Hydra (Greek: Ύδρα) is one of the Saronic Islands of Greece, located in the Aegean Sea between the Saronic Gulf and the Argolic Gulf. It is separated from the Peloponnese by narrow strip of water. In ancient times, the island was known as Hydrea (Υδρέα, derived from the Greek word for “water”), which was a reference to the springs on the island.
Transport, tourism and leisure
Rubbish trucks are the only motor vehicles on the island, as cars or motorcycles are not allowed by law. Donkeys, and water taxis provide public transportation. The inhabited area, however, is so compact that most people walk everywhere.
Hydra benefits from numerous bays and natural harbours, and has a strong maritime culture. The island remains a popular yachting destination, and is the home of the Kamini Yacht Club, an international yacht club based in the port of Kamini.
In 2007, a National Geographic Traveler panel of 522 experts rated Hydra the highest of any Greek Island (ranked 11th out of 111 islands worldwide) as a unique destination preserving its “integrity of place”.
Pre-history, antiquity, and the Byzantine Era
There is evidence of farmers and herders from the second half of the third millennium BCE, on the small flat areas that are not visible from the sea. Obsidian from Milos has also been found. During the Helladic period, Hydra probably served as a maritime base for the kingdoms on the Greek peninsula. Fragments of vases, tools, and the head of an idol have been found on Mount Chorissa.
The large-scale Dorian invasion of Greece around the 12th Century BCE appears to have resulted in a depopulation of the island. Hydra was repopulated by farmers and herders, perhaps sailing from the mainland port of Ermioni, in the 8th Century BCE. Herodotus reports that towards the 6th Century BCE, the island belonged to Ermioni, which sold it to Samos. Samos, in turn, ceded it to Troizina.
For much of the past, Hydra has stayed on the margins of history. The population was very small in ancient times, and except for the brief mentions in Herodotus and Pausanias, has left little or no record in the history of those times.
It is clear that Hydra was populated during the Byzantine Era, as vases and coins have been discovered in the area of Episkopi. However, it appears that the island again lost its population during the Latin Empire of Constantinople as the inhabitants fled the pirate depredations. On other islands, inhabitants moved inland, something that was essentially impossible on Hydra.
Between 1204-1566 it belonged to Venice. From 1566 to 1821 (nominally 1829), it was part of the Ottoman Empire.
In the sixteenth century, the island began to be settled by refugees, due to the warfare between the Ottomans and Venetians. The Arvanites’ presence was evident until the mid-20th century, when according to T. Jochalas the majority of the island’s population was composed of Arvanites. The island is known in Arvanitika as Nίδρα.
The period of commercial and naval strength
During the first half of the 18th Century, Hydra built the same kind of vessels as were built in the other Aegean Islands. These were the sachtouri of 15 to 20 tons, and the latinadiko of 40 to 50 tons. The Hydriots contented themselves with trading in the Aegean, going as far as Constantinople. The great change occurred in 1757 after they launched a vessel of 250 tons. The larger boats enabled Hydra to become an important commercial port. By 1771, one could count up to 50 vessels from throughout Greece in the roads. Ten years later the island had fitted out 100 vessels.
However, the Ottoman Empire and its policies constrained Hydra’s economic success. Heavy tariffs and taxes limited the speed of development. The Ottoman administration limited free trade; the Ottomans permitted only Ottoman vessels to navigate the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus, and hence have access to the Black Sea, its ports, and the trade in grain from their hinterlands. The Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca changed all this. Russia gained from the Ottoman Empire the right to protect the Empire’s Orthodox Christians. The religious protection had a commercial corollary: the Hydriots began to sail under the Russian flag. The Treaty also provided for free passage between the Aegean and the Black Sea. Hydra entered its commercial era. Hydriot vessels carried goods between Southern Russia in the east to the Italian ports of Ancona and Livorno in the west. From 1785 on, the Hydriote shippers began to engage in commerce, not just transport. Each vessel became its own small commercial enterprise and quickly trade with the Levant began to depend on Hydra’s vessels, though not without competition from those of Spetses and Psara.
The Greek War of Independence and the decline
In the 19th Century, Hydra was home to some 125 boats and 10,000 sailors. The mansions of the sea captains that ring the harbor are a testament to the prosperity that shipping brought to the island which, at the date of the Revolution, had 16,000 inhabitants. During the Greek Revolution, the fleets of Hydra and the other two naval islands of Psara and Spetses were able to wrest control of the Eastern Aegean Sea from the Ottoman Empire.
When the Greek War of Independence broke out, Hydra’s contribution of some 150 ships, plus supplies, to fight against the Turks played a critical role. The Greek admiral Andreas Miaoulis, himself a settler on Hydra, used Hydriot fire ships to inflict heavy losses on the Ottoman fleet.
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