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Hydra: "The Rock of Liberty" whose Stones are Ready to Tell their Story Again!

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Greece's popular island of Hydra. (Photo by Eurokinissi/Yiannis Panagopoulos)

Hydra – water – if ever a name were a misnomer, this is it.

This tiny island, basically a granite megalith rising sheerly out of the Saronic Gulf, has very little water despite its name and no arable land. In a land as ancient as Greece, Hydra is basically absent from history, except as a barren rock without anchorage or habitation. Hydra hardly seemed destined for greatness.

Yet Hydra, basically uninhabited two centuries before the Greek War of Independence in 1821, rose, within less than a century, to become the premier shipping center of the Eastern Mediterranean, with the largest fleet, incredible riches, stately mansions, and a cosmopolitan trade network stretching to the Americas. The original Hydriots were refugees, primarily from the Peloponnesus and Evia. With no arable land, they turned to the sea. They were quick studies.

By the time of the Greek Revolution they were trading everywhere, often under various flags as ‘convenience’ dictated. They ran blockades during the Napoleonic Wars, and made fortunes. They honed their martial skills fighting the Barbary Pirates and as impressed sailors into the Turkish Navy. In exchange for their services and their economic clout, the Turks basically left the island autonomous.

Hydra’s spectacular rise is worthy of study as a tale of grit and agency, and when the country called, the Hydriots answered, committing their ships, their fortunes, and their lives. Together with Hydra’s neighboring island Spetses, and the even more diminutive Psara, in the Eastern Aegean, they turned the Aegean into a Greek lake. Without Hydra, it is a strong possibility we would not be celebrating 1821.

The price was dear and by the end of the Revolution, far too many ships and sailors paid for freedom with a watery grave, and the island never recovered its shipping fortunes. Hydra retained its beloved flag, its honor and glory, and its sons added further fame as naval heroes in the Balkan Wars.

Hydriots never forgot their past glory, stories drilled into every Hydriot – at home or in the Diaspora – from the cradle and etched in the stones of the island’s graceful yet decaying mansions. Having essentially disappeared from history, Hydra’s exquisite architecture and beauty caught the eye of various painters, artists, poets, and crooners, who put the island back on the map.

Hydra’s post-Revolutionary poverty and its topographical difficulties protected the island from the greatest enemy – crass concrete development and the tyranny of the automobile. The carless town’s architecture must conform to norms of the 1800s, so that the modern port looks and feels pretty much the same as it did in 1821; one can easily substitute the haute couture of the well-heeled tourist or native with the ‘vrakes’ and waistcoats of the Revolutionary Era. The setting, the memories, the excellent museum and the history are all there, waiting for the chance to tell their story. It has arrived.

For the next year, in the countdown to the bicentennial, Hydra will host a series of events, lectures, and projects under the banner of Hydra Rock of Liberty 1821-2021 designed to celebrate the island’s premier role in Hellenism’s fight for freedom. This effort is the result of a combination of municipal, civic, and cultural organizations, backed by sponsors and academics, and fueled by a spirit of volunteerism.

Hydra’s mayor, George Koukoudakis, an assistant professor at the Greek Military College, has been at the forefront of these efforts. The program had its debut at the Old Parliament Building in Athens, where the mayor outlined the goals of the initiative. These include making more widely known, both in Greece and abroad, the great contributions of the island, to make the younger generations aware of this unique history, and to look at Hydra in the context of the future.

In this effort, Hydra is blessed to have an excellent museum which is a treasure trove of documents and artifacts, which speak to an island literally at the center of the Greek world at the time, a place of commerce and growing culture and literacy. The well-appointed museum alone is worth a visit to the island, which receives about twenty thousand visitors a year. Of course, the island itself is a living museum, a time capsule.

Mayor Koukoudakis has fostered a partnership with the other two nearby “nautical islands,” Spetses and Psara, to highlight the magnificent and heroic legacy of these three tiny islands in a collaborative partnership, as in 1821. Beyond this, Hydra Rock of Liberty 1821-2021 is connecting with other key revolutionary venues, both inside and outside Greece.

The Diaspora played a significant role in the Revolution, and the Hydriots, as intrepid seafarers and cosmopolitan merchants, were in constant contact with key ports nearby such as Trieste, Odessa, and Marseilles, and as far away as the Americas. Hydriots were among the first Greek Americans.

The Greek War of Independence resonated far beyond the borders of the small state which emerged. The idea of an ancient state reborn, a resurrection of a martyred Byzantium, combined with the Enlightenment ideas of freedom and citizenship – the two standards of the American and French Revolution – stirred the hearts of the Greek Revolutionaries as well as others. It is no accident that thousands of Americans and Europeans rallied to the Greek cause.

In all of this, the Hydriots were front and center. Hydra is known to people around the world for its exquisite beauty from another time, and now Hydra has a chance to talk about that “other time,” the Glory Days of 1821, at a time when Hydriots led from the front. They are doing it again in 2021.

Visit the museum website as more information becomes available: www.iamy.gr and let’s work to promote abroad the story of Hydra and its sister islands, and indeed all parts of Greece and the Diaspora who sacrificed so much to make Greece a reality. One of the most important goals of Hydra Rock of Liberty 1821-2021 is to give a modern context to the struggles of that time. Many of the challenges of that time remain today; past can provide prologue.