Greece – The Islands Of The Aegean Sea

ISLANDS and islets are scattered in seeming disorder over the AEgean Sea, the name of which may probably mean ” sea of goats,” because these islands appeared at` distance like goats. By a singular misapplication the modern term Archipelago, instead of sea, is now used to designate these groups of islands. The Sporades, in the north, form a long range of islands stretching in the direction of Mount Athos. The island of Scyros, farther south, the birthplace of Achilles and place of exile of King Theseus, occupies an isolated position ; the large island of Euboea extends along the coast of the continent ; and in the distance rise the white mountains of the Cyclades, likened by the ancient Greeks to a circle of Oceanides dancing around a deity.

All these islands are so many fragments of the mainland. This is proved by their geological structure, or by shoals which attach them to the nearest coast. The Northern Sporades are a branch of Mount Pelion. Euboea is traversed by limestone mountains of considerable height, running parallel to the chains of Attica, Argolis, Mount Olympus, and Mount Athos. Scyros is a rocky mountain mass, hose axis runs in the same direction as that of the central chain of Euboea. The summits of the Cyclades continue the ranges of Euboea and Attica towards the south-east, and the same micaceous and argillaceous schists, limestones, and crystalline marbles are found in them. They are, indeed, ” mountains of Greece scattered over the sea.” If Athens may boast of the quarries of Mount Pentelicus, the Cyclades produce the glittering marbles of Naxos, and the still more beautiful ones of Paros, from which were chiselled the statues of heroes and of gods. Curious caverns are met with in the limestone of the islands, especially that of Antiparos, the existence of which was not known to the ancients, and the Cave of Sillaka, on the island of Cythnos, or Thermia, celebrated for its hot springs. Granite is found on some of the islands, and particularly in the small island of Delos, dedicated to the worship of Apollo and Diana. In the south, finally, the Cyclades are traversed by a chain of volcanic islands, extending from the peninsula of Methana, in Argolis, to Cos and the shores of Asia Minor.

Euboea may be looked upon almost as a portion of the continent, for the strait which separates it from the mainland resembles a submerged longitudinal valley, and is nowhere of great depth or width. At its narrowest part it is no more than two hundred and fourteen feet across, and from the most remote times, Chalcis, the capital of the island, has been joined to the mainland by a bridge. The irregular tidal currents flowing through this strait were looked upon as marvellous by the Greeks, and Aristotle is said to have flung himself into it because he was unable to explain this phenomenon. The Italian name of the island, Negroponte, is formed by a series of corruptions from Euripus, by which name the ancients knew the strait between the island and the mainland. Euboea has at all times shared in the vicissitudes of the neighbouring provinces of Attica and Boetia. When the cities of Greece were at the height of their glory, those of Euboea—Chalcis, Eretria, and Cerinthus—enjoyed likewise a high degree of prosperity, and dispatched colonies to all parts of the Mediterranean. Later on, when invaders ravaged Attica, Euboea shared the same fate, and at present it participates in every political and social movement of the neighbouring continent.

In Northern Euboea there are forests of oaks, pines, elms, and plane-trees ; the villages are embedded in orchards; and the surrounding country resembles what we have seen in Elis and Arcadia. But in the Cyclades we look in vain for charming landscapes. Foliage and running water abound only in a very few spots. Arid rocks, more arid even than those on the coast of Greece, predominate, and only in a few favoured spots do we meet with a few olive-trees, valonia oaks, pines, and fig-trees. Everywhere else the hills are naked. And yet these islands arouse feelings of devotion in us, for their names are great in history. The highest summits of most of them have been named after the prophet Elias, the biblical successor of Apollo, the god of the sun ; and justly so, for the sun reigns supreme upon these austere rocks, and his scorching rays destroy every vestige of vegetation.

Antimilos, one of the uninhabited islands of this group, still affords an asylum to the wild goat (Capra Caueusiea), which has disappeared from the remainder of Europe, and is met with only in Crete, and perhaps Rhodes. Wild pigs likewise haunt the rocks of Antimilos. Rabbits were introduced from the West, and abound in the caverns of some of the Cyclades, and especially on Myconus and Delos.

The ancient authors never mention these animals. It is a curious fact that hares and rabbits never inhabit the same island, with the sole exception of Andros, where the hares occupy the extreme north, whilst the rabbits have their burrows in the southern portion of the island. As a curiosity, we may also mention that a large species of lizard, called crocodile by the inhabitants, is found on the islands, but not on the neighbouring continent, and we may conclude from this that the Cyclades were separated from the Balkan peninsula at a very remote period.

A chain of volcanic islands bounds the Cyclades towards the south, where they are separated from Crete by an ocean trough of great depth. Milos is the most important of these islands. It has an irregularly shaped crater, which has been invaded by the sea, and forms there one of the safest and most capacious harbours of refuge in the Mediterranean. Milos has had no eruption within historic times, but the existence of solfataras and of hot springs proves that its volcanic forces are not vet quite extinct.

