History of Nisyros

dimiourgia p1b

Nisyros is situated in the South-Eastern Aegean Sea (latitude 36 ° 35 ' North, longitude 27 ° 10 ' East) and belongs to the Dodecanese Islands. The island has an area of 41.2 km2 and its highest mountain peak reaches 698 metres. It is surrounded by four other islands, namely Pergousa, Pachia (thick), Srongylh (round) and Gyali (glass), which is also the largest amongst them. The shape of Nisyros resembles that of a truncated cone, with a base diameter of 8 kilometres. The centre of the island is dominated by a distinct circular eruption born hopper, the Caldera of Nisyros: the diameter is approximately 4 kilometres, the brink ranges at an altitude between 250 and 600 meters, whilst the bottom is at 100 metres above sea level. The West-Northwestern part of this hopper is taken up by the hills of Mporiatikon, Nifiou, Profitis Ilias and Trapezina domes. Despite the intense terrain and rapid changes in elevation, access is almost possible to every area of the island. In addition to an adequate network of vehicular roads, there are dozens of trails that lead to every corner of the island. Even when the paths are not distinct, access is possible through the "boards", i.e. the terraces that cover almost the whole island, a heritage of the intensive agricultural cultivation of previous centuries, which lasted until the beginning of the 20th century. The large number of trees is another special feature of Nisyros that can help classify her as the only "green" active volcano in the Aegean Sea.  The name of the island has not been verified historically. Some of the versions that prevailed at times are:

  • because of ample pumice stone (Kissyris), by changing the first letter of "k" to "n", as per Pyrrhus the Thessalian,
  • a compound word made up by ‘neo’ (swim) and 'syro' (drag), according to Plinius,
  • a name given by the Aegean civilisation (many years before the presence of Phoenicians in the Aegean), with an ending or yros or iros and
  • a compound words made up by ‘nea’ (new) and ‘Syros’ (prehistoric Carians and Cretans are known to have inhabited the island of Syros and Nisyros.

Due to the fact that maybe Syros had an ancient settlement called Nisyros, it seems that there were close links between the islands of Syros (Siros) and Nisyros in early historic times. We do not know exactly when they started building the underwater foundations of the island under the molten rock. The ancient Greeks certainly had a clear view of both the time and the way the island was created: «Πολυβώτης δε δια της Θαλάσσης διωχθείς υπό τον Ποσειδώνος ήκεν εις Κω. Ποσειδών δε της νήσου μέρος απορρήξας επέρριψεν αυτώ, το λεγόμενον Νίσυρον». (Polyvotis was chased out to sea by Poseidon and arrived at Kos. And then Poseidon cut a piece of the island and threw it to him, the so called island of Nisyros). So records Apollodorus in his library the Greek myth about the creation (genesis) of the island. Approximately the same is repeated by Strabo in his Geographical, when referring to Nisyros:

«Φασί δε την Νίσυρον απόθραυσμα είναι της Κω, προσθέντες και μύθον ότι Ποσειδών διώκων έναν των γιγάντων Πολυβώτην αποθραύσας τη τριαίνη τρύφος της Κω επ' αυτόν βάλοι, και γένοιτο νήσος το βληθέν η Νίσυρος υποκείμενον έχουσα εν αυτή τον γίγαντα». (They consider Nisyros a piece from Kos. They also say a myth, that Poseidon, whilst chasing a giant, Polyvothn, broke with his trident a piece from Kos island and threw it upon him, thus creating Nisyros island from the fragment, so the giant is dwelling under it). A myth which reveals that our ancestors knew that Nisyros is a volcano and that the rocks are similar to those of south-western Kos. They also knew or sensed that the frequent local earthquakes that came with tremor and troubled the island from those years, were threaded with the mechanism that created the island. Energy trapped in molten rock and massive steam under the island was transformed to giant Polyvoth who was groaning and shaking like a prisoner in her womb. Nevertheless, what we can say with confidence is that it took a few hundred thousand years of underwater volcanic action for the first peak of the island to emerge from the waters of the Aegean.The first pre-Hellenic people who resided in Nisyros were the Pelasgians. Their first ancestor was Pelasgus, son of Zeus and Niobe. After the Pelasgians, the Carians conquered and inhabited the island (Caria was a transportation node between Ionia, Lydia, Lycia and Phrygia) and the Leleges. Eventually, the Carians prevailed, and as exceptional seamen and farmers, taught in Nisyros the seamanship and agriculture.
From 3000 to 1500 B.C., the Cretans are residing in Nisyros, bringing with them many elements from the Cretan culture. First competitors and replacements of Cretans were the Phoenicians (1500-800 BC). The Phoenicians were not the people who would conquer with the strict sense of the word, but they were rather exploiting local areas of importance for the movement of their vessels and the conduct of their trade. They didn't have their own culture, but were taught writing and Arts from the Hittites and the Egyptians and adapted to the needs of trade and navigation. In Nisyros, they founded purple farms for the farming of shells that produced superior quality purple, i.e.  deep red colour paint. This is why Nisyros was also called Porfyris (deep red). The silk fabrics of Kos, light, transparent and elegant, were highly sought after, because they been painted with the purple of Nisyros. As a result of the Phoenician influence, Nisyros became from a cantonment a permanent commercial and maritime centre, acquired great wealth, out of proportion with its size, and a great naval power, because:

