“People make churches, they make monasteries as well, they also make stone bridges for people to cross” (note 1)
In the following article, the most famous, perhaps, of all bridges in Greece will be presented as well as its manner of construction and the legends surrounding it (fig. 1). Apart from being an important monument of modern Greek traditional architecture, the bridge of Arta is also a significant landmark of the region.
Since ancient times, the building of bridges had already become necessary for the crossing of rivers, torrents and streams. Bridges were made of wood and stone. Those of stone were more solid and durable while those of wood were temporary and less safe. There were also wooden bridges set on stone pillars connecting the banks of large rivers. Till the mid 20th century, the large rivers were crossed on wooden rafts known as perataries (note 2, fig. 2). Finally, people and beasts of burden crossed rivers at their shallowest point called the “poros” (passage/pass).
All through Turkish rule, Macedonia and mainly Epirus were the birth places of important builders from Northern Greece who made churches, monasteries, mosques, caravanserai, covered market places, stately homes, fountains, mills and houses. The artisans who specialized in building bridges were called kioprouledes after köprü, the Turkish word for bridge. There is plenty of stone to be found all over our country. So everywhere traditional buildings are made of stone.
The architecture of the old stone bridges of Epirus does not differ from that of bridges in Macedonia, Thessaly, Thrace and the Peloponnese. Their main architectural feature is the arch. There are bridges with one arch, two arches or more. The multiple arched bridge of Arta is approximately one kilometre south of the old centre of the modern town. It joins the two banks of the river Arachthos, known in antiquity as Inachos, and is the continuation of the road which connects Arta with its fertile plain (note 3) and with Preveza (fig 3, 4). The bridge is 142 m long and 3,75 m wide. Quite a large section of the bridge, from both ends, has been subsequently silted up, raising the height of the river banks and shrinking the river bed (fig. 5, 6).
The bridge is made up of four large arches and three smaller ones. The arches have different diameters which makes the bridge charmingly asymmetrical. The arches are set on pillars. Above the pillars there are small arched openings in the walls which help to lighten the bridge’s weight and act as openings allowing large amounts of water to flow through should there be a flood. The bridge’s pillars have been built with large regular stones, while the arches and the rest of its superstructure were built with smaller ones without the use of bricks in the joints. The bridge’s paving is cobbled and built on a higher level than the big arch, creating ramps on either side. This construction method is typical of traditional bridges made during the time of Turkish rule (note 4). Some supporting pillars and sections of the bridge, however, have different masonry belonging to a previous phase of construction. As pointed out by A.K. Orlandos (note 5), a possible interpretation of this could be that in the past (note 6), an attempt had been made to span the Arachthos at this particular spot. In other words, the later bridge was founded on the earlier one which had been swept away in one of the frequent floods.
In its present form, the bridge of Arta dates from the first fifteen years of the 17th century, between 1602 and 1612. In his “Essay” (note 7), the scholar and metropolitan of Arta Seraphim Xenopoulos mentions that, according to Anagnostis Gerostathis, the bridge was built in 1602, while he himself believes it was built in 1606. In a “memorandum” (note 8) belonging to Gennadios the metropolitan of Arta, published in 1929 by K. Kairofyllas (note 9), it is written that the bridge was built in 1612.
The craftsmen preferred to build multiple arched bridges, avoiding very high and very wide arches, as in the case of the bridge of Korakas (note 10) which has an arch rising 25 m above the surface of the river Aspropotamos (Acheloos) near the village of Vresthenitsa (known today as Peges) in Arta.
Apart from the bridge of Arta, the most well known multiple arched bridges of Epirus are the following; the four arched bridge of Papastathis on the Arachthos river (note 11), the bridge of Patriarch Joasaph also on the Arachthos (note 12), and the twelve arched bridge of Ahmet Kurt Pasa (note 13) in neighbouring Albania. Two well known multiple arched Macedonian bridges spanning the Venetikos, a tributary of the Aliakmonas, are those of Spanos (note 14) (fig.7) and of Aziz Aga or Zizaga (note 15).
