August 16, 2016
We are currently anchored in the Bay of Navarino (or Navarinou) on the southwest coast of the Peloponnese in Greece, and it’s yet another one of the places where a lot has gone on over the last couple thousand years.
It’s a wonderful natural harbor, fairly deep (100 meters or so in most places) and roundish body of water about two miles in diameter, with a narrow entrance to the south – especially important since the prevailing winds here are from the north and northwest. It’s surrounded by cliffs, dramatic conical mountains, lagoons and some gentle farmland. There are two small towns; Pylos (or Pilos) with about 5,000 people, and Gialova (or Yialova) with just a few hundred, mostly in the summer.
(The point of the variant spellings, by the way, is that there seems to be no real authority for how to transliterate words in Greek into our Latin alphabet. Perhaps most annoying is that to Greeks, Athens is Athena, and it’s hard to see why it couldn’t be represented that way in our alphabet… There are also Italian, French and Turkish names for many Greek places, reflecting occupations over the centuries. Navarino, for example is Italian (Venetian), while Pylos is the Greek name now used for the town, but not the bay.)
We’re anchored off Gialova, in about twenty feet of water, close enough to town to row in for a nice lunch or dinner in the tavernas by the water, mainly patronized by Greek tourists on their summer holidays. The water temperature is about 25° C (77° F), and it’s clean and blue – great for swimming off the boat. This time of year it is lovely and calm in the mornings, and the sea breeze picks up in the afternoon, just as the temperature begins to rise. Very pleasant. No cruise ships, but apparently this is a favorite stop for obscenely huge private megayachts, most of them as ugly as a MacDonalds.
But at the bottom of this peaceful bay, thousands of bodies and scores of ruined ships lie entombed in the silt and sand. The most recent catastrophe here was the Battle of Navarino, fought one October day in 1827, where 3,200 were killed and another 1,600 wounded. It was the last major naval battle fought entirely by sailing ships, although most were at anchor at the time.
It was during the Greek War of Independence, which started in 1821. A lot of international engagement and manipulation made the war more of a proxy battle than simply a rebellion, but in short it was a fight for Greek independence from the now failing, but far from toothless Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman fleet – some 80 Turkish and Egyptian vessels, including “ships of the line” had anchored in a semi-circular arrangement inside the entrance to the bay.
The Allied fleet of 22 ships, composed of mostly British, but also French and Russian vessels, supposedly just as a show of force, sailed into the bay and anchored in the middle of the Ottoman semicircle. Reportedly, a Turkish vessel fired a single shot, and the pro-independence allies cut loose. When the smoke cleared, only 8 vessels of the Ottoman fleet were still operable, and most of the rest were burned and sunk. Although outgunned and outnumbered, the allies had the edge in gunnery speed and accuracy. I think it is pretty much impossible for any of us to imagine the sounds and sights of that day. There are paintings, though, based on descriptions of the day, burning ships and bleeding sailors, which you can see by looking up “Battle of Navarino” on Wikipedia.
But that’s just the most recent large-scale violence. In the very early days, the bay was supposedly the site of the Palace of Nestor (mentioned in the Odyssey). Then in 425 BC, the “Battle of Pylos” was fought here as part of the Peloponnesian War. That’s where Athens and Sparta fought for control of territory. The Athenians won and used the victory to establish a raiding base in the Peloponnese. In the following years, the bay was fought for and occupied by the French, the Venetian Republic, for a brief period in the 1700s, even the Russians – but for over 300 years – up to 1827 – it was mainly controlled by the Ottoman Empire.
A huge stone fort, added to by each of the occupiers in their turn, stills glowers at the entrance to the bay, but these days windsurfers, some waterskiers, and a handful of cruising and local sailors are the most prominent nautical activity. Still worth remembering, I suppose, that for most of their history humans have left a bloody and contentious record. Precious peace has been rare, and fragile.