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A History of Galaxidi

Galaxidi in 1930The town of Galaxidi is located in Central Greece on the north coast of the Corinthian Gulf in the province of Fokida. The boundaries of Fokida extend from Delphi on the east (the western mountainside of Mount Parnassus) to the mountain range of Vardousia on the west, the mountains of Lidoriki on the north and the coast of the Corinthian Gulf on the south.

Much of the early history of the area remains quite obscure but over the centuries the people living there experienced or were involved in many of the following events:
  • the Greek Dark ages of 1200 to 800 BCE
  • the Persian invasion of 480 BCE
  • the Peloponnesian War of 431-404 BCE
  • the Athenian and Spartan Battle of Naupactus in 429 BCE
  • the Corinthian Wars of 395 to 387 BCE
  • Macedonian rule in the 3rd century BCE
  • the Battle of Corinth and the Roman and Byzantine rule beginning in 146 BCE
  • Ottoman rule from the 1400s to 1821
  • the "Battle of Lepanto" in 1571
  • and the War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821
Through those tumultuous times in history the people of Galaxidi lived, fought and struggled hard to endure and prosper.

This is their story.

The region of Locris
Historical accounts of Greece, before literacy was reintroduced in the 8th century BCE (see "The Greek Dark Ages" HERE), are unclear, and various sources can be contradictory or not up to date. This area of Central Greece was known as "Locris" where, it is believed, an ancient tribe of mixed origin arrived from the north before the 14th century BCE. Some of these people settled in the area of west of Parnassus between Amfissa and Nafpaktos - long before the time of Homer. The area became known as the Ozolian (western) Locris (or Lokris) and it's people were called Locrians (see map). Significant towns during these early times were Amfissa and Nafpaktos (or "Naupactus"), a major seaport, and, for our story, Oeanthi and Haleon (learn more HERE).

The inland region of Ozolian Locris - west of the fertile plain of Amfissa - was difficult to approach because of the high mountains and rugged terrain so the people there were not distinguished for their civilisation and arts. However, the coastal part of the country offered them the opportunity to become excellent mariners and merchants offering them the ability to develop a vigorous migration activity. By the 5th century BCE they had also established a colony in Southern Italy (known as "Great Greece") called Locri Epizephyrii (learn more HERE). A bronze tablet dating back to the 5th century BCE was unearthed in Galaxidi in 1848. On it is an inscription describing the terms and conditions of the Lokrian migration to Southern Italy.

Location of ancient Haleon For a long time historians thought that the current location of Galaxidi was the ancient town of "Oeanthi" but more recent discoveries indicate that it was actually the town of "Haleon". Oeanthi, it is now believed, was in the area of what is now the village of Erantini. The original site of Haleon was located in the hills above present day Galaxidi, just below the Holy Monastery of the Savior, in the area known as Agios Vlassis (see map). Another 5th century BCE bronze inscription found in that area in the 1850s refers to a treaty between the cities of Haleon and Oeanthi regulating a peaceful way to solve the disputes that arose out of their maritime enterprises. This inscription currently resides in the British Museum.

In the 4th century BCE the town of Haleon moved down from the hills to the present location of Galaxidi. There it was fortified with a stone wall as protection against attacks by the army of Philip II of Macedonia (father of Alexander the Great). Remnants of this wall are still visible today. Through the ages, Haleon, with it's important shipping and commercial activities, became significant among the independent town states of Ancient Greece. Haleon had it's own calendar of 12 months, the 11th month (which coincided with our June/July) was named "Apollo". It is believed that there was a temple of Apollo located on the hill where the church of St. Nicolas now stands. This is supported by the discovery of a bronze wheel with an inscription indicating an offering to the god Apollo. This artefact is now located in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts.

Information on the time of the Roman occupation and Byzantine era of the region (from 150 BCE to about 1253 CE) is limited. It is believed that Haleon existed until at least 551 CE when a very strong earthquake destroyed the town. Invasions by Slavs and Avars (6th and 7th centuries) followed leaving the area desolated for two centuries.
A NEW TOWN IS BORN - 700 CE to 1818 CE
By the 8th century CE we find the new town of Galaxidi in it's current location. There are various therories on the origin of this name but none have been substantiated. Possibly the most convincing explanation is that a Byzantine governor named Galaxidis is said to have found the ancient ruins of Haleon and developed it into a new town.

