Agro-biodiversity on Thassos, northern Aegean Sea

Published by: Thomas Schultze-Westrum

Thassos, the northern-most large island in the Aegean Sea, was extensively cultivated in antique times. The first settlers with a high level of agriculture were probably the Phoenicians: according to folk tradition they introduced the troumbes variety of olives and they may have been the first farmers to cultivate the land on terraced plots.

Around 700 BC Hellenic settlers from the island of Paros established a colony on Thassos. It should be noted Thassost the Parians had connections in earlier times with the Minoan culture and with Egypt. Hence crops may have been brought along their navigation routes.

After 500 BC the Athenians controlled Thassos. Thassian red wine became famous throughout the classical period, there is written testimony by several Greek authors, and amphores filled with wine from Thassos were recovered from the sea as far as Alexandria.

From around 200 BC the Romans cultivated much land on Thassos. This period extended with several short invasions by Sarazens and other powers, right to the Byzantine empire. A considerable amount of archaeological evidence of agriculture has been recovered or is still waiting for excavation and research, respectively, from the Roman land cultivation on Thassos.

In 1327 the Byzantine emperor Andronicus III brought new settlers to the island; they probably also carried seeds along with them. Only future reaserach can reveal from which area these new settlers came from.

It should be noted, though, that from the 10th to the 16th century Thassos went through a dark period of invasions, killing, plundering and destruction; certainly with much deteriorating effect on the agricultural performance. The coastal areas were largely abandoned and the remaining people settled further inland.

The reasons, however, for setting up inland villages and cultivating the valleys and slopes were not primarily the threats by invaders and pirates: already in antique times more land was cultivated than nowadays and small settlements were dispersed over the entire island except for the highest regions. Because the climate was much more favourable inland, in some higher altitute, there was less exposure to malaria-carrying mosquitoes and the best soils were found and continously improved there. Water power was available in the gorges for operating grain and olive mills. So the pattern of land cultivation was dominated by ecological and historical factors in close and multiple interrelation.

The inland village of Kazaviti until around 1950 practized an annual migration to the coast for harvesting the olives in the ancient olive tree groves. In October the villagers descended and took residence in the settlement of Kalyves (the “cottages”). In March they returned inland to their home village in abount 350 m altitude above sea level.

Thassos is the nearest large island to the Holy Mountain of Athos, the monasteries there had very extensive land possessions on the island, they cultivated these from monasterial mansions, the so called metóchia. Athos is a treasure trove for very old agro-biodiversity and hence also Thassos received much of this diverse genetic material over many centuries.

The Turkish occupation from 1455 until 1912 was suspended by Egyptian rule under Mechmed Ali from 1813 until 1902. We can assume that during this long period seeds and plants found their way to Thassos from Asia Minor and possibly as far as from Egypt (again).

When the Greek colony of Smyrni was expelled by the Turks in 1922, a large number of refugees found a new home on Thassos: only future research can provide evidence to what extent the refugees carried cultivated plants and even farm animals along with them.

In the wake of tourism and the trend to abandon inland villages and settle along the coast, most of the agricultural biodiversity inland is disappearing nowadays. People prefer to buy saplings of fruit trees from nurseries which import them from the mainland, most vegetables are imported from the mainland as well and all the immense richness of crops is much endangered; is comes to a rapid end. And the best soil is left uncultivated. Goat pasture is the only and very destructive utilization now on the extended terrasse fields that surround most the inland villages. The goats eradicate the few remaining fruit trees, no young sapling has a chance to grow up.

This is the alarming situation today… against the background of such an overwhelmingly rich agro-history…

No systematic survey of the agro-biodiversity on Thassos was carried out so far. We have to assume, that on top of the great diversity of imports over so many centuries also autochthon (endemic) varieties developed as genetic mutations and were propagated in situ because of their qualities.

It is not too late however, to carry out an overall survey and to rescue a very large proportion of the agro-biodiversity of Thassos – if actions will be taken without further delay, NOW!

