Rural building traditions on Thassos, northern Aegean Sea

Published by: Thomas Schultze-Westrum

Under construction

A. Prologue: The aim of this research programme on Thassos is to present an exemplary case study about how the building of village houses and of other rural edifices, as well as the overall settlement patterns evolved locally or rather were brought along during immigration, or were adopted from outside cultural units. Our study should be seen as an attempt to identify the communal processes, technological skills and materials that were significant in the establishment of building traditions since the very first beginnings of human habitation on this island of great historical significance through the ages – and beyond.

The term tradition will be applied under the strict apprehension of the communal structure in village society as a genetically determined constellation inherited from early mankind and its ancestors. And equally when referring to the term evolution, we shall follow the conception as applied in biological population – physiological research. To our opinion there exist no differences in principle between evolution through natural selection and the evolution in human cultures on a tribal or equally small size society level. The main parameter to consider in this context is the ability to establish and maintain close communal bonds beyond the family in small size society, by the physiological process of mutual communalisation (reference T. S.-W. 1974).

Under this angle of view we shall search for the internal and external factors that were instrumental in shaping the style, structure and usage of dwellings in the framework of small assemblies up to larger villages, mainly in the interior of the mountainous island. With emphasis on the ancient village of Kazaviti. By doing so we investigate an inland culture and adaptation to ecological cónditions in settlement patterns which prevail in some distance from the coastal plains.But also this seaside environment will be considered, by the angle of view from inland downwards through the valley leading towards the cultivated land by the seaside (mostly olive tree growths).

Some general remarks may clarify further our aims.While going through publications on the history of settlement patterns on Thassos and her wider realm, one finds indications of distinct building styles already for the Bronce Age (…steinerne Rechteckhäuser … daneben ein Apsidenhaus in der für den näheren Umkreis sehr viel typischeren Pfostenbauweise“: reference Hartmut Matthäus), then Greek … Roman …civilizations, followed by the Byzantine epoque and the Ottoman empire. In particular for the two latter periods from the arrival of Christianity and Islam onwards, attention of researchers focussed on religious architecture. The vernacular housing was not considered adequately. So we intend to focus on these rather neglected grounds, of the common peoples habitation and how its characteristics evolved and were maintained, or altered respectively.

Traditional village housing is often referred to as „anonymous architecture“, in view of the absence of an individual („pedigree“) architect’s planning. But actually, any simple village cottage bears more individuality than one may assume from the distance of our urban views: Each one of those traditional dwellings is an individual entity even as it conforms with the general style of that region. There is not one like the other, if one takes a closer look. And these houses were erected and maintained over uncounted generations by individual families, and constructed by builders of mutual acquaintances with these families, with an active involvement of the entire neighbourhood („community of experience“ – reference Bernhard Rudofsky). We already emphasised: small communities were individually bonded by the process of communalization (reference T S-W). Hence village architecture is not anonymous, by all means.

Evolution of cultural patterns operates on the population level, that is the corresponding entity of ethnic units. That entity changed dramatically over the ages and accordingly the traditons which were established in one particular region may have vanished and been replaced. I refer here to the arrival and settlement patterns of the Romans which were widely adoped, but have disappeared since on Thassos: the Romans used ceramic roof tiles, for instance, but the traditional villages on the island in living memory only had stone slate as roof covers. Considering the heavy weight of those stone roofs the entire wooden structure had to be adapted. So we are asking which population-dynamic processes were instrumental in those and other structural changes which became a commonly respected tradition for defined periods of time.

Stone, clay and wood of several species clearly distinguished in their application, were the prime building materials. With locally burnt lime for mortars. The application of local materials is a principle in traditional building, we may refer to the clay architecture of rural Egypt outside of our realm under consideration ( reference Hassan Fathy). Besides this principle of local focus one has to elaborate the underlying endogene processes and establish the historical aspects which imprint an evolution of housing in an well inhabitable region like the valleys and slopes in the interior of Thassos. No other Aegean island of comparable size at times had a denser population and was more properous.

