The film is the low res movie I took of the Chios rocket battle, Easter 2012 – please watch it with the sound on otherwise you won’t hear the fizzin’ of the rockets and the pealin’ of the bells…
The fireworks ‘war’ between the two parish churches of Vrontados, on the Greek Island of Chios, is said to have started in the 19th Century, with children firing stones at each other from slingshots. Now it’s the young men who fight, with thousands of homemade rockets that they spend all winter stockpiling. The target on St Mark’s church, separated from the other church by a deep ravine, is the cupola, while the supporters of St Mark’s try to score a direct hit on the clock tower of St. Erythianis the Virgin. Despite bans during the Nazi occupation of Greece, and then again when the Colonels were in power in the 1970s, the rocket war has flourished and is now a major spectacle, and we had come to the island especially to see it.
But the weather seemed to have other ideas. On our first morning in the gloomy, austerity-haunted hotel on Chios, we were greeted by glowering clouds blowing in from the sea. By mid-morning, when we emerged from the seeing a medieval monastery up in the hills, curtains of rain were drawing over the island. Brown rivers poured off the hillsides and formed lakes on the roads that even the local drivers thought it prudent to swerve around (actually slowing down didn’t seem to occur to them). It was Easter Sunday, and it seemed as if the old Greek gods were resentful of the 2000 year old upstart and had decided to spoil the party.
Forty days without rain and now this, said Christos, the boss of the car rental business, when we returned our Hyundai after a rainsoaked drive round Chios’ medieval villages. The puddles had almost been deep enough to swamp our hire car. Christos shrugged his shoulders when we asked about the fireworks, due to start in about five hours. If the rockets are damp they will not light. Then he gave a sudden beaming smile: But tomorrow’s going to be fine! Tomorrow, of course, would be too late for the festival, and we would be on a ferry back to the Turkish port of Cesme, a few miles away across the chilly Aegean Sea. It was now or never. But as we caught a cab back to our hotel the sky lightened, the rain slackened and then stopped, and tremulous sunshine began to break through. The storm had passed over the island, the ancient gods fell back into their uneasy sleep, and pickup trucks full of fireworks began to roar up the steep slope past our hotel, flanked by young men in combat trousers and bandannas, riding scooters.
Shortly after dark the bells of Erythianis began to peal shrilly, and a barrage of fireworks began hissing at both churches from the camouflaged firing points below. The two floodlit towers were now bathed in lurid orange light as showers of sparks burst on them from direct hits by rocket after rocket. The houses before and beyond the churches, suitably protected by shutters and mesh, also took a pounding, and I remembered the anger felt by a minority of Vrontadians who tried each year to get the event banned. But the crowds were caught up in the sheer spectacle of the exchange: the roaring river of fire never seemed to dry up, and nor did the hoarse shouting of the spectators.
An almost blind walk down some slippery steep steps took us to the boardwalk where the red-bandanna’d Erythianian rocketeers were firing. Through the nets that protected them you could see their target, the brightly lit tower of St Mark’s, a hundred yards away across the gorge. Shouts went up and down the boardwalk as dark-haired youths waited to touch off the hundreds of fireworks aimed across the valley. The rocketeers crouched in the sulphurous smoke like Nelson’s powder monkeys on HMS Victory, and then a twelve year old boy appeared, running as if in slow motion with a burning brand, and touched off a great bank of missiles. In a scene as if from Dante’s Inferno, the rocket firers became silhouttes against the orange glare, and spectators and gunners alike were enveloped in a billowing cloud of acrid gunpowder smoke.
We were joined by some young Greek men, their miniskirted girlfriends (in heels) capturing the battle on their smartphones in the intervals of screaming and beating at the stray sparks that sometimes lodged in their hair. Stefanos, from Athens, asked us if it was true that we had come “all the way from England” to see this spectacle. I think they will ban it soon, he told us. His friend Georges, born on the island, interrupted : No, they will never ban it! The two of them started a friendly shouting match as the rockets burst against the 19th Century church wall. It all seemed very Greek somehow, a riotous, barely controlled expression of anger with a great swathe of friendliness and fun.
The rocket battle went on for about five hours, until the tens of thousands of fireworks had all been shot. The detail we had heard, but not really believed, before setting out for Greece turned out to be true : the congregation really does go to Mass while the battle is raging. Little old ladies in black crowded into the churches during the ceasefires, shutting the heavy doors against the bursting rockets before kneeling in front of the black robed priest in an attitude of almost medieval piety. But despite the ferocity of the battle, no one was keeping score, everyone went home happy, and even the traumatised dogs of Vrontados, which barked hysterically through the bombardment, would no doubt recover in time for next year.