Over the last few weeks, I’ve been distracted and honestly a bit fried. I feel like just keeping on top of my classes and shooting the wolf closet to the sled was about all I could muster. I did, however, carve out some time to read Faidon Moudopoulos-Athanasiou’s book on the archaeology (and history) of the Zagori: The Early Modern Zagori of Northwest Greece: An Interdisciplinary Archaeological Inquiry into a Montane Cultural Landscape (2023).
As a little side note: Sidestone Press does make the book available as a PDF at a really reasonable cost of $15 which is more than fair for a book that is well designed and lavishly illustrated. Some of the photographers are fantastic! More than that, you can read the book for free on their website. Check it out here.
The book is sweeping and complex and represents not only Moudopoulos-Athanasiou’s immersion in the local landscape, but also his familiarity with a wide range of local histories, ethnographic sources, and archival material. Through these sources he produces a new history of the region from the 15th century though the late-20th, that is attentive to both the material remains of the past as well as the recent efforts to make the region a tourist and natural heritage landmark.
The book is good and represents another meaningful contribution to the recent wave of significant work on the Greek landscape. As per my usual practice, I’m not going to review this book, but highlight a few things that made it compelling to me:
1. Walking. One of the most striking things about Moudopoulos-Athanasiou’s is his forthright attitude toward the challenges of doing fieldwork in a region that is rugged and afforested. He makes clear that most topographic and even economic knowledge of this landscape came from individuals who gained their understanding of the region on foot. To make sense of the historical landscape, then, required an appreciation of how one might engage the region on foot. Walking the landscape as a modern archaeologist offered one perspective on this historical knowledge. That said, Moudopoulos-Athanasiou made clear that this was not an appeal to a kind of ahistorical phenomenology, but rather another contributing element to a grounded understanding of region which is nothing without an appreciation of how various agents produced past and present knowledge.
2. Economies. Among the most useful (and familiar) narrative in the book is a solid regional understanding of Zagori’s economic development. Despite the seeming isolation of the region and its tradition of local independence politically, Moudopoulos-Athanasiou shows that settlement and land use in Zagori developed in response to economic stresses originating in provincial centers — in this case Janina — and in some cases stretching beyond the Mediterranean region itself. At the same time, Moudopoulos-Athanasiou recognized that local responses to these stresses by both the elites and the peasants who made the Zagori home. In particular, Moudopoulos-Athanasiou connects the monetization of taxes to the increased mobility of the local population and demonstrates that 19th century travelers whose remittences shaped so much of the region’s architectural and artistic flourishing, were an expression of the same forces that promoted movement from mountain villages to Ottoman çiftliks or as transhumant pastoralism.
3. Elites. One of my favorite elements of Moudopoulos-Athanasiou’s book is his discussion of the continuity among local elites. He manages to trace the status of local elites from the end of the Byzantine Despotate of Epirus through the rise of Ali Pasha in Janina (and beyond). In this context, the vaunted independence of the Zagori region appears to have less to do with the persistence of a kind of indefatigable autochthonous Orthodoxy and Hellenic culture (and long-held trope familiar to anyone who has studied the emergence of Greek nationalism) and more to do with the persistence of a class of elites whose political allegiances sought to preserve their positions of power.
4. Local Knowledge. Moudopoulos-Athanasiou demonstrated a remarkable familiarity with local archives, interlocutors, folk stories, and histories. This is understandable, of course, because his family comes from the region and in good ethnographic fashion, he resided in the region for a long stretch of time owing to the COVID pandemic. He recognizes when local narratives have absorbed national or regional ones while at the same time finding utility in unpacking some of the more distinctive stories told by residents of the region. As a completely unprofessional aside, I found the stories in the book to be fascinating and in some cases charming!
5. Early Modern Landscapes. As someone interested in Modern and Early Modern landscapes, Moudopoulos-Athanasiou’s book is a great case study for how to approach modern landscapes as both artifacts of the priorities of the Greek state and as palimpsest for unpacking the regional level settlement and economic concerns. His grasp of both the local situation and the larger historiography of “post-Byzantine” archaeology is Greece is really great and makes my modest efforts to contribute to the archaeology of Modern and Early Modern Greece look one sided (if harmlessly so) by comparison.