It was 2004 and I was stumbling and hopping my way across the Aegean Sea and somehow, I ended up on this small island that has a long history. There are approximately nine thousand inhabitants here and every single one of them appeared welcoming. I ended up staying in Evdilos not exactly a haven for foreign tourists as I have a thirst for something different. It was August and there was a festival. Every night the people would dance and enjoy themselves. If I hadn’t been in a hurry, I would have stayed longer. After years of travelling you would think I could stay a while…
Icaria is an island you visit to acquire a taste of authentic Greek village living in what can only be described as paradise. The quietness and tranquillity of many areas of this small island make it ideal for a quick getaway.
I have always maintained that Greek islands are like small countries and in the case of Icaria, it was for a fleeting moment in 1912.The island was fortunate to have had a relatively settled medieval existence, surviving as a member of the Knights of St John (Rhodes) territory until 1521 and then under the Ottomans, who rarely interfered with the island. To prove the point, the islanders hung the first Ottoman tax collector who visited the island.
With no proper port, the island essentially kept to itself with few visitors ever venturing. In 1827 they declared union with Greece, though they were forced to remain with the Ottoman Empire when the new Greek nation was formalised. What happened in 1912 was sensational to say the least. On 7 July, the islanders expelled the Turkish garrison and declared an independent entity eleven days later. An exciting moment for Icaria.
With a fleet of ONE naval vessel, the Free State of Icaria used “The Cleopatra” to provision supplies from Samos and Chios during the First Balkan War. A number of smaller neighbouring islands including those of the Fournoi were subsequently liberated from Ottoman control and joined the Free State under its inaugural and only President, Ioannis Malahias. The Turks tried to counter, to no avail. Icaria developed a flag that resembled that of Switzerland, differing with the colour blue. They also had a national anthem, postage and a military. While it was certainly wonderful to have gained independence, it did not resonate too much with the mainland as Athens was busy fighting the First Balkan War to reclaim Macedonia and other regions.
The islanders were suffering from economic woes due to their isolation. Ottoman ports were closed to Icarians and commodities from the Hellenic Kingdom were, ironically, more expensive. Some of the men went to fight in Chios and Samos, which helped relieve the population as they returned with some money. A civil war almost broke out as the islanders tried to determine where the capital should be; Evdilos or Aghios Kyrikos. The latter eventually became the new capital. Sadly, this is a typical Hellenic history outcome, get angry with each other and go to war! The Staventi side of the island vs the Sophrano as it became known. By 4 November, Icaria had welcomed navy ship Thyella and troops from Athens to the island, essentially joining the Kingdom of the Hellenes, declaring a union.
Apparently, it was formally made part of the kingdom a few weeks later due to the London Conference, the same conference were our supposed Russian allies were supporting the Ottoman Sultan to retain many of the nisia. The Bucharest Treaty a few months later ratified Icaria and her position as a possession of the Kingdom. Hence ended a brief yet intriguing independent island state. Eleftheria Arvanitaki, one of my favourite singers was born here, whilst Mikis Theodarakis lived here. There is no doubt that Icaria has plenty of modern history and achievements, yet she was not the only island that gained independence. Samos as a principality, Kastellorizo and also the Ioanian Republic comprising seven islands had a period of independence. All of this is covered in my recent book, From Pyrrhus to Cyprus, Forgotten and Remembered Hellenic Kingdoms, Territories, Entities and a Fiefdom.