If the common impression of a Greek village is a whitewashed tumble of cubic houses clustered beneath the protective shadow of a hilltop castle, then the Chios mastic villages present a different picture altogether.
The three settlements of Pyrgi, Mesta and Olympi, in the southwestern corner of Chios island in the northeast Aegean, are collectively known as mastichochoria (mastic villages) after the mastic resin that has been produced in the area for centuries. The villages even today exude a medieval and mysterious air. They turn their backs on the landscape and are inward looking.
Lentisk (Pistacia lentiscus) trees are grown in other parts of the region but only in southern Chios do they produce the resin. It has been cultivated since classical times – Hippocrates was said to be addicted to mastic chewing gum, while in the Roman era women used mastic toothpicks to clean their teeth. Mastic has long been claimed to have therapeutic, particularly antibacterial, properties, but today it is usually consumed either as a chewing gum or liqueur drink, though it is also turned into cosmetics, soaps, toothpaste and candies.
At various times in history it has been evident that whoever controlled the mastic trade called the shots on the island. This was particularly true of the Genoese in the 14th century. Since the 11th century they and the Venetians had been playing cat and mouse games in the Mediterranean, with each other and other powers. But in 1346 the Genoese came to stay and stamp their control on Chios. It was they who built the fortified villages in the south to protect the valuable mastic trade, and they brought architects and workers over from northern Italy to assist in the construction.
The Chios mastic villages were located well away from the coast to prevent sudden smash-and-grab raids. Any pirate who did make it that far inland would come up against a fortified village with an outer rim of houses presenting a unified wall, pierced only with one or two gateways. And if they did succeed in getting in, they would have been confronted by a maze of narrow alleyways, a confusion of twists and turns and dead-ends intended to confound a raider (and still a puzzle to today’s tourists).
Pyrgi, Mesta and Olympi remain essentially the same today. The shapes of the villages still follow the outline of the original walls, though the settlements have expanded since then. The streets are just as narrow – usually only wide enough to accommodate a laden donkey. The forts that stood at the centre of the villages, on the other hand, have all but disappeared in the case of Pyrgi and Mesta, the remaining walls incorporated into houses: the dominant building now being a church. In all three villages, doors, windows and balconies have been added to the outer walls of the houses on the edge.
The most notable feature of these villages architecturally, then and now, are the arches that span the narrow lanes. They range in depth from a few metres to a structure big enough to hold terraces, even rooms, and in one case an oven.
These arches had two main functions. First, they provided escape routes for villagers to move about stealthily when threatened by attackers; and second, as props for the walls in protection against earthquake damage – as they still do today. The major earthquake of 1881 did little damage to these villages though it caused extensive chaos in other parts of the island, particularly the main town.
Maria Xyda, a respected Chian architect who has worked on restorations of mastic village houses including that reputed to have been lived in by Christopher Columbus in Pyrgi in the mid 1470s, has documented similarities between these settlements and medieval villages in northwest Italy.
The typical house in a mastic village is tall with a narrow façade, though many dwellings have been subdivided over the years between sons and it can be almost impossible to tell where one individual house ends and another starts. The sun does not often reach street level, so the ground floors are cool and cavernous. They were originally used as stabling for animals, and even today you may still come across a donkey being led through an old wooden door. Underground cisterns for the storage of rainwater are usually located down here, too. A trough for crushing grapes may still be a feature.
The first floor originally consisted of a low-ceilinged storage area, while the top floor was taken up by a large living space containing an oven and a smaller room where the whole family slept together. Steps or a ladder led to an opening onto the flat-topped roof. There was occasionally an open terrace between the first and second levels.
The ovens were mainly used for baking bread. Oval-shaped with a flat floor, they were constructed of heatproof bricks. Twigs gathered from bushes and olive trees from nearby hills were lit, spread out with an iron rod and then pushed to one side when hot to leave space for bread. Sweets were also cooked in the ovens, and foodstuffs such as peas and figs were dried in them for consumption during the winter. Other fruit and vegetables were dried outside in the sunshine – even today old ladies sit on their doorsteps threading tomatoes onto string to hang from balconies.
