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The large sheltered bay of Psara on the southwest corner of the island is formed of two wide sweeps, protected to the south by the steep and looming rock of Mavri Rachi or ‘Palaiokastro’, formerly the acropolis of Ancient Psyra in historic times: traces of a Hellenistic settlement (3rd to 1st centuries bc) have been uncovered by archaeologists on the north slope, with the cemetery occupying the lowest reaches. Today the summit of the ridge is gained by means of a stepped, stone path which leads up to the church of Aghia Anna and Aghios Ioannis, standing on a terrace at the top. The tumbled remains of walls can be seen here, running south along the ridge; but they are too ruined and subject to subsequent modification to bear any recognisable ancient character. Some of the blocks in the north corner of the west front of Aghia Anna, however, may be antique; above, the façade is decorated with immured tiles and ceramic dishes. A simple monument to the south of the church records the hopeless resistance here of the locals against the punitive Turkish invasion of 1824 (see ‘History’ above). There are fine views towards Chios to the east; and to Andros and Euboea, visible on the horizon to the southwest and west respectively, when conditions are clear. Immediately west, in the foreground, is the pleasing form of the island of Antipsara—uninhabited by humans and for that reason a favoured nesting site for the shearwaters and shags which frequent the open waters to the west.
The town spreads across the isthmus which joins Mavri Rachi to the island and over the low saddle behind the port, rising to a ridge crowned by the conspicuously tall, white structure of the mid 19th century church of Aghios Nikolaos, built on the site of an 18th century predecessor which was destroyed in the Turkish invasion. The fine flight of marble stairs which lead up to it from the town, belonged to the earlier building. Ceramic fragments and dishes are immured high up on its east wall. The church has an unusually tall and luminous interior: there are views to Antipsara and into the sunset from the esplanade in front.
Of greater interest is the small church hidden in a garden under a scarp below the eastern terrace of Aghios Nikolaos. The church, which dates from 1710, has two dedications—to the Taxiarchis and to Aghios Spyridon— and two aisles separated by columns. The roof is attractively tiled with large schist slabs in the manner of churches in the Sporades. This building was already over 80 years old when Constantine Kanaris, the island’s preeminent hero, was born in a house a short distance to its northeast. The birthplace is marked by a small memorial garden, with a statue bust of the great admiral; the house itself was destroyed in 1824. The town is scattered with several similar memorials to other contemporary naval heroes born on Psara: Dimitris Papanikolaos (south harbour mole); Kanaris again (main square); Nikolis Apostolis (northeast battery). Papanikolaos was the first naval captain to employ (Eresos, 27 May 1821) a ‘fire-ship’ to destroy an enemy vessel—a technique that was to prove immensely effective in the struggle against the Ottoman navy in the subsequent months.
Constantine Kanaris was born into a prominent family on the island in 1793 or 1795. He was a deft and courageous captain. His career began with his most symbolic achievement, when, during the night of June 6/7th 1822 as the Turkish command was celebrating the destruction of Chios on board their flagship anchored off shore, he approached unnoticed with a fire-tender and exploded it, killing the Turkish admiral, Kara Ali PaΕa, his officers and all the men on board. Kanaris went on to score important naval victories at Trikeri (1823), Samos and Tenedos (1824), and at Alexandria (1825). He later served six separate terms as Prime Minister of Greece between 1844 and 1877, both before and after the bloodless revolution which deposed King Otho of Greece in 1862, in which he played an important role. He died, a national hero in 1877.
The centre of the town circles around a low rise dominated by the domed church of the Metamorphosis (the Transfiguration) dating from 1865—similarly tall and luminous in design to Aghios Nikolaos, and with an attractively carved marble frame to the south door. A walk through the neighbouring streets, which connect a myriad of tiny squares, reveals an interesting variety of architecture, even though one in three buildings is a ruin. Of the buildings which remain from before the Turkish destruction, the most interesting examples are on the rise of the northeast battery which separates the two bays of the port. Here, two buildings dating from the first two decades of the 19th century, are in a Levantine style of architecture typical of Chios—flat-roofed, built of two colours of stone and with small-framed windows in white marble. On the chamfered corner of one is an Ottoman decorative plaque in marble with pomegranate-design. Further to the north is a new rectangular building, recreated successfully in the same style and a similar variety of colours of stone: this is destined to become the Nautical Museum of Psara, but currently has no exhibits. In its forecourt (west side) lies an ancient marble slab, curiously carved with two partly legible, parallel inscriptions of different epochs mentioning a dedication made to Apollo (right), and referring to a comic actor from Smyrna (left). Just beyond, at the eastern edge of the settlement, is the town’s oldest church—Aghia Paraskevi—dating from the late 17th century and now surrounded by the island’s cemetery.
