The Kampos Estates On Chios
& The Vlasto Properties (1) 28-06-1999
Chios and its unique Kampos region were for a long time architectural gems of the Mediterranean and Aegean seas. For at least five hundred years travellers to Chios marvelled at the island's natural beauty and outstanding architecture. Their accounts describe the elegance, beauty and sophistication of the scores of palazzos and town houses they found in the town of Chios and particularly in the Kampos region, a mile or two to the south. The Kampos the country retreat of the noble families of Chios contained a magnificent collection of houses that spanned and often combined Byzantine, Ottoman, Genoese, Venetian and Classical architectural styles. Despite the ravages of time, war and earthquakes, much still remains to be seen today.
N.B. Clicking on a thumbnail may not always link to a full size image.
The wealth of architectural excellence on the island of Chios is simply explained. For centuries this was the richest and among the most favoured possessions of Byzantine Constantinople, with all its decorative genius. Not for nothing did the C11th Byzantine emperor Constantine lX (Monomachos) establish his colossal Nea Moni monastery in a dramatic cleft in the mountains just a couple of miles inland from Chios town, thus rendering Chios 'holy'. For this reason too, from the C11th to the C15th, Christian Byzantine nobles (such as the Rallis, Rodocanachis and Coressis) sought sanctuary on Chios as the Turks steadily encircled Constantinople eventually taking Europe's grandest city in 1453.
Thirteen years later, on Easter Day 1566, the Turks were to conquer Chios in turn. But by that time the island had already been under the control of the occupying Genoese for 220 years (from 1346) and their brilliant influence (socially, administratively and decoratively) had penetrated every aspect of the island's life an influence that lasted into the C19th perhaps even to this day and despite 347 years of Turkish domination.
That apart, the island was anyway renowned for the quality of its education, particularly in the sciences, mathematics and architecture. Furthermore, the twenty or so great 'Greek' merchants and noble families of Chios were, for hundreds of years, among the richest and most adventurous in the Mediterranean. Some were the descendants of the Ionian merchant traders who, from around 500 BC, were the first to establish and develop trade between Black Sea ports and the Mediterranean. This was significant because the great empires of Greece, Rome, Venice, Genoa, etc., could never have grown and sustained themselves on their own resources and limited agriculture alone. They were only able to expand because of the limitless and bountiful flow of Black Sea grain, fish and other commodities on which Chios merchants had a virtual monopoly.
By the C16th and C17th their fleets and trading interests covered almost the entire known world. In addition to their trade in grain, rice, alum, silk, raw commodities, finished goods and slaves, they had their own estates on Chios which produced and exported oranges, lemons, figs, wine, linen and turpentine. Not surprisingly, these famously rich merchants and ship-owners were equally adept at importing and adapting architectural and decorative styles to adorn both their town houses and their rural estates in the Kampos.
The glowing reports of the beauty of the island and of its women may have been partially influenced by the exceptionally warm welcome given to visitors.
This would have been a customary reaction in The Levant though Lawrence Durrell goes so far as to report that, in addition, it was not unknown for Chiot wives to offer sexual favours to their visitors.
This is not as surprising as might first appear. Marriages in communities at this level were, first and foremost, manoeuvres of a political, strategic and financial nature. Furthermore, their men were maritime merchant adventurers and normally spent months or even years away from the island supervising and building their trading fortunes in distant cities and ports. Any expectation of sexual fidelity would have been a low priority and an unreasonable burden on the wives and their husbands.
Whether the German classical writer Ernst Poppo was a beneficiary of such hospitality is not known but, in 1822, on the eve of its destruction, he described Chios as:
"... the garden of the Ottoman empire... the paradise of the Archipelago, or even of the whole Levant..."
It's interesting to note that he saw Chios as very much part of the Levant rather than of Europe. His visit coincided with the growing desire among European 'Greeks' to overthrow their Ottoman overlords and it was as a consequence of this Greek War of Independence, in 1822, that paradise on Chios abruptly came to an end. The beauty of Chios, its peoples and its architectural gems were the victims of two man-made political catastrophes which together formed one of the greatest atrocities in history followed, fifty-nine years later, by a cruel act of God:
The Kampos Estates The earliest of these rural retreats (most commonly occupied in summer) were fortified tower houses, called pyrghi. Some of these remain though many were adapted to a more domestic style and most of the Kampos houses have C17th or C18th origins. Owing to the comprehensive destruction (see above) all were either abandoned, obliterated, restored or reconstructed in the late C19th or C20th.
