Life in Aigaio

Sea transport in the Aegean Sea dates back to a very long time ago, more specifically to the beginning of the Neolithic period. Clear evidence and recent studies certify that the trade of raw materials had been very widespread in the Aegean region since that time. Apart from the trade transactions between islands and their opposite and even the most remote coasts, there were also cultural exchanges over the centuries.

The islanders’, seamen’s and traders’ life was defined by this very contact. Close ties connected every aspect of their lives to those of the people in Asia Minor and its coasts. In 1922 these ties were suddenly broken and communication routes were blocked.


In his study “Shipping, a contemporary timeless outlook”, An. Tzamtzis notes that long sea journeys took place even in 7000 BC. One of the sea routes connected Argolis to Milos. Obsidian from Milos was found in Frahthi cave in Argolis.

Long distance journeys took place both inside and outside the borders of the Aegean Sea, in the West Mediterranean Sea and the Near East. Artworks of the Cycladic culture, such as marble figurines, stone vases and clay amphorae filled with provisions dating back to the early Bronze Age, in the third millennium BC, have frequently been discovered in other areas, far away from where they were created. The reach of some major harbors and trade centers of the prehistoric times, like Akrotiri of Thera, expanded beyond the borders of the Aegean Sea.

Traveling in the Aegean Sea was quite difficult or even dangerous for both seamen from the islands and people passing by. The ships were propelled by oars and that made travelling difficult. Sails and sailing had not been discovered until the beginning of the following millennium.

The islanders met other people, came in contact with other lifestyles and had the chance to broaden their horizons in long journeys. It is not a coincidence that most of the Pre-Socratic philosophers were traders and seamen that traveled around a lot.

During and after the Byzantine period, most of the major harbors belonged to the Latins. When defining their routes, seamen had to take into account the nationality of the ships, the good or bad relations with other islands, the local customs and rules of conduct and the ethics of the local islanders. Professor Michailidis-Nouaros notes that the maritime laws of Ancient Rhodes, a harbor of major strategic importance, stated that the damage caused by a cargo rejection due to danger was equally shared by all those who had cargo on the ship. This unwritten law is one of the basic rules of sea transports that are applied across the world today.

Islands like Paros, Naxos, Rhodes, and Thera started developing an important colonial activity at the 8th century BC after having already prevailed over the Phoenicians in the Aegean. A little later, during the Archaic period (7th-6th century BC), the Cyclades bloomed after establishing colonies, developing trade transactions and distributing their products all over the Mediterranean Basin.

When the Latins came to the Archipelago in the 13th century, oared boats replaced the older Byzantine dromons, the ships of the fleet of Constantinople that used to be the victorious warships of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea for centuries. After the 16th century oars were replaced by sails and sailboats prevailed over the oared boats in the Aegean and the Mediterranean Sea routes.


Piracy had become the most widespread maritime occupation since the 16th century. The vessels of that time were both merchant and pirate ones at the same time. During the Ottoman Greece period, the Cyclades enjoyed a special status of privileges that allowed them to construct ships and equip them accordingly in order to be able to deal with pirates. Turkish ships were manned with islanders during both of the Ottoman-Venetian wars (1645-1669). Their posts on merchant and pirate ships provided them with the appropriate maritime knowledge and contributed to the development of merchant shipping.

Sea transports bloomed over the first half of the 19th century leading to the development of wooden shipbuilding that lasted until the appearance of steel steamships during the following historical period.

In the 18th century, the excellent wine coming from the volcanic soil of Santorini that could be carried over long distances was transferred to the Black Sea regions and Russia. A little later, Paros and Kea started to trade wine too. In the 19th century, islands with a maritime tradition, such as Symi, Kalymnos, Kastelorizo and Halki, became known for sponge fishing and sponge export trading. Shipping and transit trade were developed on Kos. Sponge traders from Symi and Kalymnos founded trading houses in London, Paris, Odessa and Trieste taking control of the global sponge trade. Both of these islands were flourishing in the Aegean Sea. The first ship-owners of Kasos established trade relations with Crete, while Patmos and Leros developed trade connections to Istanbul and Egypt.

During the Venetian and Turkish rules, most of the harbors of the Aegean Sea were layover points for several routes to the major trade centers and were also part of the dynamic trade network of the Archipelago that reached its peak in the mid 19th century. It is worth mentioning that by that time the leading commercial harbor of the region was not Piraeus but Ermoupoli of Syros.


