About Zagori & the National Park of Vikos-Aoos
Zagori is a region and a municipality in the Pindus Mountains in Epirus, in northwestern Greece. The center of the municipality is the village Asprangeloi, where all local, civil services can be found. It covers an area of about 1,000 square kilometres and consists of 45 villages known as Zagoria (or Zagorochoria or Zagorohoria). At the southern part of the area lies the provincial capital, Ioannina, the south-western side is formed by Mount Mitsikeli (1,810m), and the Aoos River and Mount Tymfi constitute the northern side. The population of the area is about 3,700 people.
Zagori is an area of great natural beauty, with striking geology and two national parks, one including the river Aoos and the Vikos Gorge, the other around Valia Kalda, to the east of the imposing snow-capped Mt Tymphe. The 45 or so villages of Zagori were interconnected by mountain roads and traditional arched stone bridges until modern roads were opened in the 1950s. The stone arched bridges were built by benefactions from expatriate merchants in the 18th century and replaced older wooden bridges.
The first evidence of human presence in the area is dated between 17,000 and 10,000 years ago. Important epipaleolithic artifacts have been unearthed from Kleidi Cave on the banks of the Voidomatis. In antiquity, the region of Zagori was inhabited by the Tymphaeans and formed a part of the ancient kingdom of the Molossians. They were known for a breed of huge war-mastiffs they used in military operations. Molossus, their eponymous ancestor, was said to have been born of a union between Neoptolemus (son of Achilles) and Andromache (the wife of Hectorof Troy). Neoptolemus, also called Pyrrhus for his blond hair, was first in a line of Epirotan kings leading to the king Pyrrhus of Hellenistic times who launched several campaigns against the Romans in Italy. Olympias, the mother of Alexander the Great, was from the ancient town of “Molossis” which was located in the area in front of Konitsa, in the northern boundary of Zagori, where the rivers Voidomatis, Aoös and Sarantaporos come together. Ruins of a small Molossian settlement were discovered between Monodendri and Vitsa, including stone houses and two cemeteries.
The passage of the Slavs during the early Byzantine period is testified by several place names. During the Byzantine era, Zagori occasionally attracted groups of soldiers who built villages and settled there. Several monasteries were built, including the monastery of Voutsa near the village of Greveniti and the monastery of Agioi Anargiri near Kleidonia, founded in the 7th century by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IV Pogonatus and the monastery of St John of Rogovou near Tsepelovo founded in 1028 by the sister of Emperor Romanos III Argyros. From 1204 to 1337 the region was part of the local Despotate of Epirus. In the 14th century, when various Albanian tribes were making invasions into Epirus, Zagori region was the bastion of Hellenism. The region came under Serbian occupation in 1348 and the Despotate of Epirus was reformed and was under Latin rule by Carlo II Tocco when Ioannina and Zagori fell to theTurks in 1430, at the time of Sultan Murad II. Zagori (which then only consisted of 14 villages) «bowed the knee», which meant in practice that there were obligations between delegations of the two sides and a sum in tax was agreed upon in exchange for very considerable privileges: autonomy, administrative independence, and a ban on Turks crossing the borders into the area.
The Kinon of the Zagorisians was formed after the treaty of 1431 with Sinan-Pasha. At that point the arrangement that granted local autonomy was called “Voiniko”. The autonomy guaranteed non-interference in the local affairs by the Ottoman overlords. Zagorisians had their affairs entrusted to a Council of Elders called Demogerontia, headed by a president or governor called Vekylis. They were allowed to maintain an armed security force of Sipahi. The villages of the Eastern Zagori, inhabited by Aromanian Vlachs, entered the Treaty in 1480. Consequently, many toponyms in northern and eastern Zagori have Aromanian etymology, while some toponyms with Slavic tymology are present in western and southern Zagori. Nevertheless, Zagori retained much of its Greek character through its system of government and the benefactions of its expatriates that favored Greek education. The Kinon of the Zagorisians was reformalised by a treaty signed in 1670, under which Zagori enjoyed considerable privileges called Surutia, which were only rescindeed fully by the Sultan in 1868.This solution suited the conquerors and was also the salvation of Zagori, as it added statutory rules to the geographical factors which had made it a natural refuge. Consequently Zagori was never broken up to be shared out among Turkish landowners. It gained a large population of merchants with links to Romania, Russia and Istanbul , who came to be the ruling class of the area and contributed to the relative prosperity Zagori enjoyed during the period of Turkish occupation.
In the 17th century, the villages of Western Zagori were also admitted to the Treaty, so that by 1678 the total number of villages in Zagori had increased to 60. During the 18th century schools for both boys and girls were built, watermills to grind the corn and the water supply was decorated with ornamental fountains. Traditional medicine flourished by “Vikos doctors”, who gathered herbs from Vikos gorge. The growing prosperity, aided by privileges obtained by Phanariotes of Zagorisian descent and benefactions from expatriates, allowed the building of several schools, some still surviving, for example theCommon School of Greek Studies in Monodendri built by the brothers Manthos and Georgios Rizaris (1835). The brothers also funded the building of the Rizareios Ecclesiastical School in Athens (1844), while Zagori itself was under full Ottoman rule. The brothers Ioannis and Demetrios Anagnostopoulos from Dilofo founded the Anagnostopouleios in their home village and contributed to the expenses for the Zosimaia School in Ioannina. Michael Anagnostopoulos from Papingo built the Kallineios School in Papingo and the Anagnostopouleios School in Konitsa.