So we deal with rural architecture in this study, with a clear focus on the common peoples housing. Any religious centres like churches and mosques will be considered as well, but in equilibrium with the other architectural heritage and always in context with the entire settlement. Rural architecture is understood as a manifestation of the respective village commuity’s life style in view of essential commodities like providing shelter and advanced comforts like a place to pray and feeling mentally – emotionally balanced, sufficiently safeguarded to experience the optimal achievable quality of life in the community, the religious congregation, the family and as an individual human being. But always in relation to a particular village setting that links up with the entire population of the region concerned. Inland villages on Thassos apparently provided adequate living conditions in a continuity of at least 2.500 years (at Kazaviti).(add data from Kastri: Neolithicum…, but now abandoned).

There exist no autark rural communities anymore; the urban scene nowadays rules even the most remote tribal units all over the globe. Along with this disintegration of communal bonds and the traditions built upon them we have to deal with a matter of the past and cannot rely on much of living memories from bygone times. The inner understanding of village ways of life is a rare asset nowadays that only a few researchers possess as an aquaintance by imprinting during their own upbringing in a village community and its confined territorial environment.

We have to place great value on early documentations, therefore, by people still sharing common grounds of comprehension and functioning, of potentials, limits and above all rules which were fully accepted because they were carried by the community and there existed no real alternative for. That is why formery people were more content and acquainted with what they possessed and in concordance with the way of life they followed; at least more content and not questioning to that extent their living standards including their housing style, as compared with our open modern society that has abandoned all true traditions on the village level, all of them…as traditons are based on full communal bonds, the former full communalization being lost in this process of dramatic population growth and means of communications worldwide.

I wish to add a few more subjective remarks: we should refrain from drawing the picture of an ideal world where traditions made it easy because unquestionable which way to choose. Even then village life on Thassos was not all that comfortable, quite a few fairly large families – with three generations at one time shared one single living room for all the eventualities of daily life; a lot of endurance, much hardship still remained a heavy burden under the assuring shelter of a stable roof. Un-invited guests like bugs, fleas and rats were a permanent nuisance; I lived long enough myself in fully traditional houses to know how it feels when the winter storms blow ice crystals though the never tight doors and windows, when the cold creeps in and the open fire cannot keep up to spread its warmth. Still and perhaps because of such agonies a close attachment develops, it grows from the struggles of keeping up alongside the prevailing, constantly re-assuring notion of possessing an unquestioned, permanent own centre of subsistence and social standing This consciousness counts immensely. And consequently the individuality of a family mansion, the added value so to say, accumulates with every birth and every death that occurs under that roof. Are’nt these edifices living organisms themselves created by their builders but filled with more volumes of venerable living experiences year by year – as long as they were maintained, because every living being in human hands needs constant care.

Urban people can hardly handle these spiritual dimensions, but they strongly feel the frustration of having lost their roots in the village realm. They may place a cart wheel or another pseudo-rustical symbol as expression of their nostalgia in front of their village holiday house. The real values of traditional dwellings they cannot sense. How much more genuine is the simple beauty of these ancient mansions, their authenticy, the craftsmanship, the still present hand prints of the builders on the walls. How much more moving is the rememberance of passed generations, of all the tales narrated by the elders to the listening kids, of bygone days kept alive that way – until the traditions broke. Now I find under the rubble in abandoned stone mansions all the once treasured personal belongings, letters and photographs. The inhabitants just left them behind. It’s a lost world as it appears and what we safeguard are only fragments, a last witness of a once vibrant life style going back to times immemorial. Genuine village communities have ceased to exist – never ever they will return.

Insert: Old village houses are living beings, not immortal though, but rather sensitive to treatments affecting their authenticy and structure

After this excurse to illustrate our position I wish to summarize the principal aims of this study:

In order to honour our deep respect and appreciation of traditional housing on Thassos, and in Kazaviti in particular, the facettes of its history, we intend to elaborate the underlying complex evolutionary process – at least in its major elements – or rather the evolutionary agenda that led to the purely traditional evidence of edifices still existing in real or documented on early photographs. Indeed we shall draw attention to the very nature of this process, to introductions of elements from the outside, also to innovations and, last not least, to adaptations in relation to the physical environment of Thassos proper, because these, as we shall see, play a significant role as well.

