Under the Shade of the Mastic Tree, A Glimpse at the Rich History of Chios
The island of Chios is the fifth largest island in Greece, located in the Aegean Sea and six miles of the coast of Turkey. There is much to see, experience, and learn about the island and you’re sure to find something interesting about a speck in the Aegean Sea that isn’t as foreign as you may think. From the tourist seeking a diverse destination, to the visitor interested in history, humanities, arts or even science, everyone is sure to find something of interest within the island’s landscape.
A Brief History of Chios
According to legend, the island of Chios was settled by a descendent of the great King Minos. While this theory serves to link Chios to the rich and vibrant history of the Minoan people, this island has an impressive history all its own.
Homer, a resident of Chios in antiquity, is said to have composed the epic masterpieces The Iliad and The Odyssey during the mid and late eighth century, BCE. The tales were more than just about the war and travels back to Ithaca. Greek values, family roles and structure, politics, religion, and ethics were portrayed therein, as was the hierarchy of the Greek gods and their roles. The ancient historian Herodutos wrote “Homer and Hesiod first fixed for the Greeks the genealogy of the gods, gave the gods their titles, divided among them their honors and functions, and defined their images.” Scholars today have examined these works in order to better understand the ancient society, just as Homer constructed the tales for his own civilization, so that they too could better understand the society in which they lived.
During the sixth century, Greece was making strides in its artistic forms. Sculptors of the time were not called artists; they were simply known as skilled laborers whose techne, technique or skill, was the creation of marble statuary. Seemingly influenced by its neighbors to the East, the Chios Kore is believed to have been sculpted in the mid-sixth century BCE and currently found at the Athenian Acropolis Museum. She is evidence of a master’s skill as one looks at the fine details and movement in her chiton to her symmetrically plaited hair. Both the marble and craftsmanship reflect Chios’s precious resources of the time.
In antiquity, Chios was also quite successful in naval force and production. In fact, during the height of Greek civilization, the Golden Age, Chios was one of the key producers of ships for the Delian League (c. mid-fifth century BCE). Later, in the 4th century BCE, the ancient historian Theopompus of Chios claimed his people were those first taught to make wine by the god Dionysos’s son. While this may be ancient lore, the fact is that Chios was known throughout Greece for its wine production and trade, even in modern times. Theopompus gave his own contributions to the Greek world. He wrote the Philippica, a 58 volume series depicting the life of Philip of Macedonia. This series was referenced by later historians in antiquity, such as Plutarch.
The Homeric tales greatly influenced generations of scholars, writers, artists, philosophers and leaders, both Greek and foreign. Alexander the Great was compelled to visit the tombs of the Homeric heroes Ajax and Achilleas as he traveled through the East. During the era of the Roman Empire, when Virgil wrote the Aenid, he would not only use Homer’s meter form, the journey of the Aenid’s hero began where the Iliad had ended, in Troy at the end of the battle for Helen. On the elaborate Tivoli estate of the Roman emperor Hadrian, built in 125 CE, a shrine had been erected at the end of a long pool called the Canopus; within it Hadrian had a placed a written copy of Homer’s Iliad/Odyssey.
As the Roman Empire shifted east and later became the Byzantine Empire, the island of Chios would be kept within its folds. In the mid- eleventh century CE, a decade before the official split between the Catholic and Orthodox churches of 1054, Byzantine emperor Constantine IX Monomachus commissioned the building of the Nea Moni monastery. It was constructed at the sight on which three Chian monks had found a miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary. The story says that the monks had traveled to the island of Mytilene, where they met Constantine, then in exile, and predicted his accession to the throne. Following their requests, Constantine promised his assistance in erecting a church to the Virgin if they prophecy should prove correct. When he was recalled to the capital… [he] remembered his promise, and his support of Nea Moni began immediately.
Though Constantine IX was fulfilling a promise he had made, many believed that the emperor also hoped to leave a legacy that would mirror some of his great predecessors, including Constantine the Great, who first commissioned Agia Sophia, and Justinian, who commissioned the rebuilding of Agia Sophia after it was burned. Many modern scholars believe that the iconography in this monastery, as well as a few other eleventh century CE structures, serve as Byzantine ideals.
