Greece – Continental Greece

THE Pindus, which forms the central chain of Southern Turkey, passes over into Greece, and imparts to it an analogous orographical character. On both sides of this conventional boundary we meet with the saine rocks, the same vegetation, the same landscape features, and the same races of people. By dividing the Epirus and handing over Thessaly to the Turks, European diplomacy has paid no attention to natural features. The eastern portion of the boundary is made to follow the line of water parting over the range of the lofty Othrys, commanding the plain of the Sperchius. Westward of the Pindus the boundary crosses transversely the valley of the Achelous, and the hills which separate it from the Gulf of Arta.

The isolated summit of Mount Tymphrestus, or Velukhi, which rises where the grand chain of the Othrys branches off from the Pindus, is not the culminating point of continental Greece, but it is a centre from which the principal mountain spurs and rivers radiate. Within its spurs lies hidden the charming valley of Karpenisi, and an elevated ridge joins them, towards the south-east, to the most important mountain mass of modern Greece, viz. the group surmounted by the snow-clad pyramids of the Vardusia and Khiona, whose slopes are covered with dark firs, and to the superb Katavothra, the (Eta of the ancients, on which Hercules built his funeral pile. The mountains of Vardusia and Khiona are face to face with the fine mountain masses of Northern Mores, likewise wooded and covered with snow during the greater part of’ the year.

The mountains of AEtolia, to the west of’ the Velukhi and the Vardusia, are far less elevated, but they are rugged, and form a veritable chaos of rocks, savage defiles, and thickets, into which only ‘Wallachian herdsmen venture. In Southern AEtolia, on the shores of the lakes and along the rivers, the country is more accessible, but mountains rise there likewise, and by tortuous ridges they are brought into connection with the system of the Pindus. Those on the coast of Acarnania, opposite to the Ionian Islands, are steep, covered with trees and shrubs ; they are the mountains of the ” Black Continent ” mentioned by Ulysses.

To the east of the Achelous there is another coast chain, well known to mariners : this is the Zygos, the southern slopes of which, arid and austere, are seen from off Missolonghi. Still further to the east another range comes down to the seashore, and, together with the promontories on the opposite coast of the Mores, forms the narrow entrance to the Gulf of Corinth. Close to this entrance, on the AEtolian side, there rises bold Mount Varassova, a huge block of rock. Local tradition tells us that the Titans endeavoured to throw this rock into the sea, so that it might form a bridge between the two coasts ; but the rock proved too heavy, and it was dropped where we now see it.

Towards the AEgean Sea the mountain mass of the Katavothra is continued by a coast range running in a direction parallel to the mountains of the island of Euboea. This range should be described rather as a series of mountain-groups separated from each other by deep hollows, extensive depressions, and even by river valleys. These mountains, though low and intersected by numerous roads, are nevertheless difficult of access, for their slopes are steep, their promontories abrupt, and their precipices sudden, and in the times of the ancient Greeks a small number of men repeatedly defended them against large armies. At one extremity of this range is the passage of Thermopylae; at the other, on the eastern foot of the Péntelicus, the famous plain of Marathon.

The mountain groups on the northern shore of the Gulf of Corinth, and to the south of Boeotia, may be looked upon as a range running parallel with that following the channel of Euboea, but far more beautiful and picturesque. Every one of its summits recalls the sweet memories of poetry, or conjures up the image of some ancient deity. To the west we find ourselses in the presence of “double-headed ” Parnassus, to which fled Deucalion and Pvrrha, the ancestors of the Greeks, and where the Athenians celebrated their torchlight dances in honour of Bacchus. From the summits of the Parnassus, which rival in height those of the Khiona, raising its pyramidal head towards the north-west, nearly the whole of Greece, with its gulfs, islands, and mountains, lies spread out below us, from the Thessalian Olympus to the Taygetus, at the extremity of the Peloponnesus ; and close by, at our feet, lies the admirable basin of Delphi, the place of Peace and Concord, where Greeks forgot their animosities. The mountain group towards the east next to Parnassus is quite equal to it. The valleys of the Helicon, the seat of Apollo and the Muses, are still the most verdant and the most smiling in all Greece. The eastern slope of the Helicon is more especially distinguished for its charming beauty, its woods, its verdant pastures, gardens, and murmuring springs, which contrast most favourably with the bare and arid plains of Boeotia. If Mount Parnassus may boast of the Castalian spring, Mount helicon possesses that of Hippocrene, which burst forth from the ground when struck by the hoof of Pegasus. The elongated summit of the Cithoeron, the birthplace of Bacchus, joins the mountains of Southern Boeotia to those of Attica, whose marble has become famous through the neighbourhood of the city which they shelter. Mount Parnes rises to the north of Athens; to the east of it, like the pediment of a temple, rises the Péntelicus, in which are the quarries of Pikermi, rendered famous through their fossil bones; on the south appears Mount Hymettus, celebrated for its flowers and its bees. Farther away, the Laurium, with its rich argentiferous slags, stretches towards the south-east, and terminates in Cape Sunium, consecrated in other days to Minerva and Neptune, and still surmounted by fifteen columns of an ancient temple.