B. Description and classification of Thassian houses and other edifices at the termination of traditional building (status quo). Presentation of a hitherto unnotized „prototype“ house.

There is little photographic documentation of original Thassian villages; the first panorama view of Kazaviti was taken in 1922 (fig. 1). The oldest dated buildings in this village are the church Dodeka Apostoli (1804, fig. 2) and three monasterial mansions (μετóχια) erected by Mt. Athos monasteries: Burra ! Of the I.M. NN (at Rodia square, fig. 2) dated 1805; Manola of the I.M. Esfigmenou (fig. 3) dated 1807; and Burra II of the I.M. Megisti Lavra (fig. 4) dated 1843. The earliest dated family houses are Papakonstantinou of 1812, Konstantinidi of 1862 Further dated houses?

Elders stated in the 1980s that the oldest existing houses of Kazaviti are those of the Kato Machalá quarter, the lowest part of the village (houses Nychtaraki and Triandafilidi). At that position, they cannot be spotted (by pirates) from down below the valley. There might be other reasons as well: the natural fortification by the steep slopes of the two gorges that embraze Kazaviti and meet just below these houses, as well as the availablitity of a wide stretch of flat land for gardening. The Kato Machalá stood at the entrance of the village, because the old main road winds up from the ravine there – the modern asphalt main road takes a different routing. At the Kato Machalá also the so called winter road ended, at an now abandoned square – coming from the northern slope of the valley and crossing the smaller ravine, thus avoiding the torrents in the main gorge. Now a concrete bridge across the main ravine makes the old road passable also at high water levels. One elder informant, Panagiotis Veginas, showed to the author in the 1990s the head of an ancient arched bridge, as he suggested, below the concrete bridge. On the southern side one can identify a solid base plastered with lime mortar, but on the opposite side, at the former olive mill Kofterelis, no traces of any base construction could be detected.

The common features of recent building traditions on Thassos:

materials, construction, design

Classification of family houses:

By their external appearance, three main types of living houses can be distinguish, when comparing the traditional houses of Kazaviti as documented on the historical panorama photograph of 1922, a few later pictures, the author’s own photographic documentation of 1973/74, further pictures taken over the years since by the author and his son Matthias , as well as the remaining original buildings on site: Mischformen, Überlappungen

1, The larger mansions (αρχóντικα),

inluding the three monasterial μετóχια, and several other representative buildings (e.g. the group of five mansions below the central village square, figs… .). They have in common hiproofs, a projecting upper floor whose half – timbered (τζακμας) front wall sits on (usually) bent wooden supports (fig….) or on protruding horizontal beams (fig….). Arched main door and window frames exist, but are not common for all these mansions (house Argyris, name?, fig…).

In this first category we place also the (only) three story building Karamaniola and the taverna Vegina (including the rear section of the latter which functions as a separate family accomodation). Both are located at the central village square.

Most of these mansions had elaborate fitted wall furniture (μεσανδρα) in their living rooms (fig…). The name literally means „man inside“; it reminds of the centuries under Turkish rule when local men were searched for and had to hide.

2, The common village houses (σπιτια):

The majorityalso has hiproofs. Where built in rows close to each other along one of the public stone pebble (καλδεριμι) roads, also simple roofs with only two inclined planes are found (fig…) .

These neighbourhoods in rows of middle-sized houses are a characteristic settlement pattern; Neighbouring houses either have a common wall between them, or both adjoining houses have their own walls touching each other, or the separating walls rather stand apart and there is a narrow walkway between neigbouring houses.

Quite a few houses along the roads provide low stone – benches at their frontside, mostly for the women gathering while doing their needleworks and chatting.

Where the upper front wall is constructed half – timbered (τςακμας) , it usually protrudes to a varying degree as described for the αρχóντικα above under 1, (figs….).

Characteristic for this type of family house is the fully roof – covered, partly (vertically) closed balcony on the first floor, the so called χαιατι (fig…). It’s functions are to extend the living area for the warmer season and to have well ventilated but shady space for drying tobacco leaves.