The architecture of Nea Moni was influenced by other great structures of the Byzantine era. The fact that the monastery still stands presently, and in fairly good condition, allows it to serve as a window in to Byzantine design and architecture. The Greek Ministry of Culture has worked to restore these mosaics that have been compared to works commissioned at Agia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) in Constantinople, also by Constantine IX. Additionally, a small museum has been constructed within and displays vestments and artifacts from the eleventh through nineteenth centuries, CE.
Two centuries after Nea Moni was built, 1346 to be exact, the Genoese took control of Chios and would administer the island through 1566. Just prior to the Genoese occupation, the Venetians briefly seized the island though they were not at all successful in holding it; the Venetians administered the island for a span of months during the time periods of 1124 to 1125 CE and 1171 to 1172 CE.
Chios was taken by the Genoese under the command of Simon Vignosa who, despite resistance from the Chians, wanted the island to be taken in a respectable manner. He negotiated a treaty with the Greek emperor that allowed Chians to retain some autonomy on the island as well as be granted Genoese citizenship. The main city would be governed by the Genoese, the villages would fall to the responsibility of the Greek emperor.
For a time, the island of Chios flourished greatly under the Genoese. Many visitors and travelers commended the islanders and Genoese who had quite positively influenced one another in the early years of the occupation. Chians prospered by way of education, arts, economics and society. Benefits were not one-sided though, wine, mastica (a tree resin which grows only Chios) and silk production, as well as a central location on the European and Eastern trade routes, made the island very attractive, and lucrative, to its occupiers. As the Genoese realized what a financial treasure they held, their government ensured that “taxation to provide for the defense of the island was extended.”
Chian winemakers were now known throughout Europe. The island’s cultivation of silk and mastica was another appeal to travelers of the trade routes. Silk was cultivated in the southern region of Chios, where mastica grew, and woven in the northern regions of the island. Silk manufacturing was a long honored skill in Chios. If fact, it is said that Alexander the Great’s purple silk came from the island. Chios had found such success in the silk industry that many Genoese, some who were members of the Genoese silk Mercers’ Guild, were leaving Genoa for Chios, to the detriment of their own homeland. By 1483, the Genoese government issued a request that any Genoese who had “strayed to the island” be returned to Genoa. Though the Genose were gone by the eighteenth century CE, reports indicate that Chios produced up to 40,000 pounds annually.
Continuing its literary tradition, other important figures in literature were Genoeseans born in Chios, Vincezo Banca Giustiniani who “edited the works of St. Thomas Aqunias” and Alessandro Rocca Giustiniani who “translated portions of Aristotle and Hippocrates.”
Historian William Miller also notes in his research that the son of Andriolo Banca Giustiniani, an avid poet and book collector, had entertained Christopher Columbus in their home in 1474. According amateur historian, Ruth Durlacher-Wolper, Columbus had actually referenced red terrain and mastica, the resin that is found only Chios. She also found in the Chian village of Pyrgi, a family with the name Columbus that could trace their history back to fourteenth century CE, the same century in which the Genoese came to Chios. In 1477, Christopher Columbus is recorded to have visited the island once again; this time it was during a Genoese sponsored naval expedition to hold back the Ottoman Turks who had, in 1453, taken control of Constantinople.
The Chians, under the command of Maurizio Cataneo, had gone to the aid of Constantinople at that time, but were unsuccessful. The Ottomans now sought to expand their hold on Greek territories and then frequented the island on a number of occasions. Desperate to maintain their hold on the island and riches it had brought them, the Genoese agreed to pay hefty taxes to the Ottomans to remain on the island and continue in their endeavors.
It would not be until 1566 that the Ottoman Turks took complete control of Chios. Suleman the Great, seeking a revenge of sorts for his gone-wrong expedition in Malta, sent his admiral to the island to remove the Genoese. The admiral’s orders were to “devastate” the island should they choose to resist Suleman’s request. Having witnessed the capabilities of the Ottoman forces and fearing for their lives, the Genoese chose to leave the island. And Chios would continue to flourish, though under the rule of another occupying force now.
Chian and Ottoman relations prior to 1822 had remained fairly civil. The island was a favorite amongst the Ottoman ruling class. The Genoese had left Chios with a healthy economy, now controlled by the Ottoman sultans, and the island had an attractive landscape, comfortable weather conditions, a mix of Greek and Genoese culture, and the world’s only supply of mastica trees. As the island won favor with the sultan, so did the Chians.
