An exceptional fall of snow on the island accompanied the birth of Chios, the son of Poseidon, after whom the island was subsequently named, according to legend. But Isidoros the historian adds that the name ‘Chios’ is actually of Phoenician origin, meaning ‘mastic’. This is very likely true, since many of the Aegean Island names are of Phoenician rather than Greek origin.
Human settlement appears to have begun on Chios in the 6th millennium bc. Several prehistoric sites have been located near the north and south coasts. The earliest is the cave-settlement at Aghio Gala in the extreme northwestern corner; but the most extensively explored is at Emporeio on the southeast coast, where habitation was continuous from the Late Neolithic (5th millennium bc) through to the first destruction or abandonment of the site at the end of the Myceneaean era in the 12th century bc. The site, however, proved to be of greater longevity: it was re-settled in early historic times and remained occupied through until the Early Christian period. Ionians from Histiaia in Euboea migrated to Chios and colonised the island under the leadership of Amphicles who is mentioned as the island’s first king. It was in this period—the 9th century bc—that the site of the city of Chios was also settled.
Under what may have been an enlightened oligarchy enshrined in a mid-6th century constitution, the city came to prominence rapidly as a wealthy trading centre, always to some extent in competition with Erythrae on the mainland opposite. It traded its goods and its renowned wine far into the Black Sea and west into the Mediterranean, and it appears to have participated in the creation of the Greek trade-emporion of Naucratis in the Nile Delta. It was also one of the earliest Greek cities to engage in the slave trade—a source of considerable wealth to the island, as it was also later to be to Delos . The Chiots appear to have had more domestic slaves than any other Greek state except for Sparta by the end of the 5th century bc. The city’s quality of life became proverbial, giving rise to expressions such as ‘the Chian life’ or ‘Chian laughter’. Thucydides (Peloponnesian War, VIII. 24) meanwhile extolled the prosperity and prudence of the islanders.
Chios was one of the twelve cities which comprised the Ionian League, whose common sanctuary and meeting place was the ‘Panionium’ on the promontory of Mycale opposite Samos . Here, the Panionia or great national assembly of the confederacy was held. The League was a vital strategic union which gave rise to commercial power, a high standard of living, and a ferment of cultural and intellectual activity among its members. Though not uninflenced by the close proximity of a great and ancient Persian cultural presence, this activity had a new, freethinking and importantly Greek character to it. Many of the greatest thinkers and artists of the Archaic and Early Classical periods hailed from the cities of the confederacy— the philosophers Thales of Miletus, Heraclitus of Ephesus, and Pythagoras of Samos , the poet Anacreon of Teos, and the painters Apelles of Colophon, Zeuxis of Heracleia (Miletus), and Parrhasius of Ephesus. On Chios, in particular, was a celebrated school of sculpture, in which Pliny cites Achermos and his family as important masters; and according to Herodotus (Histories I. 25), Glaucus (fl. 490 bc) of Chios is said to have invented the art of soldering metals. The tragic poet Ion, the historian Theopompus, and the sophist Theocritus were also from Chios. But the island’s greatest claim of all was to have given birth to Homer.
Out of pragmatism Chios established good relations with Croesus, King of Lydia between 560–546 bc, but it car later came under the control of Harpagus, the general of Cyrus, King of Persia. When, in 499 bc, the Ionians revolted against Persian domination, instigated primarily by Aristagoras, Governor of Miletus, Chios played an important role, sending 100 ships to the Battle of Lade in 494 bc and fighting with notable valour. The Greek fleet was defeated, Miletus was sacked and Chios appears also to have suffered some destruction. Later, after the final defeat of the Persian invasions, Chios encouraged Athens to set up the Delian League, and remained a member of it until 412 bc. Thucydides implies (Peloponnesian War, III. 10) that Lesbos and Chios saw themselves in a privileged position in the League, as allies of Athens rather than as subordinates as the other members—including even Miletus—were. At first, Chios remained a loyal ally of Athens—even through difficult times; but in 412 bc, joined by Alcibiades who had defected to Sparta and by other Ionian cities including Miletus, Teos and Mytilene, the island broke free from Athens. The uprising failed, and as a consequence the Athenians captured Oinousses and established a naval stronghold at Delphinio on the northeast coast. When Athens was subsequently defeated by Sparta at the battle of Aigos Potami, Sparta took control of Chios, destroyed her ship-yards and expropiated her fleet.
