Pylos Castle is one of the best preserved fortresses in Greece, a splendid example of sixteenthcentury military architecture. It was built by the Turks in 1573, two years after their defeat by the Christian allies at Lepanto, the last great sea-battle in which oared ships were involved. To build Niokastro the Turks brought in European engineers and architects.
They complied with all the specifications required for the castle to be defended from landward, and still more from seaward and for it to have withinits circuit a group of dwellings and a reinforced citadel. The castle’s walls were enlarged to eight and a half metres in height and three metres in breadth. This castle was a reinforcement for the south-west top of the Ottoman Empire, and the Turks thereby obtained safe harbourage against a seaborne foe.
The New Castle was added to during the period (1686-1715) when the Venetians controlled the area; it was repaired, revamped and added to during the subsequent periods of war. One cannot fail to be impressed by the central gateway, known as the Zematistra, and by the two massive bastions that rise above the sea, the Evdomos or Santa Barba, and the Santa Maria.
All along the south wall, at Verga, there is a series of embrasures; the cannon would principally face seawards. Each of the sides is reinforced with round towers, one of these being the Makrygiannis Tower. The citadel, a hexagonal structure is still preserved intact with its armoury of bastions, protected by a moat. The perimeter rooms in the inner circuit were convertedinto prison cells (1834-1941); today they house the Centre for Underwater Archaeology.
Maison’s Barracks, a large stone edifice in the inner ward of the Castle, now houses the René Puaux Collection and has appropriate conference facilities. At the centre point, in an elevated position, is the Church of the Transfiguration, itself telling the story of almost the whole history of the Castle. It was originally an Ottoman mosque built at the sametime as the New Castle. In 1686, it was converted by the Venetian admiral Morosini into a Christian church and dedicated to Christ the Saviour. A Deo Gracias was sung here when Morosini captured the castle.
The Turks recaptured Niokastro, together with Coron and Old Navarino, in 1715, where upon the church became a mosque once more. It was a church for the few days that the Russians occupied the Castle during the abortive Orlov Rising, and Alexei Orlov celebrated a service of thanksgiving there. It then reverted to being a mosque, until 1821, when the Greeks captured the Castle from the Turks and the mosque, for the third and last time, became a Christian church. It had been no more than two years before the Battle of Navarino that, in April 1825, both the Old and the New Castles, which had been in Greek hands from August 1821, almost from the very start of the war underwent their severest test. Landing his army at Methoni (Modon) in February 1825, Ibrahim Pasha had at once seen that the Bay of Navarino was his most suitable operational naval base. In the words of the folk ballad:
His ships of bronze he brings to land,
his frigates all of silver,
The flower of his soldiery, each one
a wicked nigger.
Both at Methon he got them out
and at Old Navarino.
He ups and sends a written word
to the Greek captains bold,
Let them lay down their arms,
and come to pay their homage due.
And when they heard what he had
writ right hard it seemed to them,
And the brave lads foregathered all
took to the nearby mountains.
‘Makrygiannis, of immortal memory, having occupied, at Ibrahim’s landing, the position at Old Navarino, and having from it thrice repulsed the assaults of the foe, subsequently entered Niokastro, he and his men, where he succeeded, throughout the siege, to make a large number of successful sorties against the enemy’.
So wrote Odysseas Ialemos in his Funeral Speech for Ioannis Makrygiannis. Sphacteria was the site of a great battle on 16th April 1825, with Greeks and philhellenes opposing Turco-Egyptians. Ibrahim launched an attack on the island, defended by Mavrokordatos, Sahtouris, Tsamados and one thousand men. The odds were unequal and the Greek forces were defeated.
Tsamados and the Italian philhellene Santa Rosa killed. Mavrokordatos and Sahtouris managed to escape on Tsamados’ ship, the Aris. They ran the gauntlet of the Turkish fleet and got away, the Aris was riddled with bullets, its masts gone, and some sailors lost. Mavrogiannis was watched the battle from Niokastro, and later towrote in his Memoirs: Upon the island was Mavrokordatos. He went on to Tsamados’ ship; Sahtouris, too, went on board, the commander of the garrison of Niokastro. By dint of fighting with all the Turks’ ships they came safe with great dangerand with indescribable bravery that the ship’s crew themselves showed…
They were saved by God’s help, giving them much courage. Ibrahim bombarded Niokastro ruthlessly. With all his forces he fought the people of Navarino, with cannon and rifles and the ships of the sea… That day, brethren readers, was very bitter for our country, for she lost so many brave lads and men of note, on land and sea. Throughout the country
it was bitterness, that day, and for us a death, that we lost our comrades. Once Ibrahim had landed his troops on Sphacteria, the ensuing slaughter was fearful. We can picture it thanks to the illustration Siege and battles of the people of Navarino, 1825, by the naïve painter Panagiotis Zografos, with its descriptive note. Makrygiannis observed: …and they did not leave us alone night or day: ceaselessly, war.
The castle was rotten and was crumbling; and we used wood as caissons within and filled them with earth. And we slaved and fought night and day… And most men were ill from much combat and thirst. Ibrahim’s gunners and sappers were all French and they made short work of the castle… the harbour was full of drowned, like frogs in a marsh, the way they floated in the sea. And the island and the other parts were full of dead corpses… we had silver weapons; now Ibrahim has taken them off us, those of us that were in Niokastro and at Avarino. And in memory, smoke once more covered the blue basin of the bay, and the nor’-westerlies brought back to mind images of that other battle, in 425 BC, in the Peloponnesian War.