The Ottomans had occupied Greece for almost four centuries when a united and organized effort to win independence was put into action on March 25, 1821. Chians did not take a very active or militant role during the first year of war, as they had enjoyed fairly peaceful occupation. However, in 1822, a number of Chians had been participated in an uprising in the neighboring island of Samos. The sultan was infuriated, and Chios would be punished severely. The Chians would serve as an example to any who dared to go against the Sultan. Over 40,000 men, women and children were slaughtered. Others fled the island and only a few thousand remained on the island to rebuild their lives.
As news of the massacre spread throughout the world, shock and concern for the Greek cause grew. Two influential European artists created works depicting the appalling devastation of the island and its people, thereby spurring international attention and aid to Greece. Romantic painter Eugene Delacroix created “The Massacre of Chios” and poet Victor Hugo wrote the poem “L’enfant du Chio.”
Eugene Delacroix’s Massacre of Chios is a dark and powerful masterpiece that took almost a year of preparation before he even laid a brush to the canvas. Delacroix used local models and friends to portray the persecuted Chians. According to his journals, he had asked a friend for sketches of Naples, Italy to help him create Greek scenery. All this was done because Delacroix had never been to Chios; he had never even step foot in Greece.
In 1912, Chios was finally incorporated into the Greek state. It was still in a tense position due to its proximity to Turkey. The issue of whether the island should remain in Greece’s protection or be given to Turkey would become an issue following the Balkan Wars as well as the Asia Minor campaign of 1922. Despite tense situations and the 1922 catastrophe that followed the campaign, Chios remained part of Greece. But this was not the end of Chios’s trials. This island had endured an entire century of one battle after another. Just as the island thought it had at least reached a time for reconstruction and revitalization, Benito Mussolini moved into Greece in 1940 seeking to occupy the country. While General Ioannis Metaxas refused to simply surrender, Greece was about to face more devastation. By May of 1941, German Nazi troops arrived in Chios to occupy the island.
The acting mayor Chios, Andreas Lemos, recalled the day the Germans arrived. He was told that they came “on the instructions of the Fuhrer… as friends… to protect the island against possible attack by British forces.” As a deterrent to foreign armies making their ways on the island’s shores, the Germans set landmines along the shores – or rather, the Germans remained at a safe distance as they instructed the Chians to lay the mines.
On a daily basis, German soldiers confiscated from the local stores bread, dairy products, fish and meat while only providing ration cards to the Chians. The Germans also took control of the olive oil and mastica production, again doing so for their own consumption and benefit. Such actions led to near starvation and also contributed to the drastic decrease in the annual birth rates and shocking increase in the number of annual deaths during the years of occupation. The island though was liberated in 1944. But the battle was not yet over.
Following World War II, Greece entered into a Civil War as a result of the growing influence of the Communist Party. There was great opposition, both from within and outside Greece, that the country should not have a Communist presence, let alone government. Sadly, many Greeks were interned during this time, many of whom were women. One of the major camps for women was located in Chios. The Civil War did not end until 1949 and many of the women were interned even after that time. It would take Chios, and all of Greece, years to begin the process of healing and reunifying their country. This was not the first catastrophic tragedy that Greece had suffered and survived though, and events such as these are testament to the enduring spirit of the Greek soul.
We are all connected through our compassion for mankind. Delacroix never visited Chios; there was no threat of the Ottoman forces occupying Europe. Yet he inspired Europeans and Americans with his images and asked them to support their fellow man in his time of need. Who could not sympathize with a people that had struggled for so long, occupation after occupation, a hundred years of war?
Sitting on his rock and speaking to his students, Homer most likely could not have imagined that his lyrics would inspire audiences through three millennia and around the world. Greek national poet, and friend to E.M. Forster, Constantine Cavafy found inspiration in Homer’s Odyssey more than 2600 years after it was composed.
Cavafy’s poem Ithaca, reflecting on Odysseus’s travels and adventures, became much beloved by Greeks who haled it as their national poem. The verses remind readers to appreciate each moment of life, its trials and triumphs. The goal achieved was not necessarily the reward. Rather it was experiences and encounters that led to the end of life’s journey that were to be treasured. This message resonates not just for the Chians, or the Greeks, but for all mankind.
Chios is an island to be visited and enjoyed by those who love history, arts, and even the sciences. It is a place that reminds us we should strive for excellence, no matter how small the feat or how remote the place we find ourselves in.
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