Saturday, September 1, 2012

A Brief History of Mykonos Yields a Perspective on its Future

I returned from Greece to New York late Monday night and left yesterday for San Francisco to attend my nephew’s nearly weeklong wedding celebration (Congratulations Steven and Kelsey:)).  A different sort of celebration will be held September 7th at 7PM at Janet Rudolph’s Mystery Readers Salon in Berkeley when I appear along with some guy named Hallinan.  I sure hope he’s funny because it takes me quite awhile to get over that east to west jet lag thing.
And, yes, there is that bit of an emotional down that comes into play each time I think about spending September on book tour instead of free diving in the Aegean (for a more detailed self-pitying rant, please see last Saturday’s blog).  But I perk up at the thought of bringing along my spear gun to fend off all those “rogue authors” sharking about these days.  Yes, I made up “sharking.”  So what?  If writers can make up reviews why can’t I make up one itsy-bitsy, teensy-weensy little word?

Oh well, while my mind is still on (and in) Mykonos, let me share a thought or two with you.  But first, a little history:

Neglected Mykonos on far right
Mykonos wasn’t always a tourist paradise, though it’s said that during the hot summers of 250 BCE or so, when the neighboring holy island of Delos’ was in its heyday as the commercial trading center for the ancient world, Delosians would send their wives and children to Mykonos.  Not so much to holiday, as many wealthy Athenian husbands send them today, but to save them from the advances of thousands of anonymous sailors and traders passing through the island looking for ways to spend their time.  (I doubt Mykonos would qualify as a sanctuary for virtue these days, but perhaps you might want to check that out for yourself––on Trip Advisor, of course).

The history of Mykonos, as with everything in Greece, is wrapped up in the gods. Some say the island’s name comes from Apollo’s grandson, Mykons, though others claim it just meant “a pile of rocks” in keeping with the myth that Heracles fought the Giants in aid of Zeus and after defeating them threw the Giants into the sea where they turned to rock that is now Mykonos.

Hercules/Heracles battling the Giants
The first evidence of inhabitants on Mykonos dates back to 4000 BCE, but for most of the following six-thousand years its proximity to the more commercially developed islands of Delos, Syros, and Tinos, as well as the foreign dominator then in control––Carians, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Minoans, Ionians, Athenians, Macedonians, Romans, Venetians, Turks, Russians, and others all dominated at some point––determined whether the island prospered or not.

Two other significant elements played a part in Mykonos’ development: piracy and plague.  The island was haunted by pirates virtually from antiquity, so much so that it became home to many and legend for its able-bodied seamen willing to sail to wherever there was commerce or battle.

But sea travel brought with it many perils, including plague.  As recently as the mid-19th Century (1854 according to the Mykonos historical society) plague so badly ravished the population that those who survived and did not flee to other islands or the mainland, were too few to work the fields or take care of the animals.  That’s when the Church induced immigrants from islands such as Crete, Naxos, Santorini, and Folegandros to move to Mykonos, offering the promise of a new start for them and the hope of a new beginning for the island.

A flicker of promise appeared after World War I that tourism might take root, but World War II crushed it.  The German army’s program of taking everything for themselves and leaving nothing for the occupied people brought devastating famine and death to Mykonians on a scale greater than almost anywhere else in Greece.

All old Mykonos photographs courtesy of Dimitris Koutsoukos
After World War II came war on the mainland between the left and the right, and in the fifties and early sixties a mass exodus of the island’s youth to Athens and far off lands in search of a better life.

Against that six thousand years of struggle it is amazing indeed how in little more than a single generation Mykonos was transformed into its present day wonder and the long-impoverished Mykonians became among the wealthiest per capita people in Greece.

So, what does all that history portend for the future of the island?  Some may think it presumptuous of me to offer an opinion, but since I have one, why not give it?  Besides, I’m safely out of the country.:)

Almost forever, Mykonians were an overlooked people living in poverty under a range of different foreign occupiers, some good, some not.  They saw their families slaughtered, carried off as slaves, die from strange diseases brought to their island from foreign lands, and starve to death.

Mykonians also witnessed the rise of the greatest civilization of its time within a mile of their island, a place one twenty-fifth their size, where hundreds of years before the birth of Christ more than twice as many people lived as do now on their island.  In its day Delos was the place to be and to party, filled with lavish homes, temples, theaters, athletic facilities and places of commerce far outstripping any comparable lifestyle on Mykonos today.
But in the blink of an eye all of it was gone.  Leveled, destroyed, wiped off the face of the earth for having made an unwise political choice.
Mykonians live amid constant reminders of that precipitous past.  The marble and much of the carved stone that embellishes their homes and churches today came from Delos’ razed civilization of two thousand years ago.

