Elements of interculturalism, through temple inscriptions, in monuments of the late Byzantine period in the Mani region
Archontoula Papoulakou, archaeologist

Our Age is an Age of important cultural change and scrutiny. Terms and meanings such as globalization and interculturality influence the modern national identity and refers to the age of Renaissance and the European Enlightenment or even to earlier days?

By the term interculturality, we mean the relation between communication, influential interaction and assimilation between different civilizations.

Interculturality therefore presupposes the coexistence of many different civilizations, many different nationalities, as well as the creative contact and communication among them and finally perhaps the assimilation and incorporation of heterogeneous elements from the local society.

The concept of interculturality is found in nearly all civilisations through the ages. Is therefore communication between different cultures and different populations essential for many reasons in our days (social, political, cultural) or the lack of tolerance towards all that is different, i.e. racism and xenophobia, dominate today and especially in our country ?

A historical retrospection will persuade us that previous civilizations were very cultural, they accepted and absorbed easily than us the different racial populations.

This series of monuments, that convinces us of the multicultural aspects of this specific time period and region, are the monuments (mainly temples) of Mani, of the late Byzantine period.

In this isolated area of the Byzantine Empire, a number of ecclesiastical monuments were developed. There were samples of provincial art and also there were representations of cultural life, which declare this period as the Despotate of Morea and whose capital is Mystras.

Monuments – Temples of the late Byzantine period of Mani

The monuments of Laconia (Mani- Geraki and the rest of Laconia) built mainly in the late byzantine period (1204-1345), are externally distinguished for their small and low dimensions, the architectural simplicity and rough masonry.

Usually a series of inscriptions in the interior of the temples can provide us with much information about the same monuments. From these inscriptions we realise that the donors of this temples were not any distinguished social persons, or any member of the empire family or members of the despot of Mystras. Although, the majority, were unknown, simple men, they were inspired by an intense religious sentiment. This sentiment led them, although they were poor, to build or to decorate these monuments of great worth.

The plethora of inscriptions in the temples provides us with evidence that these simple people with the whole family very often participated in the decoration of these temples.

Within the crowd of these simple people, there was an important category of donators called “tzaousioi” (This name was found in Saint George of Geraki, Saint George of Oitylon, Saint Nicholas in Platsa, Saint George of Longanikos).

These ”Tzaousioi” were particular political and military dignitaries of the Byzantine Empire and they were very often of Slavic origin.
Two inscriptions from temples – valuable evidence of the immigration of Slavonic tribes to Peloponnese
The temple of Saint George of Stefanopoulianoi is built in the village Oitylon of Mani. The byzantine inscriptions of the temple are very interesting.

Externally, above the marble, in front of the arch, in the north entrance of the temple, there are two engraved inscriptions.
The first one, an engraved inscription made up of four verses on the front surface of the marble, have been placed inversely. Probably, the existing temple comes from a restoration of an older temple, as is stated by pr. N.B.Drandakis. During this restoration, which, according to the opinion of Anna Abramea, occurred after the years of 1829/1830, the marble had been replaced in a wrong way.

The inscription states that the temple was renovated during the years of Andronikos C’ of Palaiologos, in the year 1331/1332 and during the leadership of “tzasi” of Melingoi, Constantine Spanis. After that, follow the names of those who contributed to the renovation of the temple and finally it invoke Saint George to protect the donators and renovators of the temple.

The Melingoi and their relationship with the Byzantine Empire
As regards the name Melingoi or Miligoi, the general opinion that it is of Slavic origin.
The immigration of tribes of slavic origin to this area (Ezerites and Melingoi) seems to have occurred in 747 during the reign of the emperor Constantine E’. While he was fighting against the Arabs of Syria, there was a great plague in the Byzantine state and most provinces with in the Empire including the Peloponnese, became depopulated. As a result, many Syrians, Armenians and Slavs were sent to this area to repopulate it.

The opinions for the origin of Melingoi differ:
According to S. Kougeas, the main scholar of the inscriptions, the name that was given to the Melingoi was Greek and not Slavic. It was given to them by the local society. It described both the Slavic people and the place they moved to.
The region they inhabited was the “Drongos of Melingoi” or “Zygos of Melingoi”, which is today on the west side of the Taygetos mountain range.

From the text of 12th century “The Life of Saint Nikon”, we can learn that Melingoi were governed by a particular sovereign called Antiochos and he had the Roman and Byzantine title of duke, something that proved Greek citizenship and the dependence on the Byzantine state. The duke was named by the General of the Peloponnese “Thema” and not by a Slav governor. It must be noted that the Constantine Spanis of our inscriptions, who was recognized by the Byzantine authorities as a governor in the 14th century was given the name “tzasis – tzaousios” instead of the title of duke.