Another isolated mountain group to the south of Attica, and occupving the entire width of the Isthmus of Megara, served the Athenians as a rampart of defence against their neighbours of the Peloponnesus. This is the mountain group of Gerania, the modern Pera Khora. Having passed beyond it, we find ourselves upon the Isthmus of Corinth, properly so called, confined between the Gulfs of Athens and of Corinth. It is a narrow neck of land, scarcely five miles across, whose arid limestone rocks hardly rise two hundred feet above the sea. This neutral bit of territory, lying between two distinct geographical regions, naturally became a place for meetings, festivals, and markets. The remains of a wall built by the Peloponnesians across the isthmus may still be traced, as may also the canal commenced by order of Nero.

The limestone mountains of Greece, as well as those of the Epirus and of Thessaly, abound in lakes, but all the rivers are swallowed up in ” sinks,” or katavothras, leaving the laud dry and arid. Southern Acarnania, a portion of which is known as Xeromeros, or the ” arid country,” on account of the absence of running water, abounds in lake basins of this kind. To the south of the Gulf of Arta, which may not inaptly be described as a sort of lake communicating with the sea through a narrow opening, there are several sheets of water, the remains of an inland sea, silted up by the alluvial deposits of the Achelous. The largest of these lakes is known to the natives as Pelagos, or “big sea,” because of its extent and the agitated state of its waters, which break against its coasts. This is the Trichonius of the ancient AEtolians. Reputed unfathomable, it is, in truth, very deep, and its waters are perfectly pure ; but they are discharged sluggishly into another basin far less extensive, and surrounded by pestilential marshes, and through a turgid stream they even find their way into the Achelous. The hills surrounding Lake Trichonis are covered with villages and fields, whilst the locality around the lower lake has been depopulated by fever. The countrv, nevertheless, is exceedingly beautiful to look upon. Hardly have we passed through a narrow gorge, or klisura, of Mount Zygos before we enter upon a bridge over a mile in length, which a Turkish governor caused to be thrown across the swamps separating the two lakes. This viaduct has sunk down more than half its height into the mud, but it is still sufficiently elevated to enable the eye freely to sweep over the surface of the waters, and to trace the coasts which bound them. Oaks, planes. and wild olive-trees intermingle beneath us, their branches hung with festoons of wild vine, and these, with the blue waters of the lake and the mountains rising beyond it, form a picture of great beauty.

Another lake basin lies to the south of the Zygos, between the alluvial lands of the Achelous and the Fidari. It is occupied by a swamp filled with fresh, brackish, or salt water; and since the days of ancient Greece, this swamp, owing to the apathy of the inhabitants, has continued to increase in extent at the expense of the cultivated land. Missolonghi the heroic is indebted for its name to its position near these marshes, for the meaning of it is “centre of marshes.” A barrier, or ramma, here and there broken through by the floods, separates the basin of Missolonghi from the Ionian Sea. During the war of independence every opening in this barrier was protected by redoubts or stockades, but at present the only obstruction consists of the reed barriers of the fishermen, which are opened in spring to admit the fish from the sea, and closed in summer to prevent their escape. Missolonghi, though surrounded by brackish water, is a healthy place, thanks to the breezes from the sea ; whilst a heavy atmosphere charged pith miasmata hangs perpetually over the bustling little town of ]toliko (Anatolikon), which lies farther to the north-west in the midst of the swamps, and is joined to the dry land by two bridges. Both een l-Etoliko and the river Achelous may be observed a large number of rocky eminences, rising like pyramids above the plain. These are no doubt ancient islands, such as still exist between the mainland and the island of St. Mauro. The mud brought down by the Achelous has gradually converted the interyals between these rocks into dry land. In former times the commercial city of OEniadae occupied one of these islets. The geological changes already noticed by Herodotus are thus still going on under our eyes, and the muds of the Achelous, to which it owes its modern name of Aspro, or ” white,” incessantly extend the laud at the expense of the sea.

