Gillian Bouras
An Australian
Living in Greece

May 2012


I’m late again. My excuse this time is my quick trip to Athens in order to attend the stirring Anzac Day service at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Phaleron. Both this cemetery and the one at Souda Bay, on Crete, were designed by the same architect, and very beautiful they are. But the ages on the headstones break one’s heart: there were several marked 18, and a great many more marked Unknown Soldier. I looked at my middle son, who is in a marine commando in the Greek Army, and his two sons, aged 6 and 4, and counted my blessings.

There was a lighter side, however: we were all impressed by the sight of a very casually dressed older man, who was wearing a baseball cap printed with the Australian flag; his T-shirt bore the legend Proud to be Aussie. But he was carrying two flags, and I, for one, felt a catch at the throat as I saw the white cross and the blue-and-white stripes fluttering bravely next to the Southern Cross. And as I did when the bugler played the Last Post.

It was soon time to return. The trip between the Peloponnese and Athens shows the traveller many wonders, the most spectacular of which must be Acro-Corinth. Great Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis had advanced theories about fortresses, and he visited many in the Peloponnese. It was his belief that they exerted a mysterious fascination on man’s soul, and that in fact fortresses were a representation of the soul, that fortified point that we want never to surrender, the last refuge of conscience, self-respect and courage.

Kazantzakis referred to Acro-Corinth’s fortifications as a Byzantine, Frankish and Turkish crown atop the mountain mass that rears up from the comparative flatness of its surrounds. At the foot of the mountain lies the ancient city, renowned for its fleshpots: the inhabitants could not have been too pleased when Postie delivered carping letters from St Paul. While the mountain itself changes colour in the light and according to season, the walls of the fortress are a biscuit shade. And if those walls could only speak, having been dumb witness to all sorts of horrors. In 146 BC, for example, Roman Lucius Mummius laid siege to the city: when the siege was over, he put all male inhabitants to the sword, and sold the women and children into slavery. Works of art were sent to Rome, and the city was razed. But there is still a Corinth.

Kazantzakis was also fascinated by fortified Monemvasia, another monolith that rises, not from flat land, but from the sea in the south-eastern Peloponnese. He described it as being savage, imperious and isolated. At night, he wrote, it seemed to me a terrible beast lying in wait; in the light of dawn it gleamed above the water like a monstrous anvil. It, too, has had a chequered and bloody history.

Part of this history involved a certain Frankish prince. Kalamata-born William II de Villehardouin, who died in 1278, had earlier been the most powerful man in the Peloponnese. He was a troubadour and poet fluent in Greek and French, and had a retinue of eighty knights, while his court at Andravida, now a modest market town, was considered by all of contemporary western Europe to epitomise the ideals and practice of chivalry. William also built the castle atop the hill at ever-enchanting Mystras, near Sparta. In an interval of spare time he accompanied Louis IX of France on the Seventh Crusade. 

But William was also, it would seem, one of the most determined and obsessive of people: he desperately coveted Monemvasia, which has been called the Gibraltar of Greece. I have nothing! I have nothing if I don’t have Monemvasia! he is supposed to have declared. It took him three years of siege to subdue the settlement, and he succeeded only after the inhabitants had been reduced to eating rats; however, he learned eventually that the glories of our blood and state seldom last. Defeated in battle in 1259, he hid under a haystack, but was captured, taken far from home, and then forced to cede both Monemvasia and Mystras to the Byzantines, whose fortunes had suddenly improved.

Anzac Day always makes me thoughtful. The sheer tragic muddle of it. Yet what we have made of it: to the end of his days my grandfather regretted he had ‘missed out on’ Gallipoli: he spent nearly four years in Belgium and France instead. But while part of ANZAC tradition, Gallipoli, like Ancient Corinth and Mediaeval Monemvasia, is already part of history. It will last in more detail, however, because of the existence of written records, often maintained by quite ordinary people: the Boer War is considered the first ‘literate’ war.

Episodes in history fade, but war does not. It is, unfortunately, always with us.

Gillian Bouras


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Gillian Bouras 2018