Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Chaos, Chios and Cesme

I was never supposed to be in Chios or Cesme. The idea was to get the nine hour ferry from Pireaus to Lesbos and then sail into Turkey via Ayvalik. But somehow I was convinced the ferry made good time from the mainland or that I had researched it wrong and it was only a seven hour voyage. In any case I blissfully disembarked the ferry from Pireaus and sought out the nearest hotel as the last light faded behind the hills of the port.

It was not until I entered the lobby of the hotel that I noticed something was amiss. The wording on the scenic picture that greeted me was Chios not Lesbos. I did not want to ask the lady at the desk where I was (which seemed too silly for words). Then I remembered some people on board the ship who did not seem in a hurry to disembark. Putting that together with the 2 hours gained, I realised there and then that my ferry made two stops and I had accidentally got off at the first port of call. At that moment the ferryboat hooted loudly and I could see it leaving port by the window. For better or worse I was staying in Chios.

Immediately I smiled at my mistake for I knew this was actually a good outcome. Researching ways into Turkey via the Greek islands, several Internet sites said Lesvos was the most expensive port of departure and Chios and others were a lot cheaper. Plus it meant I would land in Cesme which was loaded in history. All that remained was to find out more about Chios itself.

It was a large island by Aegean standards. Lesbos was Greece's third largest island and Chios wasn't far behind in fifth. The large island was itself another reason why it never twigged I was headed for the wrong place.

The fame of this island is based upon its mastic gum. Mastic is a small tree almost unique to Chios. In a small area on the south of the island, mastic trees produce a distinctively flavoured resin, also known as mastic. Mastic has been used as a spice for over 2,000 years as a gum, medicine or to spice up cakes, pastries and liqueurs. When Chios was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire, the spice and the area it grew in became crucial to defend.

I took a leisurely local bus to the town of Mesta barely 35km from the town of Chios but one hour away on narrow winding roads. Here in the southwest of the island is the heart of mastic production. This village, like many around it, was built in defensive formation with the houses tightly packed around the church making it difficult for enemies to penetrate. These mastic villages have controlled the gum production since Roman times.

The pretty town of Chios itself faces off the Turkish port of Cesme visible less than 10km away. The waters between the towns were the scene of a crucial 18th century naval battle that was instrumental in the growing reputation of the Ottomans as the sick man of Europe. Here in 1770 was fought the battle of Chesma in the Russo-Turkish war. Aided by British naval officer Rear Admiral John Elphinstone, Russian forces under the command of Grigory Potemkin defeated the Turkish navy which sought refuge in Cesme. Potemkin was a particular favourite of the German born Tsarina Catherine the Great who called him endearingly "my dear pigeon".

Dear pigeon's victory established Russian control of the Aegean and Catherine erected Cesme Palace in his honour. The palace is still extant but it is the Cesme castle that is the major drawcard. The castle was built by the Genoese rulers of the 14th century and passed into Ottoman hands around 1400. Bristling with towers that slide down the hill to the port, the castle presents a fearsome barrier to control of the mainland. Outside lies a statue that attempts to turn this dark page of Ottoman history into a victory.

This is the monument of Gazi Hasan Pasha next to his lion. Kaptan Pasha was a former slave who rose through the Ottoman naval ranks. He avoided worse disaster in the battle of Chesme by withdrawing part of the Turkish fleet to port. Despite personally bringing the bad news of defeat to the Sublime Porte in Constantinople, he was eventually promoted Grand Vizier. Cesme still proudly honours the Pasha, an attitude probably for the best when dealing with someone with such a potentially nasty pet.

1 comment:

Grant said...

Show put this in Irish I's too?