The focus area of Kazaviti village

The inland village of Kazaviti (=Ano Prinos) is situated on the western side of Thassos Island, at the end of a broad green valley, framed by two deep gorges, in approx. 350 meters above sea level (cf. website www.kazaviti-thassos.net).

Kazaviti in living memory was one of the three largest villages on Thassos, together with Theologos and Panagia. But the agro-history of this settlement goes much further back to the classical Hellenic period BC and the subsequent Roman colonization. We discovered in and near the recent settlement the remains of Roman houses, sculptures and a grave with inscriptions, many fragments of amphores (some with stamps), pieces of very large and heavy ceramic storage containers and a few fragments of hand mills for grinding grain (of very hard, blackish stone that was imported).

In-the southern gorge just below the village I also discovered massive archaic stone constructions which were built to channel the water.

The existing buildings of the settlement of Kazaviti were erected from the end of the 18th century onwards.

The inhabitants deserted the village in the middle of last century and moved to the former settlement of Kalyves, now Prinos. Only in the wake of tourism Kazaviti gradually was re-inhabited.

On the slopes all around the village the extended terrace gardens, vineyards and grain fields are nowadays abandoned, they remained without cultivation for at least 5 decades. The immense advantage is the absence of any agro-chemicals in the soil. The ecological conditions vary greatly, because of the diverse landscape patterns with slopes of various decline facing in all directions except east. There is sufficient water available for irrigation, but the old system of channels from natural springs higher up requires restoration works. Goats have eradicated almost all the agricultural crops and fruit trees in the wider surroundings, but within the village and in fenced gardens still a substancial variety of plumes, peaches, pears, apple, apricots, quinces, pomegrants, figs, walnuts, almonds have survived. As well as less known fruit trees like 3 varieties of mulberry trees with whitish or backish fruit. In the forest of the nearby gorges also wild-growing grapevines and wild fruit species like Cornelian cherries can be found.

The major area of cultivation terraces around Kazaviti was covered by vineyards. This fact is very significant in view of the famous Thasian red wine in antique times. Taking into account the morphology of the island and the changes in climatic conditions over the past 2.500 years we can assume that the best locations for vineyards were on the western side of the island – here at Kazaviti! We found the remains of amphoras and other pottery right at the edge and even on the vineyard terraces that are said by the local people to have the best red soil, at the location of “Platano”. In other words: it is likely that the still surviving vinyards there have a history dating back to antiquity. The oldest amphora stamp found in that area is from around 400 BC. In one particular still cultivated vineyard at “Platano” the owner distinguishes 12 varieties of grapevines! I should mention that the Greek Vitis Database lists only 4 varieties for Thassos, none of them being endemic. The most popular variety is “limnio” which was also cultivated on other islands, for instance Alonnisos before the pest grape phylloxera in the early 1960s almost eradicated the grapevines there. Considering the high age of this variety and the pattern of distribution (cf. details at Greek Vitis Databank) one can assume that local strains of limnio developed that add further to the genetic diversity of grapevines here; no systematic research so far was extended to that subject, but Thassian wine-growers make some distinction between new and old limnio (or limnia). Within the village of Kazaviti pergolas covered with several very old varieties of grapes for eating (“agorides” or several kinds, “aeto-nycha”) further add to this great diversity.

I have under cultivation living samples of more than 10 local varieties of grapevines so far.

Since the early 1990s I systematically collect and propagate grapevines of the available local varieties on our own land at Kazaviti. I even rescued some plants that survived the teeths of goats on terraces that were abandoned half a century ago. I make notes about the place of origin and observations. Also I established two vineyards of ca. 200 plants each from cuttings taken at the still operating old vineyards at “Platano”. And I grow pergola grapevines of all available varieties in the village as well. On our extensive garden land we also grow the available varieties of plumes, peaches and walnut. But the task is too big for doing it as a “hobby”. As is well known vineyards demand a lot of attention! And just watering in summer all the little nurseries of fruit trees at different locations in the village is quite time-consuming. So we need help!