  • it was ideal as a "viewpoint" in a central spot of the Dodecanese,
  • had a great natural and built port (the place that is known today as Lake and was buried under by a volcanic eruption), 
  • Phoenicians traded the various products  from the volcano and the millstones,
  • large fishing centres were set up together with shell farms that produced purple dye, there were also textiles and textile dyeing and
  • it had frequent contact with all the Aegean Islands, Caria, Lykia, Syria, Egypt, Macedonia, Thrace and Sicily.

By the 1400s as 1100 B.C., a period of changes in continental and islandic Greece, with the descent of the Dorians there is a period of welfare for Nisyros, evidently influenced by the Mycenaean civilization. The Trojan War follows with active participation of Nisyros in war material, comparatively larger than the surrounding islands. With the end of the Trojan War, the leaders of Nisyrians gathered their fleet and their army and with their share of the loot they embarked on the return trip. The beginning of this period is characterised for Nisyros as a second time Mycenaean civilization and as a second Dorian subjugation of Nisyros, the so-called ‘aftertrojan’ Dorian subjugation. With the migrations of Dorians from Kos and Rhodes islands and, like Herodotus reports, from the Peloponnese and, in particular, from Epidaurus. After the Trojan time devastating earthquakes occurred. The volcano devastated island was almost deserted and eventually was inhabited by other colonisers, namely Rhodians and Koans. Notable of this period is the political regime of Nisyros that has nothing to do with tyrannoi (tyrants), Kings, aristocratic regimes, with Asian or Mycenaean form, but with an equal participation of citizens in public life. The Municipality determines and shapes the political, economic, social and cultural life of the island. The citizens of this small town gathered at the market and discussed their matters. The laws are voted for and passed by the municipality and the Chamber of Deputies and are respected by everyone.
At the same time, the first bloodletting in the medical science history took place in Nisyros. Podalirius, son of Asclepius, physician and psychiatrist, returns from Troy. For ten long years he had excelled in Troy and was known for his treatments of Telamonian Ajax who was suffering from manic depression and Philoctetes, whom he had healed from a poisonous snake bite. Pausanias tells us how Podalirius whilst returning he encountered a fierce storm and was forced to flee to the safe port of Nisyros. One of Damitos’ - King of Caria and Nisyros - shepherds, recognised the famous doctor and immediately announced his arrival to the King. Podalirius applied bloodletting on the elbow of Syrna, the King’s daughter, who was suffering from a nasty injury as a result of a fall and healed her. Later, Podalirius settled in Kos, where he founded the medical school, and a branch of the Asklepieion of Kos in Nisyros.
It is worth noting that Podalirius is the first ancestor of the famous physicians of ancient times and first ancestor of Hippocrates.
Through the centuries, Nisyros stands out as a city-State in all fields and maintains good relations with the known Croesus, King of Lydia. Cyrus, King of the Persians, conquers Lydia and starts the Persian wars, in which Nisyros is forced to give war material to the Persians and, more specifically, to Queen Artemisia of Greek origin, Queen of Halicarnassus, Kos, Nisyros and Kalymnos and a trusted ally of Cyrus. After the victorious for the Nisyrians outcome of the Persian wars, they participate in the ‘Athenian Alliance’. For unknown reasons, in the reference books that have been saved, their taxes are classified as the Ionic and islandic taxes rather than the Caric tax, unlike the surrounding islands. The Peloponnesian War finds Nisyros changing sides, without actively participating in the civil war. The Hellenistic period begins with the death of Alexander the Great and includes the three centuries before Egypt's allegiance to the Romans (30 BC). J.C.Papachristodoulou writes: ‘[...] after his death (323 BC), the conflict amongst his successors and the Hellenistic States that were created starts. These conflicts and the struggle for the distribution of territories do not leave unaffected any superior or minor power. Nisyros moves along the great Hellenistic Kingdoms and its fate is the same until the end of the 3rd century to the neighbouring Kos island’.
Principal sources, which are listed separately in the history of Nisyros, do not exist in the period of Roman rule.
