World seeks Spartan swords

May 27, 2007|By Bloomberg News

There's a shortage of swords in the Greek city of Sparta. Merchants from Athens to Thermopylae are also concerned about a scarcity of spears as they prepare for summer visitors obsessed with the hit film 300, the gory recounting of the 480 B.C. clash between Spartan King Leonidas and his archenemy King Xerxes of Persia.

"My Spartan sword maker died a few weeks before the movie opened," laments Theodoros Tzamalas, whose shop, Greek Souvenirs, has been the main retail outlet for Spartan battle gear in Athens since 1940.

"Until 300, there was no rush for Spartan swords," Tzamalas says from behind a counter cluttered with strap-on sandals and miniature-soap Parthenons. "Our Leonidas sword was lightweight steel, cost 15 euros and was archaeologically correct," he adds. "Now hundreds of people are specifically asking for them and I don't have any."

Greek Deputy Finance Minister Petros Doukas, the highest-ranking Spartan in the government, says he's aware of the 300 weaponry crisis and its cascade effect on Greece's economy.

"The movie's lesson is: Fight for your country, even if it's a losing battle, and have enough swords and hotel rooms on hand for tourists," says Doukas, squeezing lemon on a clearly un-Spartan lunch of broccoli spears in his office.

Not enough swords is a problem for Despoina Stratigis, owner of Synergies, a cultural tour company in Sparta. "Last season, I put visitors in touch with Spartan cheese makers," she said between slicing wild asparagus in her home and fielding calls from U.S. and European families seeking to retrace Leonidas' march from Sparta to Thermopylae.

"Now everyone wants a sword maker. We don't even have an original sword in our museum, and there's only one sword maker left in Sparta."

That would be Costas Menegakis, a 42-year-old Greek-Canadian blacksmith who specializes in horseshoes and hasn't made a sword since 2005.

"It was a Viking sword," Menegakis says, sitting atop an anvil alongside his charcoal-fired forge and brandishing a homemade French rapier. "I'm ready to make Spartan swords, 80 euros," he adds. "I pound swords and spear tips from steel, but if someone wants an original poured in bronze, I can do that."

No matter the model, Menegakis guarantees his hilts are the real deal.

"Many were made from goat horns," he says. "We have lots of goats in Sparta. The hills are filled with them."

Global interest in Spartan swords has also caught the eye of local police inspector Panayiotis Skaras. He has spent the past eight months trying to discover who hacked off the 25-pound, 5-foot sword from Sparta's towering bronze 20th-century statue of King Leonidas. There are no leads, though Menegakis says he suspects a "band of Gypsies." Cafe gumshoes suggest the robber was an Athenian envious of Sparta going to Hollywood or Persian pranksters out for revenge.

Whoever the culprit was, Sparta Deputy Mayor Metaxia Papapostolou recently had a replacement sword fitted in Leonidas' hand before the onslaught of tourist buses reaches the southern Greek city. She says the perpetrator won't be shoved into a pit, unlike in the movie. "Sparta doesn't plan on launching any invasions over this," Papapostolou promises. Instead, the city is investing 8 million euros ($10.9 million) to refurbish the crumbled tourist sites.

"Our big attractions are the Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia and the olive oil museum," Papapostolou says. "We're staging ancient Greek plays in the ruins of the outdoor theater.

"Trouble is, Spartans weren't theatergoers; the Athenians went to plays," she bemoans. "We Spartans did things for real, and many other Greek cities are jealous about what the movie's popularity has brought us."

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