Prefecture of Rhodope: Culture

Stefania Christianou
Source: ILSP

The region of Rhodope has a long history. It is the land of Orpheus and the Maenads, the companions of Dionysus, god of wine. The first evidence of habitation in the area is testified by the Paleolithic stone tools (10.000-7.000 BC) and the Neolithic (4.500-3.000 BC) settlement excavated at Parademe tumulus. In the Bronze Age (3000-1.100/1050 BC) the area was developing parallel to the fortified settlements of the North Aegean (Lesbos, Lemnos, Troy). The Iron Age (1050-650 BC) provides more evidence on the religion, mythology and culture of the Thracians. Homer mentions Cicones, a tribe who fought against Odysseus when he conquered their city Ismaros.
Fortification walls, open-air sanctuaries, cut-out rock niches, the cult of god Helios and of king Resos, god of nature, hunting and wild animals in Rhodope provide evidence on the history and culture of the period. In the 7th cent. BC many colonies are established on the coastline and the first colonisers from Chios arrive at Maronia. After the Persian Wars the powerful Kingdom of Odrisos was founded in Thrace, until it was destroyed by Philip II of Macedonia. The archaeological discoveries in the Macedonian tomb confirm the strong presence of the Macedonians in the area. In 46 AD Thrace was conquered by the Romans who founded important towns to reinforce Via Egnatia.
After the establishment of Constantinople in 330 AD, the region of Rhodope, along with the entire Thrace, became a Byzantine Province. The first written reference of Komotini, which was characterized as 'polisma' by Emperor Ioannis Katakouzinos IV, was under the name 'Koumoutzina' in the 14th cent. Komotini was then a small insignificant village, a post on Via Egnatia. Nevertheless, Koumoutzina gradually developed into a town in the 14th cent., when new inhabitants settled in from the neighbouring town Mosynoupolis which was destroyed by the Bulgarians in 1207. The ideal position of the town on the route of Egnatia resulted in economic privileges and influenced its prosperity, although the nearby town of Maximianoupolis was more thriving until it was destroyed by the Bulgarians.
In the period of the internal conflicts of the Byzantine Empire, Komotini was under threat and when the town supported Katakouzinos, it suffered the consequences after the end of the war. It was then occupied by the Ottomans but nevertheless preserved its character. The arrival of Muslim settlers from Anatolia altered the structure of the population which was further influenced by the proselytism of the Pomaks to Islam.
Komotini experienced a harsh occupation until the period of reforms by Hatti Humayun and the gradual decline of the Ottoman omnipotence. In the 19th and the 20th centuries the town thrived due to trade and the railway network which facilitated the transport and distribution of the products of the plain (grains, tobacco). The population was altered once more when Muslim refugees settled en mass during the Russian-Turkish War (1877-78). However, the economic and cultural development of Komotini was not reversed.
In the 1910's, the short-lived Bulgarian occupation caused many ordeals, massacres and catastrophes. During the first Balkan War (1912-1913) Komotini was captured by the Bulgarian army. After their defeat the town was liberated by the Greek army on the 14th of July 1913. However, the Treaty of Bucharest (28 July 1913) adjudicated the territory to Bulgaria. In order to face the return of the Bulgarian army, a coalition of Christians and Muslims established for political reasons the short-lived 'Republic of Gumuljina' and Komotini was declared the capital city. The Treaty of Constantinople (16 September 1913), signed by Bulgaria and Turkey, confirmed the fact that the region was occupied by Bulgaria. When the Bulgarian army invaded Komotini, a series of prosecutions and banishments begun. With the Treaty of Neuilly, at the end of the WWI, Bulgaria ceded the control over Thrace to the Entente Powers. For a short period of time Komotini was the seat of the peculiar protectorate 'Interallied Thrace', governed by a French general. After the end of WWI and the defeat of the Central Powers, the northwest part of Thrace was annexed to Greece and on the 14th of May 1920 Komotini became part of the Greek realm.
The Byzantine fortress of Komotini is the earliest and biggest monument of the city. It was built around the 4th cent. AD for the needs of Via Egnatia. The fortification wall remained intact until 1363 when the Turks invaded the city and removed parts of the building material to construct their mosques. The Bulgarians continued the destructive work and in 1910 they demolished the towers and a large section of the wall. Nowadays, it is a neglected monument and its ruins remind us of its past glory.
Mt Papikion on Rhodope Mountains housed monastic communities formed by the Byzantine aristocrats, which flourished in the 10th and 11th cent.