In 383 bc, Chios was once again allied with Athens and five years later joined the Second Athenian Confederacy. With the aid of King Mausolus of Halicarnassus it seceded in 357 bc and finally gained its autonomy. In the febrile world of the 4th century bc, autonomy was virtually impossible for a city of any wealth to maintain, and Chios was divided between pro-Persian and pro-Macedonian factions. The island was captured by a general of Alexander the Great in 333 bc. It appears from the preserved and engraved epistle from Alexander to the people of the island (exhibited in the Archaeology Museum in Chios) that he restored the democratic regime, imposed a penalty of 20 triremes, and ordered the return of political exiles. This restored the island’s trade for a substantial period and helped it to grow wealthy once again—something which attracted the unwanted attention of the infamous Roman Legate and Pro-Quaestor,Verres, who pillaged the island. Chios, as an ally of Rome in the war with Antiochus, suffered a yet worse destruction in 86 bc at the hands of Zenobios, the general of Mithridates VI: it is recorded that the Chians were delivered up to their own slaves, to be carried away captive to Colchis. Athenaeus considered this a just punishment for their wickedness in first introducing the slave-trade into Greece. From this, the ancient proverb arose, ‘The Chian hath bought himself a master.’ After the re-capture of the island by Sulla, Chios was once again given its independence, which was initially respected by the Roman Emperors. After the earthquake of 17 bc, Tiberius, who visited the island twice, contributed towards its rehabilitation. With the administrative reforms of Diocletian, Chios (c. 300 ad) became part of the Provincia Insularum.
St Paul appears to have visited the island (Acts XX. 15) in 58 ad. By the 4th century a small Christian community was well-established on the island, whose patron saint was St Isidore, a 3rd century Roman military martyr of the reign of Decius. Imperial Byzantine interest in the building of Nea Moni in 1042, brought an architectural and religious golden age to the island. This period was briefly interrupted by occupation at the hands of the Turkish emir of Smyrna, i‡aka, or ‘Zachas’, until the island was freed again in 1092 by Alexander Comnenus. In 1125 the Venetians removed the relics of St Isidore to Venice, and in 1172 the island was taken by Doge Vitale Michiel. The partition of Byzantine territories in 1204 after the Fourth Crusade awarded Chios to the Latin emperor in Constantinople, who proved unable to hold it. The treaty of Nymphaion in 1261 put it officially under Genoese control for the first time: by the middle of the 14th century, Genoese domination of the whole island was secure under the aegis of the Giustiniani family. In 1344 they formed the ‘Moana’, a chartered company which administered the island and was responsible for its defence.
Chios gained considerable wealth once again through the trade in mastic resin. It was to favour and protect the trade of this valuable product that the Genoese embarked on an impressive project of fortifying the whole island with castles and towers, and securing, as fortified settlements, the villages that produced the mastic crop. Wine was also an important element of the economy as it had been in antiquity. As early as 1513 an English charge d’affaires was appointed to look after the Levant Company which was engaged in trading cloth for wine. The Turks captured Chios from the Genoese in 1566. Under Ottoman dominion the island enjoyed commercial priveleges and some autonomy, in acknowledgement of the importance of its mastic trade which was now managed from Istanbul.
