06 November 2011

A glimpse of Paradise on the most isolated and remote island in Greece

Kastellórizo lies only a few minutes south of the Turkish coast (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

In Paradise I have marked out an island
akin to you and a house by the sea.

– Odysseus Elytis, The Monogram

Is everything in Greece up for sale? At the height of the tourist season this summer, the Greek Culture and Tourism Minister, Pavlos Garoulas, insisted in Istanbul: “No Greek islands are for sale, unless they are already private property.”

There are over 6,000 Greek islands, but only 227 are inhabited, and only 78 of those have more than 100 residents year-round. The largest and one of the most-visited is Crete, while one of the smallest and one of the most remote is Kastellórizo. This year, I visited Kastellórizo for the first time, but only after two or three failed efforts to travel from Turkey to the Dodecanese islands.

The Dodecanese literally means “twelve islands.” But this is a group of 12 larger Aegean islands, including Rhodes, and another 150 islands, of which only 26 are inhabited. Kastellórizo is known officially in Greece as Megísti and in neighbouring Turkey as Meis. It is the smallest inhabited Dodecanese island and the most remote Greek island.

Unlike the other Dodecanese islands, however, Kastellórizo is not in the Aegean – it is not even close to the rest of Greece. It is the most easterly and the most isolated part of Greece, a rocky outpost in the south-east Mediterranean, 570 km south-east of Athens, but only a mile or two off the south coast of Turkey. The nearest Turkish town, Kaş, is a mere 20 or 30 minutes away in a small caique, while the nearest Greek island, Rhodes, is 130 km to the west and three or four hours away by ferry.

A plucky piece of bravado

The former castle of the Knights of Rhodes dominates the approach to the harbour of Kastellórizo (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The official name Megísti means “biggest” or “greatest.” But this name is more a plucky piece of bravado than a statement of fact, for this tiny island is only 6 km long and 3 km wide. The population is now 430, and most people live in the town of Megísti, with handfuls on two tiny offshore islets, Rho (15) and Strongilí (9). Many islanders have emigrated to Australia, especially Perth and Sydney, where they are known as “Kazzies.”

The name Kastellórizo or Kastellórizon, dates only from Byzantine times, and has never been properly explained. Kastello is derived from the Latin castello (castle). But does the second part of the name refer to the reddish colour of the rocks, the colour of the castle at sunset, or the red on the coat-of-arms of the Knights of Rhodes? Does it refer to the neighbouring islet of Rho, or the tree roots on the foothill below the castle? Who knows?

The island is mountainous, with a high, steep coastline and many sea caves, including the Blue Grotto, which is larger than its namesake in Capri. The limestone soil yields only small crops of olives, grapes and beans, and there are no natural sources of drinking water.

Knights, Dorians and Lycians

The Faros Bar, once the Italian governor’s office, and the former mosque, now a museum, are the first buildings on the harbour front to greet new arrivals (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Arriving from Kaş, the first sight is the ruined 14th century Castle of the Knights of Rhodes. Under the Byzantine Empire, Kastellórizo was part of the “Eparchy of the Islands,” with its capital in Rhodes. The Knights of Rhodes and their Grand Master, Foulques de Villaret, captured the island in 1309, and established a safe harbour for pilgrims and crusaders on the route from Rhodes to Cyprus and the Holy Land. The castle was built almost three generations later by Grand Master Juan Fernandez de Heredia in 1379-1383.

All that remains of the castle is the curtain wall, part of a square tower and the remains of two cylindrical towers. A Doric inscription from the 4th century BC is evidence of an earlier fortress in antiquity and refers to Megiste, the ancient name of Kastellórizo, and its dependence on Rhodes. During the Hellenistic period, the island was ruled from Rhodes.

In 1440, the island was captured by an Egyptian fleet and the castle was wrecked and the islanders were sold into slavery. Then, in quick succession, the island passed to Aragon, Catalans, Naples, Spain and Venice. The castle was rebuilt, but fear of the Turks saw the islanders abandon their homes in successive waves. Finally, Kastellórizo fell in 1635 to the Ottoman Turks, who held it for almost 300 years apart from a brief period in 1659, when it was recaptured by Venice.

Bright Mediterranean colours on doors lining the harbour (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

As the boat comes closer to the harbour, the view is dominated by the knights’ castle and the dome of the island’s former mosque, a poignant reminder of the Ottoman occupation of the island that lasted until 1913.

The mosque, built in 1753 by Osman Agha, has been restored and is now a museum. Nearby, on the harbour front, the Faros Bar is the surviving single storey of the former office of the island’s Italian governors, built in 1926 by Florestano Di Fausto, the Italian architect who also designed some of the most important buildings of the Italian period in Rhodes.

Ottoman balconies

The harbour water is clear with plenty of marine life, including turtles (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

After docking at the horseshoe-shaped harbour, it is a short walk past Italian colonial market, the Néa Agorá, along the quay to the central square at the heart of the waterfront. The water is crystal clear, rich with fish and turtles. The houses here and in the side streets and alleyways are tall and slender, with Ottoman wooden balconies and Anatolian-style windows.

