THE GREEK ISLANDS - Far From The Madding Crowd

Posted March 21, 2012, 2:59 p.m.
THE GREEK ISLANDS – Far From The Madding Crowd By Rosemary Pavlatou Approaching Kastellorizon for the first time, be it by sea or by air, offers a glimpse not just of a town but a perfect Greek fishing village where all of the buildings are beautifully painted and ranged neatly around an almost enclosed natural harbour. The regularly spaced houses are kept under the close scrutiny of a government department which dictates that the style of the island is kept as close as possible to its origins. When walking the quayside you will meet almost every inhabitant at one time or another as this is the centre of the town and indeed of the island where there is only one road, and that leads to the airport. Yes indeed, Kastellorizo, with its 140 or so permanent inhabitants has a tiny population which is supplemented at times by a few outside Greek workers, a few non-Greek laborers, military personnel and state employees. It is easy to understand how it is possible to see them all in the space of a few hours on the quayside which, considering the number of inhabitants, fairly buzzes with activity. Here you will find tavernas, fish restaurants where the restaurateur has himself caught the fish that morning, and a number of small coffee shops and bars. This is a wonderfully serene place to sit and from which to simply contemplate the world as you listen to the lapping of the water at your feet. You might choose to wander through the few back streets, or maybe take to the mountains around the town where there is ample evidence of a long and impressive past. There are wide sweeping stairways to climb and a medieval castle to explore, there is the mosque and the beautiful mountain rising steeply behind the town, and amongst all of the sites of historical interest and beauty you will find the Blue Grotto, accessible by boat, which is considered to be one of the best in the Mediterranean. If you enjoy snorkeling the clear waters around the island invite you to uncover a myriad of sea creatures and marine flora. This Eastern most outpost of Greece, also sometimes referred to as Megisti, has changed hands with bewildering regularity during it’s history. As with so many Greek islands the atmosphere is demonstrably and undeniably Greek which is surprising after centuries of occupation by forces from all manner of nationalities. It has always been a source of wonder that this and other Greek Islands have remained so determinedly Greek in essence as invading forces have almost always denied the local population the right to speak, read or write in their own language. Kastellorizon was inhabited from early history and is proud of its long and painful struggle into the 21st Century. Serially invaded, this trading centre, a European link along the Silk route, with its beautifully protected natural harbour and its geographic position just a few short miles off the Turkish coast, was a prime target in the area for invaders who wanted to control trade. In common with the rest of the Dodecanese the island was invaded by the crusader knights of the 2nd and 3rd Crusades who occupied the island and caused immense damage. The knights of St John followed in 1306 from Rhodes and remained until ousted by Egyptian forces in 1440. Again the island was sacked but this time the islanders were taken hostage and sent to the East. Huge damage was done including the destruction of the castle of St Nicholas. Between 1461 and 1659 the island was invaded and held for different periods by the Spanish, the Italians and the Turks. During this time Maltese pirates were also rife and often used the island as a base. Until today there are still families with the name Maltezos, probably descendents of some of the pirates who decided to remain. The Turks were in charge of the Island when the war of independence in 1821 liberated its inhabitants. One of the first of the Dodecanese islands to rise to the challenge of the revolution, Kastellorizons, then 2,500 strong, sent its women and children to other islands for safety and its men began the task of refitting their commercial vessels for war. They had one significant victory over Turkish forces in the Attaleia gulf, as well as playing a significant role in the Greek navy as they helped in the struggle for independence. Sadly, in accordance with the Treaty of London in 1830, the Dodecanese were not included in Greek territories and were returned to Turkish domination. However the island flourished during this time and substantial nautical and commercial expansion took place resulting in a fleet of 165 ships totaling 24,000 gross tons. By the early 20th century Kastellorizo had burgeoned in importance as a commercial centre and finery was imported for its richer inhabitants from as far away as Venice and Prussia. Consequently the population of the island grew to around 15,000 and the infrastructure of the island developed dramatically to include free medical services and schooling. The schools on the island were teaching over 1000 pupils which was quite a remarkable number at that time. The Kastellorizons were not content to continue under Turkish dominion at a time when Greek lands were being liberated all around and they sent a petition to the ruling Prime Minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, asking for a union with Greece. The Prime Minister was not positive in his response as the geographical position of the island meant constant maintenance of military and naval forces to ensure its security, forces that Greece did not have to spare. However diplomacy was overtaken by the liberation forces and on 1st March 1913 30 Cretans arrived with two Kastellorizions. They were met with huge enthusiasm by the inhabitants who rose up and arrested the Turkish forces on the island and raised the Greek flag for the first time. On March 23rd 1913 a unilateral declaration was sent to the Greek government, against the express wishes of the government, that Kastelorizo was now part of Greece. Reluctantly the government relented and sent a governor to the island that August. However this situation was shortlived and in December 1915 France invaded to use the island as a base for its campaigns in Syria and final unification with Greece was not to be realized until 1948. During their early stay in Kastellorizo the French continually promised union with Greece at the end of the First World War. However this promise was reneged on and the island, as all of the Dodecanese, was handed to the Italian government as part of the peace process. Over the course of their occupation between the wars, the Italian forces ruled quite harshly and put down any decent with punishments and exile. Slowly an exodus took place from Kastellorizo to Rhodes, Pireaus and further afield to Egypt, Australian and America. Of the 15,000 inhabitants recorded in 1910, just 1,500 remained in 1941. Perhaps the devastating earthquake of 1926, which created much material damage, added a further incentive to those thinking of emigrating exacerbating the population decline. Tragic years were ahead for the inhabitants. The island was liberated in 1943 but this attracted such bombings by German forces that an evacuation of the inhabitants to Cyprus and later to Palestine was decided upon. The brutal bombings and a later fire, the origin of which is disputed as either deliberate to disguise extensive looting by British forces or from the bombing of the munitions dump on the island from where it spread, left almost total devastation. Whatever the reason for the destruction, the islanders, now depleted in number to just 900, returned, yearning to see their homes again, yearning for a return to security and to some comfort but all they found was a wasteland of damaged buildings and rubble. Obviously many could not stay through the hardship, resulting in a further wave of emigration. Those who did stay however, have made a remarkable job against all odds, to re-establish a community on the island. Someone who refused to leave at all however, was Despina Achladioti, born in 1890 and known as ‘the old woman of Ro, which is a tiny islet two miles off the coast of Kastellorizo, here she raised the Greek flag each morning and lowered it each sunset for years. The people of Kastellorizo have seen so much hardship but today there is no atmosphere of suffering or martyrdom. The island feels friendly and relaxed and the people are at ease. Modern Kastellorizo has a small museum in the old Mosque near the Port Authorities building which gives an insight into the island and a further museum is to be found on the hill above in the Medieval fortifications which is full of documents and artifacts which make up the history of the island. Kastellorizo now boasts a small air strip with a regular service from, and to, Rhodes as well as regular boat schedules to Rhodes and Kas on the Turkish mainland. There is dockage in the beautiful bay of the main town and most facilities are offered. This is an island well worth visiting which fits perfectly into a trip into or out of the Mediterranean towards Suez or into an itinerary along the Southern Turkish coast.