Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Greece ~ Sailing In the Pirates' Wake

 Ahoy, Mateys! Permission to come aboard is granted. . . 

We are sailing off on a trip through history; a trip that follows a section of rugged coastline near our home in the Mani region of the Greek Peloponnese on waters once plied by pirates.

Setting off in the pirates wake - Greek Peloponnese

That's right. Pirates! Move over Johnnie Depp and Jack Sparrow - the Caribbean has nothing on the Mediterranean when it comes to pirates. . .aside from a blockbuster movie, maybe!   While you've probably heard much about Greece's ancient cities and civilizations and philosophers, I bet many of you haven't thought of pirates as a part of the country's history.

Messinian Bay- Greek Peloponnese

Frankly, neither had we until we moved here and started hearing local pirate lore. In all fairness -- as many tale-tellers note -- there was a rather vague dividing line between "free" trade and piracy in these parts.  A young Greek friend of ours once said with a laugh, "They teach about my ancestors in school saying they were heroes, but they were pirates!"

Areas of the Mani remain dry and barren to this day

The emergence of pirates in the Mani is said to have been in the 1600's. Many attribute the Mani's harsh unforgiving landscape, infertile soil and dry - drought-like - conditions for sending settlers, who couldn't make a living on land to the sea to seek their fortunes. 

Just the word 'pirate' brings to mind a high seas adventurer and is often used interchangeably with corsairs, privateers and buccaneers. However, each of those monikers has a slightly different definition. Take these two for example:

Remains of an ancient harbor

Pirates were raiders who acted autonomously - their aim was for their own benefit. The word comes from the Greek verb 'peiromai' meaning to endeavor. 

Corsairs operated on behalf of his sponsor and that sponsor could have been a nation or a member of an aristrocratic elite. It comes from the Latin words: curro - 'to run' and cursus for 'course'.

The Mani was a particularly good, strategic position for piracy because it is located between the eastern and western Mediterranean. Its coastline in many areas is rocky, sheer cliffs. 

Map credit - Maniguides.info

While there were many pirates who sailed the sea, here they also perfected a  pretty clever type of piracy, a land piracy. The story goes that in the region of Thyrides, -- meaning 'windows' as the many caves in the sheer cliffs there were called --  land pirates in the caves kept watch for passing ships. They would extinguish lighthouse lights, then put lights on the rocky shoreline or attach them to goat bells so the ships would run aground.  Then they would loot them and take the humans on board as hostages. That area is today known as  the area of Cavo Grosso near present-day Gerolimenas. 

Bay at Gerelimenos once a pirate stronghold


That stretch of coastline from Cape Tainaro north along the western coast (left side on the map below) was said to be feared by sailors through the ages. Travel guides in the 18th century urged ships to keep a safe distance from shore when traveling past the Mani.

Pirate s from Cape Tainaro up the western coast

The coastal village of Oitylo, was called by foreign travelers, the 'Grand Algiers' as result of excessive piracy and the slave trade that took place there. The pirates took hostages and either used them as ship rowers, demanded ransom for their release if they had ties to wealth or sold them as slaves.

Oitylo village overlooks this bay

"Piracy from land and the slave trade that was taking place in Oitylo reminded of Algiers, the major slave trade center of North Africa," write authors of the book, 'Piracy in the Mediterranean, The Mani Pirates.'  

Such a label it had that Jules Verne in his 1884 adventure novel set in the Greek Peloponnese during its War of Independence, The Archipelago on Fire even mentions 'Grand Algiers'.

Mani coastline - Peloponnese


No one can say for sure how much piracy took place in our area but names of local pirates continue to be passed down through the generations - they are remembered as both villains and heroes as many of them fought in the Greek War of Independence.

Today the bays near Oitylo and Gerelimenos are popular tourist destinations and draw thousands of visitors to the Mani.  The days of piracy are long gone.  But vivid reminders of those days still remain as one sails along in the pirates' wake.

Caves near our home in the Mani

On our recent adventure with Captain Antonis (that I wrote about a few weeks ago, Fishing Tradition and Tourism) we got a great view of the caves near our home where locals tell us that villagers once hid from pirates. 

Another fortress on the sheer cliffs

A bit further down the coast as we exclaimed about what appeared to be a fortress built into the sheer wall on the coastline, the captain simply replied, 'It was a time of pirates.'



Well, me hearties (that is friends, in pirate lingo) thus ends our tale for today.  We are always thankful for your time and send wishes for continued health in this time of pandemic and continued lockdowns and curtailments.  

Those wanting more information on Mani history and piracy should read the book mentioned above as well as Mani sections in Desolation Road and Zorbas websites.

We'll be back soon with more tales of travel and expat adventures ~ hope we'll see you then!

Linking soon with:

Mosaic Monday
Through My Lens
Travel Tuesday
Our World Tuesday
My Corner of the World Wednesday
Wordless Wednesday

2 comments:

  1. What a fun adventure that must have been. While there were plenty of pirates near the shores of the U.S., it would be fun to scout out their journeys along the coast of Greece. It also gives a good reason to take in the amazing landscape.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I think a lot of early European explorers also indulged in a bit of what we would call piracy! It was certainly the case with the English explorers of the 16th century.

    ReplyDelete

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