1. Natural environment
Nisyros is an island of the SE Aegean Sea, among the islands of Kos, Tilos and Astypalaia. It belongs administratively to the Province of Kos and the Dodecanese Prefecture. The island, of an almost circular shape, extents over 41,2 square km. Upon their arrival on Nisyros, visitors immediately conceive the uniqueness of the island as it is verdant and there are no sharp cliffs although the coasts are generally rocky. Nisyros was created by volcanic explosions and the fertile volcanic soil is the reason for the development of various species in flora and fauna. A distinctive species among the 470 plans is the indigenous "kampanoula of Nisyros" (Campanula nisyria), that has been included in the list of threatened species of the IUCN with the characterization "rare". The highest peak of Nisyros is Prophetis Helias with an altitude of 698 m. in the centre of island.
The volcano at Nisyros is one of the youngest big active volcanoes in Greece. The oldest rocks have an estimated age of 160.000 years and the youngest 15.000. Successive volcanic explosions in the region led to the progressive creation of the island, until the caldera was formed due to an explosion that happened 15.000 ago. The lava gushing off the caldera during the next hundred years formed the dome of Karavioti and gave Nisyros its final morphology. Remains of craters, which all bear their own names, lie in the bottom of the caldera. They have been created by repeated hydrothermal explosions, the last of which took place in 1887. "Stefanos" is one the biggest and best preserved hydrothermal craters in the world. The gases emerging from different points in the region with a temperature of 100 degrees Celsius create impressive sulphur crystals. The abundant hot sources supplement the picture of the volcanic island.
There are different interpretations about the origin of the island’s name. A Phoenician origin has been supported, meaning either supervision or scrap, splinter. Another view etymologises Nisyros from the ancient Greek words “neo”(meaning ship) and “syro”(meaning draw), combining aptly the name of the island with the myth around its creation. According to mythology, Nisyros was shaped during the War of the Giants. Poseidon, while chasing the giant Polyvotis in the Aegean Sea, approached him near Kos, wrenched a part of Kos with his trident and threw it on the giant. Thus, Nisyros is the rock which crashed Polyvotis and the island still trembles by the punished giant. The myth symbolises the volcano and the concussion that upset the island.
Ancient writers, such as Pliny and Stefanos Byzantium, mention another name for the island: Porfyrios. It is probable that this name was given either due to the collection and processing of murex shells for the production of purple dye or due to the volcanic stone porfyrites that abounds on the island.
The first residents of Nisyros were the pre-Hellenic mythic population-group called Pelasgi, then the Carians, followed by people from Kos, Thessaly and Rhodes. According to Homer, Nisyros participated in the Trojan War. As with the other islands of Aegean, it came under the sovereignty of Artemisia, ruler of Halicarnassus, which explains the fact that in the naval battle of Salamis ships from Nisyros were part of the Persian navy.
After the victory of the Greeks against the Persians, Nisyros became a member of the Delian League. The island flourished particularly in the 4th century BC, when as an autonomous city-state produced coins.
The acropolis of the city, the Palaiokastro, is also dated to this period. It is one of the best preserved defensive works of the ancient world. Around 200 BC the island was controlled by Rhodes and since then the history of Nisyros conformed to the history of Rhodes. Later it devolved to the influence of Rome.
In the Early Christian period life on Nisyros continued without interruption. Nine Early Christian churches have been identified up to the present, evident by mosaic floors and a great number of scattered architectural members, many in second use. Very little information is available about the history of the island in the Middle Byzantine period. Our knowledge derives mainly from the sculptural decoration, particularly from the parts that are built in the cathedral of the Monastery of Panaghia Speliani and in the church of Panaghia Phaneromeni, which is dated in the end of 11th to the beginning of the 12th century.
In 1314 Nisyros was occupied by Knights of Rhodes who fortified the island (1315). It remained under the control of the Knights until 1522, when it was submitted to the Ottomans and remained under their rule until 1912. During the Greek Revolution Nisyros participated in naval enterprises.From 1912 until 1948 the island was under Italian occupation, when Dodecanese were united with the Greek state.
In the 19th century, an increase of the population and the abolition of the privileges that the residents of the island had in the Ottoman period, led to a big wave of immigration to the urban centres of the Hellenism: Smyrna, Constantinople, Alexandria, Odessa and others. However, there was a considerable contribution to the economic growth of the island in the 19th century. In the 1930’s there was an increase in immigration, mainly to the USA and Australia.
3. Archaeological sites and monuments
Evidence for the continuous history of Nisyros is provided by the numerous archaeological remains that are found scattered throughout the island. Only the most important will be mentioned here. Palaiokastro, the ancient acropolis of Nisyros with a history of more than 2.600 years, is located in the west, extending to the southwest of Mandraki. Cyclopean walls protected one of the most imposing settlements of Antiquity. It is constructed with big blocks of volcanic black stone. North of the gate an intact inscription declares the designated public space which should remain unoccupied for defensive purposes.
