilessly. In fact Randolph's list of Turkish garrisons suggests that not only Kelefa was a Turkish garrison but Itilo itself. This, combined with inter-family rivalry, meant that in 1671 the Itriani family moved to Italy and in 1675 the Stephanopoli tribe moved to Corsica, first to Paomia later to Cargèse. Their descendants still live their and there is a stone memorial to this passage in the square above the main church of Itilo and the two towns are still in close contact. As with many of these later town twinning memorials, this one was laid in 1991, the inscription tells one more about the various dignitaries of modern day Cargèse and Itilo than it does of the people who left in the late 17th century.
The castle of Kelefa, as built by the Ottomans in 1670 which dominated Itilo and it's bay. From a Venetian print when it was occupied by Venice from 1685-1715
The local Bishop, Partenios Clacandis, organised the emigration and on the 3 October 1675 800 Maniates set sail for Genoa, the then ruler of Corsica. The ship 'The Saviour' was ill-named as it took until the 1st of January 1676 to arrive off Genoa by which time 120 of the emigrants had died on the journey. They settled, after some negotiation, at Paomia, north of Ajaccio on the western coast of Corsica and built five hamlets and a church to the Panagia in the vicinity. Whether the Maniates warlike propensities influenced the Corsicans, or vice versa, isn't clear, both have long traditions of vendettas, but conflict eventually broke out between the two communities.
When the Corsicans rose against their hated Genoese rulers in 1729, the Greeks refused to assist the insurgents as they still felt some debt of gratitude to the Genoese and were therefore attacked by the Corsicans. The Maniates retired to Ajaccio for 40 or so years before the French, on seizing the island settled them in Cargèse just down the ridge from Paomia. During the French Revolution the Greeks were again forced to take refuge in Ajaccio but but many returned to Cargèse later. It wasn't until the 1830s that Greeks and Corsicans came to a final accord and to this day there are 300 inhabitants of Cargèse (pronounced Kar-jez) who maintain some Greek identity although their names have been changed - for example the -akis ending changing to -acci. I have been contacted via email by two descendants of families who emigrated from Itilo, the last is now resident in Virginia, USA. In September 2004 I visited Cargèse and the Greek church there and have collected a small mound of books and articles on the Corsican Maniates. I hope at some time to add a short account of the Maniates' life in Corsica and photographs of the church in these pages.
The Stephanopoli returned in the persons of 70 year old Dimo and his 20 year old nephew Nicolo Stephanopoli who were sent to Mani in 1798 by Napoleon Buonaparte to meet with the Bey and to scout out the area. Buonaparte was interested in invading Greece and needed intelligence. A later volume, loosely based on the notes of Dimo was published in Paris in 1800. A story, encouraged by the Itiliotes has it that Buonaparte himself was of Maniate descent. As Leake mentioned in his 'Travels' the neighbouring Tsimovites "affect to disbelieve" the story and Leake himself pointed out that there was little basis in the story saving the fact that one can over-literally translate Buonaparte as Kalomeros. There were none of that name in the emigrés from Itilo to Corsica and the Buonaparte family can be traced back to Italian roots. Despite the diaspora from Itilo by the end of the 18th century it was still quite populous and was described by John Morritt in 1795 as, " a considerable town in this desolate country ".
The nineteenth century French novelist, Jules Verne, cruised the Mediterranean in his yacht and visited Itilo in the 1860s. The location, the stories of the wild Maniates and their Piracy so inspired him that his novel 'L'Archipel en Feu' starts with the image of a small Levantine craft hugging the wind in an attempt to find harbour underneath Itilo in October 1827. The story, not one of his most famous, concerns the pirates of the Greek Archipelago and is interesting from the point of view about the Maniates. Verne reproduces the views of Pouqueville, whom it can be assumed he read, in classifying the Kakavouliotes as people who, "En mer, ils attaquaient les navires. A terre, ils attiraient par de faux signaux. Partout, ils pillaient et les brulaient. Que leurs équipages fussent turcs, maltais, égyptiens, grecs meme, peu importait: ils étaient impitoyablement massacrés ou vendus comme esclaves sur les cotes barbaresques." trans.
