A visit to Paros and Antiparos with their stunning setting may not leave time to contemplate the historical and cultural significance of the islands.
In some parts of Greece, it is impossible to visit without being confronted by the imposing visual reminders of the past; from the Acropolis in Athens to the monasteries of Meteora to the quintessentially Aegean villages in Santorini.
Paros has its share of ancient sites to visit, but the maritime history of the island is more hidden from view. This is a shame, because what is now a peaceful island was for many years the setting for protracted and brutal naval skirmishes and hosted some of the most infamous pirates ever to sail. The clues can be seen in the names…Barbarossa restaurant, Pirate Bar and especially the annual Pirate Festival on the 23rd August which brings locals together to re-enact events from centuries ago.
Paros has a long and rich history. Deeply entwined with the Hellenic mainland and the exploits of Philip of Macedonia and Ptolemy King of Egypt; over the centuries their location challenged them to pick sides, or be over whelmed by the great powers of the day. By the 13th century, Venetian power was dominant over the Mediterranean and for 300 years Paros was under the command of the Duchy of Naxos, a Venetian polity.
By the year 1537 – the Venetians no longer ruled unchallenged. The Ottoman Empire had been expanding for over a century having levied major defeats against the Persians in the east and conquered Hungary in the west. They had a strong alliance with the French and leaders that were willing to put politics and negotiation ahead of ideology. The stage was set for a dramatic confrontation between the western sea powers and this hungry new imperial force.
In 1453 the eastern Byzantine Empire had been conquered when Constantinople was occupied by Mehmed the Conquerer. The ramifications of this occupation were felt across the Hellenic world, as the Ottoman’s flourished, their wealth and political strategy allowed them to offer favourable terms to the areas and peoples they took under their control. The eastern Byzantines preferred the rule of the Ottomans over the Venetians – their fellow Christians – as they had been in protracted disputes with western Christendom for many years.
Paros island was a peripheral player in this action. Paros had been subjected to piracy of various destructiveness since at least the 7th century. All the Aegean islands had faced attacks from the sea from temporary and destructive to long term occupation.
The pirate festival held annually on Paros commemorates a particularly brutal pirate raid. Local custom records that the pirates approached the port of Naoussa and captured some of the local population. The locals responded and were able to recover at least some of their people, but the real aim of the attackers was not people – it was the destruction of the Venetian fortress of the port. This the pirates achieved, and with it their control of the trade routes the Venetians had dominated.
It is well known that the attackers were led by the Ottoman pirate Barbarossa. But ‘Barbarossa’ was no ordinary Ottoman, in fact, he was a Greek-Albanian, born on the island of Lesvos to a poor family. Alongside his brothers, he commanded a small fleet of ships and caused havoc for merchants and fishermen of all ethnicities in the Aegean waters until he caught the attention of the Ottoman authorities. They offered him boats and weapons to narrow his focus to the western ships and carve a way for Ottoman dominance in the Mediterranean. This led him to Paros.
His exploits over many decades would take several books to retell, but the interesting point for Paros visitors is that the ‘Turkish pirate’ who attacked their island was no such thing – he was a Greek mercenary, hired for his talents by one of the most successful imperial powers there has ever been who rose through the ranks to gain the title of ‘Pasha’ – the highest position a military commander could achieve. This was no ordinary pirate. Worth remembering as we watch the celebrations this summer.