The Achelous, which the ancients likened to a savage bull, owing to its rapid current and great volume, is by far the most imporlant river of Greece. One of the great feats ascribed to Hercules consisted in breaking off one of the horns of this bull; that is to say, he embanked the river, and thus protected the lauds which it used to inundate. The neighbours of the Aehelous, the rapid Fidari (Eyenus, on the banks of which Hercules killed the centaur Nessus, for offering yiolence to Dejanira) and the Mornos, which rises in the snows of the (Eta, cannot compare with it. Still less is it equalled by the Oropus, the Cephissus, and the Ilissus, ” wet only when it ra;ns,” which flow eastward into the Egean Sea. The principal river of Eastern Greece, the Sperchius, is inferior to the Achelous, but, like it, has extensively changed the aspect of the plain near its mouth. When Leonidas and his three hundred heroes guarded the defiles of Thermopv-1 e against the Persians, the Gulf of Lamia extended much farther into the land than it does now. But the alluvial deposits of the river have extended its delta, and several rivulets which formerly flowed directly into the sea have now to be numbered amongst its tributaries; the sea has retired from the foot of the Callidromus for a distance of several miles; and the narrow pass of Theruiopylae has been converted into a plain sufficiently wide to enable an entire army to manoeuvre upon it. The hot springs which gush from the rocks, by forming deposits of calcareous tufa, may likewise have contributed towards this change of coast-line; nor are more violent convulsions of nature precluded in a volcanic region like this, subject to frequent earthquakes. Sailors still point out a small island in this neighbourhood, formed of scorïae, from which the incensed Hercules hurled his companion, Lichas, into the ocean. Hot springs abound on the opposite coast of Euboea, and the incrustations formed by them are so considerable as to assume the appearance of glaciers when seen from a distance. A bathing establishment exists now near the hot sulphur springs of Thermopylæ, and strangers are thus enabled to explore this region, so rich in memories of a great past. The pedestal, however, upon which reposed the figure of a marble lion, placed there in honour of Leonidas, has been destroyed by ruthless hands, and utilised in the construction of a mill !

The basin of the Cephissus, enclosed by the chains of the OEta and Parnassus, is one of the most remarkable from an hydrological point of view. The river first flows through a bottom-land formerly a lake, and then, forcing for itself n passage through a narrow defile commanded by the spurs of Mount Parnassus, it winds round the rock upon which stood the ancient city of Orchomenus, and enters upon a vast plain, where swamps and lakes are embedded amidst cultivated fields and reed-banks. These swamps are fed, likewise, by numerous torrents descending from the Helicon and other mountains in its vicinity. One of these is the torrent of Livadia, into which the bounteous springs of Memory and Oblivion—Mnemosyne and Lethe—discharge themselves. In summer a large portion of the plain is dry, and it yields a bountiful harvest of maize, the stalks of which are sweet like sugar-cane. But after the heavy rains of autumn and winter the waters rise twenty, and even twenty-five feet, and the plain is converted into a vast lake, ninety-six square miles in extent. The myth of the deluge of Ogyges almost leads us to believe that the rising floods occasionally invaded every valley which debouches into this basin. To the ancients the shallower part of this lake was known as Cephissus, and its deep eastern portion as Copais, from Copse, a town occupying a promontory on its northern shore, and now called Topolias.

