Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

In the southern Peloponnese, the island citadel of Monemvasía once enjoyed a key strategic location on major Mediterranean shipping routes. No wonder, therefore, that many have sought to secure control of the rock that is often referred to as 'the Greek Gibraltar'.

article summary —

It is a mark of the plight of modern Greece that no shipping line still serves Monemvasía. The Flying Dolphin hydrofoil, which used to speed from the Athenian port of Piraeus to Monemvasía in little more than three hours, has long since cut the island fortress from its schedules. The consolation prize was that, for some years after the hydrofoil was axed, a ferry linking Piraeus with Kissamos in north-west Crete still made a twiceweekly call at Monemvasía. But not in 2014. So it is that a community which was for so long defined by the sea is now bereft of maritime links. 

The great rock of Monemvasía is one of the wonders of the Peloponnese. Tethered to the far eastern shore of Laconia, it has rightly been dubbed the Greek Gibraltar. First impressions are of a barren and forbidding place, so much so that it seems hardly possible that the island was once one of the most important Byzantine ports and trading centres. Yes, Monemvasía once had more than 40,000 inhabitants. Fourteen centuries of continuous occupation have all left their mark and, although few people live there today, the island’s time-battered fabric bears witness to a unique history.

It is little wonder that Monemvasía has always tantalised those approaching it. The Cretan writer Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek, compared Monemvasía to a monstrous anvil. This shorn off mass of limestone is evidence of the violent tectonic upheavals which have shaped this part of Greece from Mount Párnon down to Cape Maléas. Once a promontory, Monemvasía became an islet after being partially submerged by a powerful earthquake in 375ad. It was later reconnected to the mainland by a man-made bridge, the moni emvasis (single entrance) after which it is named. 

From the coast Monemvasía appears deserted bar some jagged ruins on its crest and a cluster of more recent structures on its shoreline. Only by crossing the bridge and rounding the rock to the south do the three key features emerge: a walled Lower Town at the foot of the cliffs, with an extensive Upper Town on the plateau above, crowned by a Citadel. 

The God-guarded castle

According to the Greek geographer Pausanias it was the Minoans of Crete who first settled Monemvasía with commerce in mind — the rock overlooks the sea lane between the Bosphorus and the West — although no archaeologist has ever proved this. What is definite is that in the late 6th century the present town was founded by the Byzantine Emperor Maurice. 

Like Venice in its lagoon, Monemvasía’s natural defences made independent-minded people of its earliest inhabitants. The community quickly gained the status rank of metropolis — the Greek equivalent of an Italian mediaeval republic. By the 10th century it had grown into a significant Byzantine naval and commercial base. But whilst the Greek-speaking emperors in far-off Constantinople liked to call the rock their “Godguarded castle” in reality they retained loyalty from the Monemvasiótes through the granting of privileges. Uniquely for a city in the Byzantine Empire, Monemvasía managed thus to preserve its institutions of municipal autonomy and selfgovernment.

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Duncan JD Smith is an urban explorer, travel writer, historian, and photographer. He is the author of 'Only in Vienna', one of a series of guidebooks by Duncan that probe the hidden corners of various European cities.

This article was published in hidden europe 44.