Sponsors funding the building of stone bridges were either rich Greeks (note 16) or Jews (note 17) living in the district, Turkish officials (pashas (note18) or agas), people of the Church (patriarchs, metropolitans, abbots or monks from neighbouring monasteries, priests), bandits and guerrillas, the communities of one or more villages and even brigands (note19).
The old stone bridges were named either after the place they were built, their nearest village or town (the bridge of Arta, Plaka, Konitsa) or after their sponsor (the bridge of the Patriach, of Misios, of the Jew, of Kaberaga, Zizaga, Pasha,Valavanis (note 20)).
According to local tradition written down by the metropolitan Seraphim (note 21) and Nikolaos G. Politis (note 22) the entire cost of building the bridge of Arta was covered by a grocer in Arta, named Giannis Thiakogiannis, known by his nick name Gatofagos, the “Cat eater.’’ According to this tradition, a pirate ship from Algiers brought a cargo of oil to sell at the port of Salaora (note 23). People gathered from the surrounding villages to buy it. Among them was Gatofagos who bought many jars (kapases) full of oil. The pirates sold Giannis Thiakogiannis the goods belonging to a merchant they had robbed. But apart from oil, the jars also contained gold coins in abundance, that the merchant had hidden and the pirates had been unaware of. So the Cat eater got miraculously rich, just like a character out of a fairy tale, having come by a great and mysterious treasure which he then used to build the bridge of Arta.
The collapse of bridges while being built was usually due to poor foundation work, as in the case of the bridge of Arta that had to have its foundations on the plain’s unsuitable loose soil. For the multiple arched bridge of Arta to have strong foundations, the beautiful wife of its master builder was walled up alive (note 24) (fig. 8). According to N.G. Politis’ interpretation, the victim’s soul gained supernatural strength and became the guardian spirit of the bridge, protecting it from all harm. The legend of the bridge of Arta is repeated in the following three Macedonian bridges: the bridge of Morna in Pieria, the bridge of Smixes and the bridge of the Pasha (note 25) (fig. 9). According to N.G. Politis and G.A. Megas, the walling up of a human being in the foundations of a bridge or some other type of building is an ancient Greek and Byzantine custom. Since the prehistoric era, it is also widespread throughout the five continents and, as shown in archaeological finds, originates from real facts. The term “Haunting” was given by the Byzantines to the founding by human sacrifice of important buildings such as castles, aqueducts, churches, fountains, bridges, villages and even entire towns.
Fidaleia, wife of Byzanta, the mythic founder of Byzantium, was sacrificed for the building of the foundations of that city later to be known as Constantinople. An 8th c. byzantine text (note 26), the “Parastaseis Syntomoi Chronikai” informs us that, according to a very old tradition, the ancient statue of Fidaleia protected the walls of Constantinople. For some reason the statue moved and then the ground started to shake. The emperor ordered a litany to take place and the earthquake stopped when prayers were said to Saint Savva (449-532).
All over Greece there are records of 333 variations of the song about Arta. These beliefs are widely spread among other medieval people mainly from South Eastern Europe; Hungarians, Serbs, Bulgarians, Rumanians, Albanians and Vlachs. By demand of the fairy Wila, the Serbs buried two children with the same name, Stoyan and Stoyana, in the foundations of the castle at Skutari. Two brothers were buried alive in the foundations of Strasburg Cathedral.
In Russia, to the west of Baikal, while excavating an 6th/7th century earthen tower, a woman’s skeleton was found at its base. The skeleton’s posture was unnatural. The dead woman had her hands raised to her face and the fingers were bent as if she had torn her face with her nails. According to the excavators, the woman had been buried alive in the tower’s foundations (note 27).
In 1515, “a thousand hornless (sioutes) goats” were sacrificed for the founding of the single arched bridge of Korakas on the Aspropotamos (Acheloos) river, near Vresthenitsa in Arta. According to another version, the river (note 28) is tamed by the construction of the bridge and for it to be completely dominated, it demands as compensation the sacrifice of “noble animals” or of a human.
Traditions concerning human sacrifice are more frequent in cases of very long stone bridges joining river banks to plains and needing to be built on sandy or alluvial soil. There are fewer difficulties when building small stone bridges over mountain streams with rocky banks. Old stone bridges were always built on large or small overland roads, in or outside a settlement. Sources for our information are the structures themselves – especially those that are dated -, old contracts, archives in Greece and abroad, travel writing and illustrations, traditions and their accompanying legends as well as popular building terminology.