Maronia was transferred to its modern location on the slope in the 16th century due to the pirates' threat. The ancient coastal colony of the Chians in the 7th cent. BC was originally called Ismara, but it was then named Maronia, after the name of the friendly priest Maron. Alexander the Great passed through Maronia on the route of his Asian Campaign. The archaeological site has many important monuments, such as the remains of a house dated to the 3rd cent. AD, a beautiful mosaic-floor on the road to the harbour, the ancient theatre and the sanctuary of Dionysus to the west. The episcopical church of the 18th cent. AD and the ruins of a tall square tower from the fortification are the monuments from the Byzantine period. Another important archaeological site is at 'Synaxi', to the east of Maronia. The remains of a monastery of the 9th cent. AD have been identified over the ruins of an Early Christian basilica of the 6th cent.
The Archaeological Museum of Komotini houses a large collection of works of art, weaponry, artifacts from the entire Thrace dated from prehistory to the Byzantine Era. The Folklore Museum opened in 1962. It belongs to the Educational Group of Komotini and is housed at the renovated Peidis Mansion. The exhibits include traditional costumes, agricultural tools and implements, house ware, rare books, pictures and photographs that reveal the world of traditional Greek Thrace. In the Ecclesiastical Museum religious objects are mainly on display, originating either from the Greek mainland or from Asia Minor, Pontus and East Thrace. In the Byzantine Museum there are exhibits from the first Post-Byzantine years, icons, rare manuscripts and pottery. The Museum of basketry of Roma, unique for its thematic object in Greece and one of the very few in Europe is located at Thrilorio. The baskets on display are from various places of Thrace, the Black Sea and the Pomak villages. The Education Museum of Thrace was founded after the decision of the Directory Committee of the Association of Educational Sciences of Komotini in 1992 aiming at the collection of all the school material, leaflets and books of historic importance, mainly from Thrace but also from the wider area. The Karatheodoris Museum houses a collection of the great mathematician's papers, mail, and other exhibits that display his scientific work and his life.
Nowadays in the area the Christians and the Muslims co-exist in harmony, practising their religion in the churches and the mosques respectively.
Various festivals, cultural or religious are organized in the region. The most distinctive are the celebration of Panagia Phaneromeni at Vathiriaka monastery and the feast of Agia Marina in the village of Imeros. The festival of Agios Helias is celebrated in many parts of the region from coast to the mountains, in the coastal settlement with the same name, in Pagouria village and in Pandrossos village, attracting crowds of worshipers in the middle of the summer. The festival preserves an old custom known as 'Kourbani'.
Many associations and societies are active in Komotini, such as the Municipal Cultural Development Company (town band, dance school, choir, revival of customs and folklore traditions), the Cultural Society of Komotini (dance school, conferences, book publications), the Sarakatsani Association (dance school, preservation of a traditional settlement and their customs), the Pontians Association (dance school, revival of their customs), the Cretans Association 'Pseiloritis' and the Cappadocians association. The women's society of Komotini revives many traditional customs (chelidonismata, babo's or midwife's feast, Lazarines on Lazarus Saturday, the burial custom of the Holy Spirit day, the Momogeria, the 'egg battles' on Easter Sunday. The most important celebration in spring is the 'Elephteria of Thrace' in Komotini, in memory of liberation and the annexation into the Greek state. Various celebrations are organized in the city for a fortnight. In other villages of Rhodope, for instant Xylagani, Strimi and Proskinites, the custom of 'Ginekokratia', also known as the "Babo's feast" is celebrated. This is a custom with ancient roots about female fertility and the emancipation of women.

Cultural Center and Conservatory of Thace, Komotini
(Photo: Nikos Hatzigeorgiu)
Cultural and Historical Museum of the Cultural Association of Komotini
(Photo: Nikos Hatzigeorgiu)
Education Museum of Thrace
(Photo: Nikos Hatzigeorgiu)
Part of walls of Komotini
(Photo: Nikos Hatzigeorgiu)
Church of Kimisis Theotokou
(Photo: Nikos Hatzigeorgiu)
Mansion of Skouteris - Municipal Museum of Komotini
(Photo: Nikos Hatzigeorgiu)
Neoclassical buildings at Tsanakli street
(Photo: Nikos Hatzigeorgiu)
Statue of Archbishop Xrysostomos II
(Photo: Nikos Hatzigeorgiu)
Biulding of Metropolis at Komotini
(Photo: Nikos Hatzigeorgiu)

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