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Halkidiki: Not just the sea and the sun

The natural landscape and the fertile land had always attracted visitors: from ancient Athenians to Byzantine monks and from Roman settlers to modern European tourists.

Short history of Chalkidiki

Prehistory

The human skull accidentally found in Petralona cave in 1960, is one of the oldest of its kind, being 200.000 years old. Or more?

There is an international scientific dispute about the real age of the Archanthropus Europeaus Petraloniensis. Professor Aris Poulianos claims the skull to be over 700.000 years old. However, other estimates give an age of 200.000 years old. To settle the mater, the most recent techniques calculate and age between 300.000 and 400.000 years. One way or another, it is one of the oldest human remains found in Europe. Further archaeological evidence indicates that there were pre-historic communities, mainly during Neolithic times, throughout Halkidiki and especially in coastal areas. The inhabitants are thought to be Thracians or Pelasgians, a quasi mythical people that preceded the Hellenic tribes which arrived later in the Greek peninsula.

Classical period

There were numerous ancient cities in Halkidiki. Among them Olynthos, Toroni, Mende and Potidea.

Most of them were established by the city of Chalkis (Halkis) in Southern Greece which gave its name to the whole peninsula. During the classical era, the cities of Halkidiki were allied to Athens and when Potidea exited the coalition in 432BC, triggered a series of events that led into the Peloponnesian War. After the war, Olynthos gradually became the most important city in the area. It created its own coalition of local cities in an attempt to limit the Athenian influence. It even tried to have a role in the high politics of the era by signing an alliance with the emerging power of Macedonia and then breaking it, only to join again the Athenian side. King Philip of Macedon, infuriated by such an attitude, promptly destroyed Olynthos and annexed the whole Halkidiki to Macedonia. The most important city during the period of Macedonian rule was the newly built Cassandra. Another city, Stageira became famous as the homeland of Aristotle.

Roman period

According to a tradition verified by ancient writers and figures in coins, the legendary Aeneas, founder of Rome, resided in Halkidiki during his journey from the sacked Troy to Italy.

Next time the Romans involved with Halkidiki was in 200BC at an attempt to capture the coastal cities of Mende, Toroni and Acanthus. They did not succeed much as the Macedonians were still strong at that time. Later in 169BC they laid unsuccessful sieges to Cassandra and Toroni. In 168BC they finally beaten the Macedonian king and the whole Macedonia became a Roman province. During the first century BC, Roman traders settled in Acanthus and an official Roman colony was established in Cassandra. Their interest in Acanthus is probably related with the gold, copper and iron mines of the area. The colonia Iulia Augusta Cassandrensis was the first Roman colony in Macedonia. The settlers were mainly veteran soldiers who were given lands to cultivate after their retirement. Later in first century AC, St Paul is said to have visited Halkidiki and especially Sithonia and Cassandra. Although there is no official record about this visit, a strong local tradition speaks on the contrary.

Byzantine period

The period after the decline of the Roman Empire in Halkidiki is mostly unknown due to the lack of historical data.

However, an excavation in Nikiti revealed a basilica rich in decoration, dated in the Justinian period. This indicates a continuation of cultural and economic life although the numerous wars and invasions of the time. In middle ages, Halkidiki is dominated by the rapid expansion of the monastic community of Mr. Athos. Established in 9th century, the first monasteries were favoured by the Byzantine emperors of the time and they were given large areas of land to cultivate, especially in the coastal areas of Halkidiki. Local people used to work in monastic lands until recently in 19th century and this affected their religious sentiments, their architecture and even their cuisine. However, the proximity with the rich monasteries of Athos had always attracted pirates and invaders. The most infamous of them were the Catalan pirates who, from their base in Potidea, devastated the land and over 200 monasteries in Mt. Athos in 1307-1309.

Ottoman period

Ottoman rule in Macedonia begun in late 14th century and confirmed after the dramatic siege and storming of Thessalonica in 1430.

The new rulers firstly tried to organize the tax collection system by adapting old Byzantine structures. Then, they brought in muslim immigrants from Asia Minor, mainly to fill in the sacked end empty cities. In Halkidiki, the muslims settled in the north-east and north-west areas that were closer to Thessalonica. The Ottomans demanded the collective payment of the taxes. Each village had to accumulate and then pay a total amount of tax. Some villages fulfilled their tax obligations by providing products of their land like silver from the mines of north-east Halkidiki. Such tactics encouraged the local administration and created strong community and identity feelings. In 1821 a revolutionary force from south Greece landed in Mt. Athos and Halkidiki revolted against the Ottomans. Soon the Greek forces were a few hours from Thessalonica. However, the Ottomans were better equipped and organized. They finally suppressed the revolt by killing most of the rebels and burning 80 villages in the area.

Modern day

During the first half of the 20th century the whole European continent was in turmoil. Halkidiki was no exception.

In 1912, following the rapid disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, Halkidiki joined Greece after more than 500 years of Turkish rule. A few years later, the Greek defeat in the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-22 resulted to a flood of greek-orthodox immigrants from Turkey. Halkidiki accepted many of them while the muslim population left for Turkey. The coming years would be hard both for the local people and the new comers. Greek state proved inefficient in its effort to support the immigrants and the economic crisis of the 30s deteriorated the situation. Then, the Second World War came along with the Nazi occupation which was followed by a bloody civil war, fought mainly in northern Greece. Nevertheless, the second half of the century was a period of stability and economic development. Halkidiki became an important tourist destination. Today, tourism is a major contributor to the local income while the traditional, mainly agricultural, economical activities still exist.