The importance of regulating the floods just referred to, and of preventing the sudden overflow of the waters to the destruction of the cultivated fields, may readily be imagined. ‘I he ancient Greeks made an effort to accomplish this task. To the east of the large Lake of Copais there is another lake basin, about one hundred and thirty feet lower, and encompassed by precipitous rocks, incapable of cultivation. This basin, the Hylice of the Boeotians, appears to be made by nature for receiving the superabundant waters of the Copais. The remains of a canal may still be traced in the plain, which was evidently intended to convey into it the floods of the Copais, but it appears never to have been completed. No doubt care was taken to keep open the various katarothras, or subterranean channels, through which the waters of the Copaic lake discharge themselves into the sea. One of these, on the north-western shore of the lake, and close to the rock of Orchomenus, swallowed up the river Melas, and conveyed its waters to the Gulf of Atalanta. Farther to the east other subterranean channels flow towards Lakes Hylice and Paralimni, but the most important of these channels are towards the north-east, in the Gulf of Kokkino. In that extreme angle of the lake, the veritable Copais, the waters of the Cephissus rush against the foot of Mount Skroponeri, and are swallowed up by the ground so as to form a subterranean delta. To the south there is a cavernous opening in the rock, but this is merely a sort of tunnel passing underneath a promontory, and, except during the rainy season, it may be traversed dry-shod. Beyond this, another opening swallows up one of the most important branches of the Cephissus, which makes its reappearance in the shape of bounteous springs pouring their waters into the sea. Two other branches of the river disappear in the rocks about a mile farther north. They join soon afterwards, and flow northwards beneath the bottom of a sinuous valley. The old Greek engineers dug pits in this valley, which enabled them to descend to the subterranean waters, and to clear away obstructions interfering with their flow. Sixteen of these pits have been discovered between the opening of the katavothra and the place where the waters reappear. Some of these are still thirty to one hundred feet in depth ; but most of them have become choked up with stones and earth. These ancient engineering works, which Crates airily endeavoured to restore in the time of Al exander, may possibly date from the mythical age of King Minyas of Orchomenus, and the successful draining of these marshes may account for the well-filled treasury of that king spoken of by Homer. Thus the ingenuity of the Homeric age had succeeded in accomplishing a work of the engineering art which baffles our modern men of science !

The whole of Western Greece, filled as it is by the mountains of Acarnania, AEtolia, and Phocis, is condemned by nature to play a very subordinate part to the eastern provinces. In the time of the ancient Greeks these provinces were looked upon almost as a portion of the world of the barbarians, and even in our own days the .AEtolians are the least cultivated of all the Greeks. There is no commerce except at a few privileged places close to the sea, sueh as Missolonghi, AEtoliko, Salona, and Galaxidi. The latter, which is situated on a bay, into which flows the Pleistus, a river at one time consecrated to Neptune, although quite dry during the greater part of the year, was, up to the war of independence, the busiest seaport on the Gulf of Corinth. As for Naupactus, or Epakto, (called Lepanto by the Italians), it was important merely from a strategical point of view, on account of its position at the entrance of the Gulf of Corinth, which is sometimes named after it. Many naval engagements were fought to force the entrance into the gulf, defended by the castles of Rumelia and Morea—the ancient Rhium and Antirrhium. A curious phenomenon has been observed in connection with the channel which forms the entrance to the Gulf of Corinth. Nowhere more than 36 fathoms in depth, it is subject to perpetual changes in its width, owing to the formation of alluvial deposits by maritime currents. What one current deposits is carried away by the other. At the epoch of the Peloponnesian war this channel was 7 stadia, or about 1,200 yards, wide ; at the time of Strabo its width was only 5 stadia; whilst in our own days it is no less than 2,200 yards from promontory to promontory. The entrance of the Gulf of Arta, between the Turkish Epirus and Greek Acarnania, does not present the saine phenomena, and its present width is about equal to that assigned to it by every ancient author; that is to say, about 1,000 yards.