To understand how the Kampos 'worked' one needs to understand that a collection of separate family households formed part of large, tight-knit and self-governing family group. This system was derived from the Genoese 'Albergho' pattern in which many separate households of the same family, usually occupying a particular quarter of the city lived under the all-embracing influence of their elders hence, for example, the Vlasto quarter of Chios town was called the Vlastoudiko. These 'clans' owed allegiance in turn to a ruling council of elders known on Chios as the 'Demogeronts' representing all the noble family groups and elected by their peers for a period of time. They were responsible for and to the entire 'Greek' Orthodox community. Apart from other responsibilities they had the authority to hear grievances, administer justice and settle 'family' disputes 'privately' without recourse to courts or public wrangling.
The 'albergho' system as adopted on Chios appears to have worked well. However, an almost identical system operated in Naples, Sicily and other parts of southern Italy (exported to the USA in the C20th) in the form of the Causa Nostra or Mafia. Any large community of families operating as a 'state within a state' and answerable only to each other conflicts with any present-day notions of a civil society and is very liable to corruption. One reason for the Turkish 'over-reaction' and the eventual genocide, in 1822, of the great Chios families (their former allies) may be that they suddenly felt very threatened by the immense power these families could wield 'collectively' throughout the Ottoman empire as well as on the island. This would explain why the 74 hand-picked heads of families were held hostage and 47 of them then publicly hanged in centre of the town of Chios on Sunday, 23 April, 1822 as an example.
Chios and The Kampos The dark area to the right is the town of Chios with the Genoese (later Turkish) Kastro garrison visible on the right-hand edge of the port. To the far left is the small town of Thymiana which provided the remarkable stone ranging in colour from ochre to purple which was invariably used in the construction of these houses. In between (shaded light grey) is the Kampos, a rural retreat for the island's élite twenty or so noble families who built extraordinarily beautiful stone-built villas, or palazzos, from the C15th onwards and who often had magnificent town houses in the city.
N.B. This map shows only a small selection of the Kampos estates and its accuracy cannot be guaranteed. The red squares are vastly larger than the houses they represent. Not marked are properties on the northern fringe of the Kampos valley or those in the town centre. Strictly-speaking, the original Kampos was defined as the area between the two main roads, (centre left). Surrounding it were other 'Kampos' neighbourhoods such as 'Spiladia', 'Kardamada', 'Frangovouni', etc. The identity of these neighbourhoods was often closely linked to small family or 'clan' churches (marked in yellow). More detailed information on the owners and locations of the Kampos properties is available in the works of Perris and Argenti, both available for study in the Koraïs Library in Chios.
For centuries the families married and formed business partnerships almost exclusively among themselves, producing intricate and repetitive family alliances a practice that continued in some cases into the third quarter of the C20th! It was this 'clannishness' and sense of group responsibility which largely accounted for their extraordinary stability and financial success and which came to the aid of the survivors when their idyllic life on the island came to an abrupt, violent and tragic end in 1822 with the Massacres of Chios.
From what we can gather, rural life in the Kampos was a parallel existence to that in the town: the Iamos family house, for example, appears to have served as an alternative Council Room for the Demogeronts who needed to continue their administrative functions within their community and vis-à-vis the island's Ottoman governor, the Pasha. Similarly the families had a 'club' at the Salvago house and perhaps another called the 'Casino' at a Sechiari house.
Owing to the wholesale destruction of the island, along with all its records, little remains today to tell us much about day-to-day life in the Kampos. However, the houses themselves provide many clues. Anyone with imagination and some understanding of the way in which the Genoese 'Albergho' system worked will soon picture the scene.
Each house was set in its own fully-functional horticultural estate, surrounded by stone walls and linked to each other by a network of narrow lanes. They all incorporated remarkably similar common features, though the layout and style varied considerably.
The entrance was always through a grandiose gateway with the family's armorials emblazoned in marble on the portico. At the base of the gate pillars was a raised stone 'step' which allowed travellers to avoid the muddy lane as they mounted horses, donkeys or even the backs of servants. The ground-floor level housed store rooms, baking ovens and kitchens and would have been a bustling area of activity for domestic servants and estate workers.
