One of my favorite tourist sites in Greece is a commemoration of a mass suicide. Not because I’m morbid, but because it’s sublime.
See what I mean?
This is the Monument to the Heroines of Zalongo, a 1954 sculpture by Georgios Zongolopoulos, which captures the vulnerability and wild courage of the Souliot women it represents. In December of 1803, the Souliot people of western Greece were under siege by the forces of Ali Pasha, the Ottoman leader who ruled their area. As the Souliot men lost ground, the women took the children and fled to the hills. Safely ensconced on the top of a mountain, they could view the progress of the scene below, but also had nowhere to go but down.
Eyewitnesses reported having seen several women throw their children from the cliff and then leap off themselves; the bodies of four children were later found below. This horrific event metamorphosed into legend: it was said that the women, knowing they would be taken in slavery if the forces reached them, clasped hands and began to dance in a circle. As each approached the side of the cliff, she threw her child off and jumped to her own death.
Thus was born the Dance of Zalongo, taught to every little Greek girl.
You can see the figures of the monument when you’re still miles away in the valley before beginning your corkscrewy drive up the mountain roads. Huge cut-out paper doll figures, mothers holding hands with their children, facing the canyon before jumping to their deaths. I did not expect to be so moved.
An aesthetically stunning tourist site connected to a powerful narrative is a potent recipe for success. Or so one would think, but the Zalongo monument, tucked away in the formidable hills, feels lonely and neglected. Of greater disappointment to this romantic traveler, who prefers to be alone at ruins and accepts neglect and inconvenience as the trade off, the divine space has been fenced in. And, don’t you know it—bane to tourists everywhere—currently disfigured by scaffolding.
You can no longer walk freely on rocks and grass tufts. Now there’s a large circular stone pavilion laid, like a dance floor, as if we are invited to interact with the monumental women and reenact the dance of freedom for ourselves.