Pylos, historically also known under its Italian name Navarino, is a town and a former municipality in Messenia, Peloponnese, Greece. Since the 2011 local government reform it is part of the municipality Pylos-Nestoras, of which it is the seat and a municipal unit. It was the capital of the former Pylia Province. It is the main harbour on the Bay of Navarino. Nearby villages include Gialova, Pyla, Elaiofyto, Schinolakka, and Palaionero. The town of Pylos has 2,767 inhabitants, the municipal unit of Pylos 5,287 (2011).
Pylos has a long history, having been inhabited since Neolithic times. It was a significant kingdom in Mycenaean Greece, with remains of the so-called "Palace of Nestor" excavated nearby, named after Nestor, the king of Pylos in Homer's Iliad. In Classical times, the site was uninhabited, but became the site of the Battle of Pylos in 425 BC, during the Peloponnesian War. Pylos is scarcely mentioned thereafter until the 13th century, when it became part of the Frankish Principality of Achaea. Increasingly known by its French name of Port-de-Jonc or its Italian name Navarino, in the 1280s the Franks built the Old Navarino castle on the site. Pylos came under the control of the Republic of Venice from 1417 until 1500, when it was conquered by the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans used Pylos and its bay as a naval base, and built the New Navarino fortress there. The area remained under Ottoman control, with the exception of a brief period of renewed Venetian rule in 1685–1715 and a Russian occupation in 1770–71, until the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence in 1821. Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt recovered it for the Ottomans in 1825, but the defeat of the Turco-Egyptian fleet in the 1827 Battle of Navarino forced Ibrahim to withdraw from the Peloponnese and confirmed Greek independence.
The name of Navarino
Pylos retained its ancient name down to Byzantine times, but appears after the Frankish conquest in the early 13th century under two names:
- a French one, Port-de-Jonc ("Cane Harbour") or Port-de-Junch, with some variants and derivatives: in Italian Porto-Junco, Zunchio or Zonchio, in medieval Catalan Port Jonc, in Latin Iuncum, Zonglon/Zonglos (Ζόγγλον/ς or Ζόγκλον/ς) in Greek, etc. It takes that name from the marshes surrounding the place.
- a Greek one, Avarinos (Ἀβαρῖνος), later shortened to Varinos (Βαρῖνος) or lengthened to Anavarinos (Ἀναβαρῖνος) by epenthesis, which became Navarino in Italian and Navarin in French. Its etymology is not certain. A traditional etymology, proposed by the early 15th-century traveller Nompar de Caumont and repeated as late as the works of Karl Hopf, ascribed the name to the Navarrese Company, but this clearly an error as the name was in use long before the Navarrese presence in Greece. In 1830 Fallmereyer proposed (Geschichte der Halbinsel Morea, Vol. I, p. 188) that it could originate from a body of Avars who settled there, a view adopted by a few later scholars like William Miller; modern scholarship on the other hand considers it more likely that it originates from a Slavic name meaning "place of maples", as proposed by Max Vasmer (Die Slaven in Griechenland) in 1941. The name of Avarinos/Navarino, although in use before the Frankish period, came into widespread use, and eclipsed the French name of Port-de-Jonc and its derivations, only in the 15th century, i.e. after the collapse of the Frankish Principality of Achaea.
In the late 14th/early 15th centuries, when it was held by the Navarrese Company, it was also known as Château Navarres, and called Spanochori (Σπανοχώρι, "village of the Spaniards") by the local Greeks.
Under Ottoman rule (1498–1685, 1715–1821), the Turkish name was Anavarin. After the construction of the new Ottoman fortress (Anavarin kalesi) in 1571/2, it became known as Neokastro (Νεόκαστρο or Νιόκαστρο, "new castle") among the local Greeks, while the old Frankish castle became known as Palaiokastro (Παλαιόκαστρο or Παλιόκαστρο, "old castle").
The soil about Navarino is of a red colour, and is remarkable for the production of an abundance of squills, which are used in medicine. The rocks, which show themselves in every direction through a scanty but rich soil, are limestone, and present a general appearance of unproductiveness round the castle of Navarino; and the absence of trees is ill compensated by the profusion of sage, brooms, cistus, and other shrubs which start from the innumerable cavities of the limestone.
The remains of Navarino, consist of a fort, covering the summit of a hill sloping quickly to the south, but falling in abrupt precipices to the north and east. The town was built on the southern declivity, and was surrounded by a wall, which, allowing for the natural irregularities of the soil, represented a triangle, with the castle at the summit—a form observable in many of the ancient cities of Greece.
Bay of Pylos
Pylos' bay is formed by a deep indenture in the Morea, shut in by a long island, anciently called Sphacteria or Sphagia (modern name Sfaktiria), famous for the defeat and capture of the Spartans, in the Battle of Pylos during the Peloponnesian War, and still showing the ruins of walls which perhaps formed their last refuge. This island has been divided into three or four separate sections by the violence of the waves, and boats could pass from the open sea into the port, in calm weather, using the channels so formed. One such section contains the tomb of a Turkish saint, or santon, called the Delikli Baba. This same section also contains a monument to the French sailors who died at the Battle of Navarino; the monument to the Russian dead of the same battle is on the island of Sphacteria, while the monument to the British dead is on another very small island near the centre of the bay. Monuments and tombs from the Greek War of Independence are on the island of Sphacteria, the most important being the monument to the Italian philhellene Santorre di Santa Rosa.
Flora and fauna
The Gialova wetland is a regional blessing of nature. It is one of 10 major lagoons in Greece. and has been classified as one of the important bird areas in Europe. It has also been listed as a 1500-acre archaeological site, lying between Gialova and the bay of Voidokilia. Its alternative name of Vivari is Latin, meaning 'fishponds'. With a depth, at its deepest point, of no more than four meters, it is the southernmost stopover of birds migrating from the Balkans to Africa, giving shelter to no fewer than 225 bird species, among them heron, cormorant, lesser kestrel, Audouin's gull, flamingo, osprey and imperial eagle. It is Gialova, too, which plays host to a vary rare species, nearing extinction throughout Europe, the African chameleon. The observation post of the Greek Ornithological Society allows visitors to find out more and to watch the shallow brackish waters of the lake, they can walk the paths that circumscribe Gialova's different ecosystems.
The modern town
The framework of the modern town of Pylos, outside the walls of Neokastro, was built by the troops of General Maison during the subsequent French Morea expedition of 1828–1833.
The western end of Greek National Road 82 begins in downtown Pylos. The highway runs west to east and links Pylos with Kalamata and Sparta. The area enjoys a favorable climate, with especially mild winters.