Milos, a volcanic island of about 151 square kilometres, lies in the Aegean Sea, and it is the westernmost of the Cycladic islands.
Milos’s history starts from 7000 B.C., while it had already started to accumulate wealth through the extraction and trade of obsidian.
From 2300 B.C. to 1100 B.C. the civilization of Filakopì flourished. It was already the era of copper, a mineral that was imported, processed and then exported under the guise of valuable artefacts, along with the famous pottery. The island experienced a period of splendor, witnessed by the countless archaeological finds exposed in the museums of Athens and Milos. Due to unknown reasons, Filakopì was suddenly abandoned in 1100 B.C..
In 1000 B.C. there was an invasion of the Dorians, who were integrated in the local population. A new and fortified city was founded, provided with an excellent port, Klima.
During the Persian Wars Milos stood next to the other Greek cities, but in the following conflict between Sparta and Athens claimed its independence and its neutrality (416 B.C.). This cost it the destruction by Athenians, but also the immortality thanks to the famous speech between Athenians and Milos’s inhabitants (“The Melian dialogue”) written by the historian Thucydidis.
During the Hellenistic age Milos experienced peace and prosperity. This period was distinguished by the wide artistic production. Among several works, perhaps the best-known is the famous Venus of Milos, which is preserved today in the Louvre.
(photo: Venus of Milos)
Also in the roman age trades, mineral extraction and exportation and artistic production continued. The wonderful marble theatre, just above Klima, is of this period.
The Catacombs are of this period too. Their excavation was extended probably between the second and the fifth century A.C.. It is believed that the spread of Christianity on the island depended mostly on the passage of St. Paul, during his journey towards Rome or during one of his former apostolic journeys.
After Roman Empire’s division, Milos came to be part of the Byzantine Empire. We know that once it belonged to the Aegean zone, but we have very little historical evidence of this period.
They were dark and dangerous times. Aegean population, far from political, cultural and commercial centres, lived with difficulties; life was limited on the verge of starvation. It seemed as if these islands did not belong to any State, given that they were subject to constant assaults by Venetian, Genoese, Corsican, Berber and Saracen pirates and corsairs.
After the fourth crusade of 1204 and the division of Byzantine territorries that followed, Cycladic islands were placed under the Venetian rule. Milos came to be part of the Duchy of Naxos, possession of Sanudo family from 1207 to 1361, and then of Crispi family until the Turkish occupation in 1566.
Venetians occupied Milos in 1207. Here the first Duke of Naxos, Marco Sanudo, son-in-law of the doge Enrico Dandolo, built the Kastro (Castle) on a summit of the island (at the top of today’s Plaka). It had to do with a fortification typical of that time and was composed by the same houses, which lent against each other, not leaving any gap except that of doors which were guarded and could be bolted in case of danger. Houses of Kastro’s outer wall had doors and windows oriented on the inside, whereas on the outside had only embrasures from which it was possible to hit the possible attacker, but they were narrow enough to prevent anyone from entering. In the 14th century then-Duke Marcolino Sanudo built a second forification in the area of present-day Zefiria, in order to protect the nearby rural area and more generally the island’s trade. Around this tower fortification, also known as Bishop’s Tower, a first widening settlement was soon created, which then became the first island’s capital named Chora. The first Kastro, also called Anokastro (Castle from above) was gradually abandonned and fell into ruin.
Under Naxos’s Dukes wing, Milos slowly got back to experience prosperity.
In Chora’s harbour, centre of trades, due to the repeated fights between Venetians and Ottomans, Venetian warships could be often found. But even pirates and corsairs were attracted from rich cargoes of the ships. Indeed all travellers of that time talk about Chora as a den of pirates.
Between the 15th and the 16th century the island was repeatedly attacked by the Muslims, were they pirates or Ottomans from the imperial fleet. In 1536 Barbarossa, Hayreddin Pasha (admiral) of sultan Suleiman, occupied it.
The repeated fights between Ottomans and Venetians, the raids of both Christian and Muslim pirates led to the gradual abandonment of most of the Aegean islands. In the mid-1500’s Milos was one of only five islands still inhabited in the centre of the Aegean Sea.
Since 1579 the Aegean Sea was definitely under the Turkish domination. However the fights between Venetians and Ottomans for the area domination will still go on for over a century. This situation led to ceaseless suffering of the Aegean population, which was from time to time under occupation by one of the two powers. This continued until 1690 when, after losing the Heraklion War (1645-1669) and the Peloponnesus War (1715-1718), Venetians finally left the area and the Turkish domination became definite.
As regards Turks, as a matter of fact they always left a plentiful autonomy to Milos and to other islands of the area. Turkish language was not imposed and administration was applied only to keep the population under control. The only thing that was strictly imposed was the payment of an annual tribute.
In spite of the difficult conditions of constant wars between Venice and Istanbul, Milos reached anyway a certain level of welfare. To this positive and economic situation contributed to a great extent pirates and their businesses.
