Famed for its aphrodisiac wine – ransacked by pirates – home to Olympic champions – Skopelos has a history stretching back more than thirty centuries. Skopelos’ links with the noble grape emerged at the very dawning of the island. It was first inhabited in the Paleolithic age, according to findings on the neighbouring island of Alonissos, and it was then named Peparithos, after the son of Dionysos (who is the god of wine) and Ariadne, who was the mythical original inhabitant of the island. The first real remains found on Skopelos itself however date from the early and middle Mycenaean period during the 16th-14th century BC. These remains were found on the headland that separates Stafylos and Velanio beaches in the 1950’s and are believed to be the tomb of the prince known as Stafylos (stafyla means grape). This was a grave rich in treasure and artefacts and its star item is the famous golden sword of the prince which is now on display in the Archaeological Museum in Athens.
Despite these royal beginnings however Skopelos didn’t flourish until many centuries later when its famous wine became known for its aphrodisiac effects, which along with its unique flavour, were mentioned by such luminaries as Aristotle the famous philosopher. The wine, which was supposed to be aged for 7 years, was presumably also rather strong. Aristotle (albeit through the speech of a character in one of his plays) said “three bowls do I mix for the temperate: one to health, which they empty first, the second to love and pleasure, the third to sleep. When this bowl is drunk up, wise guests go home. The fourth bowl is ours no longer, but belongs to violence; the fifth to uproar, the sixth to drunken revel, the seventh to black eyes, the eighth is the policeman’s, the ninth belongs to biliousness, and the tenth to madness and hurling the furniture”
Wine wasn’t the only goods traded at this time, Skopelos was also renowned for its wonderful olive oil, which also was taken all around the Aegean and possibly further away. The wreck of an unusually large boat, measuring 85 x 35 ft, was found about 20 years ago off the coast of Alonissos, which was believed to date from 400 BC. It had just picked up cargo from Skopelos and was carrying hundreds of jars of wine but possibly also oil. This discovery has changed the opinion of many historians who didn’t even realise that boats of such size existed in this period and it therefore places Skopelos as an important point in the trading routes of that time. It was also true that the island had long minted its own coinage which shows that it also had economic power.
Sporting prowess had also brought fame to Skopleos as the long distance runner and Olympic champion Agnondas was a Skopeliti and on his triumphal return to the island so celebrated was he (possibly in the local wine!) that they named the port he landed in after him, and it retains his name until this day when many visitors land at the sheltered harbour and there is a small monument to him on the dock. Christianity eventually reached the shores of the island in the 2nd or 3rd century AD after the the Apostle Paul held sway in Athens and the Evangelist Luke preached in Thiva. The first bishop of the island (who became a martyr and after whom many Skopeliti’s are named) St Riginos (Rigas) is fabled to have killed a dragon between Stafylos and Agnondas bays in about 347 AD and as he struck the final blow the land was cleaved into two, forming the deep seismic gap that is still there today where there is also a chapel with an icon of the saint and an everlasting flame.
It seems that the golden age of Skopelos came to an end shortly afterwards however, and by the Byzantine era the incursions of pirates, who seemed to raid or use the island as a base at will, took its toll on the economy and significant building dried up. It also became used as a place of exile, a tradition which lasted many centuries, and unsurprisingly the local population dwindled in numbers leaving an island which had shrivelled from its previous wealth and position to being a lawless and distant place.
It took what was in effect a “super pirate” to change the situation. Marco Sanudo, a Venetian (also Duke of Naxos), conquered the island in 1207 just after the fall of Constantinople and used it as a base for plundering the mainland, Evvia and just about anywhere in range. Doubtless this didn’t improve things greatly for the Skopoliti’s but at least they had some degree of stability, in fact for just short of 70 years, until the Byzantine emperor Michail Paleologos (and his admiral Alexios Filanthropinos) took the island and the now impoverished remaining islanders back. Things were bad but unbelievably they were set to get worse with the final fall of Constantinople in 1453 leading to the three islands of the Northern Sporades voting in favour of a Venetian rule (again) to avoid occupancy by the Turks. This wasn’t probably the best decision the islanders had ever made! The islands were created into a separate episcopate with Skopelos, having the highest population, becoming the base but it meant that the war between the Venetians and the Turks (Ottoman Empire) swung them back and forth between the two powers. This eventually led to the biggest disaster in the history of the Sporades when the Algerian pirate Heiderin Barbarossa pulled into the harbour. Many people believe that he was asked to end the conflict by the Ottomans and did so in the most efficient way by slaughtering, or enslaving, the entire population of the three islands! Those few who survived by hiding in the mountains remained but the Turkish rule proved, after the violent introduction, to be benign and Skopelos began the road to recovery.
The Turks never actually occupied the islands and as they repopulated with people from the mainland, Evvia and Asia Minor, the local aristocracy came to an amicable agreement with their Ottoman rulers, by providing them with a little gold and sailors for their fleet, they were given privileges and allowed to get on with rebuilding the wealth of the island.
The tradition of sailing enabled the development of a large trading fleet, which because of its central position in the Aegean Sea, enabled Skopleos to regain its former glory. The rich soil and relatively good water supply also enabled the agricultural revival and olives and oil, almonds, pine resin, plums and of course wine, but not in its former quality, formed the basis of local wealth. The strength of this remarkable recovery can be seen by the fact that in the 18th century there were consuls from England, France and Venice based in Skopelos which meant that it was regarded as being a more important base than many large mainland cities which didn’t have such representation.
This period of distance rule by the Ottomans came to an end with outbreak of the revolution in 1821 when Skopelos actively supported the leaders of the rebellion with battleships and cargo boats. They took part in many of the battles in this conflict, which was eventually successful, and in 1831 the island became officially a part of the new nation of Greece and Skopelos moved into the realm of modern history leaving behind its long past of tragedy and triumph.