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The Aegean Landscape

The Region of the South Aegean bears the unique trait of totally consisting of islands, a fact that gives the whole area a uniqueness deriving exactly from the region’s insularity. The islands of the Aegean, as well as the islands across the world, despite their heterogeneity, appear to have certain common geographical, environmental, social and developmental traits. All these common traits can be attributed as a whole to the term “insularity”.

In a few words we could say that insularity is defined by the small size, the regionality and isolation, the peculiar and fragile natural environment and the specific cultural and experiential identity of the area.  

If we wish to further analyze the elements defining the particular identity of the islands, we would conclude to the following list:

  • An island certainly has a specific size, usually covering a small area in comparison with geographical areas of the mainland, a small population and limited natural resources in terms of variety and quantity. As result, its developmental potential is limited by nature.
  • The insular areas are fragmented and this fragmentation does not favor the complementarity between islands of the same group, both at the level of services and exploitation of resources.
  • The island is by definition a geographically isolated area because of the sea surrounding it. This water barrier differentiates the island isolation from the isolation of remote continental areas.
  • The islands are vulnerable ecosystems, particularly exposed to natural phenomena and uncontrollable environmental influences.
  • They are usually away from big urban centers and that, along with the particularities of transport, significantly affects the extent of isolation.
  • The seasonal population fluctuations characterize and define the economic and social activity in the sense of altering the needs and identity of the islands during the summer and winter seasons.  
  • Islands have peculiar cultural characteristics, lifestyles and particular experiential identities stemming from the perceptions of the locals and the visitors regarding their insular nature.

Therefore, the concept of insularity is broader than the definition of the island and it is not limited to the factual geographical and population traits. It can also attribute the influence of these natural characteristics to the formation of a particular insular culture. It stems from the permanent territorial discontinuity of the insular areas, it changes according to the island’s distance from the mainland and it is inversely proportional to its size.

Certain small islands that belong to island groups often tend to develop dependency relationships with some adjacent larger island that serves as a local center. This phenomenon is called double insularity. A typical example is Symi that depends largely on Rhodes.

 

AEGEAN AS A CRADLE OF CULTURES

The Aegean Sea – a sea studded with small and large islands – that, according to the lexicographer Hesychius, was named after its large waves, called “aeges”, by the ancient Greeks, has been attracting settlers since the 11th millennium BC. However, it was systematically inhabited only after the Neolithic period (6800-3200 BC). Ever since the Bronze Age (3200-1050 BC) this sea has been the water “link” connecting the Greek mainland to Asia Minor, as well as Crete and the southern Aegean to the north Greek areas, the Balkans and the Black Sea and constituted a field of intense economic, social and cultural fermentations.

The Aegean is the sea that connects islands with a great variety in shape, morphology and soil texture, coastline structure, climate conditions, flora, fauna and activities of the locals.

The favorable conditions of the Aegean, the climate, the open horizon and the ability of communication from one island or coast to the other, thanks to the small distances between them, gradually changed the mentality of the first settlers, who were originally shepherds and farmers and then became sailors, craftsmen, merchants and artists. The natural environment of the Aegean played a very important role in the formation of the characteristics and traits of what we generally call Greek culture.  

It should be noted that Homer, Thales, Heraclitus, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Herodotus and many others lived in the seaside towns of Ionia, on the coast of Macedonia and in the Aegean islands. The Aegean is not only the cradle where numerous cultures were born and nurtured, but also the area where people had the chance to get to know each other better and where everything promoted, supported and enhanced the idea of unity and pan-human universality.  

 

THE NATURAL LANDSCAPE

The use of the term “natural” when referring to the natural landscape of the Aegean islands is rather inappropriate, since, after millenniums of inhabitance and exploitation, the landscape of the inhabited islands, especially those of the South Aegean, is mainly rural-anthropogenic. The purely natural landscape is rather limited but particularly rich, with its characteristic Mediterranean garrigue ecosystems of low height and strips of maquis vegetation along the hydrographic lines.

Nevertheless, many rare, endangered or endemic species of flora and fauna are preserved–in rural ecosystems as well - a fact reflected on the large number of the Aegean insular areas that are included in the “NATURA 2000” network of protected areas. In many cases, the natural and the rural landscape, subject to traditional methods of management, are barely separated, thus composing a harmonic unity that is both familiar to us and typical of the Aegean. The characteristics of the rural landscape, such as terraces, abandoned olive groves, old mills, traditional livestock infrastructure like sheep pens and sheepfolds, stone walls, farmhouses etc. have been integrated in the natural insular environment and now constitute an integral part of it.  

