Experience Plus!

Bicycle Tours Since 1972

Experience Plus - Bicycle Tours since 1972

Greek Islands: History and Geography

by ExperiencePlus! - Tuesday, July 27, 2010 travel-stories

Greek Islands: History and Geography

AnciThe discussion of the geography of the Greek Islands naturally begins with a discussion of Europe as a subcontinent of the Eurasian continent. In fact, Europe isn’t even a subcontinent, in the same context that India is a subcontinent. Europe, really, is just a peninsula extending west into the Atlantic from Asia. Have a look at this weather map, or this physical relief map of Europe.

Take a minute to look at these maps and you realize that this peninsula we call Europe is just a complex series of peninsulas (all of Scandinavia, Denmark, the Balkans, Italy), islands (Britain and Ireland, Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily) and isthmuses (France).Greece is simply an extension of the Balkan peninsula.

As you look at this map, place your cursor on the mountains in Albania and northwest Greece and trace that range of mountains as it goes south to Athens or Euboea (say "Evvia") and into the Cyclades (Aegean) Islands. Trace the same mountains south, across the Gulf of Corinth and into the Peloponnesian peninsula and on to Crete.

What you are finding is that the great sweep of Alpine mountain chains that runs west to east through Europe from the Pyrenees to the French, Italian, Swiss and Austrian Alps, continuing on into the Carpathian Mountains of Slovakia and Romania or heading south through the Balkans to Greece finally dwindle to become the Greek Islands of the Aegean (the Cyclades: the Greeks say "kik-la-deez"). Every one of these islands, in short, is the top of a mountain that links back to the great Alpine mountain building period referred to by geologists as the "Alpine orogeny" (if you’re dying to know more, search Google for this term and you are on your way!)

 

The Greek Islands: A Brief Geography

Geographers, historians, publishers of guidebooks and the people who live here divide the Greek islands into several logical groups:

  1. The Cyclades ("Kiklades"): these are the classic Greek islands that we imagine when we see photos of the white-washed villages. They include the most famous, including Mykonos, Paros and Naxos, Siros, Ios, Santorini (presumed to be the legendary Atlantis), and the famous historic island of Delos, among others. Our Greek Bike, Walk and Cruise Tour visits these islands.
  2. The Dodecanese: "Dodeca" is the Greek word for "twelve" and there are twelve islands in this group. They are close to the Turkish coast. The more famous include Chios, Samos, and Rhodes.
  3. The Ionian Islands: Off the west coast of Greece in the Ionian Sea, these islands are Corfu (Corcyra in Greek), Cephalonia, Ithaca, Lefkada, and Zakinthos. Our Athens to Olympia Bicycle Tour visits Zakinthos.
  4. The Sporades (Northern and Southern): A small group of islands northwest of Athens in the northern Aegean.
  5. A number of other islands stand alone, such as Euboea, Crete, Lesbos, Limnos and more.

 

Place Names in the Greek Islands – For Your Trivial Pursuit

 I already mentioned the Dodecanese islands as consisting of twelve islands. Here’s a little more trivia for you on the meanings of a few geographic terms:

Archipelago – In English this means an "expanse of water or ocean with scattered islands". In Byzantine times this term referred to the "primary" or "main" ("arche") "sea" or "ocean" ("pelago"). This was the Aegean Sea, in short, the "mother of all seas" as far as the Ancient Greeks and Byzantines were concerned. (Today, "pelagic" in English means of or relating to the deep ocean and is used as an adjective referring to deep sea fishes or birds and other plant or animal life.)

Cyclades – The Greek word that refers to the principal group of islands in the Aegean really refers to the islands "surrounding" (cylades = around or circular) the birthplace of Apollo, the island of Delos. Delos was the holiest of all the Greek islands and essentially defined all the other islands around it.

Santorini – This is the southernmost of the Cyclades Islands and is the Venetian name for a church on the island dedicated to "Saint Irene" ("Sant’ Irene" in Italian, becomes Santorini in modern times). The Greek name for the island is Thira or Fira.

 

Why are these Islands so Fascinating?

I think the Greek islands draw us for a number of reasons. Certainly their history as stepping stones of civilization from ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt and Anatolia (present-day Turkey) fascinates us. Crete, of course, was the homeland of the Minoans. But the Cyclades and the Dodecanese were home to a series of Bronze age cultures (the Trojan, Minoan, Cycladic, and Mycenean for sure) to which we tie our earliest knowledge of the idea of "Europe." And these civilizations gave us Classical Greece, including Athens, Sparta, Corinth, and more.

Today, the epicenter of Greece has moved to Athens while the islands have remained quiet repositories of history and Mediterranean peasant culture and society. It is here that renewal begins every spring with the whitewashing of the village in preparation for Easter. And although the automobile and the motor scooter have taken over for the donkey and for foot traffic, you can still find ancient Greek or Byzantine paths to walk on from village to village.

 A visit to the Greek Islands, in short, helps transport us back in time and spirit to roots that are as deep as they get.

 

Greek Island Reading List

 The following reading list is designed as a start to understanding the Greek Islands, NOT what to see.

  • The Greek Islands by Lawrence Durrell; published in 1980, a survey of the Greek islands after a lifetime of traveling and living among them.
  • Voyage to Atlantis: A Firsthand Account of the Scientific Expedition to Solve the Riddle of the Ages
  • by James W. Mavor
  • Unearthing Atlantis: An Archaeological Odyssey
  • by Charles R., Bib Pellegrino
  • The King Must Die by Mary Renault. This is a great fictional account of the myth of Theseus, Ariadne and her golden thread, and the Minotaur on Crete. If you are going to Athens, Crete or Naxos, put this one on your list.
  • The Bull from the Sea by Mary Renault. The sequel to The King Must Die, follows the life of Theseus as King of Athens.
  • Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis. Classic, light Kazantzakis.
  •  Freedom or Death by Nikos Kazantzakis. Great historical fiction by the most famous Cretan of all. It is the story of the struggle for freedom of the Cretans from the Ottoman Turks.
  • The Venetian Empire by Jan Morris. Pop history by a travel writer but it provides a great introduction to how Venice took control of the Aegean Islands and Crete after the fourth crusade in 1204 and ruled parts of the region for 500 years.
  • Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis De Bernieres. A great World War II novel about the life and times on the island of Cephalonia.
  • My Family and Other Animals (Penguin Nature Classics) by Gerald Malcolm Durrell. Lawrence Durrell’s brother and famous naturalist writes about the natural history of the Corfu and growing up in Greece.
  • The World of Odysseus (New York Review Books Classics Series) by M. I. Finley. Introduction to the Classical world of the Greeks.

 

Guide books:

I like Dana Facaros’ style and historic anecdotes and stories:

  • Cadogan Guides: Greek Islands (Cadogan Guides), by Dana Facaros
  • Greece the Cyclades (Cadogan Island Guides), by Dana Facaros
  • Greece the Dodecanese (Cadogan Island Guides), by Dana Facaros