The necessity of land terracing in the Mediterranean region. Nisyros island case.

Ζografia Κarekou, architect and urban designer

Land terracing of the Mediterranean landscape. A historical approach.
The Mediterranean region has always been a net of wild lands, where man has lived along with nature through procedures of inter-domestication and symbiosis for many years.

Land terracing, the act of forming sloping lands into a number of leveled flat areas, has been one of the most important mild human interventions in the Mediterranean landscape. In Aegean region the era of land terracing was active until the beginning of 20th century. From that time and on, the use of new practices of cultivation aiming for the maximizing of the production, the immigration of local people to urban regions and the social changes after the World War I were the basic factors that leaded to the abandonment of the terracing technique and the maintenance of the constructed terraces. Now, the terraces and their retaining walls in the biggest part of the Aegean steep slopes have lost any practical use for the survival of the locals and they just form in their whole a landscape of a certain aesthetic value.

Land terracing in Nisyros island
Nisyros, an island of southeast Agean Sea, with an almost circular shape, presents (according to the research of Theodora Petanidou in the Geography Part of the Aegean University) the highest rate of terracing (58,4%) in the total of Dodecanese islands. Almost the whole island is terraced, except from its center, the volcano caldera, where there is the only flat area of the island, Laki. The terraces in Nisyros island reach the altitude of 600 meters, -while the highest point of the island is 698 meters, the peak of mount Diavatis,- and cover areas of maximum 55% of slope. In the biggest part of the island the terraced areas are among the slopes of 6-30% and reach every possible orientation.

Terracing the land, with the construction of benching flat areas (“tavles”) helps remarkably in space saving for the cultivation, the stabilization of the cultivated ground, the protection from erosion, and the water management (rain water collection and recycling). In Nisyros island, where the water supply is mainly covered through the collection of rainwater in cisterns and water tanks, and secondly with desalination systems, the water has been one of the most precious goods for the locals. There must be collected through the roofs and the threshing floors, ending up to a net of numerous underground cisterns placed in the fields that provided drinking water for people and animals and the watering for cultivated areas. Even though most of these cisterns still collect water, are now abandoned.

After World War II, locals’ reports mention that in the terraced areas of the island, except from cereals and pulses, big areas were cultivated with almond trees, fig trees, olive trees, a certain type of oak tree and vineyards. The cultivated areas could cover the needs of the locals and some of the products were exported as well to the neighboring islands. The terraces were also used in livestock and beekeeping.

Today, from all the terraced areas only the 0,7% is cultivated, whereas until the beginning of the 50s, the cultivated areas covered the 35,3%. The abandonment of the terracing technique started at the 50s - when cultivating stopped to be the main profession -, and increased until today with the misuse of European sponsorship programs. In 60s, the establishment of uncontrolled grazing evoked the biggest damage in the terracing procedure. The wrong management of grazing caused the transformation of the cultivated lands to pasture lands and this situation remains an unsolved issue; since the authorities continue ignore the problem. Finally, the abandonment of terracing is deeply related with the collapse of the self-sufficient model of production and the dependence of local people from imports of products from neighboring islands.

Nevertheless, not only the agricultural production is badly affected from the non-maintenance of the terraced landscape. There was a time, when the construction of terraced land was also a basic tool for the design of the main roads and paths in the island. Today, because of the non-conservation of damaged parts being in public paths, a lot of them either have been erased from the map, or remain forgotten paths of great danger for the walkers.

The traditional construction of the terrace (“vastadi”)

The construction of the terraced landscape requires the construction of terraces (“tavles”) and their retaining walls (“vastadia”) and their systematic maintenance. The construction of terraces except from the knowledge for the dry stone building, presupposes knowledge for the topography, the hydrographic net, and awareness for the possibilities of the ground of each area. Above all, it needs the manual work.

Traditionally, the building of the terraces for the construction of cultivating lands was a concern of each farmer and his family. Nevertheless, sometimes the building was a more collective act, a solution to the lack of working hands and a procedure of coexistence. Other times, in works of common profit (for the paths mainly), the dwellers worked voluntary for two or three days.

The construction of cultivating land demanded the following procedures: the clearance of the sloped land, the stone exportation, the dry stone building wall and the creation of the cultivating ground. The procedure started from the highest level of the sloped area with the excavation, the uprooting of shrubs and other plants and the opening of a ditch and the foundation of the first wall. The relation between the surface of the terrace and its retaining wall had to be one to three. The excavated products were used for the filling of the wall from the mountain side – the best filling was with pumice for the better drainage and the soil retainment. The bigger stones were used for the foundation and the smaller for the filling. As the wall gained height, stones were placed in a way that the wall itself could form an inclination. That way, the wall had the best preservation and the building of the wall could become easier when the wall was high enough. The filling of voids between stones was necessary and it could be worked with small stones or ceramic fragments. The last layer (one stone above the ground) was big, flat stones that could be walked. In some cases, stones that were placed in a way, in order to structure stairs that allowed the connection of two terraces.

Rainfalls and the animals’ movement are responsible for the basic damages in the terrace and its walls. The damaged parts of the dry stonewall are called “spasmades”. In these cases, the damaged parts are cleared out and the wall has to be built from the foundation level.

Today, the Nisyrian terraced ground, except from the impression of a picturesque aegean landscape, can also reveal memories from the times when the local groups of people were depended from the land and its products and were operating in the landscape with respect to the physical procedures. After hours of walking, conversations with the locals and research on the dry stone construction, I end up to the conclusion that the terraced landscape should be a part of the cultural inheritance of the Mediterranean region, could be conserved and rehabilitated, helping the sustainability of the landscape and the its inhabitants. In September of 2012, the NGO ASF (Architecture Sans Frontieres) Hellas, organized the firt workshop of terraces conservation in Nisyros. Except from the voluntary work that was produced and the experience that the volunteers gained, aspects that remain unsolved the last decades became again an object for discussion. Volunteer builders and the local dry stone builders worked on the damaged terraces placed closed to public paths. This action could fill with optimisme for the future of coexistence of man and nature.