A close look at local craftsmanship on the islands of the Aegean

A few years ago on the island of Mytilene, close to the Aghia Paraskevi region, self-taught craftsman Athanasios Mistogdes practiced the rare trade of making embroidered ornaments for the harnesses used by the locals in a traditional festival connected with the worship of Saint Haralambous. It took almost three months to make a single harness and its cost could come to 350,000 drachmas (1,000 euros) in 1999. Since Mistogdes died a year ago, the trade has been gradually waning. His profession is one of the rarest documented in «People and Traditional Professions in the Aegean,» a book written by archaeologist and art historian Katerina Korre Zografou and folklore specialist Evdokia Olympitou and recently published by the Foundation for Greater Hellenism. Well researched and amply illustrated, the book looks into the traditional professions that are distinctive for each region in the Cyclades, the Dodecanese and Sporades as well as the islands of the northeastern Aegean. Craftsmen of the so-called xysta wall-painting technique and pebbled floors, and producers of mastic are some of the professions selected from the island of Chios; ceramicists from Sifnos and pastry-makers from Andros are others profiled. Depending on the information available, the authors analyze each profession differently; sometimes offering rich historical background, and for others analyzing techniques or taking a more human-oriented approach by focusing on a single craftsman. Through its analysis of local trades, the book offers an alternative way of learning about an island’s history, economy and social life; the presence of timber shipbuilding in Syros, for example, harks back to the island’s rich economy and to its central, administrative role of capital in the Cyclades. In some of its parts, the book is also valuable for preserving information on technical know-how and secrets of each trade. Although not overtly, the book is in favor of tradition and views traditional professions as a bastion against mass production and standardization. It therefore triggers some thought on the pros and cons of the development of tourism and mass production and on the ways in which it has both helped and undermined the preservation of tradition.

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