The Rocket War of Chios, Greece
In the quiet seaside town of Vrontados on the east coast of the Greek island of Chios you can find beautiful coves of pebble beaches and crystal clear turquoise waters, Greek taverns and traditional restaurants with cobbled streets winding between traditional stone buildings, all under the shadows of the Aepos Mountain. Sounds idyllic doesn’t it? Unless you visit the sleepy town on Easter weekend, when two local parishes take Easter tradition into their own hands by waging a peaceful war against each other by firing over 100,000 homemade rockets at each other!
The History of Rouketopolemos
The literal translation of ‘Rouketopolemos’ is ‘Rocket War’ which is an accurate description of the events leading up to Easter Sunday as the locals celebrate the resurrection of Christ.
The history of this unfathomable festival is undocumented, but over the years it has been said that it originates from the Ottoman era, when Chios was under Turkish rule. Being a Muslim country, the Turks were not so happy about the residents of the Greek Orthodox island of Chios celebrating Easter, a traditionally Christian holiday and so the threat of Turkish invasion at this time was almost expected. The congregations of two local churches which still to this day each stand on a hilltop of their own (perhaps surprisingly under the circumstances), came up with the ingenious idea to stage a war between their parishes by firing cannons at each other in order to stage a war and scare off the Turks and prevent an invasion, allowing their people to celebrate Easter in peace.
Eventually, around 1889, the Turks confiscated all of the cannons from the island of Chios. But the Chiosians were clever and creative people, and devised a plan to spend all year building rockets made of sticks of wood and bundles of gunpowder to use instead. Rouketopolemos became an annual tradition which brings together the people of the island of Chios.
The two churches involved are St Mark’s and Panaghia Ereithiani, set just 400 metres from each other atop their own hills within the town. The event is more of a game within tradition these days. The objective of the rocket throwing is to hit the bell tower of the opposing church. Supposedly, the hits to the bells are counted throughout the night and the church that manages the most hits is declared the winner. In the chaos that ensues, counting is almost impossible and year on year, both churches declare themselves winners and as a result of this disagreement, they agree to a rematch the following year.
What happens at the festival?
Preparations for this bizarre event happen all year round as hundreds of residents pitch in to prepare thousands of rockets to blast at each other. Gunpowder is packed tightly into small containers which are then attached to thin pieces of wood ready to be set off. The practice of building rockets is actually illegal and each year there is always the fear of one of the abandoned warehouse dedicated to rocket building will be raided by police, but it has never happened. The local police seem to turn a blind eye to the whole event.
On the morning of the festival, hundreds of pickup trucks bring the rockets from various locations across the island, to Vrontados ready to be set up. Buildings within the vicinity are boarded up with metal sheets and mesh to protect them from the inevitable damage that can be done by these rockets. Platforms are set up at the churches involved, St Mark’s and Panaghia Ereithiani, with launch pads ready for the rockets. As the rockets are driven into town, the helpers involved line up tens of thousands of rockets on their launch pads ready for the evening’s activities. You may even be witness to a few stray rockets going off during the day as each team sets up their aim and fire test shots at their opposing church.
The party tends to start at around 8pm as locals gather and begin to celebrate with beer and ouzo and the rocket launchers prepare for the imminent attack. At 10pm as the locals begin to make their way to church for the Easter midnight service, a loud horn is sounded and the ‘Rocket War’ begins! You can just imagine the chaos, the ear ringing noise, the colourful spectacle and the utter craziness of what happens before you. The night sky lights up before you, and you become witness to a multi-coloured view of this little seaside town and to their own peaceful war happening right before your eyes. The warriors take a short break for the churches to run their services and for the local residents to worship and then just after the stroke of midnight, the thundery and fiery war of peace begins again, until all of the rockets have been fired.
It is a dangerous practice and things can and do go wrong. Buildings to get damaged, minor injuries and burns are common and occasionally accidental fires are started. Several deaths have even been reported in the past, particularly those who build the rockets and experience serious injury such as blown off hands and death when their gunpowder mixture explodes prematurely.
The rockets are of course, unpredictable and residents often have to run and take cover. Random rockets will zing through pedestrian areas, bounce off buildings and spiral off parked cars, but you will find the local fire service and ambulance service close at hand, quite often enjoying the spectacle with the locals and helping to hand out cups of ouzo.
The clean up begins the next morning when the thousands and thousands of burnt out rockets are picked up and disposed of. Once again Vrontados returns to the quiet sleepy village it is for the rest of the year and the rocket building begins again!
A creative collective of film makers from New York called ‘Variable’ produced this short film in 2015 about the festival which is well worth a watch if you’re interested in seeing for yourself what it’s all about.
“This film is a reflection of a sense of devotion that feels lost in the modern world. We’re all after something we can give our lives to, something that can help create deeper connections with each other. It’s strange to think that this tradition can do it - but that’s a reality for many in Vontrados. They live and breathe rockets, and that’s what brings them together, especially during their Easter holiday.” Variable film-makers.
The town of Vrontados, on the east coast of the Greek island of Chios, just off the Aegean coast of Turkey.
The event takes place annually on the night of Holy Saturday into the early hours of Easter Sunday. In 2016, you can witness this crazy festival on the 27th March.
How much does it cost?
It is completely free to watch from the surrounding areas of Vrotados. Find your way up the mountainside of Aepos for a panoramic view of the town - probably the safest place to be! Some people have been known to watch from various restaurants and bars across the town, or if you’re brave, you may be able to get up close and personal with the rockets at the platform built by each church, but consider the risks!
What time does the event begin?
The town is in full swing for most of the day and it would be interesting to watch the preparations and the set up of the rockets, but the horn signalling the start of the ‘Rocket War’ sounds at 10pm, so be ready at your viewing point for that time.
Tell me about Chios and Vontrados!
Chios is the fifth largest of the Greek islands and is just 7km off the Anatolian Coast of Turkey and the city of Izmir. Chios has had many nicknames in its history. In ancient times it was knows as “Snake Island” and “Pine Tree Island” but its most famous is “Mastic Island” due to its huge exports of mastic gum, the resin from the native mastic tree which is used medicinally for dental cavities, colds and digestive problems as well as being used in foods such as ice cream and sauces. It is particularly popular in Turkey where it is used in Turkish Delight and Turkish coffee on the Aegean coast. Supposedly, the legendary poet Homer was born on Chios, or at least spent a significant amount of time on the island. On the north side of the Vrontados coast is “Homer’s Stone” where legend has it the poet would sit to sing and teach.
Vrontados is a coastal town on the eastern side of the island and has a rich history and tradition in merchant seafaring and is currently the home of various important Greek ship owners. The town is considered a suburb of the island’s capital, Chios and apparently gets its name from the loud noise thunder makes as it echoes from the nearby mountain, Aepos.
Get me to Chios!
The bad news is, the tourist season doesn’t really kick off in Greece or Turkey until the end of April and so getting to Chios for the Rocket War is not easy. The best way we have found is to get to Athens and then fly over to Izmir in Turkey, exploring the historical area of western Turkey, then travel the short journey to the island of Chios by ferry from Çeşme before travelling by boat overnight back to Athens.
Photo credits: Louisa Gouliamaki, Petros Giannakouris and Yirogos Karahalis.
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