Chios island: History & things to do

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Key Takeaways

  • Chios is a hidden gem in Greece, offering beautiful beaches, valleys, mountains, caves, and gorges, along with rich history and authentic culture.
  • The island of Chios has a significant place in Greek history, contributing to the formation of the New Greek State and showcasing Greece's ancient heritage.
  • Chios is renowned for its mastic production and is home to the Nea Moni Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and possible birthplace of Homer.
  • Must-visit attractions on Chios include the rock of Homer, the temple of Athena, the Castle of Chios, Nea Moni monastery, the villages of Pyrgi and Anavatos, and the traditional mastic villages.

At the eastern borders of Greece, the island of Chios is a hidden gem for everyone that wants to explore its rich history and authentic culture. Choose the Greek island of Chios as your next holiday destination, and let us show you what you should definitely not miss there!

Chios is the fifth largest Greek island, floating in the Aegean Sea. With a territory of about 842 km^2, the island offers gorgeous beaches with cooling waters on both its eastern and western coast, long-stretching valleys, high mountains for hiking lovers, deep caves for adventurers, and magical gorges carved by fast-flowing rivers.

Except for its natural beauty, Chios is a place displaying Greece's history since the Neolithic age and impressive monuments from different time periods, ideal for visitors to sink into the island’s culture. 

The island of Chios is nowadays also known among the Aegean islands for its mastic production, and it is home to the Nea Moni Monastery, protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and as the most likely birthplace of the great poet Homer.

The History of Chios Island

Those who want to probe a bit deeper into the island's history, though, will quickly realize that Chios, an integral part of Greek culture, had a leading role in Greek history and contributed greatly to the formation of the New Greek State. Follow us then to the island of Orion, and let’s scratch the surface of what Chios has to offer.

The Tale of Orion

Blind Orion Searching for the Sun - Nicolas Poussin - credits: metmuseum.org

According to the legend, one day, Zeus and Poseidon did what they always enjoyed doing the most, a walk on earth among mortals disguised as regular men.

During one of their walks, they traveled to the lands of Boeotia, where they were housed by Hyrieus, a local hero of the region. Hyrieus, oblivious to the fact that he was hosting gods, offered them whatever he could to make sure that his guests were satisfied enough.

At that time, Hyrieus was an old man, and although he led quite a fulfilling life, he disclosed his sole complaint to his guests. He did not have any offspring, a fact that made him feel miserable and unworthy.

Once Zeus and Poseidon left, contemplating the words of Hyrieus, they decided to grant him this one last wish. The next day, when Hyrieus opened his door to go to his fields, he found on his doorstep a baby wrapped in silk swathe, young Orion.

Years passed, and Orion grew up into a handsome young man and a really talented hunter. By having divine origins, he surely stood out from the rest of the mortals.

First, he was abnormally tall (some sources describe him as a giant), he had quite the looks, and also, he had the ability to walk on the surface of the water, a gift granted to him by Poseidon.

Since he was a young boy, he was thought to be the best hunter who ever lived, and he was even allowed to accompany the virgin goddess Artemis to her hunting campaigns.

During one of his hunting trips, he walked from the island of Crete to Chios, where he saw and fell in love immediately with a beautiful young maiden, Merope.

She was the daughter of Oenopion, son of Dionysus, and Ariadne, ruler of the island of Chios. Orion, madly in love with his daughter, asked Oenopion to allow him to marry her.

The king eventually agreed on one condition; Orion had to hunt down the wild beasts that were roaming the plains of Chios and destroying their crops. Orion accepted the deal, but when he showed himself again in front of the king, he found out a surprise.

Oenopion had changed his mind and refused to give his daughter to Orion as his wife. In addition, he forced him to drink a cup of poisonous wine (he was the son of Dionysus, after all) that he had prepared earlier, turning Orion blind.

The nebula of Orion - credits: nasa.gov

Once poor Orion was blind, Oenopion captured him and threw him into the sea. Wandering blind, he was rescued by Hephaestus, who, accompanied by Artemis, took him to Apollo, asking him to cure him (other versions of the myth mention Cedalion and Helios).

