The Greek Island of Tilos
‘Our’ island in Greece – Tilos – is normally a quiet, peaceful place. It sports a year-round population of about 500 people, same number of goats, one road, two villages, three honorary monasteries, and copious ‘relics’ of bygone eras; a number of abandoned villages, swaths of
stone fencing, a few toppled castles and countless tiny stone chapels hidden in groves of oleanders. From antiquity, the island’s rich flora and fauna – fed by the island’s network of underground springs – has drawn both gods and mortals to its shores. Telos, son of Helios and Helia, came looking for herbs that could heal his mother, and poetess Erinna, a contemporary
of Sappho, was attracted to its natural beauty. In 2003, the island’s biodiversity (which includes 378 botanical species and 162 resident and migratory wild bird species) prompted the formation of the Tilos Park Association which today ensures the protection of the island’s sixteen different ecosystems.
Walking on Tilos
Given its park-like character, the island begs to be explored by foot. A typical hike has you perched on a donkey trail on some vertiginous hillside with glints of the aqua Aegean below and white sails and offshore islands just beyond. One’s constant companions are the odd lizard, redolent herbs such as sage, thyme or oregano, and the pant-tugging thorns of the
Mediterranean gorse, thorny burnett, or spiny cactus. Paths inevitably tumble down to a secluded cove, where, once the clothes are dispensed with, the hiker can enjoy a full salt soak/float in those crystal waters that had beckoned from above. Needless to say the whole experience, apart from the occasional bleat of a lost goat, is blanketed in silence.
Chasing the Devil Away
Not this time. This time we are on Tilos during Holy Week – the week leading up to Orthodox Easter (which is calculated using the Julian, not Gregorian calendar) – and, unbeknownst to us, that means it is open season on fireworks. Or more specifically, firecrackers a.k.a. Roman candles. Thundering, earsplattering, heartstopping, foundation-shaking firecrackers. Believed to scare away the devil at Easter, it seems
that this job is now under the directorship of the children and youth of the islands. This has made the discharging of firecrackers an especially spectacular and oft-scheduled event. We heard of one American yachtie – tied up in Gialos port on the island of
Symi – so incensed when a firecracker went off inches from the hull of his boat – that fisticuffs ensued between him and the Greek father. Apparently the entire Good Friday candlelit procession going by was upstaged by the full-out brawl dockside……
Observing Easter on the Island of Patmos
The fireworks officially climax at midnight on Easter Saturday/Sunday to signify and celebrate the resurrection of Christ. We have travelled to the island of Patmos to experience this as it is an island that has sacred significance according to both Western and Orthodox Christians. It was on Patmos that John the Evangelist, after having been exiled from Ephesus (now in present-day Turkey) by pagan emperor Dolmatian, wrote the divinely inspired revelation (the Apocalypse) in 18 months. The cave in which St. John wrote the Apocalypse is today a Unesco enshrined site, and if one can see past its now tourist veneer, the cave still evokes a strong spirit of place & event. A monastery, built to commemorate St. John in the 12th century, stands guard over the cave, literally, as to withstand pirate raids in the Middle Ages, it became steadily more fortified, looking today not unlike a Knights Hospitaller castle. The labyrinth of narrow streets through the village huddling next to the monastery/castle walls end at the monastery’s treasury, where icons, ecclesiastical ornaments, embroderies and precious stones hang pendulously from a backdrop of sheer gold.
The Dazzling Dance Finale
On Patmos, numerous other rituals, in addition to firecrackers, help locals re-enact and honour the cruxifiction and resurrection of Christ. When we arrive, we are given red-painted eggs – that symbolize the blood of Christ – and tall white candles – which when lit, will symbolize the spirit’s rebirth. But by far, the most important ritual is the roasting of the sacrificial lamb on Easter Sunday and the social/cultural celebrations that follow. For us, that meant the privilege of ‘front row seats’ to a music & dance spectacle in the town square, courtesy of the island’s young dancers and town musicians. A line of children, followed by a ribbon of young men & women stream into the square, and leaving no breathing room between numbers, present two hours of expertly choreographed and executed dance numbers. Not one dance is the same, not one step is missed (apart from when one of the boys’ long white socks ended up around his ankles during one particularly robust number – where was the sock glue when you needed it, huh, Clarissa?). Gorgeously costumed – peasant bric-a-brac mingle with Medieval brocade and velvet, rough-hewn headscarves with elegant chiffon headgear. The musicians are relentless, flipping deftly from one dance tune & tempo to the next, fronted by a fiercesome fiddler and singer. The singing awed; gracefully ornamented, melismatic style, not unlike that which we heard in Morocco. Though the chord progressions and harmonies are distinctly Western, the melodies are Eastern and arabesque in style. Efharisto, Patmos, for a night of brilliant music and dance. Long live Greece, firecrackers and all!