Greek Islands of Inspiration
If there was such a thing as the definitive guide to the Greek islands, it would be McGilchrist's Greek Islands, a series of twenty volumes offering information on the history and culture of each of the Aegean's isles. Nigel McGilchrist, the scholar whose meticulous research and wonderful insights shape the guides he wrote over a period of five years, shares some thoughts and lessons inspired by the Greek islands.
For some unconscious, hidden reason, the yearning for an island lies deep within us all. The desire to be surrounded by the all-encompassing sea, to be cut adrift–for just a while–from the mainland of life. The peace; the beauty; the independence. We go to islands to retreat, to get away from the world. And nowhere fulfils this need, this dream, more than the islands of the Greek seas. Today we think of the Greek Islands as "remote" and "peripheral"–places "to get away" from it all. But it was not always so. In earliest times their waters and harbors were a hive of life-giving activity: they lay at the very heart of human commerce and development, and their geography made us, very importantly, what we are today.
I spent the last seven years of my life walking, driving, sailing, swimming and climbing every one of the seventy or so inhabited islands of the Aegean, looking at their churches, villages, archaeological ruins, geology and fauna, in order to write this series of books. And what I learned, more than anything else, was the crucial importance of this island world in shaping the character of Western civilization. These rocky, difficult, often infertile refuges in the turbulent sea, forced the early inhabitants to trade, to navigate, to explore, to exchange goods and ideas, and to organize themselves in small autonomous, self-governing units. It made them strive to understand the forces determining natural phenomena so that they could continue doing all of the above even more effectively than before. Greeks lived in a world which was the absolute opposite of the calm, fertile, unified, slow-flowing river valleys of Egypt or Mesopotamia. And it is that fact that made them a resourceful, canny, inventive, independent-minded people.
The first beginnings of this story can be seen on an open hillside above the port of Adamas, on Milos. Lying among the grass are quantities of a sharp, black, glossy substance–a rare volcanic glass, known to us as obsidian:
The history of Aegean civilization has always been driven by trade, and the first commodity ever to be traded on a large scale among its islands was obsidian from Milos, used for making tools, weapons and knives by the first human inhabitants of the area. As the prehistory of the islands is revealed by archaeologists, obsidian from Milos–whose particular purity can be recognized by eye and its provenance verified scientifically–is found at the oldest, lowest level, across the whole area. From well before 6,000 B.C.E., it is found from Thasos to Rhodes, and from Skopelos to Crete; not long after that, it crops up on the mainland of the Peloponnese and in Egypt. The roads of history all lead back to Milos, just as the marine trade-routes, precariously plied by small prehistoric craft, led back to its sheltered volcanic harbors. It is moving to look at the piles of obsidian pieces left behind by the first workshops of Aegean history on Nychia Hill, and to realize that one is witnessing the origins of maritime commerce in the Island world.
(From Western Cyclades, vol. 19.)
It did not take long for those enterprising early sailors to bring their "black gold" to nearby Paros and Naxos (though, remember, they were not ¡sailors¢ because they had no "sails" then: they paddled their simple craft precariously from island to island, along the currents). Here, their hard dark obsidian met its alter ego–the magnificent, white, soft, translucent marble for which those two islands are still famous throughout the world. The ideal cutting material met the perfect substance to be cut:
Naxos marble is a prince among marbles: it is worth picking some up, handling it, and examining it in the light. Its regular crystalline structure is so
open that it is almost translucent. That is why the ancient builders were able to roof the Temple of Demeter at Sangré´ with marble tiles, and still be sure that the interior would be suffused with a gentle light. It is acknowledged among sculptors that the world¢s most suitable marbles for sculpture are those from Paros and Naxos. Michelangelo and Bernini would have used them, if they had been more readily available to them… Naxos was able to lead the Greek world in marble sculpting in the sixth century B.C.E., because it had the best primary material, and as a consequence it produced, both for itself and for Delos, the greatest marble statuary of the age. Its hegemony was not to last for long, however: in the next century, Paros and Athens, both with enviable qualities of marble of their own, challenged her supremacy. (From Naxos, vol. 17.)
