1. Settings and environment

Psara is a small mountainous island in the northeastern Aegean, located just 48 miles northeast of Chios. It is mountainous and rocky, culminating at Profitis Ilias (531 m). Nevertheless, there are some narrow zones of fertile land near the sea, run by small streams. At Archontiki, Limnos and Achladokambos flourish a few fruit trees, pear trees, plum trees, fig trees and apricot trees, whereas few vines break the mountain’s monotony. The fauna of the rest of the island is determined only by genista ecosystems dominated by the burnet and other herbaceous labiate plants, mostly thyme. At places by the sea, flourish also some groups of deciduous osier.

The island’s fauna includes ruminant animals, mostly goats, which one can see roaming at mountainous locations or others by the sea, where they eat salt after separating it from the sand. According to locals, this is what makes these animals’ meat so tasty.

Farming activities on the island are of minor importance, whereas few residents are stockbreeders. The few ones occupying themselves with apiculture produce thyme honey of fine quality. Regarding the island’s social structures, seafaring is determinative; for those not traveling with the large ocean-going ships fishing determines their status. The approximately 67 professional fishing licenses attest the island’s orientation towards fishing.

The sea surrounding the island is usually rough and dangerous mostly at the area of Kokkini Pounta and the strait between Chios and Psara. Moreover, Psara is surrounded by reefs, which used to be its natural fortification against predations. Nevertheless, the sea is rich in fish and its waters are clear.

2. Historical retrospection

2. 1. Prehistoric Times and Antiquity

The small infertile island of Psara, “Psyrie, a dry and arid land…” («Ψυρίη γη ξηρά και άγονος ως ο της νήσου ταύτης»), followed a remarkable historical course. The island was first mentioned in rhapsody C from the Odyssey by the name of Psyrie. In excursionist Strabo’s texts, Psara was described as a village, while Byzantine scholar Eustathius underlined the port’s capacity of 20 ships. Demosthenes laid stress on the turbulent sea and fierce winds of the area making seafaring difficult. It’s notable that all sources refer to the dangerous currents of this area of the Aegean Sea, urging travelers to get to know the island’s sea passages and morphology.

Apart from written sources, the island’s cultural course throughout the centuries is also attested by archaeological findings. Sporadic Neolithic Times’ burials attest human activities on the island during Prehistoric Times. At Archontiki, at the western part of Psara, a rich Mycenaean Times’ cemetery and a nearby settlement dating from the Late Helladic IIIA2 period up to the IIIC period (13th-12th century B.C.) were uncovered. Judging by findings and burials, we conclude that a prospering settlement had been established on Psara, probably serving trade towards Lesbos, Chios and the Asia Minor coastline up to the Hellespontus. Only few shards found on the hill of Mavri Rachi date from Geometrical Times, whereas the waist-duct uncovered at Archontiki, at the eastern part of the Mycenaean acropolis, dates from the Archaic Period (7th-6th century B.C.).

Remains of Hellenistic houses on Mavri Rachi attest intense human activities and use of this location during Hellenistic Times. At the foot of the hill, sarcophagi and cist-graves dating from Roman Times have also been found. Some Early Christian burials on ground level –unfortunately desecrated– have also been brought to light at the western border of the modern settlement.

2. 2. Latter Times

Psara is mostly known for its history during Latter Times, especially for its destruction during the 1821 Revolution against the Ottomans, which made it a symbol of the Greek history.

According to excursionist Robert’s text, the island’s coasts were pirates’ lairs up to the late 17th century. In addition, a Venetian admiral said he found the island deserted in 1593, supporting the notion that Psara was uninhabited up to the 18th century, at least at times. The island was re-inhabited by families from Euboea and Thessaly. During the Ottoman Rule, municipality administration was also established on Psara just like on other Aegean islands. According to British excursionist Richard Pococke, the population of Psara stood at 1,000 in the mid-18th century, the time when its seafaring began to flourish. At about that time were built the sakoleva ships, the first known sailing ships of Psara, sailing to nearby islands, Chios and Lesbos, the Asia Minor coastline, Euboea and Thessaly. The sakolevas were soon substituted for larger ships, more suitable for longer destination demands. When the 1768-1774 Russo-Turkish War broke out, Psara had a fleet of 45 galiota ships. Ioannis Varvakis also built the first bark-rigged ship of Psara at that time.