Views of Itilo from Kelefa
In September 1882 the Oxford classical scholar H.F.Tozer and his indefatigable travelling companion Mr. T.M. Crowder (the Bursar of Corpus Christi Oxford) arrived in what he called Vitylo after riding for seven hours from Githeon. Tozer had visited Cargèse ten years earlier and transcribed some of the popular ballads of the descendants of the Maniates of that town. The academics lodged with one of the Stephanopoli clan and Tozer describes how the town was divided into quarters and the elaborate defenses of the tower house he was in (trapdoors, drawbridges etc.). 'It is said' he related, 'that some persons who have been compromised by a blood-feud, have occupied such a house for twenty years together without once leaving it.' Tozer explained his reason for the visit and found that people were aware of the history of the emigration to Corsica but that it evoked little interest. Eventually the local doctor and another worthy called Zangles were summoned to meet the Englishmen. Tozer noted that the doctor was decked out in the traditional fustanella and had a large brace of pistols in his belt (seemingly quite usual in Mani even as late as the 1880s) whereas Zangles was dressed in western garb. After he'd told them about the Greeks of Cargèse he mentioned the ballads and this drew a larger audience of locals who Tozer was delighted to discover knew some of the songs and could complete certain lines. Tozer also noted that the Itiliotes pronounced their letter 'k' in a similar soft way to those in Cargèse - for example the name Kelefa became Tchelefa - I've not checked to hear if this is still so.
Itilo has become a backwater now, Areopolis being the leading town in the area although the local Dimos (administrative district) stretching as far south as Vathia, is called after Itilo and it houses the local council offices. However it is still a largish village and one can spend a pleasant few hours wandering round its labyrinthine streets and just below its cliffed south-western edge are the church of the Soter and below that the exquisitely decorated monastery of the Dekoulou. The village used to be divided between two family groupings. The Stephanopoli in the higher town and the Itriani below them. The Itriani claim descent from the famous Italian family, the Medici (the Greek for Doctor is Iatros). It is thought that members of the Medici who lived in Nafplion moved to Itilo when the Ottomans took over that city in the 16th century.
An aerial view of Itilo Bay looking East-North-East (Itilo is in mid frame) and the Monastery of Dekoulou from Kelefa
The family church of the Stephanopoli is just below the main road as it drops down towards Itilo bay but can also be reached, by foot, from the main part of Itilo by a small stone bridge spanning the ravine that divides the town. It is dedicated to Ag. Giorgos (St. George) and has obviously been restored recently as in Kassis' 1980s photographs it is whitewashed on the outside. It was locked when I visited in May 2003 but I could easily see through the door the extremely large and imposing, if naive, depiction of the Archangel Michael on the north wall. This was painted in 1866 and although there are more paintings on the ceiling most of the church's interior has been whitewashed. The present church is probably dated to the 17th or 18th century although it probably occupies the site of an earlier medieval structure as, built into the stonework above the door as a lintel under the niche, and upside down, is a piece of medieval spolia. This inscription reads something along the lines of,
Year 6840 (1331/1332) - In the reign of Andronikos, son of sire Michael Palaeologos and emperor most divine, by the contributions of the Melingi, sire Constantinos Spanis and sire Larigkas Slabouris and Anna + St. George. Protect those who have well redecorated and restored your divine temple. Remember seigneur your servant in accordance of the law Kopogis and his wife Helen. Amen
Constantinos Spanis is undoubtedly the same 'ruler' of the area of the Melingi who restored and had painted the church of Ag. Nikolaos at Kampinari just outside Platsa some five years later. And this dedication seems to fit with the theory that by the 14th century the originally slavic tribe of the Melingi, who had settled in the Exo Mani, were integrated into the Greek world and were probably part of the Byzantine Despotate of the Morea.
