Turning back the clock

Turning back the clock

The plain that extends beyond the convent’s vegetable allotments and olive groves is as  fertile now as it has been for thousands of years. For this reason, the Neolithic inhabitants of Halkidiki established small settlements on this arable land, well-watered by the Havrias River. To date we know of four prehistoric habitats: (a) Prophet Elias (4000 – 2000 BC); (b) plateia Toumpa (end of the 2nd millennium BC); (c) Agios Georgios (2nd millennium BC); and (d) Kastri (1000 BC). Only one of these Plateia Toumpa, survived into the historic era. Eventually, it not only grew into a very important, flourishing city, but also became the future site of ancient Sermyli, a towered conurbation that functioned as a guard post for a vital artery, today known as the Nikitiani Strata (‘Victory Way’). This, in fact, was the road that connected Sithonia with the western shores of the Thermaikos Gulf and Thessaloniki. 

Central Chalkidiki
Pebble floor mosaic in a house of ancient Olynthos
Ancient Olynthos
Ancient Olynthos
Ancient Olynthos
Ancient Olynthos

Who built Sermyli? Not the natives of Halkidiki but rather settlers from Halkida whose boats landed on Macedonian shores very early, around the 13th century BC. They sought a better life and it seems that they ultimately found it. Sermyli prospered and grew; it even minted silver coins. During the Athenian Alliance it became the second most important urban settlement in the peninsula after Toroni. We know this because of the enormous amounts that Sermyli paid to the Alliance’s voracious treasuries: between three and seven talants. The years of prosperity, however, did not last forever. If Sermyli escaped destruction by the Persians by allying itself with them in the tumultuous years of the Persian Wars, it did not escape the mania of Philip. In 348 B.C. Sermyli, together with other cities in Halkidiki, was destroyed by the indomitable Macedonian army. Archaeologists have still not reliably located the original site of this ancient settlement.

Aside from famed Sermyli, the ancient city of Kallipolis was also founded in the vicinity of Ormylia. Less known and somewhat insignificant, it straddled the highlands north of Sermyli. Its inhabitants must have been rather poor. Nevertheless, during 438 to 434 BC, Kallipolis too contributed a humble sum to the Athenian treasury. Having escaped the hurricane of Philip, the city bequeathed its name to an early Christian metropolis situated where today stand the ruins of a 5th century AD fortress. During the early Christian years, another Christian settlement, northwest of Vatopedi village, arose. Its modern name is Gveli, a name no doubt associated with the goddess Kyveli whose statue was discovered in the vicinity.

Of Christian Ormylia itself, little is known. Eremitical monasticism eventually spread throughout central Halkidiki: in caves, along river shores and in deserted and isolated areas. The first hermits were intent on setting up their humble abodes far from the world and close to God. One such anchorite was Saint Euthymios the New, founder of the renowned monastery at Peristera. Its old katholikon, a Byzantine architectural masterpiece, survives to this day and is well worth seeing.
Saint Euthymios practised the ascetic life in locations close to today’s Vrastama and in regions north of present-day Ormylia. Indeed, one of his disciples was tonsured in Sermyli, which is known to have had a beautiful galleried church dedicated to Saint Dimitrios. This earliest known detail about Byzantine Ormylia is particularly significant because it associates the historic presence of the village with one of the founding figures of early Athonite asceticism. By the grace of God, this connection, as history has shown, continues to this day.

Archeological remains of the basilica of Sophronios (5th century) Nikiti
Metochion of Saint Anastasia
Metochion of Saint Anastasia
Metochion of Zografou Monastery
Archeological remains of the basilica of Sophronios (5th century) Nikiti
Metochion of Saint Paul’s Monastery