At the beginning of the War of Greek Independence in 1821 the Samians fatally pressed the undecided Chiots to join them in their revolt against Turkish dominion. In 1822 the Turks—alarmed by the prospect of losing their most valuable possession in the Aegean—inflicted a dreadful and disproportionate vengeance: it is said that they massacred over 20,000 islanders and deported or enslaved twice that number. (See Epilogue to this section, pp. 126–132.) Only the Mastic Villages were spared. The brutality of the reprisals caused dismay throughout Europe. Eugene Delacroix—then only 24 years old—immortalised the incident in his grand and tragic painting, Le Massacre de Scio, which was exhibited in the Grand Salon less than two years later.
Chios never fully recovered from the events of 1822. In June of the same year the Greek admiral Constantine Kanaris from Psara avenged his compatriots by destroying the Turkish flagship with its commander, Kara Ali, aboard. What was left of the city was again ravaged: but those Chiots who had managed to escape the April massacre had already fled abroad. The more fortunate of the refugees from the island later made a name for themselves as merchants in London, Liverpool, Manchester, Paris, Marseille, Trieste, Livorno, Palermo, Odessa, Alexandria, and even in India. Fewer than 60 years later, a powerful earthquake in 1881 killed more than 3,500 islanders, and again destroyed a large amount of the city and the island’s architectural heritage.
In 1912 the island was liberated by the Greek fleet. The rugged and hidden spaces of the island’s interior facilitated the endurance of a fierce resistance to German occupation during the Second World War. Chios has a millennial tradition of seamanship, and a number of Greece’s most successful and best known shipping families, which still dominate the international mercantile navy, originate from the island.
The massacre of Chios, 1822
Nicholas I of Russia was himself sick and fevered when he reputedly referred to the Ottoman Empire as the ‘sick man of Europe’. As the Persians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the French, the British, all know, the terminal loss of power, territory and influence for any great empire is a traumatic business. The greater the empire, the more profound the trauma; and the Ottoman Empire was among the greatest in history. Panic, remorse, and often violent over-reaction are the unpredictable, yet inevitable, accompaniments that wait on the long retreat of a declining power, as they do on a wounded animal. The terrible events of April 1822 in Chios, which should never be diminished in horror by explanation, need nonetheless to be seen in the widest context if they are adequately to be accounted for. Chios was dealt a difficult hand by events, and it became in 1822 one of the unfortunate ‘sacrificial victms’ of history. Greece was alight with the fever of insurrection at the time; much of Europe’s intellectual elite, fired by the antiquarian heroism embodied by Byron, and moved more generally by an ancient disdain and fear of Islam, supported its cause. The Greek insurrection was sometimes heroic, and sometimes violent and genocidal itself. The year before the massacre in Chios took place, some 15,000 Turkish men and women had been slaughtered in southern Greece in a fever of ethnic cleansing. ‘Not a Turk shall remain in the Morea,’ was a common slogan. Sir Charles Eliot, British diplomat and distinguished scholar of Buddhism, writing in his book Turkey in Europe published in London in 1900, made reference to such events ‘not’, he said, ‘from a desire to prove that Turks and Greeks are all much of a muchness, but [to show] that it is important to realize that the Turks really have cause to fear Christians.’ Earlier, in the introduction to the book, he had observed: ‘the ordinary Turk is an honest, good-humoured soul, kind to children and animals, and very patient; but when the fighting spirit comes on him, he ‘¦ slays, burns and ravages without mercy or discrimination’. Why did that fighting spirit come upon the Turks in Chios, which historically had had such close ties with Istanbul?
Precisely because of those close ties—commercial, political and even perhaps of mutual respect—Chios was slow to embrace outright the cause of the Greek Revolution. As one of the richest trading centres in the eastern Mediterranean, it was unsure whether it should hazard and give up a long tradition of accommodation and commercial cooperation with the Ottoman Empire which had brought the island substantial autonomy, in exchange for the unknown benefits of the administration of a new Greek State. The leaders of the island were merchants and scholars, not military revolutionaries. They hesitated—something which must have appeared to the firebrands of the movement like disaffection with the cause of Greek Independence. As a result, Samos , which was a relatively poor island at that time and had much less to lose, sent an expeditionary force under Lycourgos Logothetis in March 1822 to incite the Chiots to join the revolution, because their participation was considered vital to the cause. Logothetis landed at Karfas, but his mission soon lost its strategic objective and was diverted into what became a frustrated and uncontrolled plundering of the riches of a neighbouring island. When news of his arrival on Chios reached Istanbul, the possibility of losing Chios— the most valuable of the Ottoman possessions in the Aegean—first began to seem a reality.
