Aussie rock

How did a tiny Greek island manage to become a virtual outpost of Australia? Nicholas Pappas traces the history of Kastellorizo.

There’s a corner of the Mediterranean, nestled close to Turkey, which has a very special relationship with Australia. Kastellorizo, barely the size of Sydney’s Centennial Park, has such a strong Aussie flavour that come summer you’re more likely to hear rugby league or AFL scores shouted down the laneways than Greek soccer results.

Almost 80 percent of the island’s diaspora resides in Australia, and in recent times, an increasing number of second- and third-generation “Kazzies” have been returning to what they affectionately refer to as “the rock”, resulting in this Australianisation of the island.

Kastellorizo is a tiny (barely 10 square kilometres), claw-shaped limestone island just two kilometres from Turkey.

Barren and largely inaccessible except via an inviting port, it has seen conquerors come and go and, with them, its fortunes rise and fall.

At one point in the mid-19th century, it boasted the highest population density in the world as its inhabitants packed themselves around the town’s bustling harbour and engaged in trade throughout the Near East.

Only a century later, the island was to be a picture of ruin and abandonment.

Curiously, Kastellorizo only became officially Greek in 1948, when the other islands of the Dodecanese group were united with the motherland, but it had retained a Hellenic character for at least two millennia. During that time, Byzantine traders, crusader knights, Ottoman Turks, Egyptian Mamelukes and Venetian commanders fought over it as they competed for the advantage its port provided. In the 20th century, it became a French colony during World War I and then a part of Mussolini’s empire in the inter-war years. It was finally returned to Greece after World War II, but only after the bulk of its 12,000-strong population had fled in the wake of German bombardments and a devastating fire.

But where did the Kastellorizians go? Many of them journeyed to Australia, to places such as Perth and Darwin, some as early as 1880 (they were one of the earliest Greek communities to emigrate to Australia), and then to east coast cities such as Sydney and Townsville. Some headed to New York and Birmingham in the USA, while another cluster settled in Brazil.

When union with Greece was declared, barely 600 souls were there to see it; that population diminished to a meagre 300 by 1970 and now sits at around 400.
And yet, as the island’s lot faded, the fortunes of its expatriate community blossomed.

In Australia, a first generation of hard-working shopkeepers translated to a second generation of successful entrepreneurs, politicians and community leaders. For such a small community, it has produced a disproportionate number of Greek-Australian success stories. Family names such as Paspaley, Kailis and Manettas resonate in Australian commerce, just like the names Bolkus, Photios, Georges and Michael are well known in the political sphere.

Some have attributed the islanders’ success to an in-built mercantile quality that centuries of ancestral trading have instilled. Others say that it is more a case of good fortune because most Kastellorizians preceded other Greek migration to Australia by some decades and were able, along with compatriots from islands such as Kythira and Ithaca, to integrate far earlier into the host community.

Whatever the reason, their success cannot be doubted. And in recent times, more and more Australian-Kastellorizians are reconnecting with the island and rediscovering their long-abandoned ancestral homes.

The result is an island now in a renaissance of sorts, suspended as it is between the desires of a permanent island community eager to create a sustainable, year-long micro-economy, and those of expatriates longing to nestle in the summer months in lavishly renovated homes, momentarily transplanting their Australian lives to the island of their forefathers. The two groups intersect for an all-too-brief three-month fiesta of noise and revelry between June and August, when Australian slang is heard as commonly on the narrow quay as the Greek language itself.

Of course, this all occurs against a backdrop of unmistakeable beauty. Bright, multicoloured homes line a waterfront as idyllic as St Tropez, and restaurants and bars do a lively trade. The clarity of the azure water remains an endless source of fascination for visitors, and the grotto has long been favourably compared to its more famous counterpart in Capri. There are no beaches, but who needs a beach in this island paradise?

But, for this writer at least, it is in the less obvious laneways, in the forgotten churches, in the island’s deserted schoolyards and in the forlorn cemetery that the real secrets of Kastellorizo emerge.

For here we find remnants of another more prosperous time, when the island was a bustling hub for this corner of the Ottoman Empire and any product could find a ready market in its quayside bazaars. This, for me, is where the real Kastellorizo is to be found – away from prostrate sunbathers, booming music and noisy evening revellers. For it is in these dark recesses that the island’s evocative past still waits to be rediscovered by those eager to seek it out.