Church of Ag. Giorgios of the Stephanopoli, Itilo - Taxiarch Michali and view from South
There are numerous churches in the main town and in the sandstone cliffs below there are a number of cave churches. The main church (Koimisis tis Panagia) has undergone a restoration and was firmly locked on both my visits but its walls still boast ancient spolia inset into the stonework.
Ancient spolia in the walls of the main church and fragment of fresco from Soter - Itilo
By walking to the ultimate south-western tip of the village you'll discover a kalderimi which snakes its way down the precipice. Follow this for a number of bends (and ignore the rubbish which the locals seem fond of lobbing over the cliff) and you'll reach the church of the Soter or Sotiros (Saviour). This is a fine Byzantine church in a wonderful position of a small ledge overlooking the bay. It almost certainly is the site of an ancient temple and various columns from this edifice have been incorporated into the Byzantine structure. It had, at one time, a canopied and arched entrance but this has fallen in. The church is thought by Drandakis to be of the 13th century and has been restored and is locked. However it is perfectly possible to see in through the side windows as the building is set back into the cliff and one can scramble up and peer in. The inside also has ancient fluted columns supporting the dome. There are frescoes, some Byzantine beyond doubt, others such as the Christ in Sorrow in the prothesis of the bema Drandrakis dates to the 15th century. Of all the frescoes little remains to poke out from the whitewash which covers most of the interior.
It was, from his description, clearly visited in 1795 by John Morritt and some century and a half later the English writer Robert Liddell visited Itilo and this very church in 1956 and wrote in his book The Morea.
"The path overhangs a steep drop, and has been walled to prevent further accidents. 'That's where the postman from New Itilo fell,' said one of my guides. 'No', said the other, 'the postman fell a little lower down, by that olive tree. This is where my grandfather fell. They found him by that pool'."
This agrees with the description of this path in 1882 by H.F. Tozer who wrote, 'The road…is perhaps the worst of all the breakneck paths of this rugged district, being little more than a zigzag track worn in the honeycombed limestone rocks'.
If one continues on this steep kalderimi you'll come to the Monastery of the Dekoulou whose dome and tiled roofs you can see below but it is probably easier to drive down the main road and take the track, newly surfaced, which reaches this church. The Dekoulou is reported as having been a convent, though in 1670 Evliya Celebi reports a monastery near Itilo with 150 monks which was extremely rich receiving, "a million grossea a year from every part of Europe". Whether or not this was the monastery of Dekoulou is uncertain as the building of the present church seems to be close to the date of its painting viz. the 1760s.
What the word Dekoulou means I'm not quite sure and neither were Traquair and Dawkins who visited it while they were attached to the British School at Athens in the early 1900s. Dawkins reported that at that time the descendants of a Georgiou Dekoulou Mikeli, a doctor mentioned in the dedicatory notice on the inside above the door, were still living there. According to family tradition that George had four sons. Two of whom are mentioned in the inscription as founders of the monastery were priests, Bishop Daniel of Maina and Protosynkellos Nikephoros. The story goes that these two had travelled to Constantinople to gain permission for the founding of the monastery. The Patriach gave them permission to dedicate the church to the Zoodokos Pigi (the life giving spring) and gave it the name Dekoulou. The other two sons remained laymen and started the family line which the English scholars met in the early 20th century. Dawkins, a formidable - not to say arcane - etymologist, makes some attempt to explain the word Dekoulou as a knowing pun on the term Zoodokos Pigi by someone who spoke Italian but it goes well beyond my grasp of Greek.*
*I have since had this kindly explained to me by a world-expert on Greek grammar and orthography. The term 'koulos' is close to the modern Greek word 'kolos' - which can be translated into English as 'arse' (the French 'cul') The ancient Greek for the same word is 'pigi' - spelled slightly differently to the word for spring. It is, a donnish play on words on Dawkins' behalf and perhaps not to be taken as a serious attempt at etymology.
