Rouketopolemos (Rocket War)

Rouketopolemos (Rocket War)
The small coastal town of Vrontados on the Greek island of Chios is primarily known for two things: being the alleged birthplace of Homer and hosting a unique Easter celebration known as Rouketopolemos, or Rocket War.

The tradition of Rouketopolemos derives from a Greek custom of throwing fireworks during the celebration of the Easter Vigil at midnight before Easter Sunday. In Vrontados, this custom developed into a full-blown “rocket war” between two rival parishes, Agios Markos (St. Mark’s Church) and Panaghia Ereithiani.

According to local lore, this bizarre, but long-cherished tradition dates back to the pre-Ottoman era. The legend goes that local sailors used cannons to fight pirates, and the tradition of firing these cannons to celebrate Easter was born at some point. When the island was occupied by the Ottoman Empire, the occupiers confiscated the cannons to prevent possible uprisings, and the locals resorted to firing improvised rockets instead.

Every year, the so-called “gangs” of the two rival congregations spend months preparing tens of thousands of homemade rockets from wooden sticks loaded with a propellant mixture that contains gunpowder. About 150 people are involved in the production of rockets. They have to be very careful and meticulous to prevent sparks that could ignite the gunpowder mixture and to create good rockets that would fly fast, go far, and stay lit until the very end.

The rockets are made in derelict buildings with multiple open exits, allowing for a speedy evacuation in case of an explosion. Interestingly, making the rockets is technically illegal, but local police typically turn a blind eye to the preparations.

These rockets are fired across town at the rival church on Easter Sunday. The two churches are built on hilltops at a distance of about 400 meters away from each other, which makes them easy targets. Of course, before the event the churches and nearby buildings are boarded up and heavily protected with metal sheets and mesh to prevent actual damage.

The rockets are launched haphazardly from groove platforms with the objective of hitting the rival church’s bell. Amid the chaos filled with deafening sounds of fireworks and cheers as the rockets hits the bell towers, priests in both rival churches continue with the Easter service.

In the morning, direct hits on each belfry are counted to determine the winning parish. Even though it’s hard to count the exact number of hits, one of the parishes is inevitably declared the winner, and the other parish vows to settle the score the next year, and so the rivalry keeps going.

Over the years, the tradition has been criticized for its loudness and property damage caused by rockets gone astray. It was even temporarily canceled in 2016, but was restored the next year since the annual rocket war is a significant source of tourist revenue for the island. As a compromise, limitations were imposed on the number of rockets that could be launched and the duration of the “war”.

If you’re thinking about visiting the event, keep in mind that the Greek Orthodox Church follows the Julian calendar, which means that Easter in Greece is typically celebrated on a different date than Easter in the West. Orthodox Easter usually falls later in spring than Western Easter, even though occasionally they coincide.

Rouketopolemos (Rocket War)





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