Anesti ! Christ is n in Mistra. Elizabeth Palmer celebrates a traditional Easter with the Orthodox in Southern Greece.
EASTER comes early in Southern Greece. in the heart of the Peloponnese — that great figshaped peninsula lying to the South of the Greek mainland. Good Friday is not just the start of the festival — it is the culmination of weeks of preparation.
In the small village of Mistra. near Sparta, the day began with mist on Mount Taygetus where the winter snow still lay in the crevices. The villagers broke their fast with coffee and dry bread, and then went to buy the brown traditional candles on sale at the Post Office, The bells were tolling. The tiny cemetery was already thronged with blackclothed men and women laying huge wreaths.
The women had been up since dawn, to dye the eggs, a bucketFull at a time. The first ones bright red Madonna eggs — were too precious to be eaten and were destined for the church.
The young girls had been decorating the church with swathes of black and purple cloth. but at six in the evening, the village ate once more — dry bread and coffee, a handful of black olives with a little 'feud, the crumbling goat's cheese of the Mediterranean.
When it began to grow dark, the procession started, the Epitaphion, heart-rending and beautiful, the air heavy with the smell of wistaria and roses, of stocks and of lilac that. in Greece. is called the Easter flower.
First came a boy carrying a rough hewn cross. Behind him the pall carried h\ four priests and smothered in wreaths. They were followed by acolytes and silent villagers and as the procession wound round the darkening streets. more and more people joined tn.
At least. they reached the dimmed church. the doors were closed, the pall left outside and the villagers dispersed. The lights went out in the hone. coloured
houses, the bread ovens stood empty awaiting the morrow's sacrificial lamb. Christ lay lonely in his tomb.
When Saturday dawned. Mistra seemed to emit a huge sigh. The tension and the gloom lilted. The worst was over and Christos was sale.
By noon. the streets were crowded once more with children carrying great sprays of rosemary and myrtle. Fat white candles at two drachmas each replaced the brown ones at the Post Office, and inside the church the funeral drapes were being folded and carefully laid outside.
By eleven, that night. everyone was back in the dark incenseladen church.
There were a few benches at the back for the old and the sick. But most of the congregation stood, shoulder to shoulder, facing the dark frescoes and icons. A score of small children. pale. wide-eyed and utterly absorbed were balanced on fatherly arms or standing in a sea of knees.
The two hidden priests with the hidden choir behind' the screen began to sing — a line each. strophe and antistrophe — and gradually the lights came on. Then, dramatically, midnight tolled. the sanctuary opened wide and the exultant cry arose.
"Christos anesti! Christ is risen. who came to save."
A young grave-faced girl turned to kiss her neighbour's cheek. She lit her candle and, in turn, bent towards her neighbour. a middle-aged man with a brown
face like a long stored apple. His grandson, a handsome boy in a white serge suit, sat astride his shoulders, clutching his candle.
The kissing done, they all went out into the dark night, the glow worms of their torches pricking the Easter sky.
Now the whole church behind them blazed with light. "Come forward." sang the choir, "and take the light from the eternal light."
You could smell the peppery aroma of dust from the old women's shawls. the men's sweat, and the scent of the young girls— flowery, light and very sweet.
"Happy Easter," they called. The first fireworks exploded and Mistra sat down to its Easter supper — the Mayritsa soup of offal, spit-roasted lamb and salad, the spiced cakes and tiny traditional sweets.
And, as it grew to morning, the streets stayed packed with quiet crowds smelling the crushed blossoms and listening to the silence.
It could have been any of a thousand villages of Greece. But Mistra is different. Mistra is beautiful and unique. For on a spur of Mount Taygetus looms a vast, dead Byzantine city, knights-at-arms and glint of spurs jousting in the Courts of Love — nothing seems more unlikely under the luminous sky of Greece, where the tale of the Crusaders is a romantic and unfamiliar one.
ln 1204, Geoffrey de Villardouin. a Frankish knight on his way home from the Holy Land. was shipwrecked in a storm off the coast of Greece. and, joining forces with his comrade, Champlitte and their armies, he began a systematic conquest of the Peloponnese.
Half a century later, in 1260. his kinsman was holding court at Mistra.
Today, all that remain are steep narrow stairways climbing between ruined chapels and rootless houses. The Byzantine cupolas still rise in clusters. like fantastic pink mushrooms, the hawks poise overhead and the butterflies pitch and toss ove rthe shattered beauty and the eerie silence.
But the power of Crusaders has gone from Greece and now. where their hopes rode with flying pennants over the Spartan plain, the villagers of Mistra gather to hail their risen Lord.