Nisyros / A volcanic island in the Aegean Sea

Nisyros, one of the islands of the South Aegean, is essentially a cone rising nearly 700 metres above sea level, stating its identity: the newest large active volcano in the Aegean Sea. The “volcano” is not only the popular Stefanos crater, which dominates the centre of the island. The whole of Nisyros is a volcanic edifice. Each stone on the island owes its birth to volcanic action, each of the hundreds of layers of rocks forming the island was placed there by some volcanic eruption. The great variety of the composition and shapes of rocks that build the island, the extensive and easily accessible natural incisions and the wonderful climate throughout the year make Nisyros an open-air geological museum. In addition, it is the only active volcano in the Aegean with such a rich flora and fauna. With continuous habitation since prehistoric times, Nisyros hosts numerous monuments of culture. It is a paradise for every visitor who respects and loves nature, a place that combines in a perfect way natural beauty, history and cultural tradition.

Nisyros is situated in the south-eastern Aegean Sea and belongs to the Dodecanese Islands. It has an area of 41.2 km2 and a maximum altitude of 698 meters. It is 8 miles away from Kos, 60 from Rhodes and 200 miles from Piraeus. The vicinity of Nisyros includes islets Gyali, Agios Antonios, Strongili, Pachia Ammos, Pergousa and Kandeleoysa (Faros). Along with Methana, Milos and Santorini, it is numbered among our country’s active volcanoes.

THE CREATION OF NISYROS

Α) MYTHOLOGY
According to mythology, Nisyros was created when during the Gigantomachy, Poseidon arrived in Kos pursuing the giant Polyvotis. In an effort to exterminate him, he cut off a piece of Kos and threw it at Polyvotis. That piece crushed the giant and is considered to be Nisyros. The periodic vibrations due to the volcanic action of the island are attributed to the roars of the giant Polyvotis, who is trying to be freed from the weight of the rock that lays on him for centuries.

Although we do not know when the molten rock started to flow in the vicinity of Nisyros for the first time or when the underwater foundations of the island began to be built, the above legend tells us that our ancestors knew that Nisyros is a volcano and that its rocks are similar to those of southwestern Kos. They knew that the frequent local earthquakes accompanied by cracks and noise which tormented the island since those years, are interwoven with the genesis mechanism of the island.

Β) HISTORICAL EXPLOSIONS
The volcano of Nisyros emerges from the sea and begins to build an onshore cone around 150,000 years ago. In the subsequent 100,000 years, the violent explosive and mild volcanic action, which succeed one another, build by a succession of layers of ash, lava currents and domes, a volcanic cone above sea level, with a diameter of about seven (7) kilometers and a maximum altitude of 600 meters.

The first series of large explosions manifested about 40,000 years ago. The trapped magma gases hurl in the air the molten rock producing tens of millions of tons of pumice and ash.

The first major catastrophic eruption manifested on the island around 25,000 years ago. Within a few days, 8 billion tons of molten rock eject into the atmosphere producing over 20 billion cubic meters of pumice and ash. The top of the volcano collapses into the vacuum that has been created beneath the island due to the launch of magma, thus creating the first caldera of Nisyros. After the blast, thick molten rock creates large lava domes near the east walls of the first caldera and covers the southeastern slopes of the volcano with very thick lava currents, on top of which the village of Nikia is built today.

The period of calm that followed was interrupted by the second devastating explosion of Nisyros, approximately 15,000 years ago, which adds new layers of pumice on the island and creates the current caldera of Nisyros. That is when Nisyros takes its present form.

None of the subsequent eruptions of the volcano recorded in historical sources produce molten rock. All of them are hydrothermal explosions due to the existence of superheated steam in the subsoil of the island. Seawater and rainwater descend on the rocks of the island, gather in deep horizons and get heated by magma. The water there is converted to superheated steam and exerts tremendous pressure. When this pressure overcomes the weight and consistency of the above rocks, the steam hurls them through the air causing a hydrothermal explosion. Such were the explosions that were recorded in Nisyros in historical times.

HISTORY

Nisyros has a long history. Traces of neolithic habitation from the 5th millennium BC have been recorded on the island, and life seems to be continued from then until now. The island witnesses a particular flourish during the 4th century BC and the 12th – 13th century AD. At the end of the 19th century it has about 5,000 inhabitants, at which point the decline starts. The agriculture, livestock and fishing are no longer adequate, forcing the inhabitants to emigrate.

