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The contrasting geography of Kea—part watered and Northern Cycladic, part parched and Southern Cycladic—is encapsulated in the island’s mythology. Once called ‘Hydrousa’ on account of its richness of water, the island became dry and infertile after the Nymphs who inhabited it were forced to leave by the rampages of a wild lion; the inhabitants sought the aid of Aristaeus, son of Apollo and Cyrene, who came to the island with a band of fellow Phthians, built an altar of invocation to Zeus Ikmaios, the ‘Bringer of Rain’, and another to Seirios to placate the divinity of the dog-star (Sirius) whose rising before dawn was believed by the ancients to bring on the scorching heat of mid-summer. The cool Aetesian winds blew for 40 days as a result, restoring the moisture, springs and fertility of the island. The story is told by Apollonius of Rhodes (Argonautica II, 498 ff.). Hellenistic coins from Keos often bear the images of Aristaeus and Seirios.
An important but short-lived Late Neolithic settlement existed at Kephala on the island’s north coast in the second half of the 4th millennium bc. Later the prehistoric centre of the island was at Aghia Irini, where a settlement of considerable size and sophistication evolved, receiving latterly strong influence from Crete which probably reflected Minoan interest in the copper and silver of Lavrion on the Attic coast opposite. A unique series of large terracotta female figures of distantly Minoan style, from the 15th century bc, were found in a temple-structure at the site. The island received Ionian settlers during the population movements of the 10th century bc, and by the 7th century bc the four cities of the Kean Tetrapolis, Koresia, Ioulis, Poiei«ssa, and Karthaia, had been founded; their relations were mostly co-operative, tending later to a federal nature. The wealth of Keos in the 6th and 5th centuries bc is expressed in its extensive building programmes and its dedication of a hestiatorion (a ritual dining chamber) at the sanctuary of Apollo on Delos . The presence of four clearly defined territories within the one island encouraged the prospering of an agriculturally developed and inhabited interior. Kean athletes distinguished themselves at the pan-hellenic games, and the island had a flourishing cultural life: the poets Simon ides (?556–?470) and Bacchylides (c. 550–431), Prodicus (a contemporary and friend of Socrates), the physician Erasistratos (c. 315–c. 240), and the 3rd century bc peripatetic philosopher, Ariston. The Keans seem to have become a by word for sobriety and modesty by the 5th century bc, to the extent that Aristophanes was able to contrast them with the ‘loose’ Chians (Frogs, 970). The island contributed four ships to the Greek victory at Salamis. Keos appears as pay a tribute of four talents in the Athenian Tribute Lists; the island’s attempted secession from the Second Athenian League in c. 363 bc was suppressed by Athens which had an interest in controlling the island’s production of miltos, or ruddle—a red pigment widely used in the Greek world. In the 3rd century bc, a base for naval operations was created at Koresia under Ptolemy II and the city was renamed ‘Arsinoe’. After the Battle of Philippi in 42 bc, Keos was gifted by the Athenians to Mark Antony. The main cities on the island remained Ioulis and Karthaia, which annexed the small cities of Koresia/Arsinoe and Poieessa respectively. Ioulis became the capital under Byzantine rule and has remained so since.
In 1206, Michael Akominatos, bishop of Athens, sought refuge on Kea in the aftermath of the Latin occupation of his city following the Fourth Crusade in 1204: his interest—and often moving—letters refer to conditions on the island at that time. Kea’s history under Venetian domination in this period is complicated and unclear: it appears to have been divided between Pietro Giustiniani and Domenico Michiel (or Michieli), with the Ghisi (who were lords of Tinos and Mykonos) and Pisani families holding fiefs also on the island, either from the outset or later on. Kea briefly returned to Byzantine rule in 1278, but was won back by the Ghisi 18 years later. During the campaigns of Khaireddin Barbarossa in the Aegean in 1537–39, Kea was given temporarily to Duke Giovanni IV Crispo by the Sultan as a sop in recompense for having surrendered in Naxos ; but from 1566 it was effectively under Turkish control. The strategic importance and protection afforded by the island’s natural harbour of Aghios Nikolaos did not go unnoticed—either by pirates in the 17th and 18th centuries, or by the Russians during the Russo-Turkish War of 1787–92, or later by a variety of European commercial powers who established semi-official representations on the island. During the Russo-Turkish War a Greek commander in the Russian Navy, Lambros Katsonis, operated a Greco-Russian flotilla of ships to harass the Ottoman Navy from a base in the harbour. Again because of the importance of its port, Kea received refugees in large numbers from Chios after the massacre of 1822; their arrival coincided with the outbreak of an epidemic: many left again to settle on Syros. Although in effect independent from the beginning of the uprising, Kea became officially part of the new kingdom of Greece in 1835.
Kea Island is part of the Cyclades Island Group, Greece.