As the mountains were outside the direct rule of the Ottoman Empire, they offered a haven for Greeks on the run from the Ottoman authorities. Several prominent scholars of the Greek Enlightenment, such as Neofytos Doukas and Athanasios Psalidas found refuge here, after the Sultan’s army destroyed Ioannina in 1820. Some among them even made plans to set up a university in the monastery of St John of Rogovou, near Tsepelovo.In 1820, after the rebellion of Ali Pasha, aTurkish force of 1500 under Ismael Pasha arrived in Zagori, part of the total army of 20,000 sent against Ali Pasha. Alexis Noutsos from Kapesovo, a member of the Filiki Eteria, was in command of the force opposing Ismael Pasha. However, the Sultan’s armies prevailed. Ismael Pasha removed most privileges other than the right to appoint a local governor (Vekylis), whose powers however became nominal. Ismael Pasha introduced very heavy taxation. Albanian and local bandits started invating in the area once again. Zagori was liberated in 1913 during the Balkan Wars.
Following the union with Greece after the Balkan Wars, emigration to the Greek urban centres depopulated Zagori. Zagori bore the brunt of the Italian attack on Greece in 1940. The area became additionally affected by the conflicts between the Germans and the partisans of Napoleon Zervas during the Second World War. At that time several of the villages of Zagori and the monastery of Voutsa were burned during German reprisals. The area became almost deserted during the Greek Civil Warof 1946–49. Since the 1980s, state aims to preserve the traditional character of the villages and the natural landscape.
Unique customs are associated to ancient Greek, pagan or Christian festivals. The larger churches and monasteries celebrate their nominal saint feast with a festival that can last several days.Characteristic songs of mourning (moirologia) accompany the lamentation of the dead. Funerary rites include the exhumation of the bones of the deceased following a period of 1–3 years. The bones are washed, perfumed and placed in a wooden larnax and kept in ossuaries in each village.
Villages are built around a central square, also called mesochori (village centre) with a large church, a plane tree and a public fountain. Cobbled streets and footpaths interconnect the rest of the village.
Most churches in Zagori date back to the 17–18th centuries onwards, although some older foundations survive. In most villages the main church consists of a sizeable basilica built of stone with a wooden roof covered by slate. They are decorated by mainly Epirotan hagiographers according the Byzantine tradition. The entrance to the church may be protected by a colonnaded arcade. The campanile is usually detached from the church.
Houses until the 18th century were simple rectangular dwellings, often with only a ground floor and with ancillary areas in the basement used as stables. Houses are built of local stone and have a slate roof. The roof slates are held together without cement, only by the weight of the slates above them. The slate roof therefore requires continual upkeep, subjected as it is to heavy snowfalls during the winter months.
That older type was developed through the 18–19th centuries into more complex styles all the way to the multi-storied manors of the wealthier families of the late 18th century. Many houses are fronted by a walled courtyard or garden. The courtyard gate is an edifice in itself, covered by a slate roof and connecting the house to the rest of the village. In addition to the house, there are ancillary buildings, usually a “mageirio” (kitchen), an external toilet at the furthest corner from the kitchen, and stables. The main house is built with walls up to a meter thick that may have an internal sand compartment for insulation against the cold. The house entrance opens into the foyer called “hagiati” which leads to adjoining rooms called “ondas” or “mantzato”. The hagiati originally was and sometimes still is a partially open area in front of the house. The name is probably derived from the Persian word Hayāt, a style of Persian garden with pavilions or other edifices. The mantzato is the main room for the winter months with a fireplace, a “tavla” (table) and seating areas that can be used as beds, called “basia”. Opposite the fireplace there is a walled closet called “mesantra”. As an aid to its function, the mantzato often has a location in the south of the house.
A wooden staircase leads from the hagiati to the upper floor landing called “krevatta”. This is a space between the bedrooms. In rare cases, the krevatta opens into a small balcony covered by a wooden roof. “Glavané” is a small entrance to the attic. The basement of the house contains cellars and other storage areas that may be used as additional quarters for animals.
Few of the old manors survive, most having fallen victim to disrepair. In those that survive, the ondas room is the most spacious, has a large fireplace and may have floral frescoes. It was used for the reception of guests.
The Vikos Gorge
As the heart of the Vikos–Aoös National Park, Vikos Gorge is the largest and most picturesque among the gorges of Zagori. Vikos Gorge collects the waters of a number of small rivers that form the Voidomatis river which flows through the gorge. Vikos Gorge at 990m deep is one of the deepest in the world, indeed the deepest in proportion to its width. It is also a site of major scientific interest, because it is in almost virgin condition, natural habitat for endangered species and contains many and varied ecosystems.