Psara contributed significantly in the Orlof Brothers Revolt (1770) or the Russian fleet’s battles in the Aegean with the participation of many Greek Orthodox. They took over Plomari and Plagia of Lesbos, as well as Moudros of Lemnos. With the Küçük Kaynarca treaty (1774) the sultan granted amnesty to locals, allowing their fleet to develop further.

Toward the mid-18th century, its population stood at 1,000 and 3,000 in the early 19th century. The fact that the Sublime Porte used to recruit 75 locals annually to staff its fleet clearly demonstrated the island’s population increase.

Sailors from Psara, just like the ones from Hydra and Spetses, took advantage of Napoleon’s wars, making a large profit out of carrying breadstuffs to the French hinterland that suffered from the British embargo.

Its fleet was large and the men were ready and well-prepared to go into battle. Right after the Revolution was declared on the island (April 10th 1821), its division took part in all battles of the three islands’ fleet (Hydra-Spetses-Psara) in the Aegean under Nikolis Apostolis. Situated at a strategically significant location, Psara was an important base for the Greek fleet’s operations.

Troops of the Ottoman fleet landed on the island in June 1824. After breaking residents’ resistance, the troops enslaved or slaughtered much of the population. The catastrophe climaxed with Antonis Vratsanos blowing up the powder magazine on the hill of Palekastro, the renowned “Mavri Rachi” (Black Ridge) known from Dionysios Solomos’s poem.

The ones that managed to flee went to the Cyclads, Aegina and Spetses. In fact, the Greek government granted land at Eretria, on Euboea island, for the surviving population of Psara to settle. The new settlement was called Nea Psara (“New Psara”). According to a resolution of the 1844 National Assembly, residents of Psara and Nea Psara were granted the privilege of electing two members in the Parliament up to 1935.

Psara was integrated into Greece in 1912. In 1984, the Greek Parliament declared Psara a municipality honoris causa.

3. Archaeological sites and monuments

3. 1. Archontiki

Remains of a prospering organized Mycenaean Times’ settlement based on trade were uncovered on the island’s western coast (13th-12th century B.C.). The remains are topographically coherent, since the settlement, the necropolis and the waist-duct were successively uncovered from West to East. The findings’ quality and large number attest the population’s prosperity.

It’s obvious residences were carefully built; many of them are of the megaron type. Storage jars –mostly jars for oil and wine– were unearthed at their very spot somewhere inside houses, into the ground. Continuously built houses give this settlement a feeling of social solidarity. This view is further supported by the kiln cluster located at the eastern part of the settlement, fulfilling residents’ needs regarding food.

Carefully built tombs stand out in the organized Mycenaean necropolis. Tombs were built on a North-South axis; they are more than 140. Funeral gifts provide information on the views of these people on death and life after it.

Gifts made of clay are part of the renowned Mycenaean pottery; their shapes vary. Vessels for oil used for the deceased dominate (e.g. stirrup amphorae or the alabastra). Other finely painted Mycenaean vessels (kylikes, cups, skyphoi) were considered necessary for life after death. Many tombs included what we call Φ (phi) and Ψ (psi) figurines, named after the Greek letters because of their shapes’ resemblance to them. According to a theory, they accompanied dead people as guardian gods. Specifically, the Ψ type figurines are depictions of goddesses raising their hands while praying. Many tombs also included one to two animal-like figurines considered to have been children’s toys or substitutes for sacrifice animals. Nevertheless, Schliemann thought they were symbols of a pre-Hellenic cow-shaped deity associated with Hera. Flywheels made of clay were also found in tombs; they were normally used in wooden spindles for spinning wool.

Prestige objects from tombs, namely the insignia dignitatis of the dead, also attest the economic and cultural development of this community. Bronze swords, sauroters and daggers dating from the 12th century B.C. fall under the same category. Their shape was such that the scabbard was robust, the hand was safe and the sword could be held more tightly. Although the bronze has been oxidized, it is remarkable that these typical offensive weapons are almost intact.

The large number of gold jewels found in many tombs also demonstrates the social status of these people buried with such diligence at Archontiki. It’s known that Mycenaeans, based on the Minoan tradition, knew goldsmithery very well and made jewels demonstrating their mastery and artistic sensibility. They ornamented the dead with necklaces and earrings made with the granulatio, the filigrane and the forging techniques. They also used golden plates with spiral, helical and often floral decoration, inlaid in cloths. Save gold, they also used various semi-precious stones (e.g. agate, kornelite, jasper, steatite, punic stone and majolica). Many beads have also been found in almost every grave. They were round, spindle-shaped or cylindrical, and they were used in necklaces or as clothes’ ornaments. Their beauty lies in the variety of shapes and colors created by the stones’ veins.