The monastery today has a family in residence in the westernmost building (and some particularly noisy dogs - they are large, loud and very bouncy, but benign). The teenage Eleni, originally from Georgia, has lived here for the last five years and will open the doors for you, she speaks little English but other Greek speaking friends who have visited report that she is extremely knowledgeable of the history of the church and its frescoes and has set up a web site in her school in Areopoli - click here to go to it. When Greenhalgh and Eliopoulos visited in 1980 the church was unlit and they recommended taking torches - and Traquair commented, "The churches of Mani are not remarkable for their lighting, but the Dekoulos church at Itylo is the worst lit of all". It has no windows worth speaking of. Today, fortunately, there are lights and the full splendour of the interior can be seen. In fact in 2003 they can be seen even better as the iconostasis and shrine have been removed from the east end of the church. I am presuming that they have been taken away for restoration and will return at some stage - but although Eleni's brother Michali, who opened the door for us, is learning English, he was too shy to speak any and whereas I know a fair few words of Greek, 'restoration' isn't amongst them.
Monastery of Dekoulou - Ainoi (Last Psalms) Central 'Pantocrator' figure plus zodiac and Beasts and all crawling things - on the ceiling western nave.
The mid 18th century frescoes are an excellent example of post-Byzantine wall painting schemes and the lack of windows has meant that they have stayed dry and are, generally, in very good condition. There is a vast Last Judgement on the west wall (uninterrupted by a doorway as the door is on the far end of the south wall) and the Ainoi (Last Psalms) in the western naos. Around the base of the western end of the church is a frieze of lay-people, sinners, being tortured by winged devils. There are the usual suspects, two men in bed together, a cheating miller with his millstone round his neck, an adultress with snakes wrapped around her. On the subject of snakes there have been mentions in earlier accounts of the odd iconography of snakes in Dekoulou. It would appear that this refers to a huge coiled blue serpent painted under the (unusually three-fold) protheses or niches on the north side of the bema. This is a depiction of Arios or Arius, a heretic of the early 4th century, being swallowed by the Great Beast and is quite common in 18th century church paintings in Mani. The iconostasis is one of the finest examples of a wooden carved and gilded 18th century screen in Mani and beyond that is an equally ornate altar affair (and one hopes the restorers do a good job! If it is anything like as good as that done to the church of the Zoodokos Pigi at Zarnata we're in for a treat)
More glories of the 18th century frescos, Dekoulou Monastery. The interior of the dome and the south side of the bema
The Monastery church is dedicated to the Panagia (Zoodokos Pigi - Life giving Spring) or Agii. Nikolaos and Panteliemon (there are certainly many scenes from the life of St. Nicholas on the walls of the bema) and was painted in 1765 by Anagiostes Demangeleas of Koutiphari. It has seen some political history as it was the meeting place for the Orlov brothers (sent by Catherine the Great to foment revolt against the Turks) and the Mani Kapetani just before the abortive Orlov Rebellion in 1770.
In the cliffs below Itilo and above the Dekoulou are a number of cave churches. Some such as that just above the Soter church are atmospheric but if it was painted these have disappeared. Above the Dekoulou is the tiny rock carved church of the Panagia which may be that described by Rogan as Razelianiki Panagia, or Spilaiotissa, she comments that it is known as the church of the Razelos family and that a resident monk, Alexios Komnenos, performed miracles here. To reach this it is best to take the higher track out of Itilo to the west (start from the eastern end of the cliff) walk out about 400 metres and drop down a steep and difficult path slanting off to the east just above the Dekoulou The path then follows the bottom of a cliff before doubling back on itself and up some steps to the church.
It is tiny and the frescoes, 18th or more probably 19th century(?), are damp and covered in candle smoke but it has a claustrophobic power and is an adventure to find.
Want to go east? then click here to go on to Kato Mani
Want to go south? - Then click here to go to Mesa Mani
Trans. "On the sea they attacked ships. On land they lured with false signals. Everywhere they pillaged and burned. Whether their crews wrecked Turks, Maltese, Egyptians, even Greeks was of little importance: they were unpityingly massacred or sold into slavery on the Barbary Coast" back to text