The natural landscape of the Aegean is renowned for its diversity not only from one island to another but also within the same island, where there are intense contrasts, especially in places characterized by the presence or absence of water. Some of the main elements composing the Aegean landscape are the following:

First of all is the sea that apart from the role it played in the formation of the cultural identity of the islands due to the sea trade, the migration and the limitations in communication, it also has an impact on the climate. Climate determines the physiognomy of the vegetation and the form of the ecosystems of the area.

It is well known that the climate is different from one place to another, since temperature fluctuates from the coasts to the mainland and there is also the characteristic peculiar phenomenon of the summer etesians, namely a type of wind that blows only over the Aegean.

The brightness of sunlight over the Aegean and the clear atmosphere make the landscapes clearly visible and vibrant highlighting every single detail.

The type of the vegetation, which is mainly low and develops according to the climate and soil, constitutes a primary characteristic of the landscape ranging from fertile plains to rocky, arid, dry areas. Water certainly plays a vital role and the xeric-type ecosystems found in certain islands are proof of its shortage.

 

ANTHROPOGENIC RURAL LANDSCAPE

The rural landscape is a result of the interaction between the natural landscape and the rural systems. The long historic background of this interaction in the South Aegean area has created a series of semi-natural landscapes, which possess a large ecological and aesthetic value despite the fact that they do not have a particular productive value (due to the limited natural resources). The ecological value is associated with the nature of the traditional rural management policies that have sustainably capitalized on the limited natural resources, such as the soil, water and pasturelands. The high aesthetic value of these rural landscapes that are an independent tourism resource with a high potential of further development attracts many tourists.

The main endemic crops that gradually defined the insular rural landscape were firstly olive crops, vineyards and some types of grains and secondly fruits and vegetables and some local tree plantations, such as fig and almond tree plantations. Certain foreign species were brought later on to the Aegean area and left their own mark on the landscape: Citrus trees at the irrigated plains, palm trees in the South Aegean region and later on eucalypts along the streets and hedgerows. Non cultivated areas are full of pines, holly oaks and Kermes oaks and there is low vegetation with sclerophyllous shrubs and garrigue in more arid areas.  

There are plenty of anthropogenic characteristics in the rural landscape. Some of them can be found on almost every island. First of all, terraces that were –and still are- a means of preserving valuable resources such as soil and water.

The traditional fences that helped keep goat herds under control were usually made of stones (stone walls) while the hedgerows that were used to protect sensitive crops against the wind were usually made of reeds. The fences were used in complex grazing management systems like the rotational grazing that helped pastures regain their fertility, since their number was quite limited in the islands.

For centuries paths were the only thing connecting the island settlements. Today, they can be used to develop alternative forms of tourism.  

Rural constructions including warehouses, houses, sheepfolds, “strougas” (pens), dovecotes, threshing floors, winnowing fans, wine presses, wind mills, water mills, wells, cisterns etc., are an integral part of the rural insular landscape and their forms and construction techniques vary greatly. Not only do they constitute a valuable cultural tradition, but they also contribute to the aesthetic value of the landscape.  

Last but not least, the chapels and churches scattered across all the Aegean islands are a trademark of the Aegean landscapes. Their construction techniques also vary greatly.  

On every island, the shape and form of parcels, streets and paths associated with the farms and structure of fields, forests and meadows around every community and settlement are closely related to the historic social development and the customary inheritance rights of every place.

Text: Dr. Marios Theodorakakis

 

SOURCES

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Moraitaki – Tsami, Α. and Vasilakis, P. (2007) Nisia: protasi gia tin ygia, Athens: Papazisis publications.

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Spilanis, G. And Kondyli, Ι. (2002) “Nisiotiko paratiritirio: ena ergalio shediasmou”, Proceedings of the 7th National Congress on Cartography, Insular Cartography, 23-26 October 2002, Department of Geography, University of the Aegean, Mytilene, Greece.  

Spilanis, G. et al. (2005) “Prospelasimotita ke Elkystikotita ton nision tou Egeou”, Aeihoros, 4 (1): pp. 106-35.

Tzannatos, Ε. (2010) “Nisiotikotita ke metafores”, Paper presented at the conference on Highlighting problems of the Ionian islands and suggesting solutions, 21-22 January 2010, Union of Prefectural Authorities of Greece, Argostoli, Greece.

Cross, M. & Nutley, S. (1999) “Insularity and accessibility: the small island communities of Western Ireland”, Journal of rural studies, 15(3): pp. 317-330.

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