The valleys and lake basins of Eastern Greece, and more especially its position between the Gulf of Corinth, the AEgean Sea, and the channel of Euboea, which almost convert it into a peninsula, sufficiently aceount for the prosperity of that country. With its cities of Thebes, Athens, and Megara, it is essentially a land of historical remin scences. The contrast between the two most important districts of this region—Boeotia and Attica—is very striking. The first of these is an inland basin, the waters of which are collected into lakes, where mists accumulate, and a rich vegetation springs forth from a fat alluvial soil. Attica, on the other hand, is arid. A thin layer of mould covers the terraces of its rocky slopes ; its valleys open out into the sea; the summits of its mountains rise into an azure sky ; and the blue waters of the AEgean wash their base. Had the Greeks been fearful of the sea ; had the. confined themselves, as in the earliest ages, to the cultivation of the soil, Boeotia, no doubt, would have retained the preponderance which it enjoyed in the time of the Minyae of wealthy Orchomenus. But the progress of navigation and the allurements of commerce, which proved irresistible to the Greeks, were bound by degrees to transfer the lead to the men of Attica. The city of Athens, which arose in the midst of the largest plain of this peninsula, therefore occupied a position which assured to it a grand future.

The choice of Athens as the modern capital of Greece has been much criticized. Times have changed, no doubt, and the natural centres of. commerce have become shifted, in consequence of the migrations of nations. Corinth, on the isthmus joining continental Greece to the Peloponnesus, and commanding two seas, undoubtedly deserved the preference. Its facilities for communicating with Constantinople and the Greek maritime districts still under the rule of the Osmanli, on the one hand, and with the western vi orld, from which now proceed all civilising impulses, on the other, are certainly greater than those of Athens. If Greece, instead of a small centralised kingdom, had become a federal republic, which would have been more in accordance with her genius and traditions, there is no doubt that other towns of Greece, more favourably situated than Athens for establishing rapid communications with the rest of Europe, would soon haye surpassed that town in population and commercial wealth. Athens, however, has grown upon its plain, and, by the construction of a railway, it has become even a maritime city, as in ancient days, when its triple walls joined it to the ports of the Piraeus and Phalerum.

But how great the difference between the monuments of the ancient city and of the modern ! The Parthenon, though gutted by the shells of the Venetian Morosini, and robbed since of its finest sculptures, still retains its pure and simple beauty, which agrees so well with the sobriety of the surrounding landscape—still remains the finest architectural work of the world. By the side of this majestic ruin, on the same plateau of the Acropolis, where the mariner in the Gulf of .AEgina saw the gilt spear-head of Athene Promachos glitter in the sun, there rise other monuments, the Erechtheum and the Propylaea hardly inferior to it, and dating likewise from the great period of art. Outside the city, on a promontory. rises the temple of Theseus, the best-preserved monument of Greek antiquity. Elsewhere, on the banks of the Ilissus, a group of columns marks the site of the magnificent temple of Olympian Jupiter, which it took the Athenians seven hundred years to build, and which their degenerate descendants made use of as a quarry. Remarkable remains have been discovered in many other parts of the ancient city, and the least of them are of interest, for they recall the memory of illustrious men. On such a rock sat the Areopagus which condemned Socrates ; from this stone tribune Demosthenes addressed the multitude ; and here walked Plato with his disciples !

A similar historical interest attaches to nearly every part of Attica, whether v .-e visit the city of Elcusis, where the mysteries of Ceres were celebrated, or the city of Megara, with its double Acropolis, or whether we explore the field of Marathon and the shores of the island of Salamis. Even beyond Attica the memories of the past attract the traveller to Plataea, to Leuctra, Chaeronea, Thebes of OEdipus, and Orchomenus of Minyas, though, in comparison with what these districts were in other times, they are now deserts. In addition to Athens and Thebes, there are now only two cities in eastern continental Greece which are of any importance. These are Lamia, in the midst of the low plains of the Sperchius, and Livadia, in Boeotia, at one time celebrated for the cavern of Trophonius, which archœologists have not yet succeeded in identifying. The island of AEgina, which belongs to Attica, offers the same spectacle of decay and depopulation as the mainland. Anciently it supported more than two hundred thousand inhabitants ; at present it hardly numbers six thousand. But the island still retains the picturesque ruin of its temple of Minerva, and the prospect which it affords of the amphitheatre of hills in Argolis and Attica is as magnificent as ever.