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Tower Houses

In classical times, the Mani was not very different from the rest of Greece. The real contrast with the rest of the country developed after the fall of the Roman Empire and the subsequent invasions that hastened the collapse of the Byzantine Empire and, ultimately, domination of the rest of Greece by the Ottoman Empire. Most significant was the fall of Mystras in 1460 causing many refugees to flee to the Mani. Survival in the now crowded peninsula depended on power and that in turn depended on ownership of land and water. Out of this constant struggle evolved a unique culture with its own traditions. It was undeniably violent but so was life elsewhere on the Peloponnese, especially for those who resisted Turkish domination, as Kolokotronis illustrates in his autobiography when he gives examples of the consequences of being captured alive by the Turks during his time as a klepht.

The struggle for power in the Mani was rooted in the need to obtain and control areas of valuable land and then to defend them against others with equal ambitions and the method of defence that evolved was the tower. This was explained by Colonel Leake when he wrote,

“Old Gianni Kolokotrones was killed at Androusa (Messinia) – his hands and feet were cut off, and he was then hung.” The same fate awaited “the old father of Panagioras” who was eighty years old. He was captured alive after a stalwart defence of his tower at Kastanitsa – “The hands and feet, however, of the aged warrior were amputated, and he himself was afterwards hung.”

Little wonder then that a klepht drinking toast was to “the good bullet” – the one that killed you outright.

A drastic preventative measure was also used among friends, – “When any of us was seriously wounded in a battle and could not be carried away, we all kissed him and then cut off his head. It was thought a great dishonour to have the Turks bear away one’s head.” It is against this backdrop that the Mani acquired a reputation for fiercely defending their land against the Turks, succeeding in maintaining a degree of autonomy not experienced elsewhere in Greece.

Each person of power and every head of a family of any influence has a “pyrgo” (tower), which is used almost solely as a tower of defence: the ordinary habitation stands at the foot of it. …in general these buildings are uninhabited except in times of alarm. To overturn the pyrgo of the enemy and to slaughter as many of his relations as possible, are the objects of every war. The tower has loopholes in the different stories and battlements on top, and he that can get a rusty swivel (small cannon) to plant upon them is not easily subdued. Most of the ordinary dwellings are built with loopholes in the walls; nor are the villages in which there is no inhabitant of sufficient opulence to build a pyrgo, the more peaceable on that account, but quarrel either among themselves or with their neighbours, and endeavour to overturn one another’s houses just like their betters.”

As well as serving an obvious military purpose, the towers were an outward sign of clan strength and unity. The height, strength and armament of a tower was an open display of power and the effort and resources required to build the tower showed the common purpose of the clan.

Over the years, three kinds of tower developed; the war tower, the tower house and the tower dwelling.

The war tower stood independent within a village or complex and was designed specifically for warfare. In peacetime they were manned by sentries but not usually inhabited by the clan. Their design of being tall and narrow was geared towards defence not habitation.

The tower house however had a dual purpose, as a lower house, usually connected to the tower itself, was where the local kapetanios lived. The logical development of this came largely post 1830 where the towers were much larger and wider, enabling the clan members to actually live in the tower.

By this time the tower dwellings were only required to protect a clan involved in a local feud, as the Turks had finally been defeated. This local rivalry also shaped

the design and function of the towers. There are some examples of isolated strongholds in both Inner and Outer Mani, for example the Mourtzinos fortification in Kardamyli or in the village of Agios Georgios, on the road to Mezapos. The latter serves as a very good model of a small, isolated clan stronghold. Here well-built, fortified houses surround a tall, thin war tower like the circled wagons of American pioneers in a defensive stance in the middle of a prairie. The view from the top of the tower would allow a sentry to give ample warning of hostile approach from any direction but there are very few firing loops or defensive features on the tower itself which suggests that, in this particular example, the main fighting defences were the houses themselves while the tower served as lookout and ‘command and control’ centre from which to conduct the defence. The flat, exposed site of this village made such a circular defence necessary whereas other villages used natural features such as hills, mountain slopes, ravines and escarpments in their defensive plans and these features dictated the strategic siting of towers and houses. Where different clans lived in close proximity, strength and unity was often demonstrated by the building of more than one tower and by the size and strength of the surrounding houses. This is well illustrated in villages like Vathia, Kita and Lagia where inter-family feuding was commonplace.

Morritt, ever the romantic, when describing clan areas draws a parallel with Lycurgus – the Spartan ‘law giver’ (Lycurgus is the traditional founder of Sparta’s

eunomia” – ‘good order’ – and according to Herodotus he brought all of Sparta’s laws and the military and political institutions to Sparta from Crete). “Their order of government is this, the land is still parcelled out in districts on Lycurgus’s own plan; on every one of these lives a family, supported by the villagers and people of that district, who are as free as their masters, with their guns on their shoulders; and thus the head family commands about four miles round about, and is indulgent to the others, who would otherwise destroy or desert it.”

He then goes on to say,

These rulers often make war on one another, and the plunders then committed bring them into the bad repute their neighbours give them. They acknowledge one man as Bey, who is united by family to many of them, and if attacked by the Turks take their guns, retire to the mountains, and, with a force of six thousand or seven thousand men, carry on a war that is the terror of the Ottoman Empire.”

 
 

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