Gyaros and Makronisos

Gyaros and Makronisos, two substantial uninhabited islands of the Upper Cyclades, are bound by a common history as places of exile. Neither island has water or tree cover today, and would only have had a very meagre-sup ply of fresh water, if any, in Antiquity. For this reason, in spite of size and strategic position, neither island has sup ported a viable settlement in recent times. Their history is not unimportant, however: they remain as monuments to the dark period of political oppression during the dictatorships and the Greek Civil War of the last century.
   Makronisos, lying parallel to the southeastern At tic coast at a distance of 4–5km, in the channel between Lavrion and Kea, is aptly named ‘Makros Nisos’, ‘long is land’: it is low, rocky and tree-less, extending 12.5km in length against only 1,000–1,500m in width. It was called Helena in Antiquity because of the tradition that Paris and Helen stopped on the island on their journey from Sparta to Troy. The island has no good harbours and must always have had little fresh water; notwithstanding, settlers came in small numbers in the mid 3rd millennium bc, leaving evidence of their dwellings and burials on the northwest coast, at the locality referred to as Leontari. In historic times the island’s use is linked closely with the Attic coast because it possessed argentiferous metal ores, albeit in much smaller quantities than at Lavrion and Thorikos on the mainland opposite. In the mid 19th century, quantities of scoriae from ancient metal-working were observed on Makronisos, until they were removed later for re-smelting with more refined modern technology.
   In 1946 at the outbreak of civil war in Greece, Makronisos became the principal prison camp for the detention of ‘enemies of the State’, which covered left-wing sympathisers or activists, and a variety of hapless ethnic or religious minorities. Many of the political prisoners had been resistance fighters against German occupation in the Second World War; they now found themselves the first victims of the Cold War—abused prisoners of their fellow countryman. The policies of the government had the tacit approval of the Americans and British who were opposed to any participation by Communists in government in Greece. The camp on Makronisos was a ‘re-education centre’, the aim of which was to constrain the prisoners to sign a formal declaration of repentance and a statement of loyalty to the Crown, the Government and the Orthodox Church. If they signed they were usually sent to fight against their ex-comrades; refusal to sign condemned them to a litany of physical abuses, tortures, deprivations and injuries which are the familiar methods of such institutions, and are painful to relate. Many died in the process or were shot pour encourager les autres. The island was known as the ‘New Parthenon’: indoctrination was to lead to a consciousness in the inmates of their heredity as descendants of a ‘glorious, ancient past’, with which their left-wing ideologies were ‘incompatible’. To this end, inmates were made to build model replicas of classical monuments.
   One of the best known inmates was Mikis Theodorakis, Greece’s most famous living musician and composer, and an un-relenting fighter for political freedom. Theodorakis, already chronically injured from police brutality and having witnessed the execution of a friend, was imprisoned in 1949 on Makronisos. Some of his first symphony was composed during this imprisonment. The story of his time on the island and in other camps in Greece is grim and instructive reading; but it gives a clear sense of what the Greek nation has been through in the period after the World Wars, at a time when others were celebrat new-won peace.
   The camp was finally closed in 1953, but then reopened again during the period of the Military Junta from 1967–74. The ruins of the camp, and of the church of Aghios Antonios which was built by the prisoners for the first commandant, Antonios Vasilopoulos, are now pre served monuments. The island was host to a commemorative concert in which Theodorakis participated in Au gust 2003 in an improvised open-air theatre. It was the first occasion on which the composer had returned to the island since his detention there.
   On the sea-bed between Makronisos and Kea lies the wreck of the Britannic which sank in less than an hour after apparently hitting a mine in November 1916. Larger than her sister-ship the Titanic—she had been refitted as a hospital ship for the Gallipoli campaign and was on her way to Lemnos for active relief-service.


On 26 February 1914 the sister-ship of the Titanic was launched in Belfast. The Britannic was 48,158 tons to the Titanic’s 46,328 tons. In the light of the fate of her sister-ship in April 1912 a number of modifications had been made to the design to make her safer. She came into being in inauspicious times, and her first journey was to be not as a luxury liner but as a hospital ship, when she was requisitioned in April 1915 to assist with relieving the mounting casualties from the Gallipoli campaign. In the autumn of 1916 she ran several missions between the Eastern Mediterranean and Southampton. Her sixth journey was to take her back once again to the Naval Base at Moudros Bay on Lemnos. She was under full steam in the channel between Makronisos and Kea in fair weather on the morning of 21 November when an explosion occurred which breached a hole in the starboard forepart of the ship, fatally damaged one of the watertight bulkheads. Even by seal the remaining water-tight doors (one of which malfunctioned) the ship was flooding at an alarming speed and, as it began to list, open port-holes at the lowest level aggravated the situation. Within 55 minutes of the explosion the ship had sunk beneath water. There were 30 fatalities, but over 1,000 survivors were picked up by rescuers from Kea and Lavrion. It is still not clear whether the ship hit a mine or was torpedoed by an enemy submarine. In 1975 the veteran submarine explorer, Jacques Cousteau, located and examined the wreck, but could find no conclusive evidence. The ship now lies in 120m of water a few miles northwest of Aghios Nikolaos bay on Kea. She is the largest sunken liner on the world’s seabed.

Makronisos Island is part of the Cyclades Island Group, Greece.

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