IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF LORD BYRON
Articles on Greece by AURELIA
In central Greece, Messolonghi rests sleepily in the arms of the rivers Acheloos and Evinos at the northern end of the entrance to the Gulf of Patras, much as it did in ancient times. When the town stirs, the shallow waters languishing by its alluvial islets flow gently against the shore. The islets form lagoons circled by lush growth and crowned by flocks of exotic seabirds. In the waters below, species of perhaps some of the best fish in the world share an aquatic sanctuary, a habitat so rare it is protected by a treaty.
Messolonghi is moody and mysterious, a serenely placid place where the summer skies are as quiet and as still as the water. It is a town where one is struck by the unruffled repose and dignity of the more mature residents and the budding pride in the young.
Because historians called the story of Messolonghi 'glorious,' in 1937 the Greek government declared it a 'sacred town.' This designation recognizes the two sieges, one in 1822 and the other in 1825, during which brave residents of Messolonghi fought for freedom against the Turks, who outnumbered them ten to one. Here, thousands died in the great exodus to the Monastery of Saint Symeon; here, the great Philhellene and English poet, Lord Byron came to fight for freedom and died.
Lord Byron is perhaps the only poet in whose honor an annual, international gathering of scholars is held, and this year marked the 25th International Byron Conference. Greece was the host country. Opening ceremonies began in Athens in the grand, Great Hall of the University of Athens, and academic sessions were held in Messolonghi. Scholars from thirteen countries, including England, Ireland, Germany, France, The Czech Republic, Italy, Australia, Lebanon, Georgia, Cyprus, Japan, the United States, and Greece, participated.
The Academic Committee was head by Professor Marios Byron Raizis, Department of English, University of Athens, and President of the Hellenic Byron Society. Members of his committee included Professor C. Evangelides, University of Athens; Dr. Peter Myrian, President, University of Indianapolis in Athens; Associate Professor M. Koutsoudaki, University of Athens; and Associate Professor D. Tsimpouki, University of Athens.
Greece's President, Costis Stephanopoulos, was present for opening ceremonies and among the dignitaries was Lord John Lytton, the great-great-great grandson of the poet.
The opening program included a welcoming address by Professor Konstantinos A. Demopoulos, Rector of the University of Athens, and remarks by Professor Evangelos Benizelos, Minister of Development; Mrs. Rosa Florou, President of the Byron Society of the Sacred Town of Messolonghi; Professor Raizis, and Christos Verelis, Vice Minister of the Environment, Planning, and Public Works.
Grigoris Valtinos recited Canto II from Byron's 'Don Juan,' translated by Professor Raizis.
In his address, Professor Raizis explained that his attention was focused on Lord Byron's role as 'an enthusiastic inspirer of freedom struggles,' and he explicated the poet's Augustan satire entitled 'Hints from Horace.' In this, Byron humorously refers to Tyrtaeus as 'Old Tyrtaeus' and goes on to call him 'a limping leader, but a lofty bard.' Professor Raizis pointed out that Byron himself played the role of Tyrtaeus by composing poems extolling enslaved Greeks to 'rise up and take arms against their ruthless dynasts,' and then correlated examples of heroism in ancient and modern Greeks in subsequent poems.
Explaining that Byron chose to cast his fate with Greeks fighting for freedom in Messolonghi, Professor Raizis reminded the audience gathered in the Great Hall that in his last birthday poem, which Byron wrote on January 22 in Messolonghi, the fight for freedom was uppermost in the poet's mind. Byron wrote:
Seek out - less often sought than found -
A soldier's grave, for thee the best;
Then look around, and choose thy ground
And take thy rest.
Christos Verelis built upon Professor Raizis theme of freedom during an eloquent address which followed in which he declared Lord Byron's name will be linked for all eternity with the Sacred Town of Messolonghi. 'Ageless Messolonghi, timeless Messonolghi, in this place, time is transcended,' he began. 'Because of the heroic image of its siege, Messolonghi has become a universal symbol of man's moral strength. This is the symbol that placed the name of Messolonghi into the realm of myth. Byron's contribution to this myth was decisive, but equally decisive was the contribution of Messolonghi to Byron's myth.'
