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Lat:    36  09.1'  N
Long: 29  35.5'  E

 

 Kastellorizo ... a history by Steve Zervos

Although many people refer to Kastellorizo as an island, it is actually the name of the settlement on the island of Megisti, spelled in many ways on different charts.

Kastellorizo is not like many other tourist villages on the Greek islands. Kastellorizo is for total relaxation. You won't find any rowdy discos or bars filled with drunken buffoons in funny hats honking loud klaxons, or frolicsome Scandinavians disporting themselves unclad in the pristine blue waters of the limani (harbour). And unlike many other vacation islands you won't need to take a week off to unwind on your return. (Okay!  I guess we can tolerate a few well-behaved Scandinavians.) 

Despite its serene attraction, Kastellorizo is not your archetypal holiday destination. It has no sprawling  beaches, little tourist accommodation and no effective water supply - most of which has to be brought from Rhodes. Perhaps its appeal to those whose forebears came from the island is its serenity, and that's how they like to keep it.

This tiny but heroic island, a mere speck on the charts, is 117 km east of Rhodes and a kilometre or so off the south coast of Turkey. It has an area of 10 square km and its highest point is the "Vouno", Mt Vigla, rising 273 metres above sea-level. The island has a brightly coloured village surrounding a blue limani and features  a rocky rise at the top of which stands the famous castle 'built' during the Crusades in 1306 by St John Hospitallers of Jerusalem. The castle was built on the ruins of another castle and has been partly destroyed and restored many times since.

There are many explanations as to how Kastellorizo got its name, but I prefer the more romantic version handed down to me by my father Michael Zervos (Kitsos), a navigator who was born on the island. He would tell me that when one approaches the island from a certain direction at dawn the first sight at landfall would be the tell-tale majestic orange glow on the horizon, given off by the rocks and castle like a beckoning beacon of welcome. Hence the name Castello-Rozzo or Kastellorizo.

To mollify the purists I should point out that although the name of the island is strictly Megisti, so many people refer to it as Kastellorizo that either name is now officially acceptable.
(It is often spelt with an initial "C", but there is no "C" in the Greek or related Cyrillic alphabets.)

Megisti is situated at the extreme south east corner of the Aegean sea. At 30 east longitude it is the most eastern part of Greece (including its near-by uninhabited satellite island Strongyli). At the time of writing the two islands also shared with Finland the distinction of being the most eastern point of land belonging to a contiguous country of the European Union (sorry, Cyprus does not qualify, being a non-contiguous part of Europe, Turkey is considered Anatolian, and outer territorial possessions don't come into the equation).

Katellorizo's longitude puts it almost on the same meridian as Russia's St Petersburg (ex-Leningrad) and its latitude of 36 degrees north of the Equator is about the same as the south latitude of Canberra, Australia's capital city. Kastellorizo's climate is different to that of Canberra's not only because it is an island but also because of its proximity to the extensive coastal mountain ranges of Turkey.

I have never been to Kastellorizo but I have been told much about it by my father Michael and my mother Vasiliki*  (nee Kanaris, a Kazziphile, albeit born in the predominantly Greek settlement of the Arnavutkoy district of Istanbul, one-time Constantinople, capitol of the Byzantine empire).

* The daring escape of 16 year old Vasiliki from Turkey during Ataturk's frenzied campaign of nationalism is  a story of its own. She and her mother were secretly smuggled out of Istanbul in the middle of the night hidden in the hold of a flimsy fishing vessel, thanks to the assistance of a sympathetic Turkish family. Vasiliki's escape is the subject of a chapter in my cousin Helen Sider's (Sidirourgos) dramatic biography "The Tapestry of a Life", a chapter which I gladly researched and wrote for Helen, and in which I included extracts from my own memoirs "Midnight Escape".

Megisti is one of the Dodecanese (twelve plus) islands. The sailing conditions in these islands are among the most ideal in the Mediterranean. The islands have a hot pleasant climate for much of the year and weather extremes are tempered by the Meltemi, a pleasant wind that blows over the island from May to October. It is a Katabatic wind that often brings cooling and a moderation to the humidity.