Today, in the midst of Greece’s deepening financial crisis, Mykonians still prosper far beyond anything they could have imagined two decades ago, let alone two centuries. But they have not forgotten what it was like in the bad days, and their stories are passed along in cafenions and around family dinner tables everyday.  It is a part of their cultural history, demonstrating the strength of will and resilience of which they are justly proud.
All of which leads me to one inevitable conclusion: Fame is fleeting, all glory fades.  In time, change will come to the island. When that will occur and whether the transition will be glorious or not, who can say?  But it will happen.  Always has, always will, and when it does Mykonians will persevere as they have for six thousand years.  They will because it is their nature, as expressed in the adage used to describe their relationship with the magical place on which they’re blessed to live: Our rocky island is not made up of its people; our people are made up of its rock.

God bless you, my friends (including Steven and Kelsey).



  1. You're right, Jeff. Change is coming to the island, and the Mykonians have had much to do with this changing demographic. Whether it be good or not remains to be seen. Let's hope for the former, because this lovely island needs a boost right now. Living here, under the microscope during season, I see the stress brought on by the crises, both economic and cultural. Let's all hope for brighter days on the horizon, as your departure from Mykonos has left us in a bit of a void!

    1. Amen, brother. Sorry about the void, but in time and with proper counseling I'm sure you'll manage to get through it.:)

  2. Jeff, your fascinating, inspiring history set me to thinking about the rocky island were I live with its known human history less than ten percent of the time frame you mention. Like my fellow inhabitants, I think of us as strong. We have taken our lumps very recently. I have been watching the rise of the new World Trade Center and the symbol it seems to represent, one long finger sticking up to tell the world we can't be cowed. But your thousand of years of Mykonos history holds a lesson about change of fortune and the sweep (sometime clean) of history. I will be thinking about the wisdom you express here ten days from today.

    1. Thanks, Annamaria. Interesting point you raised. I never thought about what I'd written on Mykonos in the context of the recent history of the very different island we share as a home. Yet I watched the Towers fall that day from my office window and the moment had considerable influence on shaping the course of my life. You made me wonder why I'd missed the point you made. I may have an answer.

      New York is all about change, filled with emigres from elsewhere coming to make their fortunes, always focused on retooling the present for their future.

      Most Mykonians live their lives with an eye on preserving their societal identity, generally content in their physical architecture, cultural practices and way of if having found the answer sought by the journeyer in Coehlo's "The Alchemist."

      Both islands are made up of strong, resilient people, yet events suffered upon them seem viewed very differently to me: One sees it more as an attack on their future, the other more as a confirmation of their past.

      Please don't get me wrong. Both suffer, both bleed, both mourn, it's just their perspectives on how to process what befalls them seems very different.

  3. I enjoyed the post. I have visited the Greek Islands many times.



  4. All of this, good and bad alike, just makes me wish more intensely that I'll get back there sometime reasonably soon. See you in SF, Jeff.

  5. Can't wait, Tim. For both experiences!

  6. Thanks for the thoughts, Jeff! The column brought to mind two of my most favorite 'wisdoms':

    This, too, shall pass.

    The more things change, the more things remain the same.

    Two thoughts that, on first glance, seem contradictory, and yet together have always seemed to say SO much about our human experiences of existence without really saying anything about humans at all. I can't think of any place where they're more applicable than ancient Greece.

  7. Interesting, Everett. Makes you sort of wonder if humans (should I say "we humans"?) have much to do with any of it.:)

  8. Thank you as usual for the wonderful pictures. You see, it's the strength and resilience -and humor-that enables us to work with what we're given and hopefully create something that enhances the world. Meanwhile, have a good wedding, tour, and fun with Tim. I think that these are givens :)

  9. Thank you, Lil. And add one other element to your equation: friendship such as yours.

  10. Thank you for the background about Mykonos. Truly enlightening AND inspiring. Both the people and the place. Safe travels in American.

  11. Beatifully said. Your love for the island and its people shines through.

  12. What are all the rock walls about? 2' to 3' high and miles of them

    1. I'm happy to field that one, Merrie.

      And speaking of fields...that's your answer! Yes, generally those low walls you see everywhere serve one of two purposes: (a) mark boundaries between properties (Greece had no system of land registry so the walls served to set boundaries, or (b) serve to hold back erosion--that sort of wall runs horizontally and if you look closely you'll often see that on their uphill side the soil is up to the top of the wall.

      Hope this helps clear up that mystery for you!