The Town Centre
On arrival today, however, the modern appearance of the harbour-front does no service to what was formerly one of the most elegant and sophisticated towns in the Aegean: the severe earthquake of 1881 destroyed nearly all of the grand architecture of the port. The gracious streets of neoclassical houses in Vaporia and Vrontado on Syros, which were built by emigres from Chios in the image of their city of origin, give some distant idea of how this harbour-front must have appeared before the earthquake.
The true heart of the town lies a few blocks inland, around the public gardens and the Plateia Vounaki (officially known as Plateia Plastira): when the Judas Trees are in flower here and along the borders of some of the principal streets, such as Koundouriotou Street, the town presents a wholly different aspect. The area of narrow streets just to the south of the gardens and west of the central harbour-front, is the old bazaar: here, amongst a wide variety of tradesman’s workshops, can be bought some of the island’s specialties—the mastic products, good ouzo and local wine, a multifarious production of kinds of bread, and the wild * samphire (‘kritamo’), which is such a distinctive and aromatic element in the island’s salads.
In this area is one of the few mediaeval, civil buildings to have survived in the city—a small, red-stone pyrgos (now a cafe) at the junction of Demogerontias Street with the alleyway of Magaziotissas Street, opposite the little chapel of Aghios Nikolaos. The building’s corner corbel-stone, about 2m above ground level, is an ancient marble block with visible inscriptions on two of its faces; just to its right is the base of an anta in the form of an inverted lion’s claw which is also antique—other examples of which can be seen in the Archaeological Museum. Contemporary with this building, was the island’s former 16th century cathedral church of Aghios Vasilios Petrokokkinon, whose floor and foundations are visible, sunk down below ground-level on the west side of the public gardens; the building was destroyed in 1822. The brick vaults of the crypt beneath, and the basilica floorplan of the building, with three aisles and apses, can be clearly seen. The church’s epithet (also the name of an important Chiot family), ‘Petrokokkinon’ (‘red rock’), comes from the deep red stone which is characteristic of the city’s older buildings. Documents show that the church was rented by the catholic bishop of Chios for the purposes of celebrating the Latin rite—witness to the peaceful cohabitation of religious diversity in Chios in the 16th century. Close by these ruins, in the centre of the park, is the imposing bronze statue by the sculptor, Michalis Tombros (1889–1974) from Andros; it is his tribute to Constantine Kanaris, the admiral from the neighbouring island of Psara, who destroyed the flagship of the Ottoman navy in June 1822 in revenge for the Turkish massacres two months earlier. It is one of Tombros’s most celebrated sculptures, and—though characteristically ponderous in feel—possesses a dramatic energy unusual for his works. Further east in Vounaki Square, the 19th century marble fountain is based on the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates below the acropolis in Athens. Demokratia Street, which forms the northeastern boundary of the Gardens, is bordered by the Demarchion (Town Hall), and a row of kafeneia which have remained virtually unaltered since the 1950s—a measure of the innate conservatism and independence of the island’s local culture. Half-way up Demokratia Street, where the road branches for Vrontados and the north of the island, is a free-standing marble Ottoman fountain bearing the (Hejira) date 1181, corresponding to 1763 in the western calendar. Although re-roofed, it conserves on all four sides its fine, original carved decoration in the florid style typical of the later Ottoman period. The fountain was built and donated by the Grand Vezir, Melik Pasha, who was of partly Chiot origin: the long inscriptions on the different faces are in praise of Chios, Chiots and the tradition of Greek history. The other Ottoman monument beside the park is the 19th century Mecediye Mosque to the southeast, which is currently undergoing restoration to re-house the island’s Byzantine Museum (open daily 8.30–1, except Mon).
The courtyard and porch contain mostly salvaged items— Jewish and Muslim gravestones—and a number of interesting pieces of Genoese Renaissance sculpture from the 14th –16th centuries, as well as some Early Christian architectural elements. Particularly striking is the carved sarcophagus of Ottobuoni Giustiniani (1445) and the carved lintel-blocks, figuring the exploits of St George who was the patron saint of Genoa. In the interior is a display of the fine 18th century wall-paintings executed by Michael Chomatzas, figuring scenes from the life of St Nicholas of Myra, which constituted the uppermost stratum of wall-painting in the church of the Panaghia Krina (near Vavili, south of Chios—see pp. 51–52), removed and brought here in order to reveal lower, earlier strata of paintings still in situ in the church.
A smaller, but more noteworthy, Byzantine collection can be seen in the Giustiniani ‘Palace’ (open daily 8.30–3, except Mon) which lies 200m northeast from here along Kennedy St, just inside the main entrance gate of the Kastro. This contains some of the finest paintings on the island— detached once again from the walls of the church of the Panaghia Krina, but this time from the early 14th century layer in the cupola.
The twelve * figures of Saints and Prophets are of the very highest quality, and have survived with little damage (the lacunae at knee-height are the holes made for the fixing of the scaffolding when the cupola was later repainted): the monumentality and sculptural quality of * Obadiah (no. 8), for example, is particularly striking and bears comparison with the almost contemporaneous works of Giotto in Italy: the latter are more tenaciously tactile and unstylised, yet without the dramatic elegance which these anonymous Byzantine works possess. Their quality would suggest a painter trained in Constantinople. Some allowance needs to be made to compensate for the fact that the viewer’s position, when the figures were in situ, was from six metres below. (Note: these paintings may eventually be transferred to the Byzantine Museum opposite the Public Garden, when renovations there are completed in late 2010.) On the upper floor are also a number of fine 18th century, icons from Mesta and Olimpi—amongst them, one of the Archangel Michael, cut and shaped around the outline of the saint for use in processions. This is an unusual genre of icon, found rarely outside of Chios.
The restored 16th century building which houses this collection, known as the ‘Giustiniani Palace’, was probably a guard-house or garrison headquarters for the castle. The large guard-room on the ground-floor (separate entrance through door just inside Main Gate, to right of stairs), is a beautiful example of brick vaulting supported on a central pier.
Chios Island is part of the Northern Aegean Island group
Chios town and the Kampos area – The town centre