In the end of the 18th century a shift of the settlement towards the sea begun, where Mandraki has always been the harbour, a process completed in the beginning of the 20th century.
Exactly above Mandraki, at a height of 150 m. and in a direct affinity with Speliani monastery, the Knights Castle is located, a reminiscent of their presence on the island. A defensive enclosure is preserved near by. It is dated to the Classical period with artificial terraces in the inner area. In the valley east of the enclosure the ancient cemetery is located, in use from the Archaic until the Roman period.
Another monument worth mentioning, second in importance besides the volcano, is the Monastery Panaghia Speliani, protector of Nisyros and religious centre from the beginning of at least 18th century. It is located west of Mandraki and on the landside it is enclosed by the aforementioned Venetian fortress. 130 steps lead from Lagadi to its central courtyard. The first documented evidence for the existence of the monastery dates in 1600. The Cathedral was created in the natural cavity. On the 15th of August a big festival is held, with the preparations of the locals beginning from the 6th of August.
Following a southern route we meet a castle with Byzantine foundation in Emporeios, the Venetian Castle Parlentia between Nikia and Emporeios, contemporary to the castle in Mandraki, while at other points of the island watch towers have been located.
Roman baths have been discovered at Panaghia Thermiani, near one of the two complexes of modern spas. Finally, nine Early Christian have been studied.
4. Traditional architecture
There are four settlements on Nisyros: Mandraki, the capital and port, the coastal Palloi and the mountainous villages Emporeios and Nikia.
Mandraki –the toponym is encountered in the Aegean marking a port –is found in the north western end of island. It is laid out under the rock of Spiliani with maze alleys and white houses topped with pergolas and flowers. ‘Helekiomeni’(meaning of advanced age), named by the regular senior visitors, is the most popular square in Mandraki. Palloi, the fishing village of the island, is close to Mandraki (named after the latin palus, the stakes where boats were tied up).
Emporeios lies in the centre of Nisyros. It is an almost abandoned but particularly picturesque village. The houses are simpler and poorer than those in Mandraki, as well as in Nikia. The earthquake of 1933 caused considerable destruction in Emporeios and forced people to immigrate en mass.
Further south, at the highest peak of the island, Nikia is located, a rural settlement over the volcano with characteristic shed roofs. It has whitewashed houses with coloured doors and pebbled courtyards.
A common feature, shared by all settlements, is that they are developed inwards, so that they are protected from the western wind, called pounentis.
Many scattered chapels and monasteries complete the picture of the island.
On Nisyros there are an Archaeological Museum, a Folklore museum and a Collection of ancient objects, all in Mandraki. The collection of the Archaeological Museum includes pottery, funerary stelea, sculptures and architectural members mainly from the Hellenistic and Roman period. In the Historical-Folklore Museum objects of popular art, mainly utilitarian, photographs, mementos, embroideries and a traditional stove are on display. It was unified with the Museum of Popular Art and it is housed in the residence of Eirini Patriki, opposite the temple of Potamitissa, the cathedral of Mandraki. As far as the collection of ancient objects is concerned, this is outdoors and includes mainly sculptures from various places of the island. It is exhibited behind the Town Hall. Finally, many antiquities from Nisyros are in the Archaeological Museum of Rhodes.
6. Local Customs
The ‘Nine Days’ (Niamera) of Virgin Mary is an idiomorphic cult ritual that consists part of the August festivities dedicated to Virgin Mary. The ‘Nine Days’ are the period between the 6th and the 15th of August. In this interval the ‘Eniameritisses’, namely the women that perform the ritual, gather in the monastery of Panaghia Speliani and for 8 days and nights they follow their specific rite, concurrently to the ecclesiastic, in which not only the clergy but also the men participate.
On Lazarus Saturday pupils participate in the custom called ‘kalantira’. This is a custom with origins in Antiquity (known as ‘eirisioni’ for the Athenians, ‘helidonisma’ for the Rhodians) and it has survived with variations in many Greek places. The aim has always been to raise money. When the children go door to door, the landladies put in the children’s basket eggs (for the schoolteachers) and buns (for the children). Money is offered on a tray for the fund of Panaghia Speliani, which originally covered the school expenses (nowadays this money is intended for the school fund).
The economy of the island is based on agriculture, livestock-farming, fishery and tourism. Despite the absence of natural resources (with one exception), the rich volcanic soil retains humidity, therefore cultivation is particularly productive. The water supply of the island is provided by desalination of sea water. The most considerable source of income derives from the exploitation of pumice on the neighbouring island Gyali.
