Pelasgia, Aeolia, Thessaly, different names same place in prehistory and history

Peneus River running on the outskirts of Kalampaka town, has been throughout the centuries the main basis and a driving force behind our history, civilization, economy and the development of our way of life in general. This is the reason why the earliest remains of human presence here have been discovered near the banks of this river. Peneus river god was the child of Oceanus and Tethys. In the Greek mythology the plain of Thessaly became known as one of the main battle grounds in the war between the Gods and the Titans.

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Thessalian plain and Penios river as seen from St. Stephen monastery in Meteora

Away from myths and according to the latest archeological findings man’s presence in the region is very old starting at the Mid-Paleolithic era, about 130.000 years ago and continued continued uninterrupted till our present day. In recent years important artifacts as well as human’s remains have been uncovered at Theopetra cavern near Meteora, where very significant excavations are being held continuously over the last 25 years. The last glacial period of the Paleolithic era started to retreat and the region’s climate slowly began to warm about 16000 years ago. This climate change lasted for another 8000 years and by the end of this period the early waves of agricultural revolution had already reached and swept the plain of Thessaly, while the domestication of animals was achieved some 2.000 years later! It’s really fascinating to know that very few places on Earth outside Mesopotamia can yield with such consistency the successive evolutionary stages of man’s agricultural revolution. And Thessaly plain is noted as one of those rare places!

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Neolithic settlement of Dimini

This “boom” of Thessaly’s Neolithic economy was mainly marked by the mass population movements, as well as from the creation of the first permanent settlements like Sesklo and Dimini mainly on the Eastern part of Thessaly closer to the Aegean Sea. That last wasn’t without a good reason because the Aegean sea along with it’s many islands it must have served at the time as a line of communication with Minor Asia and the Messopotamia. Sesklo enjoyed its heyday around 5500 BC. The community covered an area of more than 13 hectares and its population could not have been more than a few hundred inhabitants. The buildings at Sesklo had stone foundations and a “superstructure of pisé”, crowned by a gable of hip roof made of a thick layer of clay on a timber frame.” Most of them where one-roomed measuring between10 to 50 square meters.

Dimini covers on the other hand an area of 0.8 hectares, with the astonishing fact about this site being the six concentric circular enclosures. Initially it was thought that represented defensive walls but more recent reexamination points to better organization of the land. Dimini was established sometime after 5000 BC and its buildings are within the concentric circles mentioned above. On that same period Thessaly was known by the name of Pelasgia and its Neolithic inhabitants as Pelasgians.

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Neolithic pottery from Dimini

During the early 20th century, archaeological excavations conducted by the Italian Archaeological School and by the American Classical School on the Athenian Acropolis and on other sites within Attica revealed Neolithic dwellings, tools, pottery and skeletons from domesticated animals (i.e., sheep, fish). All of these discoveries showed significant resemblances to the Neolithic discoveries made on the Thessalian acropolises of Sesklo and Dimini. These discoveries help provide physical confirmation of the literary tradition that describes the Athenians as the descendants of the Pelasgians, who appear to descend continuously from the Neolithic inhabitants in Thessaly.

At about 1200 BC during the Mycenaean period in Thessaly region, became known at that time by the name of Aeolia, a considerable number of bigger in size settlements were developed that became strong enough to allow their participation on the Greek expeditionary force to conquer Troy. Those cities were Trikki (present today Trikala) Oechaliae and Ithomi along with Aeginion (present day Kalampaka) and formed under the name of Estiaeotis one of the four administrative regions of the ancient Thessalian confederation. The Thessalian confederation it lasted until 353 BC when in the aftermath of the Macedonian victory in battle of Crocus Field of King Phillip II against the Phocians, that the Thessalians appointed King Philip “Archon” of Thessaly. This was an appointment for life, and gave Philip, the father of Alexander the Great, control over all the revenues of the Thessalian Confederation, and furthermore made Philip leader of the united Thessalian army!  From that point on Thessaly became one of the closest allies of Macedonians and they remained so until the arrival of Romans in the 2nd century BC and the battle of Cynoscephalae in 197 BC. Few years later Thessaly was annexed by the Roman Empire like the rest of Greece and along with Macedonia they became a Roman province.

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Meteora and its people

Since the early beginning of the touristic development of Meteora, most of its visitors who come here to admire the famous monasteries and the impressive rock landscape, one thing tend to ignore the most and that is its local people. It is people who largely influence the surroundings and people at the end of the day are the ones who write the history of each place they reside.

