Kalamata is the city of southwestern Peloponnese and the capital of Messinia. It is the second largest city in the Peloponnese after Patras and it is 255 km away from Athens, the capital of Greece. The city lies along the Nedon river at the head of the Messenian Gulf and it is believed that Kalamata is one of the most charismatic cities due to its geographical position and its mild Mediterranean climate, which makes the city an administrative, commercial and financial center. The main economic source of Kalamata is agriculture, more specifically the production of olive oils which give Kalamata a huge reputation as well as figs, raisins, fruit and of course tourism especially during the summer period. The city’s modern name is a corruption of the older name Kalámai and it first appeared in 1142 during the third part of the Life of Saint Nikon “Repent». However, the most substantiated aspect is that it originated from the reeds of the Nedon river. The city is inhabited by 69.849 people according to the 2011 census and it includes 13 municipality districts stretching from the city’s west lowlands all the way up to Taygetos mountain and the west coast. We can say that Kalamata compared to other Greek cities has a fairly recent history. It has experienced Turkish hegemony, natural disasters, Greek rebellion struggle and it has also been the birthplace of many important personalities too. From the early ages up to the city’s modern period, we can witness a dynamic city with emblematic position in the history of Greece. All these features will be discussed below.
First of all, from the get-go we need to clarify that the beginning of the history of Kalamata is difficult to be defined because it is lost in the mists of time. Homer, the legendary author of the Iliad and the Odyssey was the first to mention an ancient city called “Pharai”(Φαραί) as one of the seven cities that Agamemnon offered to Achilles to ease his anger and it is situated more or less in the position where the Kalamata Castle stands today. Archaic and proto-Greek remains (Poseidon temple) that were found in Akrovitika region came to prove that the city during these ancient times was not covered by the sea, although it was commonly believed so. Furthermore, starting from the EH era (2600-2300 BC) traces of human life have been found by archaeologists in Akrovitika region situated 2-3 km southwest of Kalamata. The city’s history line includes the domination of Sparta (8th-4th century BC), the Franks (1205 AD), Venetians (1685-1715 Mch) and lastly the Turks.
- Middle ages
Kalamata until was non-recognized by Byzantine forces until Byzantine middle times and it was first mentioned in 10th century Life of St. Nikon the Metanoete Byzantine monk. At least five surviving churches dating back to 11-12th centuries show considerable activity at that period. Among these, the most remarkable artifact is the Church of the Holy Apostles. This can be proved too by the Arab geographer al-Idrisi, who calls Kalamata a “large and populous” town. Also, the castle of Kalamata was the “acropolis” of ancient Pharai and was refortified several times during the Byzantine era. The Latins too gave the castle a double circuit of walls after they rebuilt it. Furthermore, following the Fourth Crusade, Kalamata was conquered by William I. of Champlitte in 1205 and was given to Geoffrey I. Villehardouin. William II. Villehardouin was born and died there too. After his death, the town remained in possession of his widow, Anna Komnene Doukaina and in 1282 Anna exchanged the castle with lands elsewhere in Messenia after she remarried to Nicholas II of Saint Omer. The city was then taken by two locals neighboring Melingoi (Slavic tribe) Slavin captains in 1292 or 1293 after they captured the castle by a ploy and with the help of 600 villagers. They took over the whole town as well in the name of Andronikos II. Palaiologos. John Chauderon tried without any success to secure their surrender and soon after the city was retaken by the Franks thanks to an intervention of a local Greek. From 1298 until 1322 Kalamata was Matilda’s of Hainut settlement upon her marriage to Guy II de la Roche. Moreover, Kalamata was given as a gift from Prince Robert to his wife Marie de Bourbon until her death in 1377.The city remained a possession of the Principality of the Achaia until the end of the principality in 1428, when it came briefly under Byzantine control. In the second half of the 15th century and later it was contested between the Ottomans and the Venetians.
- Earliest history
The growth of Kalamata started with the Frankish occupation from 1205 until 1381. After the 4th Crusade and the Fall of Constantinople, Kalamata and Peloponnese was conquered by Frank knights. The Villehardouins, a French noble family governed Kalamata from 1210 to 1278 and they brought some major changes to the city. First of all, when Geoffroi de Villehardouin I became the leader of the Principality of Achaea (1205-1218), he managed to rebuilt the ruined castle and made it the symbol of dispute in Kalamata. Furthermore, his son Guillaume II de Villehardouin was born in the castle of Kalamata and later on he became the most distinguished ruler of the Principality (1246-1278). Kalamata was under Frank possession until 1410 when the city became part of the Byzantine part of Mystras. Before that, the city was briefly captured by 2 Slavin captains as mentioned in the previous paragraph in 1292-1293 and by the Turks in 1396.In 1459 the city and the castle were captured by the Ottoman Turks under the leadership of Mohammed the Conqueror. Also, in 1464 the castle was taken by the Venetians who then left in 1540.