The history of Galaxidi, from the 10th century onward, is vividly described in the "Chronicle of Galaxidi", written in 1703 by a monk called Efthymios, discovered in 1864 in the ruins of the Byzantine monastery of Christ the Savior (built about 1250 ) in the western hills above Galaxidi. The Chronicle is now located in the Maritime and Historical Museum of Galaxidi.

From 700 CE Galaxidi grew grew over the next eight centuries to become a well-established maritime town with it's own fleet of sailing ships. While it suffered from frequent invasions, including pirate attacks, it always managed to prevail and survive.

From the mid-15th century until it's declaration of independence in 1829 Greece was living under Ottoman occupation (known as "Tourkokratia" or "Turkish Rule"). Through those times the people of Galaxidi lived in relative autonomy and had the freedom to earn healthy profits from their thriving shipping activities, mainly the transport of Greek raisins from the opposite coast of the Peloponnese to Europe and returning with European goods to the Mediterranean.

During the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) the ships of Galaxidi took part in breaking the British blockade of France by taking grain and other foodstuff into the country, earning good profits for their efforts.

THE BATTLE OF LEPANTO (Nafpaktos) -1571
The sea battle in 1571 between the Christian Holy League and the Ottoman Empire forces at Lepanto (Nafpaktos) was in important event ( CLICK HERE FOR MORE) and Galaxidi played a significant role. From the book "Mani and the Maniates" by Dimos N. Mexis and translated to English by John Antonakos: "In the Peloponnese, the brothers Melissinoi (or Melissourgoi), the Archbishop of Monemvasia and the landlord Theodore lifted the banner of revolution. Galaxidi, Amfissa (Salona) and Lidoriki followed in succession. The Greeks everywhere took arms." Then this quote from the Venetian fleet commander: "The French feeling that they could defeat the Turkish armada declared to all the Christians to raise arms against the Turks and they would aid them. Hearing such consoling words, the Christians with great joy very secretly prepared to strike the Turks. Many people from Morea came to Galaxidi, and in the church of St. Panteleimon made an agreement with the Galaxidiotes to revolt the same day; and the Lidorikiotes accepted this and the Salonaites, and whoever came secretly to Galaxidi, and they agreed to strike the Turks."
(source: "Mani and the Maniates" page 266)
A PERIOD OF HARDSHIP - 1818 to 1829
Things changed for Galaxidi beginning in 1818. Information on Galaxidi during those times is limited so many details are vague and left to assumption. After the Napoleonic Wars ended a reduction of shipping activities throughout the Mediterranean seems to have left many of the ships of Galaxidi lingering in port. Then, in the spring of 1821, the Greek war of independence from Ottoman rule broke out and, since their idle ships were already armed with guns to protect themselves from pirates who had been ravaging them for years, the people of Galaxidi enthusiastically took part.

However, in September of 1821, a large Turkish fleet arrived off the coast of Galaxidi and started firing their cannons on the town. Despite a gallant defence by the townspeople Turkish troops landed and destroyed the town. Because some of their ships were caught in port, presumably partly because of the shipping crisis, many were burned and about 35 captured vessels were taken back to Constantinople. Fortunately, most of the citizens of the town were saved by escaping into the nearby mountains. After the Turkish fleet departed the townspeople returned to rebuild their town. New, smaller ships were constructed and used to supply provisions and arms to the revolutionary fighters in other parts of Greece.

After being attacked, burned and destroyed two more times in 1825 Galaxidi was abandoned until 1929 when Greece declared it's independence from Ottoman rule.

THE GOLDEN ERA OF GALAXIDI - 1829 to the early 1880s
Following Greek Independence the people of Galaxidi faced 10 years of extreme difficulty working hard to rebuild their town and their lives. People also desperately needed to earn a living so shipyards began constructing new ships, initially at the port, then, gradually, in other coastal areas around the town. While most of the Galaxidi locals were experienced seamen - and only a few were chief ship designers - there were very few working hands such as carpenters and sailmakers. Skilled technicians came from far away places to work in the shipyards. In 1830 the population of Galaxidi was 3,000 with a fleet of 120 ships, mostly of a small size. By 1870 the population had grown to 4,000 plus 550 technicians working in the shipyards, and a fleet of 350 ships of a much larger size.

