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In 2004, an 80-foot mid-4th century bc cargo-vessel, carrying around 400 amphorae of wine, was found underwater, wrecked in the channel between Chios and Oinousses; and in the same year a Roman shipwreck with similar cargo was identified off the west of Chios. These are neither the first nor the last of many such submarine finds: each new season, it seems, brings more evidence of the formidable quantity of wine traded through these waters in Antiquity. The name Oinousses, or Ancient Oinousa, means ‘rich in wine’. That richness could have been in the production, but was more probably in the trading, of wine. The nine or ten islands that comprise the archipelago of Oinousses are not naturally rich in any produce; their economic potential lies solely in their strategic position as stepping-stones between Asia and Chios—proximity to the rich markets of Chios, Ephesus and Smyrna (Izmir), and a well-protected harbour. Without boats, and wine to trade, the islands would have been nothing. It is a parable of the indomitable Hellenic spirit—the Greek ‘emporiko pnevma’ or ‘commercial enterprise’—that these islands, which are about as productive as Coll or Tiree in the Hebrides, should have given rise to several of the wealthiest families in Europe, principally ship-brokers, who have dominated the international world of commercial navigation. Greek families still control, between them, the largest merchant navy in the world, and perhaps as many as a third of those families hail from these obscure islands in the channel between Turkey and Greece. Since earliest times boats have signified freedom and enterprise for the Greeks. Greek civilisation is predicated on them. And on the exchange of goods and ideas which they promote. On Oinousses the choices for survival were simple: either boats or goat-herding.
The visitor who comes expecting a sophisticated and well provided-for island in consequence of this immense wealth will be disappointed. There are statues of shipping grandees; some smart villas; a beautifully appointed Nautical Museum; a modern football stadium (somewhat out of proportion to its setting and the island’s size); and a state-of-the-art nunnery which does not encourage visitors. But, as ways of repatriating wealth from the prestigious families to the community, the projects visible on Oinousses are all slightly self-serving: some respectable street paving, a cafe or two, and a shop might have helped more to re-animate the declining community, and would have cost far less. The contrast with Andros and Syros (whose wealth also derives from important ship ping families) is marked, in this respect. Oinousses still feels like a forgotten frontier. Its peacefulness, the wide views into Turkey and to Chios afforded by walks over its hills, and the dense and unusually varied vegetation of its garrigue, are its greatest attractions.