Today a sleepy, coastal village, at the beginning of the 19th century Avlemonas was the scene of dramatic events. The Russians landed there to kick the French off the island.
On September 15th 1802, the few inhabitants witnessed a fateful shipwreck. A small sailing ship by the name of “Mentor” arrived from the East and was tossed and blown by violent westerly winds as it passed the formidable Cape Malea in the southern Peloponnese, notorious for its storms and shipwrecks. The captain was desperate: he didn’ know the area well and so attempted to reach the nearest harbour.
The winds only grew stronger. It was now a fully-fledged storm that hurled the boat against the rocks. It sank, up to its masts. Fortunately, the crew and passengers all managed to reach the shore and were saved. The captain was an Englishman, and therefore unaware of the local waters and the dangers they concealed.
The most distinguished man aboard was William Hamilton, the secretary of the sailboat’s owner, who was none other than the British ambassador in Constantinople. He wrote to the vice consul in Kythea to ask for his help.
Constantinople, 25th October 1802
A report has reached me that my brig, The Mentor, has sunk as it attempted to enter the port of Cerigo*. I therefore request that you grant any and all assistance possible to recover the boat and its cargo. On board are a number of crates containing stones of no particular value, but which are of great importance to myself.
The bearer of the present letter, Pietro Gavala, is heading for Kythera with the intention of recovering the crates, and is instructed to obtain any additional aid which he may require.
Special Ambassador for His Majesty to the Sublime Porte
The vice consul, a Kytheran by the name of Emmanuel Kaloutsis, replied with a suitably servile and unctious letter, promising to do whatever was required. He then began to act…
Kaloutsis’s voluminous correspondance bears witness to both his zeal and to the difficulties he encountered. He finally found workers from the island of Kalymnos, specialists in the local trade of sponge-fishing. For centuries, they had come to work in Kythera, and continue to do so today. They were the best qualified to dive into the Avlemonas bay and bring up whatever could be salvaged from the Mentor. And so they got down to work…
News of the shipwreck soon spread around the island. The Reverend Logothetis, an open-minded and intelligent man, related the sinking of the Mentor in his diary, noting that “the boat was loaded with some very important marble statues”.
The boat’s owner, who mentioned some ” stones of no particular value” was shamelessly lying, and the priest’s words were opportune. The ambassador in question was none other than Lord Elgin, and the crates contained a number of marbles illegally removed from the Parthenon in Athens, the famous Elgin marbles.
The treasure trove aroused a good deal of agitation in the area. Pirates who scoured the surrounding seas were said to be on their way from the neighbouring Mani peninsula. Kaloutsis begged the local authorities to protect the Mentor. Soldiers and weapons were hurriedly sent to the fort in Avlemonas.
The pirates were slow in coming. For their part, wealthy shipowners from Spetses formed an expeditionary corps to prevent the famous marbles from leaving Greece. They arrived too late however, as the sponge-fishers from Kalymnos had been very efficient. Everything that could be saved from the Mentor was salvaged, as this inventory demonstrates:
16 crates of marbles
1 marble chair and crate
1 wooden chest bearing the initials « LE »
2 12-inch cannons
12 crates containing various objects
1 horse’s saddle
1 demijohn of wine
1 black suitcase
1 black wallet
1 other black box
The captain’s chest
4 small cannons
1 large anchor
1 smaller anchor
Main mast sails
8 folded sails on deck
1 metal kitchen set
What the inventory didn’t reveal was that the crates contained a frieze from the Parthenon depicting the ” Winged Victory of Samothrace”, statues, bas-reliefs and other inestimable treasures that would, until the present day, become the object of a notorious and bitter controversy.
Kaloutsis, the Kalymnos fishermen, the captain of the Mentor and everyone else involved confirmed that the Mentor had been totally emptied of everything it contained. However, recent excavations have enabled a number of other objects, precious or not, to be brought up, which would have belonged to the crew and passengers.
We can perhaps continue to dream, however, and imagine that on the sea bed off the sleepy harbour of Avlemonas, may still lie a few marvellous relics from the Parthenon which, despite the terrible degradation inflicted by Lord Elgin, remains one of the finest ancient monuments in the world.
*name given by the Venitians to Kythera