How a monastic estate became a modern town

Beginning as a small cluster of houses inside a ravine, the old settlement in Nikiti is over 700 years old. Combining a variety of sources we present a study of the history of the place from medieval to modern times.

Before Nikiti

Archaeological evidence indicates that the area of Nikiti has been inhabited since prehistoric times. Organized settlements existed during the classical and roman era, especially on the coastal area. Remains of ancient settlements have been found in Elia, Agios Georgios, Castri and Lagomandra, all of which are coastal locations. In particular, the area between Castri and Ai Yiannis was very probably the location of the ancient city of Galypsos named by Herodotus. Roman historians name the city of Fyskella in the area. Leake[1] claims that Galypsos and Fyskella were two different names for the same city. The change of name was necessary because there was another Galypsos in Macedonia, close to the modern city of Kavala. The fact is that the area had been continuously inhabited during ancient times.

Creation of the old settlement in Nikiti

The most complete study about the origin of the name Nikiti and the creation of the settlement is that of the local archeologist I. Papaggelos[2]. According to the study, the first written document about the area of Nikiti is a census of the estates of the Monastery of Xenophontos in Mt. Athos, dated from 1300AD [3]. The area is called land of Neakitou. The land is next to the land of Kanstamonitou. Both estates are parts of the area of Psalida which was very probably a Byzantine village.

Papaggelos locates Psalida in the area close to the old Nikiti village by combining the descriptions and toponyms found in the Monastic archives with local terrain, oral traditions and modern toponyms.

Additionally, the study of Papaggelos refers to further Byzantine censuses of the 14th century which show an increase of the area belonged to the land of Neakitou and, at the same time, a decrease of the area ofPsalida. Ultimately, Psalida disappeared from the records and the main settlement of the area wasNeakitou which eventually became a village with its own land, independent of the Monastery of Xenophontos.

According to oral tradition, the old village of Nikiti was established from refugees of the coastal settlements in Elia, Castri and Agios Georgios who were forced to move inland in order to avoid pirate raids[4]. Historical evidence shows that few years after the census of Xenophontos, during 1307-1309, there were Catalan ex-mercenaries of the Byzantine Emperor who were camped in Potidea, few kilometers from Nikiti, at an attempt to capture Thessaloniki. During their stay in Halkidiki, the Catalans acted as tremendous pirates, storming the land and destroying everything in their way[5]. When their siege of Thessaloniki failed, they attacked Mt. Athos before moving south towards Athens. The activities of the Catalans had definitely negative impact to the people in the proximity. In addition, during the 14th century, there was a general decline in the population of Macedonia following a population rise during the previous century. It is mentioned that the main reasons for the population decline were the raids of Turks and Slavs, the civil war between Byzantine landlords and the plague[6]. Events with local impact like the Catalan raids should be taken into account as well.

Some of the catastrophic events of the 14th century should had impacted heavily the old village of Psalidato the point of total extinction. Already in 1321, according to a census of the estates of Lavra Monastery,Psalida had a population of only 10 persons[7]. Therefore, we may conclude that Psalida had been attacked by the Catalans some years before. It seems that it had never recovered from the attack and, given the unstable period that followed, it was gradually extinguished. It is interesting to note that the residents ofPsalida are referred as serfs (πάροικοι) [8] of Lavra while Neakitou was an estate of Xenophontos.

The population decline in Macedonia during the 14th century initiated two phenomena. On the one hand, the labor of the surviving peasants was of greater value to the landlords and the monasteries. Therefore, the Palaeologan Emperors started to give deserted land to the peasants in order to cultivate it. On the other hand, the Monasteries of Mt. Athos were the only institutions that were able to organize land cultivation and offer security to the peasants by building protective towers in their estates. As a characteristic example of this phenomenon, a landlord family from Thessaloniki tried to re-cultivate an estate near to modern Ormylia in Halkidiki, after the end of the Slav invasions in mid-fourteen century. However, they found the estate empty as the peasants had gone away or killed. Then they gave the land to Docheiariou Monastery in order organise the land cultivation.[9]