Sophisticated design touches
The undressed, rough masonry of the houses gives them a rustic look, but this is counteracted by sophisticated details, particularly the semi-circular fanlights that appear over many of the doors and some of the windows. The lintels and other blocks surrounding doors and windows are often magnificent in terms of size and appearance. A symbol representing a rodi, or pomegranate, may be carved into the lintel. It is traditional in this part of Greece to break open pomegranate fruit on New Year’s Day and spread the seeds in front of the house in order to bring happiness to the occupants for the coming year.
One very unusual lintel carving in Pyrgi consists of a pomegranate flanked by a twig with leaves on the left side and a Star of David on the right. It is probably wrong, however, to assume that this house belonged to a Jewish family. According to Maria Xyda, the star was used as ornamentation rather than as a religious symbol: it was easy to draw and appeared frequently in popular art, such as pebble pavements, embroidery and bas-reliefs. There is little mention of Jews in the south of Chios, though they definitely had a presence in the main town. There is some mention of them acting as “go betweens” for the Ottomans and mastic producers.
Rooms in Chios mastic village houses are small, so space is saved by caving cupboards out of the thick walls. Authorities have now forbidden owners to carry out any more of this type of work without permission as it can weaken the structure of the house. The same goes for renovations where two small rooms are knocked into one large one.
Renovations have become common in the villages in the past 10 years, especially Pyrgi and Mesta, mainly carried out by Greeks from Athens with local family connections. Others are content to build new, more spacious houses on the outskirts of the fortified towns.
Mesta and Olympi best preserve the medieval mood of the mastichochoria, Olympi is the smallest, and of particular interest because of its unusual centre. Anyone used to the open squares of Mediterranean villages will get a shock in Mesta, because slap bang in the middle of what should be the central plaza is the old fortress, where villagers would have gathered in times of siege. Today, it houses a couple of cafes, with tables, chairs and umbrellas set up in the space around it.
Like Olympi, Mesta’s cobbled lanes can be confusing to negotiate. In old days there was only one gate, and even now there are only three entrances. Today, the village has a population of about 300, with another 50 four kilometres down the road in the fishing port of Mesta Limenas (“harbour” in Greek) .
The art of ‘xysta’
Pyrgi’s arches are less monumental than Mesta’s, so are not often built over, and they can be very irregularly shaped. Pyrgi is larger – its population is double that of its eastern neighbour, but what really makes it stand out are the unmistakable patterns that adorn the external walls of the houses.
Especially in the centre of town, there’s hardly a house left untouched by the xysta, or sgraffito. The surface of the wall is covered with a grey-coloured mixture of cement and lime called aspendos. While this coat is still fresh and wet, fork-like tools are used to scrape parts of it off, revealing the white surface beneath. Because the process must be done quickly before the aspendos dries, the patterns tend to be relatively simple.
Geometrics are the most popular: especially linear arrangements of repetitive lozenges, hourglass shapes, rhombi, zigzags, triangles, circles, scallops, running waves and stylised six-leafed flowers (think Louis Vuitton’s monogram design). There are some representational designs, too, including flowers, vases of flowers and birds – storks seem to be a favourite.
Italian and Oriental influences
Maria Xyda’s research has led her to believe that the xysta are a combination of Italian and Oriental influences. There is also a tradition in Pyrgi of painting a border of two single blue and red lines on house walls: this is very similar to a tradition originating in medieval Genoa in Italy in medieval times.
Xyda also sees parallels between the Pyrgi patterns and those found in Cappadocia in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). There was an influx of Greeks from Anatolia to Chios in the mid-18th century, who must have bought this habit with them. She thinks they imitate the designs of Turkish kilims and points particularly to the bottom row of shapes that look like tassels on the rugs – and it is worth noting here that kilims are often hung on walls. The Anatolian influences do not stop there: she also sees it in the traditional clothes, dances and ceremonies of Chians. What is less certain is why xysta is only found in Pyrgi, and to a lesser extent in the district of Kampos near Chios Town.