A nobleman, his family and his servants flee a Kampos estate in 1822. In the background is the typically huge gateway and portico. The detail, faces, architecture and costumes are so accurately observed that this may even represent a specific family. (Argenti Collection)
The Houses In the court-yard, close to the house, a circular donkey-wheel drew water from a large well to fill huge trellis-covered marble cisterns or sterna with marble columns at each corner. These irrigated the estate through a network of troughs while smaller, exquisitely carved, marble tanks and basins stored water for domestic purposes. Other donkey-wheel wells often existed elsewhere on the estate but the importance of water and hence the Kampos itself is clear from the prominent position given to these wells at the heart of the household and usually immediately inside the main entrance. In one extraordinary case a Rodocanachi house has a sterna 140 metres long. The courtyard, would probably have been the natural, informal gathering place for the men. From here rose a broad stone or marble staircase to the public and private rooms on the first floor.
The first floor contained a series of reception rooms giving onto wide, sheltered terraces supported by marble columns in the courtyard below. Owing to the immensely thick stone walls the rooms would have been cool in the summer heat. Beyond or above the public rooms were bedrooms. The terraces, which were shaded by vine-covered trellises, were largely the domain of the women and almost certainly where the real power lay. With their unhindered views into the courtyard below and across the tops of the scented citrus groves to neighbouring houses and estates only a few hundred metres away, nothing would have missed their attention. It was here no doubt that the rise and fall in the fortunes of neighbours (who were often relations and certainly all well-known to each other) were minutely gauged and noted.
Here alliances were forged or broken, and gossip and confidences exchanged. Here too the all-important dynastic marriages were planned. The genealogical records showing that while most of these girls had known their future husbands since childhood, many might be destined for marriage to a cousin in Constantinople whom they had seldom, if ever, met. From within the courtyard another imposing gateway led out into the estate. Ever pragmatic and practical by nature, the Chiot traders were serious farmers as well as traders and ship-owners. The rich land in the Kampos estates provided huge harvests of fruit and vegetables which, coupled with livestock on the hills elsewhere, made the islanders not only agriculturally self-sufficient but exporters on a large scale.
The Kampos Families Those such as the Vlastos, Rodocanachis, Rallis, Schilizzis, Mavrogordatos, Petrocochinos, Zygomalas, Carallis, Argentis, Calvocoressis, Salvagos, Sechiaris, Paspatis, Sgoutas, Iamos, etc., might have had more than one such estate, each occupied by different branches or generations. However, each estate was usually closely associated with its own small church and the families often derived their genealogical 'branch' names (e.g. 'Staphilas') from that of their church. In a number of cases two families shared an estate. It is unclear whether these were the result of marriage agreements or merely joint business enterprises. The Galati family, for example, shared estates with both the Mavrogordato and Vlasto families.
[It is unclear why the Vlasto family had so many estates (at least four in the town and nine in the Kampos), particularly since they were by no means the most numerous in the community. The answer may lie in their earlier history. From at least the early years of the Byzantine empire their fortunes and power in Constantinople seem to have been built on vast land-holdings in the Jassy (Iasi) and Galatz regions of Transilvania (now Romania). Then, from 1089 c.1669 they were feudal rulers of huge estates in Crete (based on the Messara Plain) until the Ottoman conquest there drove them out. However, the first Cretan Vlastos had already arrived in Chios by at least 1625 (see below). Since there is no evidence of them then being as deeply involved in shipping and trade as the majority of their Chios cousins they may have been more inclined to invest in land and production, seeking to replace their lost land-holdings on Crete with new estates on Chios.]
Right: The Arkadi Monastery, Crete. Inscriptions within the building identify members of the Vlasto family as its founders.
Just a few of the many street signs in the heart of Chios town which commemorate
the most prominent families prior to and during the 1822 massacres: (left to right)
Vlasto, the Demogeronts in general, Rodocanachi, Ralli, Argenti, Paspati, Sechiari, etc
Today The Kampos is still a beautiful and peaceful retreat but the houses are often a sad sight. Having been looted, burned or destroyed by marauders in 1822 and abandoned by their fleeing Chiot owners, only a few of the scores of palazzos in the Kampos area were rebuilt or partially restored by Turkish settlers in the period 1823-1881. Almost all of these were again destroyed by the devastating earthquake of 22-23 March 1881. A few were yet again patched up but usually by impoverished islanders or immigrants who were desperate merely for shelter and who lacked the will, skills or means to restore them properly. Even tiny, historic churches in the city centre, such as St Nicholas, still look neglected.
Most of the Kampos buildings are still in ruins or have almost entirely vanished. The large estates too have been either sub-divided or subsumed by others. Sadly many beautiful houses have been stripped of their original marble basins, tanks, columns, decorative features and of the family armorials above their porticoes. Others have entirely vanished because their stonework has been taken for use elsewhere.
Unfortunately the Chios authorities appear to have done little to prevent this steady erosion of their heritage and more vanishes year by year. Furthermore, some attempts at municipal 'restoration' notably at the 'Mavrogordatico' have been disastrous.