From the main town two excursions can be made by starting from the road which heads east from the church of Aghia Paraskevi. The first, by continuing east, leads to the remote bay and lighthouse of Aghios Giorgios (1hr by foot), or by a southern branch track to the beach at Limnos Bay (25 mins). Potsherds of the Roman period have been found all along this first stretch of the coast to the east. The bay is backed by one of only two small alluvial areas on the island that lend themselves to any kind of cultivation: elsewhere the island is of a barren and waterless, dark rock, alleviated by occasional, curious veins or excrescences of gleaming white gypsum.
By taking the north branch 500m beyond Aghia Paraskevi, you climb over a ridge and after passing a wind farm drop down into the bay of Lakka. At the northern end of the bay, in the lee of the headland, was found the Mycenaean cemetery of Archontiki (50 mins), first excavated in 1962. It is from here that the remarkably rich finds exhibited on the upper floor in the Archaeological Museum of Chios were rescued. The curving sweep of the bay, the off-shore islets, the protecting headland to north, and the small area of what must once have been cultivable land, explain the reasons for settlement here, combined with the fact that this bay represents one of the first landfalls for boats making the hazardous crossing from west to east across the open waters of the central Aegean on the early trade routes to Asia Minor and the Black Sea.
More than 50 Mycenaean graves (14th–12th centuries bc), cut relatively deeply and built with split slabs of stone, have now been investigated. They are visible from the shore-side perimeter fence at the northern end of the area. Many of the graves were rescued from erosion by the sea. The funerary offerings found in the graves give a vivid sense of the importance and wealth of the Bronze Age settlement here, suggesting that this was a vibrant trading emporion. The finds include a wide variety of decorated ceramic objects (of both male and female appurtenance), bronze swords and daggers, seal-stones, and several kinds of metal and glass-paste jewellery of fine workmanship and attractively delicate colour. As excavations progress the same richness of objects continues to be found. The settlement itself, which reveals commensurately spacious houses with storage areas and pithoi still in situ, has so far been only partially explored. The Archontiki area continued to be inhabited into early historic times, during which there is evidence from ceramic offering-cups of the cult of an (as yet) unidentified hero.
Regaining the main road and continuing north, you come to a small, white memorial stone by a junction leading down to the attractive bay of Ftelio. This marks the spot where, on 21 June 1824, a large number of the local population perished—either by communal suicide or by accident—when the island’s powder magazine to which they had taken refuge was exploded. The valley of Ftelio has surface water and there are welcome beds of reeds and a few trees behind the long and pleasant sandy beach.
From Ftelio the road climbs continuously for a further hour across the northern side of the island as far as the monastery. At the crown of the first ridge a tiny settlement is seen below, marked by three relatively recent churches whose type of construction is peculiarly characteristic of the island. The central dome is low and broad, and its curve soon inverts and turns convex in a low sweep to the shoulders, giving the buildings more the profile of an Ottoman mosque. This design is repeated in other rural churches on the island. As the road begins to climb more steeply, you pass to the left the abandoned settlement of Xerokambos where older stone houses and evidence of terracing lie in ruins. Finds from a Roman installation and a late Roman cemetery have been made here.
The road climbs further and terminates just as the north coast of Chios comes into view at the monastery of the Koimisis tis Theotokou (Dormition of the Virgin), a fine and compact ensemble of buildings in a magnificent position on the shoulder of Mount Prophitis Elias. The founding of the monastery is thought to date from the 15th or 16th century, although exact historical documentation is lacking. Most of the fabric was rebuilt after the Turkish destruction of 1824, but the form remains faithful to the pre-existing design. The spacious catholicon, preceded by a domed narthex, has an octagonal drum and cupola supported on three conches: there are no wall-paintings in the interior. The monastery celebrates on 1 August, when the islanders process hither with a sacred icon of the Virgin. It was left uninhabited in 1983; since when the buildings have been sensitively restored and conserved. (The key is kept by the island’s pappas, who can normally be found around the promenade area of the harbour in the evening.)
Psara Island is part of the Northern Aegean Island Group, Greece.