Galaxidi BarcoThe peak of the maritime era in Galaxidi was from 1860 to 1890. The majority of Galaxidi ships were square-rigged, two-masted brigs - loved by the local mariners for their speed and maneuverability - that carried 200 to 400 tons of cargo. A few, larger ships, such as the "Aiolos" (shown here), were also built that were able to carry up to 1050 tons of cargo.

In 1860 the shipowners of Galaxidi created the first mutual insurance company based on those existing in England. Before that time their ships were being insured by foreign companies. The creation of six more insurance companies followed and several of them lasted until 1916.

The lower part of the masts of all the ships built in Galaxidi were painted white so they could be recognised at sea (see photo). The sailing vessels from Galaxidi carried all sorts of cargo, mainly from the Black Sea and Mediterranean to and from many ports of Europe and Africa, as well as North and South America. While they often carried cargo for other merchants, the shipowners, who were also masters and captains of their own ships, frequently acted as merchants, buying the cargo to be transported and thereby earning higher profits.

It was a prosperous time for Galaxidi. The large, beautiful houses you see today were built during this period and furnished with the most fashionable furniture brought back from all parts of Europe. Homes of the wealthy shipowners were decorated with fine paintings of their ships made by famous artists in Venice, Marseilles, Naples, Livorno, and Malta. Many of these paintings can be seen today in the town's Maritime Museum.

The shipowners, captains and merchants of Galaxidi even founded a private "members only" club similar to those seen in England. There they could entertain themselves and their guests while discussing business dealings. It was a time of joy and celebration in Galaxidi and many customs were developed then. Often, when a lavish wedding would take place it would continue for an entire week with events for the whole town to enjoy. The launching of a new ship was always a popular attraction. The shipowner's wife would name the ship, then throw a pomegranate to break against the stern in order to wish it a journey of favourable winds. Then, the owner's friends would toss him into the sea for good luck.

The Seafarers Wife The merchant ships would sail away, usually in early March, right after another popular custom: the "Culuma" - a festive event more commonly known today as "The Flour Wars" - held on "Clean Monday", to mark the beginning of the 7th week before Orthodox Easter Sunday. The ships would return in late November and spend the winter at home for repairs and preparations for the following year's voyage. The wives of the seamen would be left behind to look after the family and household for the long nine-month absence of their husbands - some who were frequently lost at sea never to return. On September 20, 2008 a statue, designed by Greek sculptor Costas Ananidas, to honor the seafaring wives of Galaxidi (see photo) was erected at the entrance to the port at the edge of the forest (see HERE for more information on "The Wife of the Seafarer").

THE END OF AN ERA - 1900 to modern times
The end of the 19th century and the establishment of steam-powered vessels brought an end to Galaxidi's maritime success. The reasons are varied and open to speculation but the facts are that Galaxidi did not make a successful transition from sail to steam. It was not alone, of course, as shipping islands like Hydra and Spetses suffered similar fates.

It should be noted that between 1883 and 1900 some Galaxidi shipowners did buy around 40 steamships but it wasn't enough to make a dynamic entrance into this new, modern era of maritime transportation. There are a number of possible reasons for this poor adjustment to the new technology:
  1. TRADITION: The great Era of Sail had created a long mental attachment to sail which owners were unable to let go of.
  2. ROMANCE: The romantic termperament of the mariners, held over many centuries and established through a tradition of fighting the risks of the sea by personal effort and without mechanical help, was, in a way, diminishing of their personal courage.
  3. ECONOMICS: At that time there was a stagnant shipping market requiring large capital investment from shipowners whose creditors, with the first delay of payment of loans, would proceed to arrest the ship and auction it off.
  4. DISUNITY: Strong individualism and a lack of partnership spirit prevented owners from working together in order to adapt to this new shipping environment.
Galaxidi Today
Located just a short drive from Ancient Delphi, Galaxidi has become a popular tourist destination for both Greeks and foreign travellers. More than a dozen hotels and pensions offer comfortable accommodation to fit most budgets, several fine tavernas and restaurants provide diners with a variety of tasty Greek traditional seafood and meat dishes. After a refreshing swim at any of the nearby beaches visitors can relax at one of the cafés around the port road to enjoy the scenic view of distant Mt. Parnassus, as well as the coming and goings of the local fishing boats and the many sailing boats and luxury yachts that arrive daily from around the world.

Special thanks to George Kourentis for his help in preparing this "History of Galaxidi".