Sunday, September 26, 2010

Chapter I - The Land of Homer

Our story really begins on island of Chios in the eastern Aegean Sea, the place where our family hails from. More accurately, the village of Lagada, a tiny fishing village a few kilometres north of Chios town, on the east coast of the island.

Map of Chios - Eastern Aegean
In 1998 I had the chance to return to the family island, the village. The historian in me had already set about researching the background of Chios, one of the largest islands in the Aegean with its mountainous landscapes, ornate villages and beautiful beaches. The island is perhaps most famous now for being the only place where masticha trees grow; the resin from these ancient squatters has been the island’s source of wealth for thousands of years and continues as such where other items like Chian wine, a luxury item of the ancient world, have faded into the realm of memory. Masticha has been used in everything from chewing gum, alcohol and medicines to glue, nail polish and instrument lacquer to name a few. There are several medieval masticha villages (including Pyrgi, Olympi, Mesta) which are well worth a visit if only to see the dizzying array of buildings covered top-to-bottom with black and white geometric patterns.

The island is also known as one of the possible birthplaces of the poet Homer, to whom the epic Iliad and Odyssey have been attributed for ages. Homer has generally been thought to have been born c. 850B.C., four hundred years before the historian Herodotos. For hundreds of years afterward, there was a guild of bards on Chios known as the Homeridae (the Sons of Homer) who specialized in Homeric recitation.

The first colonist of Chios is said to have been Oinopionas, a grandson of King Minos of Crete. Oinopionas was said to have brought the art of viticulture to the island thereby teaching the inhabitants to make the wine for which Chios would later be so renowned. Oinopionas had a daughter whose name was Chiona, whom the island was said to be named for.

Reproduction of Chios' ancient seal
During the classical period of antiquity, Chios was one of the original twelve members of the Ionian league, taking as its symbol the Sphinx for almost 900 years.  Amphorae bearing the Sphinx and grape seal have been found as far away as Gaul, Upper Egypt and Eastern Russia. Shipping and trade have always been part and parcel of Chios and its people, as it was and is for many islands. Though the island is vast and varied in its terrain, the sea is a part of everyone’s lives, everything. The sea has surrounded it, created it, destroyed parts and given birth to others. As with many island cultures, the sea has influenced music and poetry, trade and tragedy. It allowed people to settle on the island, to find refuge, but also to escape it, however reluctantly.

The small village of Lagada, where the Haviaras family comes from, produced mainly two things, fishermen and merchant marines. Though the name ‘Haviaras’ is derived from the word for caviar, my grandfather entered the merchant navy during World War II, the sea being the vehicle by which he would begin his own Odyssey to America.

I should not get ahead of myself however, for there is one thing that shaped the place where my grandparents came from perhaps more than the crystalline globules of the much sought-after masticha trees – WAR.

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