Text by Demetris Tsimperis
Photos by Leonard Cohen
"...It has a huge terrace with a view of a dramatic mountain and shining white houses. The rooms are large and cool with deep windows set in thick walls. I suppose it's about 200 years old and many generations of sea-men have lived here..."
From Leonard's letter about his house on Hydra
HYDRA (anc. HYDREA, mod. Gr. IDHRA) is an island of Greece lying in the Aegean Sea about 4 miles off the southeast coast of Argolis. It is rocky and treeless. In former times the island was thickly wooded, as its Turkish name Tchamliza (the place of pines) shows. It was once well watered (hence the designation Hydrea from the Gr. udor i.e. water, but it is now wholly dependent on the rain supply and sometimes water has to be brought from the mainland.
Hydra was of no importance in ancient times and without a special historical presence in the Medieval Ages until the first post Byzantine years when the island followed the destiny of the major cities nearby on the Peloponnese, which it belonged to.
In the 17th century it began to be settled by large numbers of refugees from Turkish rule on the mainland, chiefly Alba-nians, who were soon active in the reviving commerce of Peloponnese. After the abortive insurrection of 1770, Hydra received a further influx of refugees; and the inhabitants, too numerous for their island to support them, took increas-ingly to seafaring, at first in the Aegean islands, but later as far as Alexandria, Constantinople, Trieste and Venice, and eventually to France and even America. The Turks left them in peace, though requiring them to provide ships and sailors for the Turkish fleet. That was a period of economical prosperity, control of piracy and internal peace. Due to the Otto-mans great shipping requirements, Hydra made great progress in shipping and trade. Fabulous European styled mansions were constructed giving the island its aspect of today. The Hydrian merchants apart from their goods brought to the is-land many revolutionary European ideas as well.
These are some of the reasons Hydra was called Little England
In 1821,at the outbreak of the Greek National Independence War, the population of the island was nearly 30000 and it could boast a fleet of 120 ships and thousands of bold seamen. Together with the neighbouring island of Spetsai and Psara, Hydra was able to put its merchant navy at the disposal of the insurgents. Its leading families, notably that of Lazaros Koundouriotis, sacrificed their fortunes to the national cause and Hydriote sea captains such as Andrea Miaoulis commanded ships of the Greek navy in many successful encounters with the Turkish fleet.
After the War for Independence, Hydrians fought hard against the first Greek Governor, Ioannis Kapodistrias, because he objected to paying compensation for damages during the war. This led to rebellion against him when ships of the Greek fleet were set on fire.
Since then an economic decline started for the island (which has presented Greece with one president, five prime minis-ters and numerous cabinet ministers) which lasted up to 1950s when several artists and film producers discovered Hydra as a location for their movies.
Today the island of poets, writers and painters, the unique jewel of Argo Saronic Gulf, Henry Miller's and Leonard Cohen's Hydra is a protected historical and architectural wonder.
Photos from the 1960's from Leonard Cohen's private album.
© Leonard Cohen. Reprinted here with permission. All rights reserved