But through the inevitable interactions of the historical course of the surrounding islands, notably Kos and Rhodes, the leading role the island due to its geographical position is clearly depicted. Nisyros was already subject to the Rhodian State, which was then dominated by a Roman Praetorian Prefect. The minimum freedom enjoyed under the Roman authorities, the different Institutions in trade, commercial and maritime competition, frequent Imperial changes and the Roman rage that the island witnessed, shows the downturn in the economy and culture in this period. It is worth mentioning the looting of ethnic Greeks in 42 B.C. and the dreadful destruction of Mark-Anthony and Cleopatra in 41 B.C. After the death of Kassios, Antony replaced him in command of Asia and was sailing through the islands to Egypt. He landed with Cleopatra in Nisyros and asked to collect tax submission. The Nisyrians, who have had already paid to Cassius earlier that year the tax for the next period of eight years, they thought of them as noblemen cheats and refused to comply. As a result, two hundred ships that were around the island and its crews literally destroyed the island. The early Byzantine Period (324-610) finds Nisyros under the fear of Saracen Corsairs, and their conversion to Christianity. God of light Apollo and God of sea Poseidon, who were so loved by the island residents are in the twilight of history and God of love disembarks at the port of Nisyros. A new social system is on the rise: Empire takes the place of Democracy and a new God the place of the old. From an administrative point of view, the island was part of the Province of Islands and as a diocese belonged to the Province of Cyclades.In the Middle Byzantine Period (610-1081), Nisyros experiences difficult situations and is constantly exposed to raids by Arabs and Seljuk Turks, life on the island is downgraded and inhabitants live daily under the fear of destruction and looting. For the late Byzantine Period (1081-1453), Papamanolis writes: Nisyros as an island showed fertile and rich, thus stirring the bulimia of pirates to name but a few the Arabs, Turks, Saracens and others, which often paid unwanted visits. Since the time of the Byzantines, the inhabitants of the island, to counter frequent pirate raids, built several castles and other small towers. In 1197, the Venetian Marcus Sanoudos seized the island, only to have it taken in a few years by the Lord of Rodos Leo Gavalas. Quickly though, in 1224, the Byzantine Emperor of Nicaea, John Duke Batatzis reconquers it and reattaches it with the Byzantine Empire ". In 1204, the Crusaders, extinguish, as Runciman says, the "fortress" of Christendom in the East. Nisyros is actively engaging in undertakings, because of the rapid developments and changes (Knights, Venetians, and Muslims). The interesting news comes from an anecdotal, Venetian document of 9 Jul 1306 which informs us that the Mparotsi laid a siege to the Castle Nixari, as Nisyros was reported in the period of Frangocratia (French Rule), but failed to occupy the island, suffered serious damage and departed for Evia island. He requested financial assistance from Venice to have the boats repaired. This event, along with that of the rebellion against the oppressor Manocca Novelo, proves once again the courage of Nisyrians despite the sufferings, which succeeded one another with incredibly fast pace. In mid-July 1394, the Italian Nicholas de Martoni passed from Nisyros. He reports that several villages existed in Nisyros, produced abundant fruit, wheat is not cultivated but barley instead and the most abundant product is figs, particularly the dry. Martoni also claims, that in dried figs alone, the feudal ruler Domenico, as his attorney informed him in a private meeting, had annual income in excess of 2,000 ducats. And in later years Nisyros had many and delicious figs, as mentioned in Turkish documents and was named for this reason Incirli (fig island). The traveller speaks of three castles, one near the beach and two others up in the mountains. The one at the beach must have been the Venetian Fortress of Mandraki, which should not be linked with that of Paliokastro of an earlier era. The completion and restoration of the fortress can be seen from the date 1315 that is engraved in marble slab. The built-in symbols and marks are Venetian and were made one year after the conquest by the Knights at the order of the Saint John, commonly known as St. John’s Knights. The Fort encloses around its eastern part the cliff of the Panagia Spiliani. Ninety-nine steps link the Fort with Mandraki. From its entry another thirty steps lead to the entrance to the monastic complex. Bastions and armouries are clearly seen. In the South-East and highest point there is the famous "Mparontthochanas", that its use reached the times of the Ottoman rule. The other two medieval forts are:

  • The Byzantine castle Emporio, with apparent Byzantine buildings.
  • The Parlentia, in the middle of the rural road from Emporio to Nikias. It means "gathering" or "parliament", where the inhabitants of two villages met to discuss common problems.

