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Grand and solitary, rich in architecture and flora, but tinged with a note of tragedy that lingers from the events of its long and complex history, Chios is—perhaps more than any island in the Aegean—a world to itself. It is separated by wide, open waters from its nearest neighbours— 55 nautical miles from Samos with whom relations were cool since Antiquity, and a comparable distance from Lesbos with whom its links historically were few. It has acquired over time a proud independence and self-sufficiency; yet it is still intensely Greek in feel. Both its mountainous profile and its character are aquiline, and there is a harder edge to its landscape which contrasts markedly with that of its biggest neighbour: where there is a femininity to Lesbos in the expanses of olive-groves and sheltered, almost landlocked, gulfs, Chios has an open, rugged and dramatic coast with some of the wildest highlands of the Aegean in its interior. Lyric Sappho was from Lesbos; Chios claims epic Homer.
Of the wealthy ancient city, with its walls of polychrome marble, which was shown to Cicero when he visited the island, little remains to be seen today; but a sense of its artistic individuality and political activity is vividly evoked in the city’s Archaeological Museum. The island has an unbroken history of excellence in the visual arts. An architectural renaissance followed on from the building of the monastic complex of Nea Moni, by the Emperor in Byzantium in the early 11th century. It dates from only a few decades earlier than the Monastery of St John on Patmos, but the two buildings could not be more different. Stylised and sophisticated, with rich decoration and a cleverly modulated and dramatic interior, Nea Moni influenced over the following centuries the building of a number of other unusual churches around the island—Aghii Apostoli in Pyrgi, and the rural churches of the Panaghia Krina and Panaghia Sikelia—all of which are later meditations and variations on the great 11th century church. The refined mosaics of Nea Moni—large parts of which somehow survived the Turkish devastations of 1822 and the earthquake of 1881—are amongst the most important in Greece. The smaller churches have important paintings—those especially from Panaghia Krina, now displayed in Chios town, which bear interesting comparison with their contemporaries in Italy. But the variety of painting on Chios does not end at the Middle Ages: in the evocative ruins of the Moni Moundon, in a remote valley of the central north of the island, is a curious cycle of 19th century ‘nai―f-Byzantine’ paintings; and, most unexpected of all, in the tiny chapel of the Ypapanti (the Purification of the Virgin) south of Chora, are the enchanting murals painted in 1963 by the Hawaiian artist, Juliette May Fraser, and given as a gift to the villagers of Vavili.
Unique to the south of Chios are the house-fronts decorated in grey and white geometric designs in sgraffito technique which constitute such an attractive aspect of the village of Pyrgi, and others of the ‘Mastic Villages’. Unique also is the planned, fortified design of these mediaeval villages, densely built within walls around a central tower; unique to Chios is the cultivation and harvesting of mastic gum from the trees, which has never been successfully replicated anywhere else in the Mediterranean; and unique are the lengths to which the Genoese overlords of the 14th and 15th centuries went to protect their monopoly on mastic trade—fortifying the whole island with a circuit of 50 watchtowers, fortresses and lookout posts, as if the island itself were just one big castle in the sea. Like Genoa, the city of Chios is hemmed between the mountains and the water; the Genoese must immediately have felt at home here. They settled and slowly became Greek over the centuries, continuing to run the economy of the island together with the local Greek families, long after it came under Ottoman administration—with the firm and cautious grip for which the Genoese are known iIl Campo’), they built stone villas, farmsteads and orchards to classicising designs, out of a warm red local stone, creating one of the most beautiful and historic suburbs in Greece. The same families, rich from trade and shipping, endowed their city with libraries and institutions of learning. Chios was an elegant, civilised and peaceful city, when it was suddenly dragged undeservingly into a vortex of carnage and destruction in 1822. This was immortalised in the European imagination by Delacroix’s tragic painting of the Massacre of Chios. Something of the background to those events is explained in the epilogue to the Chios section of this book.
In spite of the loss of some areas of forest, flora, birds and butterflies are abundant and varied on Chios. The island is rich in herbs, honey, and in flavours that range from the cleansing pungency of mastic to that of the aromatic samphire which grows on the island’s cliffs and animates the salads served at its tables.
Chios Island is part of the Northern Aegean Island group
Chios General Information