During the era of the Despotate of Morea the Melingoi were incorporated into the local culture and during the Palaiologean period they were absorbed by the locals spoke Greek language and adopted the Greek conscience.

Now, to return to the inscription of the temple of Saint George in Oitylon:
This inscription became widely known through the studies of H. Ahrweiler, who, when she studied the inscription, based her findings on a text from the publications of Le Bas – Waddington and she gave the title of “the most divine” to the emperor Andronikos Palaiologos. On the contrary, A. Abramea who studied the inscription later and made a new reading of the inscription, mentions that the “most divine” refers to “tzasi of Melingoi” Constantine Spanis. The scholar A. Philippidis – Braat agrees with this new interpretation. After this, follows the invocation to Saint George for Sabatian, who was called Kopogis (a Slavic name) and his wife Eleuni. In our inscription, Sabatian has the title of law-giver, a title which was given to the notary or the priest.This work was mainly done by the lower clergy. This title is evidence of the integration of Melingoi within the framework of the Byzantine society. At the end of the inscription, the name of Lariggas of Slavouris, who probably had a relationship with Slavouropoula, is mentioned. The Slavouropoula was mentioned in the second inscription of the temple on the same marble exactly over the last inscription.

The name Slavouris is probably another evidence of the Slavic origin of the family.

We can therefore reach the conclusion that the renovators of the temple belong to very rich and powerful families of Melingoi, they have Greek Christian names but their Surnames remind us of their Slavic origin.

Another temple, which is related to Constantine Spanis, is the temple of Saint Nicholas in Platsa of Messinian Mani. It was built in the locality of Kambinari (a local name from the word kambos, which is very common in Mani), outside the village of Platsa.
The temple has maintained almost its entire frescoes in the central and south aisles. The frescoes of Saint Nicholas have an unusually admirable high quality and that is a fact that can be explained only by the high rank and the high social standard of the family of the renovator.

The conditions, under which the temple was decorated, are known from four inscriptions, which have been saved in different parts of the temple. The most important evidence is offered to us, by an inscription in big lettered-verse. It starts from the north wall, continues to the altar, goes along the south wall and it ends in the west part of this wall, exactly opposite the point where it began.

The elements given by the inscription are the followings:
The temple was built 200 years before the epoch of the renovator. The temple was renovated by the “ the most noble, most respected tzaousios of the Drongos of Melingoi” Constantine Spanis and his wife tzaousina Maria. The chronology, which is mentioned, year 6846 from the beginning of the world and the 6th indiktion, declares that the renovation of the temple occurred between the years 1337/1338.

In conclusion, it is clear that Constantine Spanis, between the years 1331/1332 (the inscription from Oitylon) and the years 1337/1338 was married and acquired the title of “the most respected” which makes him also and “the most noble”.

In the inscription, he continues to have the title of tzaousios, but is also tzaousios of Drongos of Melingoi. The word drongos has a German origin and initially meant the military unit (Ducange), but after, it had a clearly geographical meaning. Here it means the place, the region, where the Melingoi were leaving.

The huge inscription, which goes around the walls of the central aisle of the temple of Saint Nicholas in Kambinari, is extremely unusual for a temple of an isolated province of a Byzantine state.
Constantine Spanis has all the characteristics of a Byzantine dignitary of the epoch of Palaiologos, he shares his time between military enterprises and pious actions, like the renovation of the temples of Mani.

From the two other inscriptions of the temple, we can realize that the decoration of the south aisle was completed after long time, between the years 1343/1344 and 1348/1349. Probably, it lacked the significant financial support of Constantine Spanis and so it needed the subscription of many people of the region.

During an epoch of political fragmentation within the Byzantine Empire, the relations between the provinces and the capital became relaxed. The local governors - dignitaries felt powerful and although they depended on administration from the capital, they tried to assert their position through pious actions such as the building and the decoration of temples.

Another especially interesting element that arose with regard to the constitution of the population, is the presence of the Slavic origin of Melingoi. They inhabited this region of the Despotate of Morea and during the late Byzantine period, they were absorbed and incorporated into the Byzantine Empire. They spoke the Greek language and they had a Greek conscience.

And while the borders of the powerful “Pax Byzantina” have shrunk dramatically in the east and west, the empire will continue to remain a mosaic of populations and a mosaic of consciences even in the most isolated provinces.


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The church of St. Georgios, Oitylo Mane. View of the church from the outside before the recent restoration
Ownership inscription above the south door of the church of St. Georgios, Oitylo Mane
Ownership inscription above the south door of the church of St. Georgios, Oitylo Mane
The church of St. Nikolaos in Platsa Manes. View of the church's masonry.
The church of St. Nikolaos in Platsa Manes