Along the east side of the harbour are the Megisti Hotel, built in 1970 to attract tourists, and the Blue House made popular by the movie Mediterraneo (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The best-know of the harbour-front houses is the so-called “blue house” or Mediterraneo House, famous for its role in the 1991 Academy Award winning Italian movie, Mediterraneo. The movie, directed by Gabriele Salvatores, tells the story of Italian soldiers hiding from World War II on a remote Greek island, and over the past 20 years it has boosted the island’s popularity with tourists looking for an isolated place in the Dodecanese. But in the back streets and alleys, many of the houses are abandoned and in ruins.

The Church of Saint George of the Well, with its high Byzantine-style dome, stands on Australia Square (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The most visible church in the town, the Church of Saint George of the Well (1906), with its high Byzantine-style dome, stands on Australia Square, a small square recalling the island’s emigrants. Hidden in a side street is Saint Merkourios, an example of late 18th century architecture restored to its former glory three years ago.

The Cathedral of Saint Constantine and Saint Helena dominates the skyline above the town (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The Cathedral of Saint Constantine and Saint Helena (1835) has three naves divided by 12 giant granite columns taken from the Temple of Apollo Lykios in the classical city of Patara on mainland Anatolia. Tradition says that the Emperor Constantine and his mother, Saint Helena, on their way to find the True Cross, were delayed here by bad weather and laid the foundations of this church. Most of the island’s baptisms, weddings and funerals take place here.

The island is dotted with dozens of churches (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Above the harbour and the town, two monasteries look down benignly on Kastellórizo, the Prophet Elías and the Holy Trinity, the former now an army base. Smaller churches dot and decorate the hillside, including the twin churches of Saint Nicholas and Saint Dimirtios, Panaghía, Saint Spyridon, the imposing Saint George of the Fields, half a dozen other churches named after Saint George, and Saint Paraskeví and Saint Savvas at the small bay of Mandráki, the island’s second harbour. They are testimony to the piety and generosity of exiles and their descendants.

Ottoman balconies and Anatolian windows ... a reminder of centuries of Turkish rule (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The Ottoman occupation was interrupted briefly in 1659, during the war for Crete, when the island was captured by Venice. In the 18th century, Kastellórizo was a stopping point between Constantinople or Rhodes and Beirut for those on the Grand Tour. Richard Pococke (1705-1765) reported in 1739 that the island was a lair of Maltese pirates, drawn by the good waters. He described the castle and said the island was rich in vines. Richard Pockocke was then Vicar-General of Lismore, and he went on to become Precentor of Waterford (1745), Archdeacon of Dublin (1746), Bishop of Ossory (1756) and Bishop of Meath (1765).

Struggles in war and peace

Bright and inviting ... but does anyone live inside? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Although many islanders joined the Greek War of Independence (1821-1830), the island’s only Turkish inhabitants were the aga or governor, the tax collector and the policeman. The population and the economy reached a height at the end of the 19th century when 10,000-14,000 people lived here. Kastellórizo was the only safe harbour between Makri (Fethiye) and Beirut, and its 165 sailing ships and schooners plied between Anatolia and Alexandria, Rhodes and Cyprus, making fortunes through trading in timber, sponges and charcoal.

In 1912, during the Libyan war between Italy and the Ottoman Empire, the islanders asked General Ameglio, head of the Italian forces in Rhodes, to annex Kastellórizo. The request was refused, and in 1913 the islanders proclaimed a provisional government and imprisoned the Turkish governor and his Ottoman garrison, but their request to be incorporated in the modern Greek state was short-lived.

In 1915, a French naval force occupied the island and Kastellórizo became the only Dodecanese island to come under French rule as the French blocked another attempted landing by Greek soldiers. France went on to use Kastellórizo as a staging post for its Middle East colonies in Syria and Lebanon.

Many of the older houses are abandoned and exposed to the weather (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Six years of French rule ended in 1921 when the island was assigned to Italy under the Treaty of Sevres, and Kastellórizo – under the Italian name Castelrosso – was integrated into the Italian province of the Aegean Islands. But the decline in the island’s economy and population was hastened by the sale of much of the fleet to the British for the Dardanelles campaign, the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the forced deportation of Greeks from Anatolia in 1923. Thousands of islanders moved to Rhodes and Athens or emigrated to Australia, Egypt and the US. By the late 1920s, the population had fallen to 3,000, leaving many of the houses empty or in ruins.

In 1932, a convention between Italy and Turkey delineating the sea border gave all the islets of the small archipelago around Kastellórizo – except Rho and Strongili – to Turkey.

The Néa Agorá or New Market was designed in Italian colonial style (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

During World War II, British and Greek commandoes landed briefly. When Italy started to fall in 1943, the island was taken by an allied fleet, including a Greek destroyer. Disaster struck in 1944, when the island’s fuel dump caught fire. The fire spread to a nearby ammunition dump, half the island’s 2,000 houses were destroyed, and the islanders continue blame the disaster on British incompetence. Kastellórizo was still under British rule in May 1945, but it effectively passed to Greece in 1947 under the post-war treaties, and, along with the other Dodecanese islands, the island was formally incorporated into the modern Greek State in 1948.

During my visit, Kastellórizo seemed a world away from modern Greece, with its daily protests and its economic woes, and this was a taste of Paradise not for sale before summer came to an end.

A quiet square offers shade from the summer sun and the heat of economic woes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay was first published in November 2011 in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory).

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