There is a chance that one the two Castles in the mountains is the medieval ' Cross ' as L. Ross described it. Although Magistroi conceded Nisyros as fief to the noble and the Knights, Nisyrians remain spiritually united with the Byzantine Empire and religiously tied with the Orthodox Patriarchate. Around the time of Knights rule, temples of Byzantine style were built in Nisyros and decorated with Byzantine style. In trade, the trade involves mainly alum, vitriol and sulfur. Between 1413 and 1420, we have a wonderful description of the volcano's status and of intense hydrothermal activity witnessed by the monk Cristoforo Buondelmonti Florent II ‘in the centre of the island there is a high mountain, in which sulfur is emitted through underground streets day and night, as in Stromboli island near Lipari. In a stone’s throw distance there is a road under the top there is a warm spring, the waters of which pour into a deep dark lake in area below. The Islanders collect the brimstone in large quantities and sell to dealers, who pass in there. After the middle of the road to the top, the heat is so intense, so that it becomes impossible for anyone to climb at any time to anyone not earing wooden shoes‘. ‘The city is taken’ (Εάλω η πόλις) and the Knights are trying to raise the defence of the island, because they realise that the Anatolian danger of pirate raids become more often and more destructive. Author Epam. Stamatiadis in his book about Nisyros (On Nisyros istorima) describes documented pirate raids that Nisyros suffered along with other islands by Turkish pirates, events that are also witnessed by other authors.In 1455, a powerful Turkish fleet, drifting the Aegean Sea under Admiral Hamza Bein, raided Aegean islands including Nisyros and destroyed the fields and the houses of the inhabitants and took many as slaves.

In 1457, a fleet of sixty Turkish ships approached Nisyros and ‘κατέσφαξε και ηχμαλώτισε πάντας ους εύρεν εκτός φρουρίου, τας δε αμπέλους εδήωσε’ (slaughtered and took prisoners everyone found to be outside the castle and burned the fields).

In 1471, ‘τόσην τρομερά' επιδρομή υπέστη η Νίσυρος, ώστε οι δυστυχείς κάτοικοι παρατήσυντες τας γαίας αυτών, απεσύρθησαν εις Ρόδον, ίνα σωθώσιν. Το δε Τάγμα των Ιπποτών συμπαθούν αυτούς, τους απήλλυξε του δασμού των 300 φλωρινιών α ώφειλον να πληρώσωσι’ (Nisyros witnessed such a horrible raid, that the poor inhabitants abandoned their properties and sailed for Rhodes in order to save themselves. And the order of the Knights felt sorry for them thus they did not impose on them the tax duty of 300 forints’. Finally, the famous pirate ‘Kamali πλεύσας επί την Νίσυρον, προσεπάθησε να κυριεύσει αυτήν αλλ' απήντησε τοσαύτην αντίσταση', ώστε ηναγκάσθη ν' απέλθει άπρακτος’ (sailing to Nisyros tried to conquer her but met such a fearsome resistance that was forced to depart immediately). However, the Dodecanese Islands remain a barrier for the Ottoman fleet to gain access in the Mediterranean.  The Turkish fleet, with 400 ships, 200,000 men leaded by Suleyman, begins the battle for the conquest of the Dodecanese. Nisyros surrenders on 6 September 1522. A new page is turned for Nisyros and its economy, and its economy is blooming due to the diplomatic skills and industriousness of its inhabitants.When the clash started, Nisyros, like other islands, expelled the Turkish garrisons and declared freedom, but not for long. The adventures continue and the taxes that must be paid to the Soukiourbey of Rhodes are larger and larger and together with their urgent demand for the persistence of life on the island. And on top of that, the convention of the protective forces of England, France, Russia in London, with the signed Protocol of 22nd March 1829, unfortunately leaves the Dodecanese in the hands of their former gruesome dynast Soukiourbey until 1866.
The years that follow find their Nisyrians moving nervously to earn privileges. And whilst the unfortunate war in 1897 and the rise of the Young Turks movement gave hope for recovery of old privileges, eventually the situation became unbearable and nightmarish. Despite the constant pain, it should be noted the manoeuvre of Nisyrians and the emergence of unprecedented projects. Some account of this are:

  • establishment and operation of the sulphur process plant,
  • bathrooms of doctor Pantelides doctor in Paloi
  • the construction and operation of the Homer Community School in Mandraki,
  • the Mandraki spas in ‘Skopi’ area.