Once his vision was restored, Orion sought fruitlessly revenge from Oenopion because the king had hidden in an underground bronze chamber. Orion continued his life as the best hunter alive, but his greatest talent came to be his death sentence.

The most common story was that Orion bragged he would hunt down and kill all the beasts of the earth, so Gaia (Mother Earth- the Titaness) sent a Scorpion to destroy him. 

Orion and the Scorpion, after the request of Artemis, were placed amongst the stars as opposing constellations; one rises as the other sets.

In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus saw Orion in the Underworld continuing to do what he knew best; hunting beasts with a bronze club.

The Greek island of Chios in antiquity

Mint coins in the Archaeological Museum of Chios island, Greece - credits: metmuseum.orgorg

Archaeological finds on the island suggest that Chios has been inhabited since the Neolithic period, like few other Greek islands, being an integral part of the growth of western civilization.

Ancient sources inform us that the first settlers were the famous Leleges, an ancient tribe of Greece that was subjected to the mighty Minoans.

After the invasion of the Ionians to the region, a shift of power is observed through the existence of prosperous Mycenaean settlements. The largest one is found at Emporio at the southernmost point of the island.

In the coming centuries, the population of the island of Chios gradually increased, and the inhabitants started expanding their territories and interests by founding colonies on other Greek islands and to the coast of Asia Minor. In the 7th century BC, Chios was included in the Ionian League, a political and religious confederation of twelve Ionian city-states.

As a member of the league, Chios developed trading and economy, and it was one of the first city-states that minted coins. It seems that Chios had adopted a type of regiment that was based on the reformations that Solon introduced in Athens.

Steadily, traders from Chios expanded their routes even more, even beyond the Greek region, since Chian amphoras have been found at locations in Russia and Egypt. During the early years of the 5th century, the Persian Empire invaded the island and subjected it until 479 BC, when they revolted and gained their autonomy once again.

Then, Chios joined the Delian League securing its protection from the Persian threat.

Generally, the island followed the course of Greek history, meaning that it participated in the Peloponnesian War, got under the influence of Alexander the Great, and ultimately was included in the Roman Empire.

During Byzantine times, the geographical significance of the island was put in the foreground, and a huge defensive construction program happened, now visible at the Castle of Chios.

In 1042, Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos founded Nea Moni, a monastery located approximately at the center of the island.

This monastery belongs to the UNESCO network of World Heritage Sites as a fine example of Byzantine architecture with the lavish decoration of exquisite mosaics and frescoes dating to the 11th century.

The interior of the monastery with its spectacular mosaics - credits: explorechios.gr

Even after the fall of the Byzantine empire and the coming of the Ottomans, Chios continued to be an important trading center of the Aegean Sea. Notably, the 18th century is considered to be the golden age of the island.

Vast amounts of money were accumulated on the island due to the trading activities of the people of Chios in the silk industry, textile trade, and of course, due to the cultivation of mastic resin.

Because of its income, the island had special privileges during Ottoman rule. Everything changed, though, after the Greek War of Independence.

Chios joined the Revolution in 1822, and the reaction of the Sultan was immediate and brutal. He sent his fleet from Istanbul and 7.000 men to put an end to this revolt.

The Ottoman army was burning everything to the ground for 40 days and had specific orders to kill every infant younger than 3 years old, every male person over 12, and every woman over 40 years old.

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More than 23.000 people were murdered, 10.000 died out of hardship, and over 47.000 people were sold as slaves to different slave markets in the Mediterranean area.

This event shook Europe deeply, and the famous painter Eugene Delacroix created his masterpiece to honor the people of Chios, the massacre at Chios.

Today the island has recovered demographically, and the inhabitants make their living from the traditional cultivation of mastic trees and other activities such as trading, fishing, and tourism.

Chios is definitely a place of wonder with a vast history and monuments from every time period.

Therefore, for those that want to find themselves in a destination off the beaten path and experience a true taste of Greece, Chios island is the place for you to be. 

Places to visit on Chios Island

If you are thinking of the island of Chios as your next holiday destination. Check the article below as we have prepared a list for you of the things you must see while on the island.

Daskalopetra - the rock of Homer

The seat of Homer on Chios - credits: Constantinos Iliopoulos/Shutterstock.com

Homer is the father of ancient Greek literature. For the ancient Greeks, his works were the very core and essence of their culture, serving as their bonding myths, epic history, and a common reference for every Greek regardless of his individual origins.