In the Byzantine period, Sermyli became Ermylia. By this time it had become an entire administrative region whose seat seems to have been a large town named Kastro, itself quite close to today’s Ormylia. In 1270, around a thousand people lived in Kastro while in the surrounding area there were several small villages and other settlements, the most important of which were Agios Elias (‘Saint Elias’) and Sotir (‘Saviour’). Their
inhabitants farmed the land, which continually increased in size owing to the fertile soil and the embankments of the Havrias River that generated more and more plantation area. Many of these fields and sizeable tracts belonged to eminent Byzantine functionaries, one of whom was a certain Theodosios Skaranos. Before taking his leave from the vanity of this world, he donated all of his Ormylia property to the Athonite Monastery of Xeropotamou. As a result, by the end of the 13th century, the first Athonite dependency had appeared in Ormylia’s fecund plain. Others followed for, over time, Athos received handsome donations, bequests, and concessions, thereby making it possible for many monasteries, such as the Great Lavra, Vatopedi, Iviron, Pantokratoros, Zographou, Karakalou, Docheiariou, Xenophontos, and Esphigmenou, to acquire properties in the lush flatlands of Halkidiki. Vatopedi’s estate at Ormylia was the largest and the most important. In due course, its size augmented significantly and its buildings increased in number. A large tower was built in the centre to protect the fathers from pirates and brigands. Around it houses for the workers were constructed. Such were the beginnings of village life, and the settlement itself was, as expected, named Vatopedi. Though destroyed in 1821, following the failure of the revolution in Halkidiki, this complex was rebuilt shortly thereafter. By 1842, the Chapel of the Annunciation was raised. Twelve years later, in 1854, there was a second, aborted revolution. The restored metochion was torched after the Greek leader, Tsamis Karatasos, had ventured through it. Now, its oldest stone buildings date from 1903. The modern village of Vatopedi, first populated in 1924 by exiles from Anatolia, acquired property to plant fruit and vegetables. Parcels of land were ceded to them from the expropriated farmlands of the metochion. What was left of the monastic estate amounted to around 18,000 square metres and included the old, ruined stone remains. In 1974, these structures constituted the foundations for a new era of building activity.

Ormylia village, in the vicinity of the convent, retained the historic name of the ancient settlement. Of course the town Ermylia at some point ceased to exist and in its place the village of Kastro, whose exact location is unknown, was raised. The Byzantine farmers of Kastro often faced harrowing circumstances. This was especially true at the beginning of the 14th century (more specifically between 1307 and 1309) when
Catalan mercenaries installed themselves in Halkidiki and bandits pillaged the area. A direct result of this was human dispersion. The populations of Ermylia and Kastro fled in order to find more peaceful places to settle – not an easy task considering that all areas in the Empire were constantly raided by Turks. During one assault, in 1330, sixty Ottoman ships landed on the shores near Ormylia. Fortunately, their mandate to sack was checked by the Emperor Cantacuzinos. In general, however, these were highly turbulent times. The Byzantine Empire was in decline owing to internal strife. For this reason, numerous large land lots in Halkidiki were given over to the Athonite monasteries and at that time the Vatopedi tower was constructed.

The final, tumultuous years of Byzantium ended in tragedy. The villages and farmland in and around Ormylia fell into Turkish hands and Ormylia itself became the headquarters for sultans and viziers, their own private property, while the unfortunate inhabitants were forced to pay unbearable taxes to rapacious landlords.  On occasion, when the town was unable to raise the necessary funds, the elders resorted to selling land to monasteries on the Holy Mountain. But taxes increased unremittingly, forcing the peasants to leave the region in hope of a better life elsewhere. Ormylia was totally deserted throughout the 17th century. These circumstances led to the establishment of a new settlement named Kalyvia, which stood where Ormylia village is today. With the passing of time Kalyvia assumed the older name of Ormylia – a name that for centuries applied to the entire fertile plain by the Havrias River. The new Ormylia saw substantial agricultural production because of its highly industrious inhabitants. But the tree that brought it fame was not the olive which today covers every hill with silvery leaves, but the mulberry. The reason for this was the medieval preoccupation with sericulture for silk production, which flourished in this area. In 1806, Colonel William Leake, who passed through this region, reported the existence of 400 – 500 silk looms in Polygyros and Ormylia alone.

Vrastama: Cave of Saint Euthimios the new
Church of Saint Andrew. Peristera Monastery: The Katholikon
Ladder leading to the cave of Saint Euthimios the new

In this way, the township prospered, but the shadow cast by the ill-fated revolutions in Macedonia and Halkidiki hung heavily over Ormylia which, in 1821, was scorched. By the late 19th century, the village acquired new churches, and, in 1908, a beautiful school built of stone was designed by Xenophon Paionidis, a celebrated architect from Kassandra, who was responsible for many of the splendid buildings in Halkidiki
and on Mount Athos. 

With hindsight we may liken the ‘biography’ of this area to a large well-coiled ball of wool. In it one can clearly distinguish the bright red thread of the Orthodox monastic tradition which, through the twists and turns of history, has latterly returned to its ancient cradle, once more prosperous and strong.