- Ottoman period and War of Independence
Kalamata was under Ottoman seizure from 1481 to 1685. During the war between Ottomans and Venetians, the Venetian commander Francesco Morosini made a deal with the Maniotes, the inhabitants of Mani for a campaign against Turks in which Kalamata was included, but soon after Morosini was forced to return to Crete. The Venetians ruled Kalamata from 1685 and they brought some major changes in city’s profile. To begin with, the city metamorphosed into an economical and commercial region and it also became an important trade center. This time also, the Venetians made some major repairs and additions to the castle after it had been destroyed by Venetian artillery in 1685 against the Turks. However, the unrelenting Turkish army claimed back the city in 1715 and governed it until the Greek War of Independence in 1821. The most notable persons of this war were the commanding generals Theodoros Kolokotronis, Petros Mavromichalis and Grigorios Dikaios “Papaflessas” which on 23 March 1821 freed the city from the Turkish occupation that lasted almost three centuries. After that began the Revolution of 1821. However, the city was ultimately destroyed by the invading Ibrahim Pasha in 1825.
- Modern period
After the destruction caused by Ibrahim Pasha, Kalamata was rebuilt and experienced a considerable growth thanks to the city’s port which made her one of the most important trade centers in the Mediterranean Sea. It is worth mentioning that though Kalamata expanded, the city’s castle was gradually abandoned and ruined. Following the second World War, on 29 April 1941 a battle near the port took place between German forces and the 2nd New Zealand Division in which German troops were forced to surrender and Sergeant John Hinton was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions in Kalamata. After WWII and because of political pressures that were implement, Kalamata was not part of the government’s plans in favor of the strategically located Northern Greece region. This had a huge impact on the city’s local economy and generally Kalamata experienced a major downfall. As a result, during the 70’s and 80’s the city was in its worst state of administration with zero economy, growth and development plans. Moreover, to intensify things, Kalamata took another hard blow on September 13, 1986 when a 6.2 earthquake hit the city leaving behind 20 dead people and another 330 injured. It caused major damage to the city but many say that the earthquake acted as a motivational tool for the indifferent authorities and locals to help Kalamata stand back on its feet again by taking measures. And it indeed succeeded. Soon after authorities and people worked together creating an organized system of administration and control measures against any upcoming disasters. Due to this cooperate actions, Kalamata was able to fully recover and gain back its lost glory. Now Kalamata has transformed into a city with all the modern amenities including a modern hospital, a well-organized transport system and an airport that facilitates the arrival of tourists. It also has a strong cultural and educational activity since TEI (Technological Educational Institute) and University of Peloponnese are based on the city. Last but not least, the city’s port has enhanced the economy by far making Kalamata a huge trade center with mercantile activity in Peloponnese with lots of exports.
Photo Nikos Iliopoulos: Church of Ag. Apostoloi
Kalamata has been the birthplace of many notable personalities. We’ve already mentioned some of them regarding the War of Independence, but there are many others that are worth mentioning too. These are people from different sectors of life dating back from the old times all the way up until now. First of all, Niketas Stamatelopoulos (1782-1849) had an important role as a chieftain of the Revolutionary war of 1821. Also, Alexandros Koumoundouros (1815-1833) was a great politician and also served 10th times as a prime minister of Greece, Maria Polydouri (1902-1930) was a great poet writer and supporter of the romantic school, Vasilis Fotopoulos (1934-2007), a great designer, painter, film and art director and lastly Nicholas Politis (1852-1921) was a great diplomatic and folklorist figure in the Greek history. Moreover, other major figures are Yannis Chrysomallis, great musician, Antonis Samaras, former President of Greece and Prokopis Pavlopoulos who is the current President of Greece since 2005.Last but not least, we need to mention Panagiotis Benakis (1700-1771) who was a Greek notable, Michail Stasinopoulos (1903-2002) who was President of the Republic of Greece for a long period and lastly Konstantinos Ventiris (1892-1960), Greek Army officer.
Commerce history (cocoons and silk):
Kalamata has been known for its famous cocoon and silk history. Every visitor in Kalamata must have heard the song:” If you go to Kalamata, bring me a scarf to tie on my neck». This silk tradition originates from the 19th century and it was an economic boost for the city that time due to its export rate. The silk road first started from the Nuns of the Monastery of Kalograies who had one hundred trainees under their supervision. The Monastery was distinguished from its founding at the end of the 18th century for the weaving of silk and became a nursery of local workshops and a forerunner of the scarf of Kalamata. The nuns used to breed the silks themselves and produced tons of silk from which they made silk vestments, tablecloths, curtains, weaves and of course the famous scarf of Kalamata. The secrets of silk and its usage were first made known in Byzantium and after the 13th century the production of silk took place in Greece and was largely developed. Especially in the Peloponnese region where it was later named “Morias” due to the cultivation of mulberries (mouries). Messenia peninsula was the center of silk production. More particularly, silk production in Kalamata flourished from the 18th century to the middle of 20th century. In that period, the city was the first silk center and the silk was exported almost everywhere. In the 19th century silk became the number 1 exporting good in the world, manufactured industrially. At the time, French ships loaded the silk and every household grew silk worms. The route from Metaxada/Sardiki to the port of Pylos is called the “silk road” of the region. The nuns of the monastery of Kalograies were trained in Constantinople and specialized in dying silk and painting the fabric. The art of silk-weaving originates and became a pillar of growth for Messenia meaning the first industrial breakthrough in town with the silk mills. Until these days the monastery is still operational teaching the art of silk manufacturing and uses raw materials coming from Soufli. To sum all things up, we can clearly say that Kalamata has shown some real ingenuity taking advantage of its tradition story, natural beauty and the Mediterranean soil becoming one of the most valuable cities with great past and present history.
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Author : Chris Kollias