And you thought cracking red-dyed eggs on your little brother’s head was radical. On the Greek island of Chios, friends and neighbors take opposing sides of a massive rocket battle– each trying to take out the other’s church– while the more pious of the bunch are inside, partaking in ceremonies on the holiest of holy days.
Two opposing parishes in the town of Vrondados spend their “Holy” Saturday preparing upwards of 80,000 homemade rockets that they will fire at each other at the sound of the first church bell announcing the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
To the uninformed bystander or happenstance British tourist who knows nothing of this quaint, old-world tradition, it looks a lot like warfare. And with the Turkish coast just a stone’s throw from Chios, anyone who knows the history of these two neighbors would think that the 21st century Greco-Turkish war has erupted.
Tens of thousands of missiles — some estimates go as high as 80,000 — fly back and forth through the night sky, leaving streaks like tracer bullets. The projectiles are prepared throughout the year by so-called “gangs” from the two parishes, Saint Mark and Panagia (Virgin) Erithiani. Even though making rockets is illegal on the island, the authorities turn a blind eye to the fireworks tradition.
There are many in the town, however, who wish they wouldn’t. Injuries during this most unorthodox of Easter traditions are not uncommon and some rocket builders have even been killed when their potent gunpowder mixtures have exploded prematurely. Fires have started by wayward missiles in the countryside and damage to buildings surrounding the two targets is commonplace.
“We can’t breathe when it takes place,” a resident of Vrondados told the BBC in an interview. “We have to be on standby in case a fire breaks out, because if you are not careful you can even lose your house.”
Amid the chaos, priests inside both churches attempt to continue with their sacred mass, although the deafening sounds of fireworks and loud cheers as the rockets hit their targets often drown out the ceremonies entirely.
Just why residents of Chios try to blast each other with rockets every year on this holiest of holy days is something of a mystery. One story has the custom dating to the 19th century, when the island was occupied by the Ottoman Turks. The ships on the island– known for its sailors and captains– were outfitted with cannons to battle off pirates and the ship’s owners liked to fire their guns to celebrate Easter.
The Ottomans confiscated the ships’ cannons in the 1880s after the Greek mainlanders declared independence, fearing that the rebellion would spread to the island. According to local lore, the islanders turned to land rockets instead, still wanting to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection– in a loud way. Fireworks are also used elsewhere in Greece to celebrate the announcement of Jesus Christ’s resurrection, so this is a plausible connection.
Nowadays, the Chios rocket battle has turned into something of a spectacle for tourists in the region. There is even a website with the URL… what else? Rocketwar.gr of course.