Mr. Verelis continued: 'It was the French poet, Mallarme who said 'eternity transforms the poet into what he really is,' and if this is so, then Byron's eternity is inseparable from the place in which he died.'
On the second day of the conference, delegates followed in the footsteps of Lord Byron, albeit by bus, and began the pilgrimage to the Sacred Town. Academic sessions were held in the new and commodious Auditorium of the Technological Educational Institute of Messolonghi.
In was in Messolonghi where Byron came to join Greece in its fight for freedom. He rode his horse by the still waters of the lagoon all the way to the Chapel of the Virgin by the Palmtree and then for many more miles onto Aetolicon. He had ridden as far as Aetolicon on the fateful day when he was caught in the downpour of a storm and returned completely soaked to the home in Messolonghi where he was staying. Sweating and feverish he became seriously ill and shortly thereafter, he died of pneumonia in April of 1824. His lungs are buried under his statue in the 'Garden of Heroes' in the center of town and his body is interned in Nottingham, England, where he was born.
At the conference, the pilgrims participated in a wreath laying ceremony in the Garden of the Heroes. Here, they paid homage to the famous and unknown heroes who died in the sieges, to Lord Byron, 'the eternal pilgrim and warrior poet of Greece,' and to man's indomitable desire for freedom. They visited sites where the poet stayed, such as Saint Symeon monastery, ancient Plevrona, The Chapel to the Virgin, and the towns of Zitsa and Jannina.
Among the pilgrims was Lord John Lytton, of England, a direct descendant of Byron through the poet's daughter, Augusta Ada. Lord Lytton said he came to Messolonghi to find his roots 'in that rare place where the spirit dwells.' It was a remarkable odyssey that ended with a proposal from Lord Lytton embraced by the people of Messolonghi. He proposed that two cities - Nottingham, England, where Byron was born, and Messolonghi, Greece, where he died - be 'twined' and share cultural and other resources.
But more than that, he declared that the poet's love of freedom and the 'intrinsic heritage' he left for all of us must be respected for all time. 'The flame has now been lit. The torch is burning and it is ours to take and guard in the great classical tradition,' Lord Lytton declared, to the delight of all, especially the people of Messolonghi.
'Children here are growing up saying, 'I come from Messolonghi,' Lord Lytton said, emphasizing that the youngsters he met have a renewed sense of pride and belonging. 'This is just the beginning. We must build upon this and do things that are relevant to our youth. By twinning the communities of Nottingham and Messolonghi, we are moving ahead together to explore deeper philosophical issues in our societies and cultures and we have established this on civic and social levels. Lord Byron left us an intrinsic heritage that applies both to Nottingham and Messolonghi. As his descendant, I can say I am very proud of this conference and know that Lord Byron would have been pleased by the graciousness and hospitality of the people of Messolonghi.'
Rosa Florou, President of the Byron Society of the Sacred Town of Messolonghi, was responsible for planning and coordinating this outstanding gathering and was Chairman of the Organizing Committee. Members included Giorgos Lytras, Vice President; Xenia Evangelinou, Secretary; Spyros Tsekouras, Treasurer; and Professor Costas Evangelides, Dr. Eugenie Kefallineou, Zoe Vlachou, members; and Dim. Bombotas, associate member.
Sponsors included the Messolonghi Byron Society, the Hellenic Byron Society, the University of Athens, and the University of Indianapolis in Athens.
Next year's conference will be held in Nottingham, England, the place of Byron's birth. It will be hosted by the British Byron Society, Lord Robin Byron, Chairman, and The Newstead Abbey Byron Society, Lord John Lytton, President.
Byron statue in Messolonghi from The Messolonghi Byron Socity
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