03 Dec 18 2014. Massacre at Chios

Posted in on 18 December, 2014 in News

This week I had the honour of joining a list of distinguished guests who have shared their stories in the Salon of the esteemed Madame Gilflurt. Our topic of conversation was ‘Prelude to Revolution: Mahmud II and Ali Pasha of Ioannina’ whose combined actions contributed to the outbreak of The Greek War of Independence and ultimately to the Massacre of Chios. Looking at these two important people now, we associate them with terrible atrocities, but history shows us that these people were a product of their time and viewed things in a very different light.  https://www.madamegilflurt.com/2014/12/prelude-to-revolution-sultan-mahmud-ii.html 

In the prologue to The Embroiderer, the beautiful Artemis and her maid, Euphrosyne, choose to commit suicide rather than subjugate themselves to the hands of the Turks. The date, 22 April, 1822, almost a year after the outbreak of the war. It was for a good reason that the book begins during this period. The Massacre of Chios was the one of the contributing factors in changing world opinion against the Ottoman Turks in favour of the Greek struggle for an independent state. The painting by Eugene Delacroix “Scenes from the Massacre at Chios” first exhibited in 1824, two years after the massacre, and bought by King Charles X for The Louvre in Paris, did much to propel the The Greek War of Independence into the limelight, as did the works of Lord Byron. But what of the massacre itself: why was this a turning point in the war, after all, Chios was not liberated from Turkey until after The Balkan Wars, 1912-13 under The Treaty of Athens? For us to understand the situation today, we must look at the situation in Chios prior to the outbreak of war.


“Scenes from the Massacre at Chios” by Eugene Delacroix

The island of Chios is 32 miles long and 18 miles wide. It lies 6 miles from the coast of Turkey and its closest neighbours are Samos to the south and Psara and Lesbos to the north. Relative to many other islands, it had a sophisticated population and was arguably the richest shipping and trading centre in the eastern Mediterranean, being on the important trade routes to Constantinople through to the Black Sea and Russia, and Smyrna – modern day Izmir – the stepping stone to Damascus, Baghdad and the Far East. For 2,000 years its shipowners dominated trade and diplomacy in the region and the Ottomans, appreciating this fact, left the Chians largely in control of own affairs. The island is also endowed with a pleasant climate and many an early traveller commented on its “pleasant and fragrant gardens abounding with all sorts of fruit”. With such favourable descriptions, we can be forgiven for thinking this is the setting for “Alkinoos’ Garden” from Homer’s The Odyssey.

To left and right, outside, he saw an orchard

closed by a pale – four spacious acres planted

with trees in bloom or weighted down for picking:

pear trees, pomegranates, brilliant apples,

luscious figs, and olives ripe and dark.

Fruit never failed upon these trees: winter

and summertime they bore, for through the year

the breathing west-wind ripened all in turn –

so one pear came to prime, and then another,

and so on with apples, figs and the vine’s fruit

empurpled in the royal vineyard there.

Currants were dried at one end, on a platform

bare to the sun, beyond the vintage arbours

and vats the vintners trod, while near at hand

were new grapes barely formed as the green bloom fell.

After the vines came rows of vegetables

of all kinds that flourish in every season,

And through the garden plots and orchards ran

channels from one clear fountain, while another

rushed through a pipe under the courtyard entrance

to serve the house and all who came for water.

These were the gifts of heaven to Alkinoos.


But there was one more thing that Chios had to offer, more highly-prized than any fruit – mastic. Mastic is the gum of the Lentisk tree, an evergreen bush growing to a height of 2-3 metres. During the Turkish occupation, the mastic villages came under the patronage of the Sultan’s mother – the Valide Sultan. The villages were well-hidden from passing ships and were well-guarded. Anyone caught stealing even the tiniest amount of mastic would be executed without question. In lieu of taxes, all the mastic was taken sent to Constantinople. Much of it went to the ladies of the harem. The medicinal qualities of mastic have been known for thousands of years. Egyptians used mastic in their bowls to store water, Christopher Columbus – a visitor to Chios – is purported to have carried it in his medicinal chest on his voyage to the New World, and it is also an essential ingredient in Turkish ice-cream. It has a pleasant and unusual aroma, somewhat reminiscent of incense. Accordingly, the mastic villages – clustered in the south-western part of the island – were spared the first round of the Turkish onslaught, but it would prove to be only a matter of time before they also succumbed to the catastrophe about to unfold.