In the times of Turkish rule, public works such as bridges were funded by communities (note 29) or rich locals. Very often these works were done as chores.
On the north bank of the Arachthos, next to the bridge of Arta, the great plane tree of Ali Pasha stands to this day. Ali Pasha sat in the shade of this tree and watched, dangling from the branches, the lifeless bodies of those he had condemned to death “by hanging”. Next to the bridge (note 30) there is also an elegant neoclassical building of 1864, designed by an Austrian architect, which used to be a Turkish customs house (note 31). Today this building is the town’s Folklore Museum.
Greek 19th century scholars such as Athanasios Stageirites (note 33), Panagiotis Aravantinos (note 34) and Ioannis Lambrides (note 35) who dealt with the region of Epiros (note 32), refer to the bridge of Arta. 19th century European travellers who visited Epiros, also describe impressions of the bridge of Arta in their writings. It is worth mentioning the following: Captain William Martin Leake from England (note 36), F.C.H.L. Pouqueville the Greek speaking doctor and French consul (note 37), Henry Holland the English doctor (note 38), T. Smart Hughes the classicist (note 39) and William Turner the painter (note 40).
The old stone bridges, made of local building materials, blend in with their natural surroundings. They were built by local or itinerant builders organized in companies (note 41). The builders who attempted long journeys were mainly from Epirus (Koudaraioi) (note 42). They went to the Peloponnese, mainland Greece, Rumania, Egypt and Persia.
In their craft, these itinerant (note 43) popular builders creatively absorbed “foreign and indigenous” elements, following a prototype and its variations, according to a tradition accepted by the society of that period (note 44).
Their creations, the handcrafted, well built and solid stone bridges like the one in Arta, keep intact the memory of another era. They are guarded by the supernatural forces of their “spirits” which protect them from floods (note 45) and the dangers of collapse (note 46).
Αfendra G. Moutzali,
agas, ağa in Turkish: local official, administrative functionary of the Ottoman empire.
Kalderimi, kaldirim in Turkish: possibly adapted from the medieval Greek word kalodromos: cobbled road, cobbled paved surface.
Kapasa: large jar
Kioprouledes: popular craftsmen specializing in the construction of traditional stone bridges. After the Turkish word köprü meaning bridge.
Koudaris is the handyman and koudas is the builder, in the secret language, known as koudaritka or mastorka, of the Koudaraioi, Macedonian and Epirot handymen.
Kourbani: Originates from the medieval Turkish word Kurbân which means a sacrificially slaughtered animal at a muslim celebration. A slaughtered animal at a wedding , a feast or on the corner stone of the foundations of a new building. Phr. They slaughter a sacrificial cockerel or lamb or ox.
Pasas, paşa in Turkish: the title of a functionary of the Ottoman empire who governs a pasaliki (pasalik in Turkish).
Perataria: wooden raft used by people and beasts of burden to cross large rivers from one bank to the other. The man rowing the raft was called the perataris.
Podariko: pous in ancient Greek, podarin in medieval Greek. The bottom part of vertical elements (jambs, pillars, bridges, the sides of a pit).
Poros: passage through the river at its most shallow point.
siouta (goat): without horns
stoicheiose was the term used by the Byzantines for the founding of buildings (castles, aqueducts, fountains, churches, villages and even towns) by sacrificing “noble animals” or humans.
Hyperekheilistes: small arched openings in the walls of old stone bridges that lighten their weight and function as relief holes allowing large quantities of water to flow through them in cases of floods.
A.B.M.E.: Archieion Byzantinon Mnemeion tes Hellados.
Essay: Serapheim Xenopoulos ho Byzantios, Dokimion Historikon peri Artes kai Prevezes, Athens 1884, Arta 2003( 3rd edn.)(reprinted by the “Skoufas” Music and Literary Society of Arta).
E.H.B.S.: Epeteris Hetaireias Byzantinon Spoudon
E.C.: Epirotika Chronika
Τ.Ε.Ε.: Technikon Epimeleterion Hellados (Technical Chamber of Greece).