(Transl. Georgia Kalogeropoulou - Panagiotis Karioris)
8. The volcano of Nisyros
Nisyros is situated at the eastern end of the active volcanic arc of the South Aegean, including a geographic area, which starts from the Isthmus of Corinth, crosses the Methana peninsula, Milos, Thira and ends up at Nisyros. This area, which comprises all Greek active volcanoes, was formed when the magma, a molten rock material, rich in gas, found its way out towards the surface, after the gap caused under the Aegean area by the sinking of the African lithospheric plate. The volcano of Nisyros is the youngest in the Aegean area; older beds of rock emerged on the surface, forming the peak of the central land cone, which actually characterizes the island’s relief, approximately 160.000 years ago after a slow, underwater volcanic action. During the next 120.000 years the formation of the immense cone (diam. 7 klm, height: 600 m.) was completed through the continuous eruption of volcanic lava and ash. The two most destructive eruptions, 25.000 and 15.000 years ago, caused the forceful ejection of magma and of large quantities of pumice and ash, followed by the collapse of the volcanic cone; this resulted in the formation of Nisyros’ caldera as well as of the lava vaults, which abound on the island’s surface.
During the historical years, all the volcanic eruptions were hydrothermal; they were caused by the pressure exercised on the surface of the earth by the steam, created by the overheating of rain and sea water, after its contact with the molten magma of the earth’s interior. This procedure led to the emergence, in certain areas of the caldera, of approximately twenty craters, amongst which Stefanos, 3.000-4.000 years old, is one of the biggest and most imposing and well preserved hydrothermal craters in the world (depth: 27 m., diam.: 330 m.); at the same time the abundant hot springs, from which gush sulphureous gas and hot water (30-60 degrees C.), bear testimony that the magma is constantly moving beneath the island’s surface. The most recent hydrothermal explosions occurred in 1871 and 1877, forming the craters Polyvotis and Alexandros.
Over time, the geological results of volcanic activity determined the cultural development of Nisyros. Usually it is believed that volcanoes only cause disasters and hinder development, afflicting the surrounding areas. However, this is true only for those being in the area at the time of the eruption. A diachronic overview of this phenomenon, would lead to the conclusion that the impact of volcanic activity, especially in Nisyros, has in fact been positive.
Starting from the Prehistoric Period, one should mention the glassy and hard volcanic rock of obsidian in Gyali, which was the raw material used for the construction of tools already from the Neolithic Period, and can be found, processed, in several islands of the Aegean, competing with the obsidian of Milos, whose main characteristic is its white stains. At the same time, pumice constituted, especially in recent years, the object of systematic exploitation, making the island an important exportation centre; one of the hardest rocks in the world, the basaltic andesite, has proved to be a suitable building material, since extremely skilled stone-dressers used it in order to build the sides as well as the interior of one of the best preserved defensive works in the Aegean, the wall of the ancient town of Mandraki.
What furthermore influenced and contributed to a great extent in the island’s economic growth was the exploitation, for purposes of tourism, of the unique natural beauty of the caldera and the craters, where one can still see hot steam gushing. As for the springs, several of them were transformed into spas. The ruins in the Palon Harbour, which, by the end of the 19th century, had become the centre of a well-organized, luxurious complex of tourist attraction and, along with the operation of communal baths in Mandraki, offered an economic shot in the arm of the island’s few inhabitants, confirm that this activity is rooted in the Roman years.
The successive layers of lava and ash did not rob the island of its vegetation; on the contrary they contributed in the development of tree-based crops (oaks, olive trees, almond trees) as well as in the organized export of almonds, oaks (the skin of their fruit is useful in tannery) and figs; they also favoured the formation of the island’s green interior, as opposed to the arid landscape one sees when visiting the other volcanic islands of the Aegean, like Milos and Thira. Agriculture gave employment to the people and gave the island economy a boost.
These facts are the living proof of human adaptability and inventiveness. Man learns to cope with the unexpected, to make the most of the slightest advantage, searching new ways of resolving sustenance problems. From the example of Nisyros, we can see that the scheme volcano-progress is only seemingly contradictory; history proves that every new disaster can be an end, but can also set the stage for a new beginning.
In his Geography, Strabo (X, 489) refers to a myth according to which Nisyros was created by Poseidon, when, while he was chasing giant Polyvotis, he broke with his trident a part of Kos and threw it against him, causing the giant’s sinking and the formation of Nisyros. This narration proves that ancient Greeks were aware of the island’s volcanic activity, while the mythological connection with Kos echoes the common geological origin of the two islands, which, along with the islets Pergousa, Strongyli and Gyali, were created in the aftermath of consecutive eruptions approximately 2,5 million years ago.
(Transl. Eirini Papadaki)