Their everyday life, religious views and customs are demonstrated in various depictions on the sealed surfaces. Although seal rings were thought to have been of collective value, they were meant to seal objects and were connected to the administrative control over commodities. Vessels’ nozzles were frequently shut with clay caps attached to the vessels and were then sealed. The large number of seal rings found in tombs of Psara as funeral gifts demonstrates these objects were widely used in society. Besides, it’s known that in the 13th century B.C. the right of owning and using seal rings had also been granted to people that were out of the settlement’s administration. Professor Ingo Pini notes that seal rings were worn around the neck or wrist with strings.

At the eastern part of the necropolis, an archaic waist-duct has been uncovered, attesting continuation of habitation and use of this site even after the settlement was destroyed. Since there was a cult of a hero buried in a nearby tholos tomb, worshipers put the vessels used in a waist-duct. According to ancient tradition, reusing vessels used for a holy purpose was considered unholy. Fine quality clay vessels attributed to a workshop of Chios were found in the waist-duct. The combinations of colors and the meticulous pictorial, floral and linear motifs demonstrate the artists were competent. Noteworthy are also the 5th century red-figured vessels with white background of a workshop from Attica.

The site at Archontiki is now being organized into an archaeological site appropriate for visiting.

3. 2. Latter monuments

On the top of the Mavri Ravhi hill is the monument for the people killed at the Catastrophe, as well as the twin church of St. Anne and St. John.

The historic church of Aghios Nicolaos, where the Revolution was declared on April 10th 1821, is on the highest peak of the hill. On its slopes lies the settlement. The monastery of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary on the slope of Profitis Ilias is located near the western coast. To get there visitors have to cross the entire island. At the monastery’s katholicon, there are two marble slabs with two-headed eagles in relief. Folkloric items are also kept there, as well as rare books printed in Venice and Moscow, coming from inhabitants’ emigrations and journeys to these areas.

Near the Aghios Nicolaos church are the remnants of the poor house of the 1821 fighter Constantine Kanaris. Exiting the modern settlement, visitors run into the “konaki”, a 19th century manor; the only one preserving the island’s traditional architecture. It is a three-storey building made of stone, with large windows for more sun. A project on exploiting it as a museum has been recently approved. Opposite Akrotirio, the leeward dock with the lazaret has been preserved; these were the “spitalia”, where sailors remained in quarantine for a while after arriving at the port.

Near the port, by the coastline, are the derelict pre-Revolution stone houses of Karydas, Argyris and Scarletos facing towards the sea.

4. Folk culture

Textiles, embroidery and knitting are typical expressions of the folk culture of Psara since the 18th century. A variety of linear and mostly floral motifs are depicted with particularly many colors. Migration of locals abroad –mostly through seafaring– and the gifts they brought back home influenced local production through foreign decorative patterns. These handmade products were never traded; they were meant to be women’s dowry.

Weddings at Psara are the most joyful occasions, concerning the entire population, both locals and foreigners.

On a Sunday before the wedding, the mothers of the marrying couple visit every house announcing the happy news. When hearing about the wedding, the entire female population is mobilized to prepare the eatings that will be served at the groom’s house three days before the ceremony. On the day before the wedding, the groom has to invite the relatives and friends of both families over for dinner, whereas friends have to prepare the feast at the square of the village. Everyone has to drink a glass of soumada and wish the couple something. The necessary musicians –also called “instruments” in Greece– arrive from Chios to escort the bride to the church and amuse the guests until the morning of the next day.

The wedding takes place on Sunday in a festive atmosphere at the Aghios Nicolaos church, at the highest place of the modern settlement. Locals attend the ceremony formally dressed. Women are quite impressive with their long colorful formal dresses, occasionally also wearing gloves or hats, all gifts of their sailor husbands. Invited to the wedding is everyone that happens to be on the island that day, either local or visitor. The bride is escorted by single girls, the parents and the “instruments”, playing wedding songs. The feast lasts until the morning. The newly wedded can leave, as people of Psara say, as soon as “the sun rises in the Aegean”. According to the custom, they can exit their house on the forth day.