3, A „proto – type“ family house:

We identified only a few examples of this rather small – sized and plain type of family house. To our opinion it deserves particular attention, because it appears as a kind of archaic prototype with no recorded history. We consider it as of high antiquity because it lacks several traditional features that are characteristic for more recent Thassian houses.

Though standing free in some distance to other houses, the roof has only two inclined planes, no hiproof (fig…).

Its outer walls are all solid (approx. 60 cm deep).

The one or two upper floor rooms are accessible by an outer stone staircase.

Only one open fireplace is found upstairs (fig…).

In the instance of two upper floor rooms (house Kelaidi), the separition wall is constructed of plaited twigs filled and covered with clay, white-washed with lime. It’s upper part (= the triangle reaching onto the roof) consists of lime – covered reed matting (fig….).

The only fitted room furniture is standard in its design (fig…). The same kind of furniture can be found also in other village houses (figs…).

No horizontal ceiling exists. One looks straight onto the roof construction (fig…). Horizontal beams and main rafters consisting of rezin – rich pine or chestnut wood, the thinner rafters holding the wooden roof boards consisting of Juniperus wood. Like in all traditional Thassian houses these roof boards (δενεκεδες) are split by wedges, not cut by saw. A layer of clay on top holds the stone slate in place (cf. also chapter ….).

The ground floor consists only of one single room, for the donkey, other animals and storage (wine barrels and oil jars, various useful materials and tools, some firewood); this utilization of goundfloor space is common also in other Thassian village houses (cf. chapter ….).

Local differentiation of traditional building style on Thasos:

Kastro vor allem

Stages in evolution of design:

What we recognize as status quo of truly traditional buildings may not always be the original. As a rule: the earlier a house was constructed, the more alterations have occurred. Not in a deliberate manner, though, but as a consequence of epoches with their characteristics; partly fashionable and partly dependent on material and other reasons. Windows were smaller than they appear in later times – but this feature is not entirely as deliberate as it appears, because pane of glass was very expensiv. Wooden shutters were in use quite frequently instead (figs. church and Liolo). But even with those alterations towards larger windows in mind, one should be aware that the entity of style remained just the one original one all through the ages, as long as the one communal bondage in the respective region remained intact. That observation is valid for what we recognize as Thassian style throughout, and it embrazes a whole set of characteristics. For instance: windows of any size and age retained the proportions: either square or higher than wide but only exceptionally broader than high. But up to three windows were set frame to frame so that they appear as one single broad window (figs.).

Another parameter of evolutionary processes is the facade of stone-built walls. The oldest surviving houses possess either a blank stone facade without any covering plaster (fig…), or such a stone fassage that was pained over with lime many times (fig…Lazaridis, Kelaidi). Later mortar plaster was either attached to a layer of clay mixed with straw, or directly applied to the stone wall – with varying decorative design patterns of individual master builders (figs… Zografou, Kyriakoudi). With progressing times the tendency of gradually covering all the wall except some eyes of blank stone up to a full coverace of plaster can be observed so that the building’s stone wall eventually becomes fully invisible (figs.. of progressing stages of plastering).

Other built structures in Thassian villages:

ovens (φουρνοι)

wine – presses (πατητηρια, linoi)

walls and gates (ξερολιθιες και πορτες)

stone pebble roads (καλδεριμι)

C. The archaeological evidence of housing on Thassos and its traces of origins.

Insert: Terrasses, their supporting walls built over uncounted generations. Estimate of the imput of work and volume of soil on the basis of an aerial survey

D. Comparative study in the wider realm of the Balkans and establishment of historical links to Thassos.

E. Identification of adopted elements from C. and D., as well as local innovations in recent Thassian traditional architecture.

F. The evolutionary process and its significant parameters established by this study.

G. Conservation and future functions of the architectural heritage of Thassos.

H. Summaries in English and Greek.

I. Published references



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This entry was posted on Juni 18, 2010 at 19:03 and is filed under Kazavition.

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