The actual centre of volcanic activity has to be looked for in a small group of islands known as Santorin, and lying midway between Europe and Asia. These islands consist of marbles and schists, similar to those of the other Cyclades, and they surround a vast crater no less than twelve hundred and eighty feet in depth. The crescent-shaped island of Thera, on the east, presents bold cliffs towards the crater, while its gentle outer slopes are covered with vineyards producing exquisite wine. Therasia, on the west, rises like an immense wall ; and the islet of Aspronisi, between the two, indicates the existence of a submarine partition wall which separates the crater from the open sea. The submarine volcano occupies the centre of this basin. It remains quiescent for long periods, and then suddenly arousing itself, it ejects immense masses of scoriae. Nearly twenty-one centuries ago the first island rose to the surface in the centre of this basin. This island is known now as Palma Kammeni, or the ” old volcano.” Three years of eruptions in the sixteenth century gave birth to the smallest of the three islands, Mikra Kammeni. A third cone of lava, Nea Kammeni, rose in the eighteenth century ; and quite recently, between 1866 and 1870, this new island has more than doubled its size, overwhelming the small village of Volkario and its port, and extending to within a cry short distance of Mikra Kammeni. No less than half a million of partial eruptions occurred during those five years. and the ashes were sometimes thrown to a height of four thousand feet. Even from Crete clouds of ashes could be seen suspended in the air, black during the day, and lit up by night.

Thousands of spectators hastened to Santorin from all quarters of the world to witness these eruptions, and amongst them were several men of science—Fouqué, Gorceix, Reiss, Stübel, and Schmidt—whose observations have proved of great service. The crater of Santorin appears to have been produced by a violent explosion which shattered the centre of the ancient island, and covered its slopes with enormous masses of tufa.

Southern Euboca and the vicinity of Port Gavrion, on the island of Andros, are inhabited by Albanians, but the population in the remainder of the Archipelago is Greek. The families of Italian or French descent on Scyros, Syra, Naxos, and Santorin are not sufficiently numerous to constitute an element of importance. They claim to be of French descent, and are known in the Archipelago as Franks, and during the war of independence they claimed the protection of the French Government. In former times nearly the whole of the land was held by these Franks, who had taken possession of it during the Middle Ages, and these large estates are made to account for the sparse population of Naxos, which supported a hundred thousand inhabitants formerly, but is now hardly able to support one-seventh that number.

The Cyclades are farther removed from the eoast of Greece than Euboea, and they have not always shared in the historical dramas enacted upon the neighbouring continent. Their position in the centre of the Archipelago naturally caused them to be visited by all the nations navigating the Mediterranean, and their inhabitants were thus subjected to the most diverse influences. In ancient times the mariners of Asia Minor and of Phoenicia called at the Cyclades on their voyages to Greece ; during the Middle Ages the Byzantines. the Crusaders, the Venetians, the Genoese, the Knights of Rhodes, and the Osmanli were masters there in turn ; and in our own days the nations of Western Europe, with the Greeks themselves, hold the preponderance in the Archipelago.

These historical vicissitudes have caused the centre of gravity of the Cyclades to be shifted from island to island. In the time of the ancient Greeks, Delos, the island of Apollo, was looked, upon as the ” holy land,” where merchants congregated from all quarters, carried on business in the shadow of sanctuaries, and held slave markets at the bide of the temples. The sale of human flesh became in the end the main feature of the commerce of Delos, and in the time of the Roman emperors as many as ten thousand slaves were bartered away there in a single day. But the markets, the temples, and monuments of Delos have vanished, and its stony soil supports now only a few sheep. During the Middle Ages Naxos enjoyed the predominance; and at present, Tinos, with its venerated church of the Panagia and its thousands of pilgrims, is the “holy land” of the Archipelago; whilst Hermopolis, on Syra, though without trees or water, holds the position of commercial metropolis of the Cyclades. The latter was a town of no importance before the war of independence ; but it remained neutral during that struggle, and thus attracted numerous refugees from other islands, and, thanks to its central position, it has since become the principal mart, dockyard, and naval station of the AEgean Sea. Whether travellers proceed to Saloniki, Smyrna, Constantinople, or the Black Sea, they must stop at Hermopolis. The town formerly occupied the heights only, for fear of pirates, but it has descended now to the foot of the hill, and its quays and warehouses extend along the sea-shore.

Commerce has peopled the naked rocks of Syra, but it has not yet succeeded in developing the resources of the Archipelago as in ancient times. Euboea is no longer ” rich in cattle,” as its name implies, and only exports corn, wine, fruit, and the lignite extracted from the mines near Kumi. The gardens of Naxos yield oranges, lemons, and citrons ; Scopelos, Andros, and Tinos, the latter one of the best cultivated amongst the islands, export wines, which are excelled, however, by those of Santorin, the Calliste of the earliest Greeks. The volcanic and other islands of the Cyclades export millstones, china clay, lavas, and cimolite, this being used in bleaching. Naxos exports emery, and that is all. The marbles of Paros even remain untouched, and the excellent harbour of that island only rarely sees a vessel. The inhabitants of the Cyclades confine themselves to the cultivation of the soil, and to the breeding of a few silkworms, the surplus population of Tinos, Siphnos, and others emigrating annually to Constantinople, Smyrna, or Greece, to work as labourers, cooks, potters, masons, or sculptors. But whilst some of the islands can boast of a surplus population, there are others which are the abode of a few herdsmen only. Most of the islands between Naxos and Amorgos are hardly more than barren rocks. Antimilos, like Delos, is merely a pasture-ground sown over with rocks. Seriphos and Giura are still dreary solitudes, as in the time of the Roman emperors, when they were set aside as places of exile. Seriphos, however, possesses iron of excellent quality, and may, in consequence, again become of some importance. On Antiparos there are lead mines.