Not until the 1970s and 1980s did the island begin to attract rich, ex-patriates and foreigners who have begun, in a few cases, to set excellent examples in restoration. In 1999 the only descendants of original owners still in occupation were members of the Calvocoressi family (still occupying their original Kampos home) and the Choremi family (now occupying a former Vlasto estate in the city centre) both these estates being beautifully maintained.
Above: The author at work at the 'Mavrogordatico' hotel in the Kampos, in Spring 1999. The appallingly kitsch conversion of this once grand home of the Mavrogordato family has set a poor example to those who set about restoring ruins in the Kampos.
The following over-blown and poetic account of Chios was written by Paul Morand in Méditerranée, Mer des Surprises (MAME, Paris, 1938), here translated by Christopher Long. Morand appears to have developed a deep affection for Chios. His daughter married a Greek (perhaps a Chiot?) and he was buried (left) among the island's exiled noble families in the cemetery in Trieste which became the last refuge of many of the first generation of the Chios Diaspora.
"Oh sun, oh great light!
This morning, helped by a crescent moon, you illuminate hedgeless, vineless Chios. Chios, an arid island of broken mountains. Then one gets nearer... one enters the narrow port... and everything changes. Straight, cypresses spindle above the yellow walls. A fort is turned not towards the sea but against the town sufficient to indicate an ancient Turkish fortress guards the white terraces like a hound over a bone. Water-mills, high wheels with identically striped sails like umbrellas, rotating oil mills, presses at the back of courtyards, these are all that move at midday in these sleeping houses less asleep than secret.
On Chios, around the town and in the countryside, Muslim influence is still evident. The women hide their mouths when passing strangers while the elderly wear large black pantaloons 'alla turca'. But in the town centre, houses of those ennobled by the Venetians four centuries ago are emblazoned with arms and escutcheons, the balconies are braced in the Italian style. The streets are lively, the trades still grouped in quarters, the merchants standing in their doorways as everywhere in the Orient, watching for customers as if they were prey (a custom the Jews took to New York's Broadway and to Paris around the Hotel de Ville). In the main square, raki and mastika are drunk in the pale shadows of the eucalyptus and kiosks.
I prefer the suburbs and their old country houses with no windows and their plain fortress walls and nailed wooden doors. From their terraces hidden occupants observe you as in a Carpaccio painting. Sometimes a open gateway reveals the house, a closed universe, a sealed paradise one need never leave. A patriarchal life in the shade of a fig-tree where secret garden paths are decorated with black and white mosaics.
The women wash their linen, cook their bread, make their superb preserves the best jams in the world, made from rose petals, orange flowers, whole nuts and baby lemons or go to mass in their own private chapels. Under the oleanders and cypresses, to the sound of fresh trickling water or the crush of the wine press, the Chiots drift between family preoccupations, learning, culture and orthodox prayer.
The interior of the island is beautiful. Stony roads disappear among oats, rye and pale wheat like, ephemeral as a film actress. We are here in June and they are already harvesting; already the maize is drying in the midday heat. Great leaves of tobacco and long bouquets of white laurel or roses betray a river-bed or a nearby spring.
The avenues along the paths are the wealth of the island because these are 'mastic' trees. Mastic resin makes jam, chewing-gum, a liquor and all the varnish on our coachwork. The road links charming mediaeval villages before arriving at the island's marvel, Pyrgi. Here lives on the Turkish Greece of Hugo or Byron as well as the Greece of the Venetians and Genoese.
The olive-skinned women still have fine, aquiline noses, joined eyebrows and unforgettable dark blue eyes. They dress in strange, beautiful, brightly-coloured costumes, their slim straight necks carrying tiny turbaned heads from which orange bands fall the length of their hair, straight-cropped like Florentine pages. They go to the well, in the rhythm of a thousand years.
Today, life in the narrow streets of this little village is still that of 14th or 15th century. The animals live with people in houses where the ground floor is a stable and where, if I peer into a half-open door of some cool and shady dwelling, I am welcomed by a fine-looking donkey or black goat. A pig is slaughtered in the middle of the street with a crowd looking on... The old women cry chatter in their doorways and the priest retires to his ancient church, so grounded in the earth that it resembles a crypt... so shadowy yet so brightly lit... so smoky. Here St George's green overwhelms the green hydras, all in a dust of gold and incense, in an atmosphere that is timelessly oriental.
Any information or contributions which enlarge on the above will be welcomed!
© (1999) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
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