Going far back into time when history itself becomes legend and legends into myths, Homer tells us the story of our people in the Iliad. Our ancestors were present onboard the 30 ships of the Machaon and Podalirius who took part on the war of Troy. And alongside the 2 sons of the “father of medicine” Asclepius our people fought on the walls of Troy! Our people from Meteora, who latter witnessed the golden age of classical Greece and formed their own city state under the name of Eginion, made their own coins and built a temple dedicated to Apollo on the present day church of Virgin Mary in Kalampaka. It was the same people of Meteora who contributed many of their horses to form the fierce Thessalian cavalry, the finest cavalry of Greece riding next to Alexander the Great.

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Alexander the Great crossing the Granicus river

And under the commandment of Alexander they fought and died on the numerous battlegrounds, fighting to subdue the great Persian Empire. Granicus, Issus, Gaugamela. These proud Thessalians stood alongside their great King all the way to the high mountains of Hindu-Kush, witnessing the edges of the then known world and reaching the doorsteps of Himalaya. Many years later, the people of Meteora saw the countless roman legions marching with their generals and passing through Pindos Mountains narrow passes on their way to either Italy or to the east.

And then a new religion came and the gods of the old all but changed; but in reality the change was not that deep. In most instances only the names of the shrines and the names of the old rituals and of the paganistic festivities changed. But even then, what was considered at the time to be a new building or a new construction, most of them were all based upon the same old recycled marbles and stones they took from the now laid ruined temples of the old gods like our Virgin Mary church. The same people who built the magnificent ancient temples of Greece they were now building Christian churches and monasteries to worship the One true God.

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The inside of the church of Virgin Mary in kalampaka

And the name of our town was also changed from its ancient Eginion to its middle ages name, the name of Staggi. The humble people of Meteora helped the first monks to build their monastic communities high up on the rocks. They provide shelter to many Byzantine Emperors and the princes who all came here to pay their respects to the monasteries and the many hermits who used to dwell among the caves of the area.

Those hermits lived here in a complete isolation, constantly praying day and night, maintaining an almost absolute disregard for their biological needs, either for cold, hunger, or disease. Their only purpose in life was to connect with the Divine powers and attain enlightenment. Nothing else mattered for them. We can only imagine what kind of spiritual giants and Saints must have walked among the people of Meteora during that times! Many of the hermitages are still visible even today inside the caves.

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The caves where the hermits used to live in Meteora

And in years when crops were not that good and monks of the monasteries high up on the rocks suffered, it was the local people who provided them with what they needed to sustain themselves.

And then the Ottoman Turks came and the name of our town was changed yet again to Kalambaka! “Kale-bak” in Turkish it means strong fortified position. That’s how they named our town and we gave them a good reason to do so. Within the dreadful Ottoman rule, thousands upon thousands of our people perished on the numerous revolts and the local uprisings. Like the one in 1808, when Efthimios Vlahavas who was born in a village just few km away from Meteora, gave a hopeless battle for freedom against the Ottoman Turks next to the monastery of Ypapanti. Today’s visitors can still see his statue standing beside the monastery of Ypapanti to commemorate his sacrifice for freedom.

And it was this urge for freedom so cherished by our people, that when again upon the calling of faith to rise up one more time to defend our freedom and democracy during the 2nd World War, our people answered the call. Without allies we stood all alone and fought the invading forces of Axis for 6 whole months. And it was the ordinary people from Kalampaka, Trikala, and Kastraki who like the Spartans in Thermopylae before them, they manage to stop an entire Italian offensive on the early spring of 1941 on the Albanian front.

Our people fought nonstop for 17 consecutive days in the battle for the anonymous hill 731. Less than 700 men of the II/5 Thessalian battalion stood up against the assault of an entire Italian Corps of more than 100.000 soldiers. And from those 700 less than half survived the offensive. And yet despite the overwhelming odds, despite our people being vastly outnumbered and outgunned, somehow almost miraculously they manage to hold the line till the end and rise from this hell victorious. Even though the price they had to pay was very heavy.

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The anonymous hill 731 after the battle

Men who survived upon their return told stories that when they were fighting up there on the anonymous hill 731 on the spring of 1941, they all had this gut feeling that along their side were fighting all the great heroes of our past. Achilles, Odysseus, Themistocles, Leonidas, they were all there with them up on that hill. Even today some of them they still swear of seeing apparitions and hearing the battle cries of ancient hoplite warriors encouraging them over the trenches not to lose courage and to keep fighting. And they gave fascists a hell of a fight to remember. Those are some of the real stories behind the monuments, the real history of my people.

Eons have passed, like waves of time constantly breaking upon the thick rocks of Meteora and all that remains are those rich memories of people’s myths, legends and the stories told from mouth to mouth to each generation that comes; ensuring that way the continuity and the feel of unity among our people, the people of Meteora.