This process could have also happened in the land of Neakitou. The Monastery of Xenophontos needed peasants to cultivate the estate. The location of the old village of Nikiti had certain advantages as it was difficult to be discovered by raiders and it had easy access to the sea and to arable land. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that during the 14th century and in particular during its second part, surviving peasants started to gather in the land of Neakitou, creating a new settlement, the core of modern Nikiti. The origin of these people is uncertain. Very probably, people came from the coastal settlements south of Nikiti and declined villages like Psalida. We may also assume that there were movements of surviving peasants from the nearby peninsula of Cassandra which was totally deserted in mid-fourteen century.[10]One way or another, the process of the new settlement creation agrees with the oral tradition in Nikiti. The new residents cultivated the land of Neakitou and gradually, while the population increased, they gained their own land and independence from the Monastery.

Finally, what is important to mention is that the general instability of the era which is characterized by the advance of the Turks in Europe, the decline of the Byzantine Empire, the raids of the frank mercenaries and the plague, may explain the movement of people from devastated settlements to more secure places. Such a process led to the creation of a the core settlement of Nikiti.

The Ottoman period

The Ottomans begun the conquest of Macedonia at the end of the 14th century and they completed it emphatically with the dramatic siege and storming of Thessalonica in 1430. One of the first actions in the newly conquered countries was to record people, land and animals in order to impose taxation. The first census of the villages of the Kaza[11] of Thessaloniki that has survived is dated from the mid-fifteen century[12]. In that census, Nikiti is mentioned as a timar village. In particular there was the village Nikitowhich had 35 Christian households while there were three unmarried men and three widows. It is easily concluded that the name Nikito is derived from Neakitou. This confirms both the old archives of Xenophontos and the study of Papaggelos. Regarding the village’s population, there is the particularity that the Ottomans recorded households (hane) and not people. According to the most accepted approach, one household had an average of five people. So the population should have been around 180 people. This number is a minimum because in the Ottoman documents it is stated that the village belonged to more that one timars. The 35 households is the population of one timar whose record in the census has survived. We do not have any information other timars in Nikiti at that time. Furthermore, another census of 1519 mentions Nikiti to have 95 households[13] being one of the greater villages in Halkidiki at that time. This means 450-500 inhabitants. Therefore, the population at the end of the previous century should be a lot more than 180 people, maybe around 350 people if we make the assumption that the village had been divided in two equal tihmars. From 1519 and on, the Ottoman documents mention the place as Nikit. Thus by that time, the evolution of the name from Neakitou to Nikiti had been completed. Nikit is the name of the place in the local dialect which typically omits the vowels at the end of the words. It is interesting to note that the Ottomans named the Christian villages of Chalkidiki according to the local dialect[14].

Therefore, during the 14th and 15th centuries, the old monastic estate of Neakitou had been evolved into a normal village although the era is marked by significant changes, namely the end of Byzantine Empire and the rising of the Ottoman Empire, which caused great instability both political and economic. During the long period of Ottoman rule, Nikiti became one of the major settlements in Sithonia and in the greater area of Halkidiki.

Demetriades[15] mentions that by the end of the 17th centrury, the three peninsulas of Halkidiki had became hass[16] of important officers in the Sultan’s court. The villages of Sithonia and those of central and west Halkidiki belonged to the hass of Longoz[17]. The taxation income of these villages went to the Chief-eunuch of Sultan’s harem. Vakalopoulos[18] mentions the Hassikochoria a cluster of 15 villages in the area of Sithonia and central-west Halkidiki. Nikiti was one of them. The villages had a relative autonomy in managing the local affairs and they were sending representatives in Polygyros, the biggest of the villages, in order to discuss common issues and negotiate with the local Ottoman authorities. The land of Hassikochoria was fertile and this helped them to prosper during the harsh times of the Ottoman rule. Except the traditional agricultural production, people produced honey and they fed silkworms in order to make silk. Silkworm feeding was very common in Nikiti until the mid 20th century. The main food of the worms was leafs from mulberry trees. This is why there are a lot of such trees in Nikiti.