But Naxos had another card up its sleeve. The island doesn't just produce wonderful marble; up until the last century, one valley in the east of the island was, for more than three thousand years, the only major source in the Western world of a mineral known as emery. Emery is a natural abrasive which can polish the surface of marble to a tender and translucent smoothness without ever discoloring it. It will remove all the signs and sharp edges left by cutting. The importance of the coming together of these three materials–obsidian, marble and emery–in the world of the beautiful Early Cycladic sculptures of the third millennium B.C.E. is hard to overestimate. It is the very beginning of a long and distinguished tradition of Western sculpture.
Virtually every island in the Aegean produced something of importance: Ikaria produced a special wine, Lemnos a medical clay, Sifnos, and Thasos had gold mines, Evia was rich in crops, while yet other islands exported the particular skills of their inhabitants as boatbuilders, metalworkers, doctors or sailors. The art of survival lay always in the exchange of goods and skills–and on the back of that, was the exchange of ideas and information that is the primary requirement for the evolution of society. One other thing was also important: the islands were always small and separate, just as the gods had created them. Nobody could change that; no King or Pharaoh could ever unite or dominate or stultify their autonomy.
But it is not just in ancient times that the unique materials of the Aegean Islands has helped to shape their history. Think, for example, of the mastic of Chios, or the sponges of Kalymnos and Symi in more recent times. Today mastic is clearly not the essential commodity it once was–even though on Chios it is undergoing something of a renaissance and is now sold as a nostalgically packaged luxury item; its distinctive flavor can also be sampled in the local grape spirit, "masticha", or else in a variety of gliká tou koutalé´ou, or "spoon sweets", submerged in a glass of ice-cold water to assuage thirst. But its uses are very ancient, and its importance central to the history of the island. In pre-industrial times, mastic made Chios rich, important–and, in the end, much fought over.
Dioscorides–observant writer on plants and herbs of the 1st century ad–mentions the mastic gum as used for attaching false eyelashes to eyelids
(Materia Medica, I. 91): it was also known in antiquity as a treatment for duodenal ulcer and heartburn. Christopher Columbus believed it to be a cure for cholera. But the most enduring quality of the gum has been its power, when masticated, to neutralize and to scent the breath. This was widely appreciated in the harems of Arabia and Turkey; 18th century reports suggest that the Ottoman Sultan kept half of the annual harvest from Chios for the Seraglio in Top Kapi –a quantity equivalent to about 125 tons.
The Genoese were the first to see the commercial potential of intensive production of mastic, and it was for this, more than any other product of the
island, that they took such immense pains to protect the island from piracy and secure the villages which produced the precious resin - fortifying the whole island with a circuit of fifty watchtowers, fortresses and lookout posts, as if the island itself were just one big castle in the sea. Under Ottoman occupation this protection was maintained and the villages were given further special privileges, forming a separate administrative region linked directly with the Sublime Porte through elected representation. It was commonly said that the women of the Sultan¢s harem, who used the mastic also as a beauty cosmetic, had Chios under their special protection… (From Chios, vol. 14.)
The unique Mastic villages of Chios, with their houses beautifully decorated in manner which originated in mediaeval Genoa, are heirs to this crucial trade.
Chios is a big island–always rich and powerful. But what of a tiny island like Symi–rocky, infertile, and tucked uneasily into a crook of the Turkish coastline? How was it able to become so rich and architecturally splendid? Here the produce was of a different nature. The island¢s interior may have been hard to cultivate, but the sloping underwater shores of its southern and western coasts were a veritable garden for sponges.
