It is hard not to fall in love with Hydra. We Hydriots are, of course, biased, yet the island’s graphic beauty, sharp light, and proud history, seasoned with the imprimatur of artists and celebrities, make the place a heady mix. As we now celebrate the Bicentennial of Greece’s Revolution, Hydra is a—if not the—center of gravity for this epic struggle of national and personal agency. This history, though relatively recent in a land as archaic as Greece, speaks eloquently for itself.
Other islands and parts of Greece often rightfully take pride in their regions’ deep antiquity, whereas we Hydriots by necessity had to focus on more recent glories. This had been the conventional wisdom; Hydra, in spite of lying in the path of one of the world’s oldest sea lanes, remained, it seemed, largely mute to history until making quite literal waves in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
I remember growing up on Hydra every summer, leaving Salt Lake City to our home on my father’s native island. A history-obsessed youth (not much has changed) I found it odd that the island was largely absent from history whereas other Saronic Islands, such as Poros and Aegina, certainly were not, and the Peloponnesus, a leisurely boat ride away, was the setting of at least 4000 years of advanced civilization.
Most of the history books supported this thesis, but I could not help wondering. My father talked about some sort of Byzantine settlement at Episkopi, an escarpment in the mountains. Herodotus spoke of the island changing hands between Samians and various other Saronic powers, and of course, there was the name, connoting water on a rocky island with dry wells which now needs to import its water. Hydra had plenty of modern history to celebrate, and conventional wisdom made it clear that Hydra had been “absent” from history in prior eras.
I left things at the verdict of the 1980s, as my trips thereafter, even when we lived in Greece, were brief trips to escape Athens. I had not the time, in the deep throes of a banking career, to contemplate a more holistic story of Hydra, one that was being discovered, albeit with little fanfare.
As often happens as one gets older, and in this era of digital connection, my ties to Hydra were renewed, via the ubiquitous online café of Facebook. I involved myself particularly in our island’s 2021 Committee and celebrations, and this also dovetailed nicely with my extensive research of the Greek Merchant Marine. Several of my articles about Hydra commented—erroneously, I now know—on the relative lack of history prior to the Revolutionary Era.
A fellow Hydriot gently corrected me.
In this frustrating era of digital proximity despite physical distance, it is both easier and harder to get to know people. I did not know Spilios Spiliotis when I summered in or visited Hydra, but his presence in any forum regarding our beloved island was ubiquitous.
Every place should have a resident like Spilios—a person dedicated to telling the stories of their place. Such people are invaluable to preserving memory and history all too often forgotten or obscured. I recall walking the high mountain paths of our island, and viewing the endless stone structures, enclosures, and walls, and no doubt Spilios had done far more of the same, for decades. Mute stone structures often cannot tell you their story and era, but if you have the time and patience, together with a passion for your subject, sometimes they do.
So it is with Hydra, where in the past thirty years a more active glimpse into the mysterious past has begun, and it tells an altogether different, more complete story. Such significant stories are often obscured by more glamorous ones, but for a Hydriot, any story about Hydra is significant.
Like several learned archeologists, local Hydriot Spilios was not content with the official story of Hydra as a virtual ghost through most of Greece’s history. Spilios participated in several excavations, some supported by the Niarchos Foundation, under the direction of Adonis Kyrou with the assistance of Hydra’s ecological group. Thanks to their efforts, the archeological record, and sometimes the naked stones, started to tell a different narrative than the one we had heretofore accepted.
The name “Hydra” for example, connoting water on an island which today needs a daily shipment from the mainland by tanker boat. Well, perhaps there is another story because archeologists in the 1990s seemed to have found a series of Mycenean era stone channels designed to catch, to collect, and to keep potable water for boats plying the waters of the Aegean. Evidence of such a collection system is particularly present at St. Nicholas Bay on the southwestern tip of the island, at the edge of shipping lanes coming out of the gulf of Nauplion. The roughly hewn and assembled stones easily pass for those of another era, but the name of the island, and the location of the stone trenches, suggest that the island was a provisioning site for potable water and that the name stuck.
Herodotus, the eyewitness-traveler “Father of History” also referred to the island and its changing hands between invaders from Samos and more local rulers from the nearby Saronic islands and the Peloponnesian mainland. Here too, for so long any classical traces were hard to come by, in a Greece filled with the evidence of five millennia of history and a particular love for artifacts and sites from the Classical era. A careful reading of Herodotus and a concerted effort yielded results. Outside of the seaside hamlet of Vlichos, favored by Hydriots and knowledgeable expats for its quiet beaches and taverna, across a small, seasonal wash, there is an Ottoman-style bridge which connects to a low hill.
I recall climbing this hill any number of times, as a child, and I imagined it to have been a fortress from Classical or Byzantine times, as its low summit was full of rocks both hewn and scattered. Turns out my hunches—and Herodotus’ reports—were correct, as Samian coins corresponding to the time of their occupation were found on this very hill, as well as Aegina coins from their subsequent conquest. Herodotus, the “Father of History,” was proven correct, as in so many cases when his history was dismissed as legend and then proven by the archeological record. One more win for history’s father.
Then of course there is what lies beneath Hydra of today, the picturesque town beloved of painters, and here too there is the varied evidence of several periods of Greek history, particularly of a Byzantine-era settlement on the escarpments in the current neighborhood of Kiafa. Much is obscured by the current assemblage of houses from the 1800s, but an occasional contractor’s shovel yields the humble evidence of a bygone era, before Hydra’s glory days.
I am grateful to have been wrong when I wrote so many times before that Hydra was basically absent from history. Perhaps our beloved island did not participate with the roar she did in the Revolution, but the heart of the island still beat, throughout the long, fascinating, glorious, and complicated assemblage of history that is Greece. It is people like Spilios and any number of others, whose granular sense of detail and patient love for their home, these are the people who bring history to life.