During antiquity, his works Iliad and Odyssey were taught in schools, and people always referred to them as exemplary, perfect pieces of literature.

Even though many biographies existed in ancient times, not enough information survived to modern times regarding his life. It is known that seven cities rivaled as his hometown, but today scholars consider the cities of Smyrna and Chios as the best candidates.

Homer belonged to the group of the Ionian Greeks, and he was the son of Maeon from Smyrna and Critheis. Originally his name was Melisigenis, but later on, he was named Homer (meaning the one that cannot see) because of his blindness. Even during his time, he was a famous wandering bard telling his stories all over Greece.

On the eastern shores of the Greek island of Chios, close to the beautiful village of Vrontados, there is a site closely connected to Homer's story. This archaeological site was identified as the famous school of Homer, and the carved rock in the middle of it was symbolically named Homer’s rock.

Today, archaeologists have proven that the site belongs to the 6th-century sanctuary of Cybele, the mother-goddess of Anatolian origins.

The temple of Athena, one of the most imposing on the Greek islands

Temple of Athena in the village of Emporeios, Chios, Greece - credits: http://www.greece.com 

At the southernmost point of the island lies the small village of Emporeios, one of the most important ancient settlements of Chios. The first habitation is dated to Neolithic times, and it seems that people decided to settle there because of the presence of fresh water.

A large Mycenaean settlement was unearthed in the first half of the 20th century, which provided valuable information and artifacts not just for the settlement itself but for the development of prehistoric urban planning during that time period.

At the Acropolis of Emporeios, a megaron building was found that was identified as the seat of the ruler. In archaic times, a temple to Athena was built nearby, overlooking the sea passage from Chios to the coast of Asia Minor.

After its destruction in the 5th century BC, the people of the island of Chios rebuilt it following the design of the archaic temple. Today, the visitor can wander around the ancient Acropolis and check out up close the Mycenaean megaron and the ruins of the temple of Athena, all in an idyllic setting.

The Castle of Chios at Chios Town

Chios, Greece - credits: Shutterstock.com

For those that will choose to reach Chios by ferry, the sight of its castle will definitely compensate for the long ferry ride.

Located at the modern Chios town port, the castle is the most impressive attraction the visitor can see and a perfect opportunity to sink into the island's history.

It includes ruins and monuments dating as far back as Hellenistic times, a fact that shows that it has been an area of pivotal importance since then.

Today’s existing medieval structure dates from the 14th to the 16th century CE, and it is a result of the Latin occupation of Chios. This huge pentagonal structure in Chios town has strong towers and heavily fortified gates, ensuring that way its security from sieges and invasions.

The really interesting fact, though, is that the castle of Chios is one of the few castles that is still inhabited! A picturesque neighborhood still exists inside the walls of the castle, painting a nice picture of how medieval life used to be.

If you ever find yourselves in Chios town, do not miss the chance to wander around the narrow alleyways of its castle, check out ancient ruins literally at your feet, and feel the vibe of a medieval settlement.

Nea Moni

Nea Moni - credits: Constantinos Iliopoulos/Shutterstock.com

Some 12 kilometers west of Chios town lies the medieval monastery of Nea Moni. Located at the top of a hill, Nea Moni is overlooking the valley stretching in front of it. The monastery has a fascinating history waiting for you to explore.

Founded during the 11th century, its buildings are fine examples of imperial Byzantine architecture, which include exquisite mosaics designed by the imperial workshops.

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In addition, during the years of the Greek War of Independence, Nea Moni was the ground of one of the most terrifying events that happened on the island.

The reaction of the Ottoman Empire to the news of the Greek revolt was brutal. Thousands of people were slaughtered, and those who found refuge in the monastery met their end on the spot as well.

Today, Nea Moni is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the 18 in our country. In case you want to learn more about its history before your visit, click here.

The village of Pyrgi

The picturesque narrow streets at the village of Pyrgi, Chios island, Greece - credits: Constantinos Iliopoulos/Shutterstock.com

The medieval village of Pyrgi is located in the south part of the island of Chios, some 26 km away from the port. The name of the village is mentioned in documents of the 11th century CE. It was founded after the decision of farmers from different villages to create an inland community to avoid the danger of piracy.