The oldest findings of human presence is from the neolithic period, while there are faint traces of Minoan and Mycenaean presence, with hornshaped carvings, pottery fragments and “cyclopean” walls from these cultures. The pre-classical and classical period (10th-4th century BC) are represented mainly by the famous Palaiokastro, many sculptures and habitation in the region of Argos. From the hellenistic period some extensions and additions to classic buildings are preserved, as well as numerous “fryctoria” (towers-guardhouses), both in Nisyros and Pergousa (or Pyrgousa) islet, which owes its name to them. The roman period left baths and ruins of baths and cisterns, remnants of which survive today out of the village of Paloi. During the early byzantine times numerous churches are built, and many of them still survive in ruins. From the 11th to 15th century the island is dominated by Venetians and later by the Knights Hospitaller, who build the homonymous Castle in Mandraki. After the fall of Constantinople, Nisyros falls victim to raids from pirates and Turks. At the end of the 15th century the island is completely depopulated and in 1522 it is enslaved by the Ottomans. The special status granted to the Dodecanese, allows Nisyros to develop significantly during this period. In 1912 it moves to Italian occupation, while on 7 March 1948 the incorporation of the Dodecanese with Greece takes place.

FLORA AND FAUNA

The flora and fauna of Nisyros presents great interest both because of its volcanic nature and also its geographic position on the immigration routes of the Asian species towards southern Europe and vice versa. The documented presence of 450 species of flora, 85 species of avifauna, 7 species of reptiles, and the presence of Monachus monachus seals on its shores highlight Nisyros as a place worthy of special protection and study.

The dense bushy vegetation consisting of the thorny burnet (Sacropoterium spinosum), the lavender (Lavandula stoechas),the hoary rock rose & Gallipoli rose (Cistus creticus & Cistus salvifolius), the thyme (Thimus capitatus), the savory (Satureja thymbra), the laurel (Daphne gnidioides), the spiny broom (Calicotome villosa), the Nisyros bellflower (Campanula nisyria) which is a unique endemic plant species, the large number of trees, oaks, olive trees, fig trees, almond trees, agramithia trees, and lemon trees, proves that Nisyros is the only “green” active volcano in the Aegean Sea.

The fauna of the island is of corresponding range and diversity. Falcons are continuously flying in the horizon, many kinds of lizards are hiding under rocks, while there are also many free-range animals such as goats, pigs and cows.

THE LAND OF NISYROS

Nisyros, unlike other volcanic islands, has abundant vegetation. The rich volcanic soil holds enough moisture, which makes the land particularly fertile and ideal for tree cultivation. The land of Nisyros is systematically farmed for millennia. The inhabitants took advantage of the fertility of the soil and made good use of its every inch.

The terrain of Nisyros is not level, but has a considerable inclination which made the farming of the land quite difficult. The solution came from terraces or drystone walls (or “vastadia” for the local population). Those terraces built of stone turned the inclining soil to step after step of farming land (which the inhabitants call “tavles”). It is estimated that nearly 15 – 20 km² were cultivated in this way, which means half the island.

On those terraces, one could come across some buildings called “spiladia”. They are stone buildings with one or two rooms serving different needs. They were first of all temporary lodgings next to the fields, so that the farmer won’t need to go back and forth from the field to his house. At the same time, they were storage space for the tools and harvest, and also places to distil the raki, make cheese or do any other agricultural work. Most trees of Nisyros are olive, lemon, agramithia, fig, almond and oak trees. It is notable that the Turks used to call the island “incirlik” which means “fig island”. The largest production that Nisyros had was in almonds. The production quantities not only covered the needs of the island but they were also an exportable product. The ample almonds were used to make dishes like a garlic dip called “skordalia” and also a local drink, “soumada”. Everything else was growing beneath the trees and first and foremost, barley instead of wheat. Next to the cereals, all the legumes were grown, even chickpeas which are the basis for several special dishes such as the “pithia”, a kind of meatball made of chickpeas. Today, the gradual abandonment of agriculture by the shifting of a large part of the population to tourism, has hurt the rest of the crops, but the trees still dominate the landscape of Nisyros, since they continue to produce fruit with fewer requirements.