The medieval mastic village of Pyrgi

When The Greek War of Independence broke out in March 1821, Chios was encouraged to join the rebellion. The islanders thought long and hard about this. Would they be better off as part of a new Greek State, after all, they already led a prosperous life and had autonomy over their affairs. Besides, they had no weapons and being so close to the Turkish mainland, many considered it an act of suicide. In order to guarantee the Sultan their loyalty, the leaders offered up hostages from among Chios’s ruling families. On 27th April, 1821, Admiral Tombazes and his fleet of twenty-five vessels dropped anchor north of Chios. Messages were sent to the leaders urging them to join the rebellion. When they refused, his fleet sailed on. Sultan Mahmud II is angered by the presence of Admiral Tombazes’ fleet in the area and demands forty more hostages. Throughout the autumn and winter, a stalemate exists with the hostages still held captive in Chios and Constantinople. All Chians are forbidden to leave the island. The Sultan also dispatches 1,000 assorted mercenaries of dubious character to reinforce the garrison.

Sultan Mahmud II

Sultan Mahmud II

The situation changes when the Samian revolutionary, Logothetis, invades Chios with the intention of ‘saving’ the islanders. The Turkish population retreats into the Kastro and the Pasha calls for reinforcements. Having previously been warned by the British Consul in Smyrna that “something is amiss”, Sultan Mahmud panics. This is the last straw. Outraged, he orders the immediate execution of several hostages and declaring a Jihad against the infidel Christians, dispatches Kapitan-Pasha Kara-Ali’s fleet to set sail immediately for Chios. The orders are to kill all males over twelve, all women over forty and all two year-old children.Three weeks later, his flagship, the Maizural-Livo (“Victory”), can be seen approaching Chios along with six battleships, two frigates, four corvettes, two Algerian brigs, two bomb-ketches and eight transports with 4,000 troops. He is also joined by 7,000 troops from Smyrna. The massacre begins. Where fragrant gardens once flourished, corpses now litter the island. Those hiding in the mastic villages are encouraged to surrender and immediately executed. 2,000 women, children and priests seek sanctuary in the Byzantine monastery of Nea Moni but are either slaughtered, burnt alive or rounded up for the slave market. Forty-seven more hostages are publicly hanged. Their heads, along with those of the Metropolitan Plato and his deacon, Makarios, were put on display and later sent to Constantinople where the Sultan celebrated his victory over the Chians by displaying them in pyramids at the Topkapi. With the island bathed in blood, the final catastrophe was about to unfold.

Nea Moni Monastery

The Byzantine Monastery of Nea Moni

On 18/19 June, 1822, Admiral Kanaris, a native of the nearby island of Psara, approaches Chios under cover of darkness. Kapitan-Pasha Kara Ali is aboard his flagship celebrating Ramadan. In a daring attack in which the Admiral is killed, his fire ship sets alight the Maizural-Livo. Kapitan-Pasha Kara Ali is killed whilst trying to escape. Over two thousand passengers, mostly men, women and children destined for the slave markets perish with him. The Turks now avenge their dead by intensifying their atrocities. Very little of Chios is left. The libraries, schools, hospitals and all but one church are destroyed. This time the mastic villagers are also hunted down and killed. The island of Psara is laid waste. With no-one to work or care for the land, survivors begin to die of disease and hunger.  It is estimated that over 20,000 lost their lives and another 45,000 were taken into slavery. With the sudden glut in slaves, the prices in Constantinople’s slave market tumble and some slaves are offered up for as little as 100 piasters each. The Chian Diaspora is scattered far and wide. Some fled to the island of Syros which was regarded as a neutral port, and used their wealth and business acumen to further the island’s prosperity. Others went to Tinos. Many more went further afield to Trieste, Livorno, Marseilles, Paris,  London, Manchester and America.

The destruction of the Ottoman flagship by Abmiral Kanaris

The destruction of the Ottoman flag-ship, Maizural-Livo, by Admiral Kanaris

When I visited Chios prior to beginning The Embroiderer, the legacy of the massacre was still there for all to see. Turkish radio and TV channels are picked up in Chios, and Turkish tourists now visit the island during the summer months, but less than a handful of Turks live on the island. The view from my hotel balcony looked directly across the water to the Turkish mainland and in the evening, the twinkling lights of Chesme could clearly be seen. After two weeks on the island, I knew this was where my story must begin – and end. The untimely death of Artemis was just one of thousands, but unlike real-life, Artemis gave birth to a child. In The Embroiderer, the fate of that child is the thread that binds the next few generations together.