Pyrgi is one of the medieval villages of Chios island that was not severely destroyed by the earthquake of 1881. Therefore, it retains its particular architecture and medieval urban planning. The village's narrow alleys will take you on a time-traveling journey back in a long-forgotten era.

Tall stone houses, Byzantine churches, ancient wells, and many more attractions will raise your interest while there. Another thing that will surely catch you by surprise is the endless presence of geometric patterns covering the walls of the stone houses.

Scholars still debate on its origins, but the custom of Xista is a customary decorative thing to do to your house, creating quite an impressive and beautiful result. In addition, the Pyrgians are renowned dancers that still love to wear their traditional costumes on every special occasion.

To experience your visit to its fullest, ask the locals about the upcoming festivals and let yourselves loose to the hospitable hands of the people of Pyrgi. The village is one of the top Chios attractions for sure.

The fortified village of Anavatos

This small village is located approximately at the center of the island and is one of the most impressive fortified settlements of the Aegean Sea. According to the legend, the village was founded in the 11th century after the influx of workers and artisans to Chios for the construction of the monastery of Nea Moni.

Located at the top of a mountain, it is naturally fortified by some surrounding cliffs and two deep gorges. Throughout its history, it was one of the most well-protected medieval villages, often hosting villagers from the nearby region in cases of pirate raids or warfare.

Due to its stone-built houses and its medieval urban planning, scholars compare this village to the great fortified city of Mystras. The massacre at Chios and the earthquake of 1881 took a terrible blow to the village’s population. In 2011, the national census revealed that only one person was living in Anavatos, making it an almost abandoned site.

Today, the visitor can follow the traditional trail to the village, admire its medieval architecture, and gaze at the spectacular view of the plains and sea of Chios.

The mastic villages of Chios island

The traditional cultivation of mastic trees in the traditional mastic villages, Chios, Greece- credits: tolgaildun/Shutterstock.com

The few places in the world where mastic trees thrive and produce a resin of a specific composition known as mastiha, are the south plains of Chios island in traditional mastic villages (where the largest production happens) and some places of the nearby Turkish coast of Asia Minor. 

According to the legend, in 250 CE, the Roman authorities of Chios issued a bounty on the head of a Christian, St. Isidore, the patron saint of the Greek island.

One day, a few Roman soldiers managed to identify him and started chasing him all over the region of Chios valley. The desperate saint asked for the help of Jesus Christ, and then miraculously, a white horse appeared that took him away in a heartbeat.

Close to the village of Mesta, the saint decided to rest under a mastic tree. By the time Agios Isidoros (or Saint Isidoros) laid on the earth, the tree started pouring its sap from its trunk like shedding tears in order to heal the wounds of St. Isidore.

Since Roman times then, Chios's islanders have cultivated those trees intensively to collect their valuable resin. Many villages (over 20) were organized around this small area where those trees were to be found. Gradually, large-scale production started to happen on the island.

During the Latin occupation, the rulers of Chios decided to intensify and put the foundations of monopolizing Chios' production, establishing almost suffocating protection to those villages.

No one was allowed to visit the area without a good reason, and no farmer had the right to abandon his fields without permission. This policy survived up until the middle of the 19th century, and this partially-established isolation of those villages resulted in the formation of different customs and dialects.

In antiquity, mastiha (the final product) was known for its medicinal properties, and in ancient Egypt, it was used for the mummification process.

In addition, it is a substance widely known and used in the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea as a medicine for various diseases and, of course, for culinary purposes.

Different cuisines, including Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and the Middle East, have recipes that include mastiha, and many of their desserts have its particular taste.

If you find yourselves on Chios, spend some time exploring the south part of the island and experience its authentic atmosphere by wandering around a medieval village.  

Final Thoughts

From ancient temples and abandoned fortified settlements to medieval castles and fertile lands, and mastic villages flavored with the rare mastic resin, the island of Chios has it all! Plan your own trip to Chios, or perhaps check out one of our Greek island tours.

It is no coincidence that Christopher Columbus was rumored to have come from Chios!

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