The task of documenting the agro-biodiversity all over Thassos is a much larger operation still. People in villages that are inhabited without interuption, like Maries and Theologos, actually in all parts of Thassos gave me impressive figures of how many varieties they still grow. Around 15 varieties of peaches, and an equal number of pears, dwarf apricots (“tzérzila”) for instance, as distinguised according to the season when they mature, to taste and appearance. Not to mention the varieties of vegetables, beans. But these crops are disappering rapidly and to find local tomato seeds, for instance, is getting very difficult. I received news that the old variety of wheat does still exist, but for how long!

Kazaviti provides ideal conditions for establishing a centre for the agro-biodiversity of Thassos. To collect, preserve and utilize the agro-biodiversiy here. Because fairly large areas of the best land are available and the climatic conditions are favourable as well. I am thinking of organising a cooperative of land owners which do not have any use for their inherited land right now. They would not be willing to do the cultivation all by themselves so we would have to employ some experienced people. The rural tourism that develops at Kazaviti (see www.kazaviti-thassos.net) could well be integrated, and a “agro-history park”is envisaged. It is designed to include not only plants but also old breeds of farm animals, with demonstration sites, educational trails and delivery to local tavernas. It’s a very realistic undertaking – in case we find initial support to get moving, if we can convince the locals and provide the essential evidence that it will work alright. It will work, it’s just a matter of powerful initiation. And of professional, systematic approach and planning.

Expert opinions and even closer involvement are much desired also from outside of Thassos. From the agricultural research centres in Greece, mainly the National Agricultural Research Foundation, Agricultural Research Center of Makedonia and Thraki, Greek Gene Bank, Thermi of Thessaloniki. And also from other Mediterranean partners: Italian scientists have managed to produce wine at Pompeii like the one made at Roman times. We are extending our serious invitation for close collaboration, as the archaeological evidence of wine making here at Kazaviti is classical Greek and Roman as well.

Eventually a museum for the Thassian history of wine making should be established in one of the traditional houses of Kazaviti. We already have identified a suitable building that has preserved the groundfloor storage rooms within it’s thick isolating walls of stone and clay in perfect condition. The museum should be extended to a traditional taverna serving the wine as it was produced in long ago times, together with fresh garden products and snacks. It’s not a dream only, it can be done… but we need support evidently, as it is beyond the capacity of just one individual family…

Even the right building for a documentation centre, research institution and experimental station is in place: the large monasterial mansion “Manola”, the dominant landmark building

of Kazaviti dated 1807 (cf. website mentioned above). It would require first, however, careful restoration and that undertaking will be quite costly. But considering what large sums of money are spent on much less valuable projects, it should be seen as quite cost-effective and certainly would develop into a very beneficial and lasting set up with much significance far beyond Thassos.

Application for funding by the EU programme 870/2004:

At this first stage I am requesting initial support for:

  • carrying out a first overall survey in eight old villages of Thassos,
  • securing and enlarging the already existing fruit tree nurseries and collections of grapevines at Kazaviti, by fencing and employing one person with experiene in this field,

  • preparing the setting up of a cooperative of land owners in significant sections of the abandoned terraces in the periphery of Kazaviti,

  • establishing working partnerships with Greek, Italian and other European institutions and individual experts.

Kazaviti, on 29 August 2005

Dr. Thomas Schultze-Westrum,

graduated in biology, geology and ethnology at Munich University,

permanent resident of Kazaviti Thasou

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This entry was posted on Juni 18, 2010 at 19:01 and is filed under Kazavition.

One Response to “Agro-biodiversity on Thassos, northern Aegean Sea”

  1. Carlos sagt:

    Dear Dr. Thomas

    Congratulations x your article and project, it was a very excited lecture. Since its is dated in 2005, I hope you got the funding needed to go further with it!

    I would like to ask your help to obtain fresh viable seeds of Thassian Olives. I am willing to trade for any Brazilian stuff you would like or to buy them too!

    Many thanks in advance

    Carlos
    Brazil

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