The village of Perama is mostly known for its remarkable cave, replete with stalactites and stalagmites more twisted and tortuous than the inhabitants themselves. Extending for over a kilometre it is one of the largest of its kind in Europe. Other than that, Perama, which sits somnolently on beautiful Lake Pamvotis on the outskirts of Ioannina, the capital of Epirus, is also known for its large conglomeration of souvenir shops that all purvey exactly the same items. What is not known however, even to most of the villagers themselves, is that the village proved instrumental in housing and then in suppressing perhaps the most novel and radical social experiment ever to be attempted within Greece.

It is May 1900 and Ioannina is still firmly under the eroding but ever vigilant Ottoman rule. Within the city, an event takes place which shocks the conservative mores of Ioannitan society: A mutiny. Fourth year students of the renowned Zosimaia School, one of the most significant Greek educational institutions during the last period of Ottoman rule, founded in 1828 through the personal expense of the merchant Zosimas brothers, and still functioning as a high school today, decided to rebel against the harsh internal regulations and rules, including some rather extreme punishments meted out to the disobedient.

Somehow, the fourth year roll went mysteriously missing, a significant loss, given that the roll also recorded the grades of the class. The principal of the Zosimaia School interrogated the students thoroughly. He made threats of a dire nature against them. He pleaded, cajoled, begged and demanded, offered bribes and incentives, all to no avail. The students, steadfastly refused to divulge the identities of the perpetrators of this heinous act. Exasperated, both at the theft of the role and the exposure of his own impotency, the principal to punish all thirty seven students of the year four class by not permitting them to take part in the graduation exams.

As late as half a century onwards from the commission of this crime, opinion in Ioannina was divided as to the identity of those responsible. Writing in the journal Epirotiki Estia in 1957, Giorgos Pamvotis (the literary pseudonym of Giorgos Stoupis), who was a student at the school at the time, identified a 21-year-old student named Nikos Volias , who had enrolled in the school after being expelled from the Patriarchal Academy in Constantinople, as the main instigator of the heist.

According to Pamvotis, Volias was a devotee of the night and party life of Ioannina such that it was and this resulted in him consistently earning low grades. Consequently, seeking to cover up his poor performance, by means deep, dark and nefarious, he convinced the school superintendent, the delightfully named Gavopanagos (Cross-eyed Panayiotis), to help him purloin the student roll.

Historian Panos Tziovas who has actually undertaken research among the archives of the Zosimaia School corroborates parts of this version of events but has more to say on the identity of the victims. Apparently Gavopanagos’ real name was Christos Panagos and Nikos Volias was actually Christodoulos Vouliotis their names having been changed by Pamvotis because even fifty seven years later, he did not want to reveal the true identity of those responsible.

Unable to accept the collective punishment meted out to them by the Zosimaia School and absolutely resolved not to implicate the mastermind of the theft, the year four students decided that it was not just the principal or the School that was to blame for their plight, but rather society. Facing a future where they would have to deal with social hierarchies, competitiveness and capitalism from the bottom rungs, considering they had all collectively flunked the year, the students decided to turn their backs on the decaying society of their time and instead decided to flee to the extensive giant reed beds that fringed Lake Pamvotis, there to found on democratic principles, the so-called “People’s Republic of the Reeds.”

The thick reeds, especially around Perama, provided an ideal habitat for a wide array of waterfowl and fish, which could be used as sustenance, while the reeds themselves could be woven into huts to provide shelter. Such activities, and the order and manner in which they were to be undertaken were determined after a wide-ranging debate, followed by voting by a show of hands, as was the election of the leader for the day, for revolving leadership was one of the key components of the Reedian Constitution. Nonetheless, it is remarkable that given the amount of moving of motions, seconding of proposals, tabling of regulations and tallying of votes, that the students actually managed to create their small state, replete with streets, squares and corridors through the reeds, to which they gave decent republican names such as Commonwealth Square or Parliament Place. Their inspiration seems to have been a good dose of Robespierre tempered by a sprinkling of Oliver Cromwell, both dangerous subversives according to the staid mores of late Ottoman society.

Man cannot live by waterfowl alone, neither can world revolution be fuelled by fish and the considering that Peking duck had not yet been invented, the revolutionaries resolved upon conducting forays into the nearby villages in order to plunder gardens for vegetables, snatch poultry and other edibles, an innovative way of exporting revolution. For their raids, they compulsorily requisition old boats, discarded by the side of the lake which they repaired, making them possibly the last lake pirates in Balkan history.

All this constant looting dampened the revolutionary spirit of the otherwise docile and placid residents of Perama, who apart from a few anti-social elements who were known to be secretly supplying the Reedfolk, decided enough was enough and that it was time to take matters into their own hands, it being unknown whether proper democratic procedures were followed when this resolution was made. Pamvotis claims that the villages then proceeded to acquire the services of a well-known local bandit named Zikos to kidnap the head of state of the Reed Republic and demand a ransom from his family.

Zikos, in a nocturnal incursion upon the Reed Republic did manage to abscond with its fearless leader in tow. According to some accounts, the family of the chief revolutionary refused to pay the ransom and thus, Zikos murdered him. Other accounts have the cowering leader duly redeemed by his family and sent away from the city in order to purge the shame.

The Reed Republic did not survive Zikos’ assault for long despite the fact that in all time of its existence, only one of its thirty-seven citizens deserted it. By December 1900 when the winter cold had well and truly set in, they all had had enough of revolutionary zeal, collectivised consumption and the all-pervasive damp: “The citizens of the Reed Republic, silent and sombre, with the collars of their overcoats raised, as one sees in mourners after the funeral of loved ones, abandoned their state. The Reed Republic faded away in ignominy and humiliation,” Pamvotis writes.

The revolutionary students’ efforts were not all in vain however. Upon their return home, their exasperated parents convinced the principal to permit them to take their final exams. Having spent the better half of the year on the lake, however, most failed to obtain their high school diploma. However, their rebellion was proved the catalyst for the drafting of new, less strict school regulations at the Zosimaia School.

Reeds still stubbornly fringe the shores of Lake Pamvotis, despite decades of environmental devastation in the region. When they sway in the wind, their rustling takes the form of Pelasgian whispers, recounting stories of the ancestors that are lost to time. Yet to this day, some one hundred and twenty-three years later the true identity of the last leader of the Reed Republic and his fate, along with what truly transpired during those heady months of the revolution, are yet to be revealed. Reeds keep their secrets well.