After the mid-1700’s Chora, the island’s capital, started to decay gradually, trade languished and the population slashed, also as result of epidemic deseases and the spread of malaria. To the abandon of Chora probably contributed as well a strong earthquake in 1735. After 1767 the capital was transferred to the old Kastro, where old Venetian fortifications were partly restored. In this area today’s Plaka, the new capital of the island, would be developped.
During the first war between Russia and Turkey (1768-1774) Milos and the neighbouring islands passed under the control of Russians, and were commanded by count Alexander Orlov from 1771 to 1774, when Turkish domination was re-established.
The Greek struggle for liberation from the Turks started in 1821. When the war ended, the island became part of the modern Greek State. Since then it has followed its destiny.
Today the island has become a tourist destination, thanks to its extreme, dry and fascinating landscapes, but rich in colours due to its unique geological conformation.
From the second half of 1300’s, the Republic of Venice, and later other greater European powers, sent ships and fleets on the routes of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, for commercial but also military purposes.
They were times in which sailing travels, with rudimental tools and cartography, were difficult, long and dangerous.
Coming from the West, after passing Peloponnesus e moving to the East, Milos is the first island you come across. Its natural harbour, one of the largest in the Mediterranean Sea, could offer a safe shelter to a whole fleet. Moreover, on the island it was possible to hire local pilots, who were navigation experts in the difficult and dangerous Aegean waters. From Milos passed all the main routes towards Dardanelles and Asia Minor’s ports.
As you would expect, the vast riches that were carried along these trade routes attracted both Christian and Muslim pirates and corsairs, who infested these seas until the early 19th century. However travelling by sea was the only concrete possibility to connect the caravan routes coming from the East with the western markets. So these routes continued to be travelled and to be considered of the utmost importance. To control them there were constant wars, and diplomacies of the European maritime powers worked unceasingly. Pirates became an inevitable risk, which was anyway worth running against the huge profits that trade from and to the East involved.
Both western and Greek pirates established trade relations with local merchants, to whom they sold at low prices the fruits of their raids. In addition, they kept good dealings even with Turkish authorities, with local characters and representatives and often with foreign merchants. Several Cycladic islands were pirate shelters, like Tinos, Paros and especially Mykonos. But the island where the consequences of this phenomenon were greater, at least through the 17th century, was Milos. Its inhabitants knew how to profit from it; therefore there was a remarkable economic development.
There were many factors that made Milos the favourite island of pirates. Its position, compared to trade routes to Istanbul and Izmir, was converted into an excellent point from which it was possible to control the navigation. The unique conformation of the sea area including Milos and nearby islands of Kimolos and Poliegos turned out to be particularly suitable to ambush the passing ships. However, in case of danger there was possible to run quickly away and to disappear from the pursuers’s view. The island’s large internal gulf offered a wide and safe shelter. The indented coasts, rich in caves and fjords, offered to the pirate ships an amount of safe hiding places, away from the view of possible ships met along the coasts.
In Milos pirates repaired their ships during the winter, and then returned to the sea in the good weather. The crew had a rest, had fun and spent some of the loot, often with several prostitutes. It’s no surprise that, among the reasons that led to Chora’s decay and later to its abandonment, perhaps there was a great influence of the venereal deseases spread by these sea raiders.
Toponyms remember the centuries of fear and legendary characters.
Sarakiniko, on the north coast, rich in caves and inlets, recalls the Saracen pirates who found here a shelter for their ships. The Cave of Papafrangas is said to be the secret shelter of the pirate who named it, and according to the legend its treasure is still hidden in some cliff’s gorge. Today, after the collapse of the cave’s vault, it is one of the places where turists love swimming. The wonderful stacks and caves of Kleftiko (from “kleftis”: thief, raider) were a refuge for the pirate ships too.
Even though the island of Milos is mostly known for its archaeological importance and for its artistic production in archaic – classic and hellenistic – age, however, throughout the centuries, it had a remarkable importance for trade too. In fact, it is rich in minerals which throughout the history gave rise to a virtually uninterrupted extractive activity.
The beginning of extractive activity gets lost in the Neolithic. In fact, the island is rich in obsidian, an extremely hard and resistant material which lends itself to being worked in splinters. Then, these splinters can be used to manufacture diverse tools: from heads of arrows to knives, from axes to needles. Obsidian trade was probably the first source of island’s prosperity.
With the discovery and spread of metal manufacturing, obsidian’s importance faded. But Milos continues to be at the centre of a complex commercial network, thanks to the extraction of a stone which is particularly appropriate to be used to manufacture millstones. In addition, from time to time new minerals were discovered and extracted: iron, pozzolan, alum, silver, sulphur.
Till today the extracted minerals from Milos (mostly bentonite, kaolin and perlite) come from all over the world’s industries and constitute the main factor of the island’s economy.
(photo: one of the main island’s mines)