Because of its strategic position at the edge of open waters on the trade routes leading from the south west Aegean towards the Black Sea and Asia Minor coasts, Psara had a flourishing Mycenaean settlement in the 14th and 13th centuries bc. The site, which lies along the island’s western shore at Lakka, has yielded almost 50 cist graves with a wealth of grave-gifts, both of metal and pottery.
The first written reference to the island is in Book III of the Odyssey, where its name is given by Nestor as ‘Psyria’. Strabo mentions its good harbour, and Demosthenes refers to the island in connection with the strong winds that hinder navigation in its waters—a fact no less true today. Excavations have revealed Hellenistic settlement close by the site of the present town at Mavri Rachi, and a Roman presence both at Xerokambos in the north of the island and in the Limnos Bay area on the south coast.
In the First Russo-Turkish war of 1768–74 Psariot ships harried the Turkish fleet but escaped reprisals because the Ottoman commander was prevented from landing by bad weather. The island’s fleet subsequently achieved protection and prosperity by sailing under the Russian flag after the termination of hostilities with the Treaty of Kuçuk Kaynarca (1774) between Catherine the Great and Sultan Abdul Hamid I. Psara was the birthplace of Ioannis Varvakis (1745–1825), Nikolis Apostolis (1770–1827), Constantine Kanaris (?1793–1877), and many other noted sailors. At the beginning of the war of Greek Independence in 1821 the island was among the first to revolt, proceeding to cause the Turkish fleet particular annoyance. Under the command of Nikolis Apostolis, Psara formed, together with Hydra and Spetses, the ‘Three Island Fleet’ which was to play such an important role in the uprising. Refugees began to arrive from Chios, Lesbos and Smyrna, swelling the population to perhaps as much as 20,000. In 1823 the Psariot fleet raided the coast of Asia Minor: in revenge, the Turks under their Egyptian commander, Hosref Pasha, attacked the island from Mytilene in May 1824, surrounding it with a force of 140 ships and finally storming it in June with 14,000 Janissaries. The islanders blew up their own powder magazines at Ftelio and at Mavri Rachi, and only 3,000 souls escaped the subsequent massacre. Ruined houses, a couple of simple white memorials, and a famous six-line epigram by Dionysios Solomos bear witness to the event. The few survivors fled to Syros and to Monemvasia, and later founded ‘Nea Psara’ (at Eretria) on Euboea. In spite of special electoral privileges given to the island in 1844 and Franco-Greek social and cultural projects initiated in the 1980s, the island has never truly recovered momentum.
Psara Island is part of the Northern Aegean Island Group, Greece.