The island of Cythera: I discovered this magical place thanks to one of its great admirers, my friend Fivos. He showed me her treasures, both known and unknown, and in particular, the splendid and terrifying ruins of Palaiochora.
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Fivos had a surprise for me. A peak upon which stands a medieval city with its ramparts, where trees and shrubs cling to the breathtakingly steep gorges that surround it. On the other side, precipitous cliffs of prodigious heights and a single opening that leads to the distant sea. A truly impressive site. Terrifying, with only the vegetation to soften severity of the jagged rocks. We began our journey through the ruins of the charming chapel of Saint Barbara, set so deep in the rocks that one can walk upon the roof. The chapel is little intact, her interior stripped of icons but full of atmosphere. Next we pass the ancient city gate. Ruined buildings, seemingly stacked atop one another and clusters of small chapels whose alcoves are full of ever-fading frescos, hold to each other above the emptiness below. Here, a file of saints, perfectly recognizable, there a gothic window. By the openings in the half ruined walls, the view is quite remarkable.
Palaiochora was designed with defense from pirates in mind. Fixed atop a peak, surrounded by deep ravines on all sides, with the exception of a single narrow passage leading to the city, the site is practically impenetrable. Additionally, the gorges are so vast that if one wanted to place cannons atop the cliffs that surround the city, the cannonballs would have lacked the required power to reach the city. Moreover, the ravines themselves are encircled by hills that keep the city out of sight. Because of all this, the city had prospered and, despite its small size, abounded with people. It was a rich, happy, and dynamic city, where commerce flourished and treasures accumulated. Its residents were so certain of being out of reach of the pirates that, with time, they relaxed their precautions.
One day, they negligently let the smoke from a fire rise high into sky. Sailors of a ship crossing the open sea saw the smoke. Unfortunately for Palaiochora, this ship was captained by the fiercest, most formidable, and invincible pirate of the era: Barbarossa himself.
It was probably the henchmen of the Ottoman sultan who inspired Barbarossa to lay waste the Greek islands. Barbarossa did not have to be told twice. He had already seized Corfu and other cities when, at the bow of his ship, he sailed past Cythera, which at first seemed deserted and uninteresting. Then, seeing the imprudent smoke rising into the sky, he wondered if the island might not more interesting than he had previously thought. He gave the order to drop anchor and sent a scouting party to the island. Lead by the smoke, this expedition quickly found the city tucked away within the rough countryside. Returning to their ship, they described what they had seen; Barbarossa began to salivate.Without hesitation, he decided he must to lay his hands on the city of Palaiochora and its treasure.
According to legend, it was a woman whom informed the pirates of the cities defenses. She was likely apprehended and tortured until she detailed the best way to take hold of the city. Unfortunately, we have no information on either the tactic or strategy he used to take possession of Palaiochora. It is said that he positioned his artillery on the high cliffs that surrounded the city. The city’s inhabitants were unaware of the progress that had been made regarding artillery during the centuries since the city’s establishment. Unfortunately for Palaiochora, the developments were quite significant, and at the time of Barbarossa arrival, the city’s walls were no longer out of reach. Barbarossa carefully finalized his tactic.
He relentlessly bombarded the city walls. His soldiers broke down the door situated at the end of a narrow passage that linked the city to the outside world while his commandos, under the cover of nightfall, scaled the steep slopes that protected Palaiochora and proceeded to attack the city from all sides. The resistance of the city’s garrison could not last long. Barbarossa’s troop invaded the city. Thus began the atrocious massacre. They killed men, women, and children, anyone who wasn’t killed was taken as a slave. The unfortunate refugees hiding in the churches were shown no mercy. Not a single one survived.
Then began the pillaging. The soldiers found immense treasure and amassed an enormous booty; leaving Barbarossa convinced he had not wasted his time. He left the city in ruins. Not a single building was spared. For a longtime afterwards, every Sunday during mass, the priests would pass thought the rows of the faithful, and ask for a coin from each one in order to repurchase those sold into slavery. Many were saved in this way and would see their country again. They received the family name Sklavos, slave, which their descendants still go by today.
Barbarossa, at the time, was 67 years old. He would live much longer still. After becoming Captain Pasha, the highest officer in the Ottoman navy, he would vanquish the Christians during the great naval battle at Préveza, which assured Ottoman dominion over the Mediterranean for decades. Finally taking a well-won retirement, he died in richness and glory.
In Istanbul, I often pass by his magnificent tomb, built by the most renowned Ottoman architect, Sinan, right next to what is today the first bridge to link Europe and Asia.
Palaiochora was ultimately abandoned. The few who had survived refused to return and relocated to the neighboring village of Trifyllianika. Ever since, Palaiochora has been rumored to be haunted. Greeks are not particularly fond of ghosts and nobody from the island of Cythera dares to approach the city at night. The rare few who have ventured there saw shadowy silhouettes in the ruins and heard groans and rising cries.
Eventually, the site was excavated. A number of infant skeletons were found in the nearby ravines. Tragically, mothers had preferred to throw their children to their death rather than let them fall into the hands of the pirates.
Fivos said to me: “Pnixe skila to lago sou dia na sosis to lao sou.” I was perplexed, he explained further.
A group of women, during the taking of the city, had escaped and taken refuge in a small grotto, the entrance of which was partially obscured by shrubs. The women could see nothing, but they could hear everything: the explosions, the cries of agony, and the cheers of victory.
When silence settled over the city, signifying that the city’s habitants had all been killed and the slaves taken away, the women understood the most dangerous moment had arrived. The pirates would now scour the nearby grounds for survivors. They had already killed those seeking refuge in the churches and various other hiding places within the city. The women knew that their survival, and that of their children, depended on their silence. Not a sound, not a movement, this was the only way to evade the bloodthirsty pirates.
It was at this exact moment that a newborn began to cry. If the pirates had heard these cries it would mean the end for the women as well as their children. Thus an old woman addressed the mother of the crying baby with the famous rude remark, “Pnixe skila to lago sou dia na sosis to lao sou,” “Bitch, drown your lamb to save your people.” The mother didn’t hesitate. She strangled her newborn. The silence returned.
The pirates didn’t find the grotto and soon returned to their ship. The women and their children were saved. The people sanctified the mother who didn’t hesitate to sacrifice her infant. They called her “Aghia Fonissa,” the Saint Murderer.
Excerpt from my book devoted to Cythera, Les chemins de l’amour et de l’éternité.