I have not sailed in these waters myself, but other yachties may be interested to know that the Meltemi in this region usually starts off as a light zephyr in the mornings then builds up to a Beaufort 5 wind in the late afternoons. The seas are at most times friendly, and sail-yourself yachts are as easily charted in Athens as they are in Marseilles, the most favoured departure point (don't ask me why).
Sailing into Kastellorizo's harbour from the north is straightforward, but be careful if approaching the harbour from the south; there are many reefs and small rocky islands to dodge.

There are many excellent accounts of Kastellorizo's modern history and its people and there is no need for me to repeat here what other writers have described so well. Not so much has been written about the island's earlier history and what has been offered seems to contain quite a number of discrepancies, so I decided to research a little deeper. 

Over many years I have examined records from many sources including early manuscripts and notes from the Theophilou Monastery, the Congress of Byzantine Studies (Moscow 1991), portolan copies from ancient Venice, archived references from Turkey, and data sourced from unlikely places such as Germany and Sweden. A labourious and time-consuming task indeed in pre-computer days.

Significant information was also found in the London Protocols of 1830, the Paris Peace treaty of 1947, and the treaties of Sevres and Lausanne. I discontinued with further historical research after suffering a stroke in 1999. A short outline of the island's history follows.

Megisti's history can be traced back to Neolithic times. Among the earliest settlers were  the enigmatic Pelasgoi (pre- 5,000 BC), followed by the Minoans, Myceans, Dorians and Lycians, all of whom left their mark in various ways. Many structures and uncovered artifacts attest to their tenure.

Megisti's history is intense. It has a rich and glorious past. It played an important role in Greek history as early as its participation in the Persian wars nearly 2,500 years ago when its meagre (albeit important) supplement of boats augmented the fleet of Themistocles in his victorious battle against Xerxes the conquering Persian Emperor. Megisti was proudly honouring its obligation as a player in the first Athenean coalition. Through the years it has been connected with the apostle St Paul, several Saints, the Crusaders, the Johannites, the Byzantines, the Ottomans, various Sultans, Hannibal and other important historical identities. For a while it was even the home of the cult Zeus Megisteas.

The island has always had a navigational importance. Up until about 200 years ago, navigators had no way of determining longitude with accuracy. Latitude can be easily determined by measuring the angular altitude of the pole star Polaris, but many navigators resorted to coastal pilotage techniques (known as "yiallo-yiallo") for east-west travel. For this reason Megisti has long been an important navigational way-point for the (ancient) mariners who plied the Arab-Euro sea lanes along the south coast of Turkey. Megisti was hard to miss.

It was apparent that whoever controlled Megisti (in olden times) would also exert a dominating influence on this vital region of the Eastern Aegean (much like Gibraltar and the Bosporus do in their own areas). 

For this reason the island attracted more interest than its small size and population warranted.
In 80 BC it was occupied by the Romans. About 718 AD it became the base for the Saracen pirates. Since the 14 th century alone it has had many overlords and suffered many raiders including Italian, French, English, Turk, Arab, Catalan, Spanish, Kykladian, Venetian, Genoan, Neapolitan, Maltese, and German. Its hapless people have been raided, shanghaied, looted, abducted, enslaved, plundered, bombed, evacuated, and resettled many times. It's no wonder so many of its inhabitants decided on the relative safety of the US and Australia, eh? 

Other than for strategic advantage, no one seemed to have cared much for this little island which was not even included on many charts until recently. It took its importance as the only European observation point from which to view in totality the eclipse of March 2006 to finally bring it to the wider world's attention. 

I won't continue with its history on these web-pages but my soon-to-be-released book will recount in greater detail the complete turbulent past of Megisti and its plucky people.
Surprisingly,
despite all the foreign pressures that they could have succumbed to, the resilient islanders have tenaciously retained their ages-old culture and traditions.

My recipe and method for making perfect Katoumaria, the Islander's special treat, will be found on the "Chrissie's Kitchen" page of this web-site, together with other recipes. Enjoy.

History researched and written by Steve Zervos. Copyright 1993, 2006 S. Zervos. All rights reserved. No part of this history may be copied or reproduced in any form without the written permission of Steve Zervos.
Below is a puzzle by  Chrissie Zervos for her Kazzie friends --- Can you solve it?

The bottom line is the sum of the two top lines. The digits have been replaced by letters, each letter representing a different digit from 0 to 9. The same letter represents the same digit throughout. What digits do the letters represent?. Here is a clue, N represents a digit smaller than 7. Have fun!
--- CZ

Answer


 

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