Hassikochoria is a characteristic case which shows the transformation of the taxation system in the Ottoman Empire after 17th century. The new system considers the village as the main taxation unit and not the household. A census of 1715[19] mentions that Nikiti, as a village, paid 6180 acke[20] as annual tax. This was one of the largest amounts for the villages of Halkidiki, implying that Nikiti was one of the bigger of them. The obligation of the village to pay the tax as one unit facilitated the local administration and the η solidarity μεταξύ των κατοίκων. If the poorest did not have enough money to pay their share, the richest pay more in order to complete the total amount required. On the other hand, during the 18th century the Ottoman state imposed increasing taxation to its subjects. This led many villages in decline as their residends, unable to pay the taxes either abandoned them or sold their land to landlords. As a result many villages in Macedonia became estates of few rich landlords[21]. However, Nikiti managed to come through this process and remained a village independent from landlords during the whole Ottoman period.

In 1821, there was a revolt in Halkidiki against the Ottomans at an attempt to spread the war of Greek independence from southern to northern Greece. However, the revolt was poorly organized and the superior Ottoman forces called from Constantinople soon crashed the rebels and burned many villages to ashes, especially in Cassandra. The revenge of the Ottomans decelerated the economic and population growth of Halkidiki for the most part of the 19th century. Many people forced to leave their destroyed houses and immigrate to more secure places to the south, especially in the islands of North Aegean and in Evoia. Nikiti was one of the villages affected and several people moved away[22]. Nevertheless, most people stayed to rebuild the village and start over their lives. A census of 1861-62[23] mentions that Nikiti had 108 households or around 550 residents. At that time the two most important buildings in Nikiti old village were constructed; the church of St. Nikitas in 1867 and the elementary school a few years later. The population of Nikiti begun to rise during the second half of the 19thcentury. In 1900 Nikiti had 900[24]residents, a significant increase with respect to the 1862 census which reflects an era of prosperity. In 1913 when the whole territory came under Greek rule, the Greek army recorded 1324 people in Nikiti[25].

Modern times

Halkidiki and the rest of south Macedonia joined the Greek state in 1912 after more than 500 years of Turkish rule. The period that followed is marked by continuous wars which inhibited growth and kept most of the newly acquired territory underdeveloped for years. Therefore in 1920 Nikiti had 1335[26] residents, presenting almost the same economic and demographical image as in 1913. During 1921-22 the defeat of the Greek expeditionary force in Minor Asia resulted to an influx of Greek refugees from Minor Asia to Greece, giving a dramatic and painful end to the Greek presence in the area, dated since the ancient times. Many of the new comers settled in Halkdiki, especially in the north-east where there where Turkish villages whose Muslim population left for Turkey at the same time, according to the peace treaty between Greece and Turkey. There where no refugees settled in Nikiti. Nevertheless two new refugee villages were created in neighbor locations. In Vozena, where the modern Metamorfosi is located and in the old monastic estate of Balaban where there is the modern Neos Marmaras.

During the twenties and thirties Nikiti expanded below the limits of the narrow ravine in which was confined during the Ottoman period. This expansion was halted during the second world war and the civil war that followed, however it continued rapidly during the second half of the 20th century. New houses were built close to the sea and during the seventies the first hotels and vacation rental properties marked the initiation of organised tourism business. At the same time, the traditional agricultural activities were continued, especially beekeeping. Today, Nikiti is one of the most important centres of honey production in Greece.

Modern Nikiti is a blooming town of almost 3000 people. During the long history of the place, people came through a lot of difficult situations and adapted to new conditions. Nikiti expanded and its outskirts reach the limits of the ancient city of Galipsos in Castri, a spatial going back to the ancient roots. After all, the medieval peasants who settled in the land of Neakitou had made a wise choice.