Over the past two centuries, migration was another way through which the closed island societies have started to open up to the outside world. Migration aimed at improving the living conditions of the people and providing financial support to their families that were left behind. There were two categories of migrants: The ones who moved permanently to the host countries with their whole families and usually never returned to their homeland and the ones, especially men of productive age, who went abroad alone and stayed at the host countries for a short or for a long time in order to support their families financially. The latter was the most common category.

Seasonal migration for work purposes was generally widespread in Greece. In the 18th century there were already settlements, the residents of which practiced only a single craft that they specialized in. These people formed guilds, such as bridge and church builders’ guilds, that traveled throughout the Balkan Peninsula for work. Groups of craftsmen from the islands migrated temporarily to Asia Minor, traveled to Istanbul, Smyrna, to the capitals of the Greek prefectures and Athens.

The majority of seasonal migrants worked on building construction sites. The craftsmen of each island specialized in a different craft. Ceramists and potters came from Sifnos, coopers, who traveled to Mesogia during the grape harvesting period of the year, from Santorini, Paros and Ios, marble carvers and stonecutters, who created remarkable monuments, from Tinos and builders from Andros and Sifnos. Builders from Anafi came to Athens in the early 19th century to reconstruct the newly established capital of Greece. They built their own small neighborhood, the so-called Anafiotika, under the Acropolis.

Maids or adopted daughters, young girls who were forced to leave their islands (Andros, Tinos, Serifos, Ios and Folegandros) and move to Piraeus, Istanbul or Egypt due to financial difficulties or in order to ensure their dowries, constituted another group of migrants. Some of them eventually returned home becoming sought-after brides, but that was not the case for most of them.

Poverty and the challenges of farming, especially in smaller islands, led many people to permanent migration. For instance, the economic hardship and oppression of the Dodecanesians by the Italian occupation led 80.000 to 100.000 people to migration over a period of 40 years. They moved to the Greek urban centers as well as to foreign countries, especially the USA, Australia and Egypt. The upcoming development of tourism was a measure aimed at counterbalancing the tremendous reduction of the islands’ populations and providing a motive for the repatriation of migrants.


The gradual development of tourism counterbalanced the difficult economic conditions that most of the islanders were facing after the Second World War. The flow of foreign currency was the primary goal. Consequently, that led to the improvement of the living conditions of the locals, who were mainly farmers, fishermen and seamen. The second goal was to put a stop to the islanders’ migration and increase the permanent population of the islands.

Tourism went from being a social phenomenon that concerned only a small percentage of the population of the developed countries in the ‘50s and ‘60s to being accessible to a vast majority of people during the last decades thanks to the mass summer tourism of the 3 “Ss” (Sun, Sand and Sea). Consequently, the Aegean islands, especially the southern ones, attracted many visitors.

Nowadays, there are two types of islands coexisting in the Aegean Sea: Mass tourism islands and others that are less developed and more isolated during the winter.

Cosmopolitan islands are next to those that are off the beaten track or close to the border. There are also islands with local peculiarities, exclusively cultural sites, such as the one on Dilos, places where tourism is now the only source of income, popular destinations among celebrities such as Mykonos, located only a few miles away from the pilgrimage destination of Tinos, maritime islands such as Kalymnos, landscapes of particular natural beauty like the ones on Santorini, mass tourism islands such as Paros, Rhodes, Naxos and Kos, as well as islands that attract less tourists such as Schinoussa, Irakleia, Halki, Leros and Therasia.

Some island societies still resist against the frenzy of tourism development or have simply not kept up with the other islands over the years.

The Aegean Sea has attracted several foreigners who visited the islands as tourists but stayed and started working in tourism or fine arts sectors and even married locals starting a family there. Many researchers such as P. Tsartas point out that the positive or negative results of tourism differ in type and intensity depending on how quickly a region passes from the stage of “discovery” to the stage of mass tourism. Tourism development has a significant impact on the natural and cultural heritage, the built environment, the local economies and societies. Many people, especially in small and remote island societies, claim that tourism development leads to changes or distancing from customs and local traditions. Others highlight the very important advantages of tourism development, as tourism enables the islanders to come in contact with new ideas and lifestyles, offers young people and women the chance to be economically independent by working in the tourism sector and leads to an increase in income.

All in all, it seems that the only solution is to apply the principles of sustainable development in order to achieve a viable tourism product that is being developed in a mild manner and has no adverse effects on the natural, social and cultural environment.

Text: Dr. Marios Theodorakis


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