About This Festival
What's more impressive than a chocolate egg? Answer: around 60,000 rockets fired between two churches on an idyllic Greek island. That's how to celebrate Easter. And that's exactly how the most important date in the Christian calendar is commemorated on the Greek island of Chios, the fifth-largest island in Greece, one of those semi-arid sun-bleached jewels of the Aegean Sea that postcards and screen savers were invented for.
On the eastern end of Chios, situated on the blue sea, is the small town of Vrontados, population 4,500. There are deep maritime roots in this Mediterranean idyll; many residents are ship owners or shipbuilders, and legend says Christopher Columbus came here to learn how to use maritime charts and mistake an entire hemisphere for Asia (kidding about that last part). Other folklore relates that the poet Homer was born or lived near modern Vrontados, although to be fair, it is unknown if there ever was a singular man fitting that identity.
In any case, amidst the olive trees and almond groves of this breezy seaside village are two churches: Angios Marcos (St. Mark's) and Panaghia Ereithiani. Like many proximate parishes around the world, there is a rivalry between these houses of worship and their respective congregations. But whereas other churches would settle this sort of competition with, say, a bake sale or charity casino, on Vrontados, the preferred content for almost the last two centuries is Rouketopolemos: the rocket war.
Fire in the Sky
Imagine, if you will, a wind scrubbed, sun-washed village facing a deep azure sea, on a Greek island that smells of olives and lemons. In the distance are two hills, spaced roughly 400 meters apart, topped by our respective churches: Angios Marcos and Panaghia Ereithiani.
This supremely peaceful setting is the daytime reality of Vrontados in early spring, and the only indication that something is about to shatter this serenity is cloaks of wire mesh drawn over homes—a DIY tarp and armor against the inevitable onslaught.
As the sun sets over the Aegean, the congregants of the two houses of worship gather their artillery: wooden sticks capped with gunpowder fired from grooved "cannons." By the way, apparently this war was originally fought with actual cannons until the Ottoman Empire banned that practice around 1889. More on the Ottoman connection to Rouketopolemos below.
At 8pm, the barrage begins. Groups of men (unsurprisingly, the most enthusiastic participants in the rocket war are men, particularly young men) begin lighting off entire batteries—lined up stacks—of rockets, which zing across the space between the two churches and more often than not end up hitting cars, sidewalks and buildings that don't utilize the wire mesh armor. Alcohol tends to make an appearance around this time, and fuels a fair bit of the incendiary posturing that is so central to Rouketopolemos. Most spectators, particularly those from overseas, tend to huddle and watch the show from a safe and secure indoor location. We can't blame them; all those rockets are a compelling sight, in the way combat footage of tracers in the dark is grimly mesmerizing, but getting hit by a firework can be pretty painful, and minor injuries are a reality of Rouketopolemos.
The barrage goes on until around 12:30am, and is technically supposed to end when a rival church's bell is hit by a rocket. As both parishes always end up claiming victory, no church ever really comes out on top, and in the process, a casus belli is established for next year's war.
Perhaps most amusingly: while all of this rocket madness is going on, and literally thousands of fireworks are being shot into the ether, congregants go to church. Evening Mass is an important element of Rouketopolemos and is attended by many citizens of Vrontados, who apparently appreciate irony as much as hearing "Blessed are the peacemakers" before enduring—or shooting—another salvo of pyrotechnic missiles.
Resistance Behind—and to—the Rocket War
The origins of this festival are lost to history, but it's worth noting that Vrontados is only about 4.3 miles from Turkey. The Ottoman Empire was an occupying force in Greece for three centuries, and the narrative of a friendly church rivalry may mask some more martial origins, or at least embellishments, to Rouketopolemos.
Besides a potential history rooted in resistance, there is resistance to the actual festival itself. As one might reasonably surmise, not all citizens of Vrontados like dealing with an annual onslaught of small artillery barrages, or the tourism crowd such a celebration attracts. But Rouketopolemos brings in a lot of income and visitors to Chios, so for now, Easter in this corner of Greece is all about fireworks over fluffy bunnies and pastel eggs.