A water-colour by Nikolaos Koutsodontis in the Benaki Museum in Athens, entitled The Burning of Psara in June 1824, shows the whole island encircled by the innumerable ships of a swarming Ottoman Navy, while Turkish soldiers who have landed set fires alight across its length and breadth. Although somewhat artless as a painting, it is a chilling reminder of the magnitude of the Ottoman show of force on that occasion. Exactly two years after the Massacre at Chios, it fell to this small island to suffer once again the brunt of Turkish reprisals for its pugnacious naval resistance to colonial rule during the Greek War of Independence. On this occasion virtually nothing was spared. The island—formerly prosperous and outward-looking—was laid waste, and has never properly recovered.
The poverty of its land, with not even vines enough to make the customary libations to Dionysos, was noted in Antiquity. It is little wonder that the islanders turned to the sea therefore and became talented mariners—famous for their skill at combating pirates—and operating a substantial commercial navy in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Those who escaped the reprisals of 1824 settled in Syros, in an area of the city known to this day as ‘Psariana’: they went on once again to become a vital element in the lucrative shipping industry of the island, continuing their age-old tradition as expert seamen.
The names—‘Psara’, meaning ‘the greys’ or ‘grizzled things’; ‘Mavri Rachi’ (‘black ridge’) for the acropolis-like rock that dominates the port—are eloquent of the island’s character. Arrival at Psara is always sombre: the island has a beautiful and sculpted profile, but its rock is as barren and dark as its story is tragic. Today, fewer than 500 souls inhabit what remains of the once elegant main town. This is an island where visitors are not that often seen, nor is being a visitor here particularly easy. Accommodation is limited and no public transportation exists on the island. It has two interesting, historic sites: the important Mycenaean settlement at Archontiki and the fine monastery of the Dormition, at the northern extremity of the island. But both are hard to get access to: a perimeter fence at Archontiki, constructed with European Union funds, now excludes the visitor and there is no official news of the site being open. The monastery is uninhabited and kept locked: its interior can only be visited together with the island’s elderly priest and with some arranged means to transport him there.
Together with Aghios Efstratios, Psara remains among the remotest of Aegean destinations, and much of its appeal lies in the peace and tranquillity that fact affords. The island is open and spacious like the remotest Hebrides, and its strands—though grey and shadeless—are tranquil. Psara is a place of retreat for quiet contemplation of the strange vicissitudes of history.
Psara Island is part of the Northern Aegean Island Group, Greece.