The Istanbul to which the news came, was itself in a moment of weakness. Sultan Mahmud II, who had come to the throne as a child in 1808, was intent on wide-reaching reforms, first and foremost in the army where the spectre of mutiny haunted the historic corps of the Janissaries. The Janissaries were ultimately disbanded in 1826; but in 1822 they, and with them the defences of the Ottoman Empire, were clearly in disarray. In moments of weakness, great powers react unpredictably. Fearing that the loss of important Chios might provoke a wider ‘domino’ collapse, Mahmud ordered the execution of hostages which had been taken as a precautionary measure in both Chios and from its community in Istanbul. He dispatched his admiral, Kara Ali Pasha, with a fleet of ships and crack troops to the island where they arrived on 11 April. The orders were to retake Chios, and to kill men over the age of 12 and women over the age of 40. The city was first bombarded; then, with the landing of more troops from Smyrna, a systematic destruction of life and property began. About 2,000 people, predominantly women and children, who took refuge at Nea Moni, were killed or burnt alive when the monastery was torched by Turkish troops. With the implacable and merciless ‘fighting spirit’ intimated by Charles Eliot, the Turks pushed far into the island, destroying and capturing entire communities such as Avgonyma and Anavatos. After Constantine Kanaris’s destruction of the Turkish flagship together with its admiral, Kara Ali Pasha, on 18 June, another bout of Turkish reprisals began; but by then there was little left to destroy and little population on which to exact revenge. Estimates vary; but between 20–25,000 people were killed on Chios, and a further 40–45,000 young men, women and children, were captured and deported into slavery, confinement or destitution.
The scale of these reprisals sent shockwaves through the chanceries of Europe and into the world of those intellectuals and artists who, like Byron and Victor Hugo, had identified with the Greek cause. Eugene Delacroix—only 24 years old at the time of the events—immortalised them in his grand and tragic painting, Le Massacre de Scio, which was exhibited in the Grand Salon in Paris less than two years later. The painting is not a historical picture of what happened; the figures are arrayed across the foreground in a deliberate recollection of poses from ancient Greek reliefs, as if to underscore the terrible immanence and repetition of violence throughout the history of the ‘civilised world’.
How was Chios to continue after this? An island is like a person: individual and complete. It can thrive on its own, but it can also collapse on its own; it does not have the seamless contact with a greater whole which a mainland city or region has, and which can help it to absorb the blows of destiny. The loss of a large proportion of its population—amongst them nearly all of those who managed and directed its affairs and economy—and the destruction of dwellings and infrastructure in one blow, was enough to cause total collapse in a circumscribed community such as Chios was in the 19th century. Massacres have happened countless times before and since in history, and continue to happen today in different places; but in an island the effect of such a catastrophe is more acute precisely because of its physical isolation. In 1822 Chios was a prosperous, sophisticated and tightly-knit community that had been trading and shipping in Europe and Western Asia for centuries: after the mayhem of the massacres, its spirit was simply broken. The few who survived had fled and were to settle permanently elsewhere; the critical mass, that makes a community and its culture, and markets function, was no longer there. And what little could be salvaged was anyway destroyed 59 years later in the devastating earthquake of 1881. Chios was not like a mainland city, where the incessant flow and movement of people in and out could help it easily reconstitute after these disasters. A long chapter of the island’s history ended in 1822. It is a busy and prospering place today, of course; but that is because it is fundamentally a different place.
Chios Island is part of the Northern Aegean Island group
History of Chios
General information on Chios Island
Massacre of Chios