The Stonemasons



 With their word as the contract - and only that - and organized in groups or crowds, "ntaifades" or bunches, guilds or unions, the masters of Ioannina -just like of other areas of Greece- have made history for their elaborate constructions, while impressive is their distinct way of life, but also the peculiar code word language developed for communicating with each other.



The structure of their organization, according the above standards, was very different, as wel as their way of administration, from the powerful professional guilds of Ioannina. These groups were seasonal. They lasted from spring to winter, when because of the weather their work also ended, for them to re-organize the next spring and so on. There were no written contracts, because most of them were illiterate, so the word of the master builder was the contract. They lived coenobitically and their remuneration was set by the master builder, depending on their merit. The above are study elements of teacher George Gkrassos, which are included in a relevant version of the Environmental Education Centre of Makrinitsa, which he edited himself.

The bunches (bouloukia) usually consisted of brothers and cousins of the master builder and when they were filled and had a place left, then they took somebody else, who had no kinship with the rest, but came from the same village. Rarely was someone from another village involved. If sometimes it occurred to take with them a child from a neighbouring village, then they made him only do auxiliary jobs, such as carrying stones from the quarry, making and carrying mud and grazing the working animals in the fallow fields at night.

In late winter, the groups of the workmen were preparing to leave for foreign lands. The day of departure was the Wednesday following the Clean Monday or later on close to St. George's feast. Throughout the summer they worked hard in foreign lands, and upon completing the agreed work, took the road back, in late autumn, close the feast of St. Demetrius.

The celebrations of the two horsemen saints served as the main time limits of the departure and return to the village, something which is described in the following folk song:

“Two saints were fighting, Ai Giorgis and Ai Dimitris/Ai Dimitris turns and says to Ai Giorgis/Ai Giorgis, Ai Giorgis you mad man and instigator/I bring families together and you tear them apart/I bring mothers with their children together and you separate them/I bring husbands and wives together and you divorce them/Ai Giorgis turns and says back to him/It’s not my fault Ai Dimitris, my brother/It’s only the goddamn king’s fault, the master’s, the vizier’s/That they gave the order for the masons to depart”.

The feverish preparations for the departure of the master started several days ago. The master himself went to gypsy of the village to repair and renew his iron tools and to prepare his animal for the long journey.

The housewife and the other women of the house were engaged in the preparations, firstly for the scant clothing that the master would take with him and, secondly, for the farewell lunch with bean soup and rice pie.

Also, women made the traditional pie with cheese and greens, which the master would take in his saddlebag for the first days of the trip. The priest was informed of the houses that he would have to bless and all the relatives got up early on to participate in the lunch for the good farewell for the group.

The new master that would travel for the first time was treated with special care, since some relatives gave him various coins and the women gave him quinces or apples for the journey. On the doorstep of the front door, they placed a coin that he had to pass over on the way out, for his road to be paved with gold.

For the master, they put a sprig of dogwood on the door inside the "gkioumi" (metal pot) and next to the censer. Once the master reached the door, he kicked the gkioumi so that as quickly as the water was pouring, he too would return quickly.

The dogwood was put for him to stay strong as the dogwood in the foreign lands and the censer for the demons-obstacles to leave out of his way.

The value of their craft and the admiration for the stone masterpieces soon passed out of the boundaries of the Balkans and that is why we find Greek stonemasons on the coast of Turkey, in Istanbul, France, Russia, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Congo and USA etc.


The specialties of the masters

The mob was working in a cooperative basis with the first, among equals, the master builder, who was responsible for finding employment, for the conclusion of contracts and for the financial management of revenue and expenditure. The composition of the mob was almost the same in all the master villages - two experienced woodworkers (craftsmen), of which one was the master builder or the kalfas. These were usually the most well-paid craftsmen of the mob.

There were two good masons, two kleidosades, i.e. builders with fewer capabilities, two ntamartzides, who were responsible for the extraction of rocks and after their work in the quarry, helped in the interior construction and the mud. Moreover, there was a laspitzis, who made the plaster and the kourasani (it was watertight and concerned the jointing of the bridges) a carpenter, a woodcarver (tagiadoros), one to two paragioi (apprentice masters) and a couple of minions or mastoropoula.

Their distinctive codeword language

Ubiquitous and with immense utility value, as recorded in various sources, was the argot language of the stone masons.

-Vouzios mi xyflias, touliz 'ou baros (= Silence, do not speak, the boss is listening). This common warning expression, according to Mr. Gkrassos, is perhaps the greatest evidence for the usefulness of the codeword language.

The Koudaritika or Mastorika were the main means of secret communication between the folk craftsmen of stone also in the foreign lands where they worked, but also in the village of their origin.

This professional this glossary consisted of loan words from the local dialect, but also from other languages, such as Vlach, Arvanitika, Romka (= gypsies), the Aleifiatika, the Sopika, the Moutzourika and mainly of words invented by the masters themselves.

Of course, this codeword language was widespread among all the groups of craftsmen, from wherever they originated, bu it presented slight differences from place to place.

Most words and expressions of the Koudaritika revolved around the life, the needs, the environment and the working conditions of the masters, as well as their relationships with the bosses and their families. Sometimes, during the breaks of their laborious work, the masters commented flatteringly the physical qualities of some women and commented ironically about the ugliness of others.

But what were the reasons that led these generally illiterate craftsmen to "build" a codeword language? The main reason is the need to survive through the pitfalls of life in foreign lands.

The N. Moutsopoulos (1976) explains vividly: "The inability that the isolated craftsmen feel as they roam around into a world that is foreign, unknown, with other customs, away from their villages, forces them to regroup more between them and to defend themselves towards their employer, who belongs to another class, socially and economically superior. They must be ready at all times, against the often immigrant or heathen landlord, who sometimes seeks to exploit by any means the workers who work at his home.

"We should also bear in mind that no means of defense exists for them against the bad paying landlord, since during the years of the Turkish rule, there was no court nor police n the remote villages where they roamed.

"But even if there were, in nearby villages or cities, it was very difficult for them to lose valuable time while jeopardizing a questionable outcome. Their only defense was the partial abandonment of the building site which over the years became an inviolable term and no other group was in a hurry to finish the work if the landlord did not settle his outstanding agreements with the previous groups. This was not the only way of defense of the masters towards wayward employers.

"Their need led them to invent many ways, among them the long-hour work interruption, for lunch, in cases where they worked with a daily wage ..."