On May 12, 1912, Sunday at 6:00 am, the battleship "Roma" and the naval ships "Pisa" and "La Spezia" anchor near Nisyros. Fifty soldiers landed on the island and captured six gendarmes who were asleep at the time at their Turkish house. Arrests were made and the leader and coordinator of the activities of the Italian Navy in the Aegean Sea, Admiral Biale, inaugurated the official Italian occupation of Nisyros. The inhabitants of the island saw the Italians as liberators, but soon the Italians showed their dominant character, and the struggle for survival continued. The first Italian governor Giovanni Ameglio, has implemented a plan to discourage the population, with a view to eliminating the social, political and religious ties that kept the Islanders together, despite the Turkish oppression. After the Treaty of Lausanne (July 24, 1923), the second period of Italian occupation started. Ancient homes of Hellenism in Asia Minor were lost. There were population exchanges and thousands of Greek civilians were killed in the summer of 1922. Nisyros accepts the first refugees and their integration in the small community was important in many aspects. Diplomat Mario Lago is appointed Political Governor of Nissyros. Lago observes the cons to achieve his purpose, namely the Italianism with mild fascist manipulation methods. The clerics are limited to strictly ecclesiastical Office. In schools, the teaching of the Italian language is introduced. The Lago did a great job achieving notable accomplishments of general interest, such as the Administrative headquarters of Nisyros, but his work was not recognised under the fascist government because not all the population had learned all speak Italian. Mario Lago is succeeded by De Vecchi, the ‘fearsome clown’, as Duce called him for the gaffes he had made in every service that he was appointed. De Vecchi intervened everywhere. In 1937 he closed the Greek schools. Parents are obliged to enrol their kids with the fascist organisation Balila. The destruction of battleship ‘Elli’ by a torpedo and the declaration of war brings again the ‘draining’ of people on the island. Fifty Nisirians with a thousand and eight hundred Dodecanesians are fighting in all forms of struggle in the territory. On September 11, 1943, the Italian domination in the Dodecanese is officially ended.Although the Germans remained intermittently in Nisyros and for a relatively short period of time, their passage is recorded in local folklore. Some of the elderly Mandrakiwtes recall German soldiers to ascend the monastery of Panagia Spiliani in order to fortify it. The Archimandrite Cyril Romanus responded on their requirements that he was only a mere caretaker and that only the Lady of the house could give them an answer, who resided in the lower apartments. The soldiers went downstairs and then immediately left the monastery in panic. In early April 1944, thirty-five Germans landed in Nisyros which was hosting forty orphan children and some Italian Catholic priests. The Greek commando Lazarus, disguised as a priest, together with ten British soldiers set up an ambush and killed the guards.On 11 February 1945, thirty-seven Germans landed in Paloi, climbed in and settled in Emporio in a dominant spot on in the crater of the volcano. A platoon of the Ieros Lochos (Sacred Band) raided and undermined the hostile force with loss of the Lieutenant Evangelos Chatzievangelou. In the coffee shop that the scuffle took place a broken mirror with a splintered edge survives until today, standing in the same place, a remembrance of the fight that night.Nisirian began to migrate systematically to foreign places in the war of independence. In the Census of 1828 Nisyros is numbering 3,300 inhabitants. At the end of the 19th century and early 20th, particularly the period 1908-1912, there is an intense wave of immigration in the United States, resulting in that the special prerogatives of the inhabitants were lost and  Nisirians were obliged to serve in the Turkish army. In 1912, with the Asia Minor catastrophe, the population jumps to 5,000, with the majority being refugees from the lost homelands. In 1940, Nisyros had a population of 3,100, whilst in the decade of the 50s, and especially after the catastrophic earthquake of 1953, a gradual demographic declining begun, resulting in Nisyros having a population of approximately 1000 inhabitants from the late 80s till to date. 


Text: Lieutenant (GR) Kostis Georgios



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