Interview with Haris A Kalligas

Monemvasia: A Byzantine City State, the only book currently available on the best-preserved Byzantine city in the Peloponnese – Monemvasia. Haris A. Kalligas, a world authority on Monemvasia’s history and architecture, here explores the city’s foundation, its status as a powerful maritime centre of Byzantium, and its gradual decline after the fall of the Empire.

We interviewed Haris Kalligas by email:

1. Why did you want to write Monemvasia: A Byzantine City State?

Monemvasia remained an important city and port from its foundation in the 6th century and until the fall of the Byzantine Empire. My intention was to chronicle the evolution of the city and territory of Monemvasia comprehensively and concisely during the fourteen centuries of its existence, something that, so far, has never been presented. For this purpose a large amount of material collected was used; unpublished material from archives and from my own research and surveys on the rock and the surrounding area, as well as published material and conclusions from my previous publications, e.g. the works on the authenticity of the written sources on Byzantine Monemvasia.

2. Often, when people write about Byzantium, the work is confined to what happens in Constantinople. How does examining a city like Monemvasia offer insights into the Byzantines?

In the huge world that was Byzantium most of the important decisions were taken by the administration in Constantinople, «the City». However, the rest of the area of the Empire was not a desert. The towns and cities had their own, interesting and significant activities, which it is possible to perceive despite the meagre documentation along with its inadequate systematic study. The remains and the documents offer evidence of the importance of Monemvasia as a port and the occupations of the inhabitants. They were merchants and pirates, they offered their services for fighting at sea, their ships sailed to various parts of the Mediterranean, and they were excellent builders and artisans. Malmsey wine -the name is a corruption of the name of the city- was produced in the area and exported in large quantities.

3. Your book is dedicated to Angeliki Laiou, the Byzantine historian who passed away earlier this year. Could you tell us about her influence on you and your research?

Angeliki was a very dear personal friend, who was fond of Monemvasia, which she visited several times, either privately or for the purpose of the Symposia that we have organized there every year since 1988, and of whose Scientific Committee she was a member. In Monemvasia as well as during my stay as a fellow in Dumbarton Oaks Centre, when she was the Director, we had repeated discussions on several aspects of Byzantine history as she was particularly interested in the economy of Byzantine towns and cities, Monemvasia among them. I admired her quick mind, her power to compose and to carry research on difficult topics and her strictness. She was very supportive of my research on Monemvasia, which was multi-disciplinary, and I benefited from our exchange of views on methodology, and in particular the recording of the remains in the medieval city.

4. You also work as an architect and specialize in restoring houses in and around Monemvasia. Could you tell us more about this experience and the kind of work involved in restoring houses?

With my husband Alexander G. Kalligas we form a team restoring houses in the medieval city of Monemvasia, as well as on the island of Symi and sometimes in other places. Monemvasia consists of the Upper City, which has been deserted and is state property and the Lower City, which is enclosed by walls and has never stopped being inhabited. The houses there are owned by private people, many still the descendants of the original Monemvasiote owners. An important number of houses has been sold after World War II, when as was the case in all regional Greece, people were attracted by the big cities. We have been working there since the late ‘60s, using the local teams and training new generations of them and the work still continues. The masons and carpenters work using the old methods, building with stone, without the use of concrete, using hewn poros stone for executing specialized work, like the building of vaults, which sometimes have complicated forms, or shaping the openings, or executing elaborate stone floors and wooden roofs. All these works are carried out under the extremely strict control of the Greek Archaeological Service, while the materials are transferred by pack animals, cars not being allowed to enter the walls of the city. So far we have been working on more than 80 houses and for our work we were awarded in 1980 one of the medals of Europa Nostra, given to the best restoration projects executed in Europe.

5. Finally, you have edited several books through Monemvasiotikos Homilos, which is an association of inhabitants and friends of Monemvasia. Could you tell us something about these books and how people who are interested in them can purchase copies?

Working in the historic environment of Monemvasia had provoked in me an interest to understand more about the evolution of the city. I started studying and after several years of research I completed my PhD thesis in Kings College London on the sources of Byzantine Monemvasia. Since then research continued in various Libraries (in one of them, the Gennadius Library in Athens, I have been the director from 1995 to 2004), as well as in various collections of Archives, in Venice, the Vatican, Paris, Athens along with the research and surveys on the spot. I have published a number of books and several articles -not through Monemvasiotikos Homilos.

This association was formed in 1977 with among its aims to organize intellectual, cultural and educational activities in the medieval city. This indeed happened every summer. In 1988 we decided to organize a yearly Symposium on History and Art. So far 18 Symposia have been organized on various topics of History and Art History. In 1991, e.g., the Symposium was in honour of Sir Steven Runciman, who was present. It had as a theme: Travellers and officials in the Peloponnese. Descriptions-Reports-Statistics.

I have acted as editor or co-editor for the publication of a number of volumes with the papers from these Symposia; these were published by Monemvasiotikos Homilos.

These volumes, along with all my other books, including the book written jointly with Alexander on the restoration of the houses in Monemvasia: Monemvasia. Retracing on Palimpsests (Potamos, 2006), can be ordered from the publishing house POTAMOS, 48 Xenokratous Street, Athens 10676 GR, telephone: +30-210-7231271,

We thank Haris A. Kalligas for answering our questions.

Click here for more information about Monemvasia: A Byzantine City State

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