Chios. The pride of two Empires
Chios. A whole world in one island
Said one old man to another about me.
They sat in the shade of a house in the village of Vessa. And they watched me going here and there in the heat, with the camera.
It was so hot, that I used a cat sitting in front of a door as a sign to find my way. I was sure it would not move until I was back.
And I was right.
I found myself there again after a long time, after having finished shooting yet another medieval village of Chios. The cat was still there, dizzy from the heat.
The word said by the old man may seem strange to you.
The guard at the Byzantine Museum (the old mosque) of Chora, the capital, said the same word.
He said about the Turkish bath, which was being restored at the time: “Our people fight it” (he meant the people of the Ministry of Culture). And as he said it, he thought that he had to explain it to me.
But I had understood.
This word must be characteristic of the islands of the northern Aegean. Because I knew it from my grandmother, who came from Imvros. So I knew that it means “try intensely.”
And I heard it from the old man in Vessa, without having heard it elsewhere. And then I realised how much the islands of the northern Aegean are a separate world.
But also every one of them separately a world itself. Like Chios. Which holds so much history and so many monuments, as if it were a whole continent.
The pride of two empires
Because it was the pride of two Empires. Byzantium and Genoa.
Who both left in the island unique monuments worldwide. Perhaps the best known is Nea Moni, the New Monastery, with its unique mosaics. Among the top Byzantine monuments of Greece, incorporated in the UNESCO list of World Heritage.
Nea Moni (11th century)
Chios was one of the major intellectual and artistic centres of Byzantium. Moreover, Nea Moni was an imperial institution.
The church of the Holy Apostles in Pyrgi (14th century)
However, in 1346, Byzantium was living with the deadly anxiety of the Turks. And the Emperor needed allies.
Genoa comes along
Genoa, emerging maritime power, offered him the much-desired help.
But the price was expensive: Chios.
Later, Genoa also occupied the other islands of the northern Aegean. So, Chios became the centre of its colonial empire.
The power of Genoa over Chios lasted 220 years. Until 1566, when it was conquered by the Turks.
These 220 years have left an indelible mark on the island.
But since the mark was put on a long Byzantine tradition, the result was a mixture unique in the world. A mixture mainly seen in the villages.
Because the city, with the whole central Chios, was destroyed in 1881 by an earthquake. It is said that this earthquake was the most deadly of Greek history.
I hadn’t been in Chios since childhood. Therefore, since it’s so rich in monuments, I decided to make a visit-combing. To leave nothing out.
Which proved unrealistic. To make it real, I would have had to stay there for at least one month. Again, to see everything hastily.
Nevertheless, I managed to go to many places where no visitor appears.
Like in Vessa, with the old men and the cat. And Kalamoti. And Olympi.
On these three I will focus. The tourist places don’t need this. That’s why I’ll leave them for another time. Because it’s impossible to fit in an article what I saw in a week of non-stop movement.
Imagine if I had gone everywhere.
First stop of the neglected villages: Olympi.
Although it’s between the two most tourist villages, Pyrgi and Mesta, the difference is noticeable.
Mesta. Byzantium with Genoa joined and gave this unique mixture
In the first two, the bus arrives full from the town and empties there.
Without counting the coaches with crowds of Turks. The Turks do the route Izmir -Chios as if it were Athens-Piraeus. But so do the Chians, as I found out.
We passed Pyrgi and left almost all passengers. And we continued for Mesta to refill.
In between, we passed by Olympi. And one person got off. I.
Where time stopped
I entered the village, which I had not seen for 32 years. And saw no difference.
But even the Genoese would see (almost) no difference if they came from the past.
Even in Mesta, which is the best preserved medieval village, the crowds of tourists spoil the illusion that you are in the Middle Ages. But here … Even the iron door which sealed the village at night still exists. Only here.
Also in Olympi there are the famous scratched coatings. But we will talk about this shortly, with Pyrgi
In the medieval villages, there is almost no corner without a church
The medieval villages are densely populated. In the front, you see small furry inhabitants of Olympi. In the background, in the dark, there are two more, tall, with huge ears. Especially the first are everywhere
The villages were crammed inside the walls and there was a lack of space. So, they built rooms over the street. Underneath a passage was created
Olympi is a much smaller village and you can see it quickly. Moreover, it has only a few streets. They all end up in the centre, at the square.
At the square of Olympi
The fortified tower is located here.
The fortified tower in the centre of Olympi
A sophisticated system of fortifications
All medieval villages of Chios, like most medieval settlements, were fortified. In the centre, there was a large tower.
If the enemies managed to cross the wall, the inhabitants would go in the tower. However, it has not been reported that they ever had to. Chios had a large population and was not an easy target.
The walls, however, were not useless. At least not for the Genoese.
Because that way they controlled the trade of mastic. This magical substance that made Chios the richest island of the Aegean and famous all over the world. In times when there were no artificial flavourings, mastic was sought after like gold …
The iron door that closed the walls of Olympi. Thus mastic could not pass tax-free. But let’s not give ideas …
Later, of course, the towers were put out of use. In some villages, they became ruins, like in Pyrgi. In other villages, they were demolished, like in Mesta. There, in the tower’s place was built Megalos Taxiarchis, the Grand Archangel, the largest church of Chios.
In Olympi, the ground floor was divided into two cafes. A perfect place to sit after visiting the village. Especially if you were photographing anything interesting like I did.
Having finished with Olympi, I went again to the bus stop. Nobody. Will the bus pass from here on the way back from Mesta to the town? Or it will overtake the bypass and go straight to Pyrgi?
Eventually, it came, fortunately. I should note that the bus company of Chios is one of the best organised. And with the kindest staff I have ever encountered.
And I went back to town.
And another day I went to Kalamoti. In the same conditions. I got off the bus alone, I got back on the bus (almost) alone.
Here I found an image of desolation. Many houses are ruined. But it’s because of this that the village presents a very authentic image. No mismatched intervention of modernization.
Also in Kalamoti we see rooms over passages
The plazza (square) of Kalamoti
And in Vessa, the same. I got off the bus alone, I got on it alone. And the bus stop was in the wilderness, outside the village. Again I wondered: Will the bus come?
Also here the same spectacle. Abandonment, but also untouched images, 700 years old.
The wooden enclosed balconies were added during the Turkish occupation
The church of the Assumption
Chios is also famous for its pebbled courtyards
Also in Vessa there are many covered passages
Within all this, I also made an organised trip. Also this one with the excellent bus company of Chios. We went to Nea Moni, Avgonima and Anavatos.
Anavatos is another fortified settlement of Chios.
With a difference. Here there is not a living soul. That’s why it’s also called the Mystras of the Aegean, like the abandoned byzantine settlement of the Peloponnese.
The good thing is that there is not the slightest contemporary discordance.
On the other hand, here it becomes obvious how impressive is the historical continuity in the other medieval villages, continuously inhabited for so many centuries.
Anavatos barely stands out from the mountain, because it was built of the same stone
Anavatos was built by the Byzantines to scout the western coast of Chios. The Genoese enlarged it. It was destroyed in 1822, during the famous massacre of Chios, immortalised by Delacroix. The earthquake of 1881 gave it the final blow and it was abandoned.
And stood deserted, gazing to the Aegean, towards the West.
Waiting for which ships this time?
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