The Tower of Donation

If, in the imagination, you cancel the houses behind the medieval tower of Ouranoupoli – which the restaurant owners, family pensions and souvenir shops of this charming little resort village would, of course, extremely dislike – then you will have an idea how lonely this tower stood here on the beach for seven hundred years, in the chain of several other Byzantine watchtowers protecting the coasts of Chalkidiki and Thessaly from Saracen and Catalan pirates. The construction of the coastal fortification system was initiated by the Palaiologos dynasty, which occupied the throne of Constantinople in 1261, expelling the Venetian invaders of 1204, reuniting the empire for the last time, and, not least, giving new glow to Byzantine art. The Palaiologos Renaissance created a multitude of wonderful frescoes and icons, and, when exported to Italy, served as a starting point for Giotto and Duccio to start Italian Renaissance painting.

The tower of Ouranoupoli was probably built as early as the late 1200s, but the first written record of it only survives from 1379, when “Ioannes Palaiologos, Despot of Thessaloniki” stayed here and granted tax relief to the area. It is not clear who this Ioannes was. In this period, “despot” means an emperor’s son who is officially declared heir to the throne and is given the rule of an important province, such as Thessaloniki. In 1379, however, the despot of Thessaloniki, that is, the heir to the throne and local governor, was the later Emperor Manuel II, who held this office from 1376 until his accession to the throne in 1391. His son, the later Emperor John VIII – a participant in the Council of Florence-Ferrara, and a model for Piero della Francesca and Benozzo Gozzoli – was only seven years old in 1379, so he could not be it. As this Ioannes is mentioned on the Greek net only in connection with Ouranoupoli, and other Byzantine historical sites are silent about him, it is possible that he is just a long-surviving error of the historical literature. But tax relief, whoever granted it, suggests that the central government admitted that they could not pay the garrison, and in return they did not demand anything from what the soldiers produced for themselves.

Ouranoupoli is today the last settlement before the border of the monastic republic of Mount Athos. The Holy Mountain rises right behind the tower. From here, the ship will leave for the port of the Holy Mountain tomorrow morning, after the passengers have passed the free COVID quick test, because the PCR test required in advance for the visa of Athos, if done outside Greece, is not accepted by the monasteries.

Barely a hundred years ago, however, this region was also owned by Athos, or rather by Vatopedi Monastery. The area around the solitary tower was uninhabited, but the monks cultivated it. It was called Prosforion, “Donations”, hence the name of the tower: Πύργος Προσφορίου, the Tower of Donation.

Both the region and the name changed in the 1920s, when the Greek government settled thousands of Pontic Greeks, expelled from northeastern Turkey, on the lands around Thessaloniki, which were partly uninhabited and partly taken from the Muslims displaced into Turkey. By government decree, the estates of the monasteries of Mount Athos were also shortened, and the borders of the monastic republic pushed inwards. In the lands of the Prosforion, all the way to the tower, the town of Ouranopoli was established.

The tower in 1967, from the excellent Athos blog

The eponymous Uranopolis, the city of heaven, was founded in 316 BC by Alexarchos, brother of King Kassander of Macedonia. Not exactly here, but somewhere around here, on the Chalkidiki peninsula. He intended it as a kind of ideal city, led by himself as the living incarnation of the Sun God. He even created for it a dialect of its own, about which the philosopher Heraclid of Lembos wrote that even the Pythian Apollo would not have been able to understand it. Incidentally, this phenomenon returned in the 1920s with the dialect of the Pontic Greeks, which had developed independently of Athenian Greek for three thousand years, so that they are mutually incomprehensible to each other, although the descendants of the settlers already speak Athenian Greek as well. Alexarchos and his successors also minted their own money in Uranopolis, which is now a sought-after treasure for numismatics. One side shows the Sun, the celestial alter ego of the ruler, and the other Aphrodite Urania, sitting on a sphere of heaven, with a star on her peaked cap.

In the 1920s, the tower also received new occupants, the British-Australian Lochs. Sydney Loch, wounded at Gallipoli, and his wife, Joice NanKivell, earned their living as freelance journalists, covering the misery in the aftermath of the war from Ireland through Eastern Poland and Romania to Greece, and helping those in need everywhere. In newly founded Ouranoupoli, they organized medical care for the refugees, as well as a traditional carpet-waving cooperative, which remained the main source of income for the locals until the tourist boom of the 1970s. Sydney died in 1955, and Joice in 1982. They both rest in the cemetery of the town, and locals still refer to them as Κύριε and Κυρία, the Lord and the Lady.

Today there is a local history museum in the tower. According to its schedule, it is open from half past nine until three in the afternoon, but in fact it is just as aleatorical as anything else here in Greece. Gergely Nacsinák, the author of the Hungarian travel guide of Athos, who has been visiting the Holy Mountain for more than twenty years as an Orthodox priest, and whose friendship has made it possible to me to be here, says he has never been able to get in there.

There are many iconic shops and restaurants on the main street leading to the tower. The uncritical interior decoration of the Kritikos tavern basically focuses on the glorification of the great pillar of orthodox, Vladimir Putin, with a series of apocryphal icons that could have been included in our previous selection.

Much more heartwarming is the confectionary run by – nomen est omen – Uncle Sekeroglu, that is, Sugar’s Son. His father, who had fled Anatolia, was the first baker of the community, and Uncle Sekeroglu has carried on his business, expanding it step by step to today’s imposing bakery and confectionery shop. He is past eighty, but he still gets up at four a.m. to sell fresh bread at the six a.m. opening. Then come the puff pastry for breakfast, and then the cakes. And now, as it is already hot and tourist are coming, he stays “open a little longer, until ten in the evening”.

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