PSARÁ: The poverty of its land, with not even vines enough to make the customary libations to Dionysos, was noted in Antiquity. It is little wonder that the islanders turned to the sea therefore and became talented mariners – famous for their skill at combating pirates – and operating a substantial commercial navy in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Those who escaped the reprisals of 1824 settled in Syros, in an area of the city known to this day as ‘Psarianá': they went on once again to become a vital element in the lucrative shipping industry of the island, continuing their age-old tradition as expert seamen.
The names – ‘Psará', meaning ‘the greys' or ‘grizzled things'; ‘Mavri Rachi' (‘black ridge') for the acropolis-like rock that dominates the port – are eloquent of the island's character. The arrival at Psará is always sombre: the island has a beautiful and sculpted profile, but it's rock is as barren and dark as its story is tragic. Today, less than five hundred souls inhabit what remains of the once elegant main town.
Because of its strategic position at the edge of open waters on the trade routes leading from the south west Aegean towards the Black Sea and Asia Minor coasts, Psará had a flourishing Mycenaean settlement in the 14th and 13th centuries BC. The site, which lies along the island's western shore at Lákka, has yielded almost 50 cist graves with a wealth of grave-gifts, both of metal and pottery.
The first written reference to the island is in Book III of the Odyssey, where its name is given by Nestor as ‘Psyria'. Strabo mentions its good harbour, and Demosthenes refers to the island in connection with the strong winds that hinder navigation in its waters – a fact no less true today. Excavations have revealed Hellenistic settlement close by the site of the present town at Mavri Rachi, and a Roman presence both at Xerókambos in the north of the island and in the Limnos Bay area on the south coast.
In the First Russo-Turkish war of 1768-74 Psariot ships harried the Turkish fleet but escaped reprisals because the Ottoman commander was prevented from landing by bad weather. The island's fleet subsequently achieved protection and prosperity by sailing under the Russian flag after the termination of hostilities with the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca (1774) between Catherine the Great and Sultan Abdul Hamid I. Psará was the birthplace of Ioannis Varvakis (1745-1825), Nikolis Apostolis (1770-1827), Constantine Kanaris (?1793-1877), and many other noted sailors. At the beginning of the war of Greek Independence in 1821 the island was among the first to revolt, proceeding to cause the Turkish fleet particular annoyance. Under the command of Nikolis Apostolis, Psará formed, together with Hydra and Spetses, the ‘Three Island Fleet' which was to play such an important role in the uprising. Refugees began to arrive from Chios, Lesbos and Smyrna, swelling the population to perhaps as much as 20,000. In 1823 the Psariot fleet raided the coast of Asia Minor: in revenge, the Turks under their Egyptian commander, Hosref Pasha, attacked the island from Mytilene in May 1824, surrounding it with a force of 140 ships and finally storming it in June with 14,000 Janissaries. The islanders blew up their own powder magazines at Ftelió and at Mavri Rachi, and only 3,000 souls escaped the subsequent massacre. Ruined houses, a couple of simple white memorials, and a famous six-line epigram by Dionysios Solomos bear witness to the event. The few survivors fled to Syros and to Monemvasia, and later founded ‘Nea Psará' (at Eretria) on Euboea. In spite of special electoral privileges given to the island in 1844 and Franco-Greek social and cultural projects initiated in the 1980s, the island has never truly recovered momentum.
The large sheltered bay of Psará on the southwest corner of the island is formed of two wide sweeps, protected to the south by the steep and looming rock of Mávri Ráchi or ‘Palaiokastro', formerly the acropolis of ancient Psyra in historic times: traces of a Hellenistic settlement (3rd to 1st centuries BC) have been uncovered by archaeologists on the north slope, with the cemetery occupying the lowest reaches. Today the summit of the ridge is gained by means of a stepped, stone path which leads up to the church of Aghia Anna and Aghios Ioannis, standing on a terrace at the top. The tumbled remains of walls can be seen here, running south along the ridge; but they are too ruined and subject to subsequent modification to bear any recognisable ancient character. Some of the blocks in the north corner of the west front of Aghia Anna, however, may be antique; above, the façade is decorated with immured tiles and ceramic dishes. A simple monument to the south of the church records the hopeless resistance here of the locals against the punitive Turkish invasion of 1824. There are fine views towards Chios to the east; and to Andros and Euboea, visible on the horizon to the southwest and west respectively, when conditions are clear. Immediately west, in the foreground, is the pleasing form of the island of Antípsara – uninhabited by humans and for that reason a favoured nesting site for the shearwaters and shags which frequent the open waters to the west.Wikidata ID: Q1330873
Info: McGilchrist's Greek Islands
(From McGilchrist’s Greek Islands, © Nigel McGilchrist 2010, excerpted with his gracious permission. Click for the books)