Kastellorizo - Six Weeks On The Rock

Feature by Willard Manus

We went to Kastellorizo for three days and ended up staying six weeks!

A flyspeck Greek island known as The Rock, Kastellorizo sits just off the south coast of Turkey, the last outpost of Hellenism in an otherwise Islamic corner of the world. Which is why the port town displays a large sign reading "Welcome to Kastellorizo--Europe Begins Here."

Kastellorizo wasn't always a footnote to the other, larger islands of the Dodecanese. Because of its strategic location, Kastellorizo was at one time an important trade and shipping center. In former days, Dorians flocked here, followed by Romans, Byzantine Greeks and the Knights of St. John, who built the still-imposing fort which has provided the locals with sanctuary innumerable times down through the island's turbulent history.

Kastellorizo's deep, U-shaped harbor also attracted pirates and warlords over the centuries, and it even served as a landing place during the 1920s and 30s for Air France which used it as a refueling center for seaplanes bound for Asia Minor and Africa. When steam replaced sail, several European shipping companies made Kastellorizo a main stopping-off point. As many as 15,000 inhabitants enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle, thanks to their holdings on the mainland, where they did a thriving business in citrus fruit, vegetables, tobacco and seafood. Not only were the Kastellorizans successful farmers, traders and fishermen, but they were a learned and cultured people, who saw to it that their children became educated. This earned them the reputation of being "The Jews of the Aegean."

Kastellorizo lost all strategic and economic importance after Ataturk's defeat of the Greek army and the subsequent expulsion of Greeks from Asia Minor in the mid-1920s. Another factor in the precipitous decline in the island's fortunes was when it was politically detached from the mainland and ceded to Italy in 1920.

That was the beginning of the Kastellorizan diaspora. Most islanders emigrated to Perth, Australia, where some 10,000 people of Kastellorizan descent--they call themselves "Kassies"--live today. These Kassies are a tight-knit group that publishes its own newspaper, maintains churches and old folks' homes, and sends hundreds of visitors back to the island each summer. Their attachment to Kastellorizo is deep and profound. Many have poured money into the island to help improve its infrastructure or to rebuild the two- and three-story family houses which line the waterfront. New hotels, condos and restaurants have also been built in recent years to accomodate the ever-increasing numbers of visitors to the island.

Megisti, the island's main town, is studded with greenery, but for the most part Kastellorizo is comprised of bare, brown stone with nary a tree in sight.

Still, the sea around Kastellorizo is blue and pellucid, and Megisti does have its charms. Moviegoers will recognize it from the Italian feature "Mediterraneo," which was shot there and became an international success in the 1990s. Come nightfall, the DVD is still shown in waterfront tavernas and bars, much to the delight of the numerous Italian tourists down on package holidays.

Life centers around the waterfront, where the arrival of a private yacht or the ferryboat from Rhodes is a major event. The island's internecine battles are fought out here as well. Kastellorizo, we discovered, is split into two clans, both of which are headed by big, hulking women with boombox voices who go at each other in public, spitting foul-mouthed curses that blister the air. Over an ouzou and mezze, we settled back in our seats and enjoyed their nocturnal performances.

Many of their battles had to do with property. Because much of Megisti was destroyed by WW II bombardment, some of the remaining houses were taken over by squatters. Now, with land values on the rise, the owners and the squatters (who have legal rights to property after 25 years of occupancy) think nothing of bringing their grievances out into the open.

That's what kept us there on Kastellorizo for six weeks--the human comedy taking place on the waterfront after dark. We were living very simply, even primitively--in one room of a shabby pension with a bathroom in the hall. We couldn't bring ourselves to leave, though. We were having the time of our lives.