An unusual bargain underpins the recent history of Symi and the impressive beauty of its port which unfolds before the arriving visitor. By maintaining a guaranteed supply of high-quality sponges to the harem of the Ottoman Sultan¢s court, the islanders of Symi gained in return a substantial measure of self-government under the long period of Turkish dominion. They were such talented sailors and renowned shipbuilders that they were also entrusted with making and manning the fast skiffs which carried official post between the Sublime Porte and the Ottoman fleet. This was a calculated and realistic compromise on the part of a small Greek community, living on a dry, rocky, infertile island closed in on two sides by the Turkish mainland. It allowed them to continue doing the two things which they did uniquely well: the fishing of sponges and the building of fast boats. As a result, tiny Symi prospered remarkably in the 18th and 19th centuries and became in proportion to its population one of the richest ports of the Aegean: in the process it also became one of the most beautiful, as the harmonious amphitheatre of neoclassical mansions grew and grew around the slopes of its harbor. This was Greek resourcefulness and pragmatism combined at their best. (From Rhodes, with Symi and Chalki, vol. 7.)
The story, though, was not to end happily. Charles Sonnini, writing about the [Dodecanese] area for Louis XVI at the end of the 18th century, noted that the "inhabitants of Symi are the most daring and most experienced divers in the world". The process was slow and dangerous however: the skin divers clung to a perforated diving stone (often a valuable family heirloom) which helped them sink swiftly to the seabed. Two ropes were attached, one to keep the diver in vicinity of the stone, the other for hauling the stone and the attached net or basket back to the surface afterwards. The diver worked for as long as his lungs would permit–at most three minutes–to cut and basket the sponges in the area of his stone. Then he would loosen himself and swim to the surface, to rest and repeat the process. Others on board would clean, process and store the catch. This laborious and specialized technique meant that sponges remained an expensive luxury item… But, in 1819 the sealed diving suit was invented: this allowed the diver to see clearly underwater, to plumb previously unimaginable depths and to stay below the surface for far longer periods. The diver¢s yield increased hugely; what was once his skill now became an industrial production. This brought huge wealth to Symi: between 1850 and 1900, the grand houses were built and the town, as sponges were exported all over Europe and to America. The divers went down deeper and deeper with ever more sophisticated suits (the skáphandro) and, in the process, began to exhaust the sponge-beds.
The tragedy in the end was not primarily that of the sponges, but of the divers. Little was understood as yet of the deleterious effects of deep-water pressure on the human body and, most of all, of the crippling effect of rising too swiftly to the surface. A neurological condition known as Nitrogen Narcosis can set in at depths around seventy meters and below. Nitrogen traces in the pumped air begin to saturate the blood under pressure; they further compound the problem by forming bubbles in the bloodstream if the ascent through decreasing pressure is not slow and controlled. None of this was properly understood; all that the divers and the sailors saw were the horrid symptoms–the paralysis, the sometimes slow or swift death–that this began to wreak amongst their number. Profit urged them on, in albeit declining numbers, almost until the second world war, taking what appears to have been an agonizing human toll. Today the trade is virtually over in Symi: sponges are now harvested in a different manner, and in different parts of the world–sometimes even by the descendants of Symiot émigrés in Florida or in Australia. Beneath the radiant exterior that Symi presents today it is easy to see the prosperity–harder to sense the tragedy that sponge fishing latterly brought to the island.
Such is the extraordinary resilience of the Greek islanders, that nothing–not even a tragedy such as this–can hold back their innate energy and enterprise for long. This is the other thing I learned in writing and researching these books: never underestimate the capacity of Greeks to bounce back from adversity. When one thinks of the repeated destruction by earthquakes throughout the centuries and the depredations of passing warriors–of Darius the Great, the Crusader forces, or the implacable Khaireddin Barbarossa–the droughts, the piracy, and the foreign occupations, it is sobering, and yet wonderful, to see how quickly these simple, small, island communities pick themselves up and flourish once again, often in a new form. Chios and Psará were annihilated by Turkish repressions in 1822 and 1824. And what happened afterwards? Those refugees who got away, set up a new life from scratch in Syros. And not just that, they set up there one of the most prosperous merchant navies in Europe, and on the proceeds created in Ermoupoli one of the handsomest cities in the Aegean.
By Nigel McGilchrist