There are certain periods in the life of every man that get engraved deeply in his memory. Undoubtedly, one of those is the period of his military service, which (serving in the army) is obligatory in Greece, just like in many (but not all) other countries. It’s the time to hand over your police-issued ID, your hand-proof evidence of being a citizen of your country, and swap it for a military ID, committing yourself (for a determined period of time) to serving your Motherland in a whole new way, not as a simple citizen, but as a member of your country’s military personnel.
During my twelve months in the army, I visited various parts of our country, spending most of those twelve months in the Dodecanese (“Twelve Islands”, a complex of islands in the southeastern corner of the Aegean Sea). I had the honor to serve as a commando in Kos, and this allowed me to get to know several of the “Twelve Islands”. Stationed at the “Island of Hippocrates” (the most common nickname of Kos), our mission was to send men to smaller nearby islands, both inhabited and uninhabited. That’s how I got to know Pharmakonisi, the tiny island where I ended up spending 35 days of my military service/life.
Pharmakonisi is no bigger than four square kilometers, with its highest point at 106 meters. In ancient times, it was well known as Pharmakoussa, a name, according to a legend, that derived from the vast diversity of medicinal herbs (“pharmako” is Greek for “medicine”) that grew on its limited, but impressively rich surface. It is said that Hippocrates himself used to visit the island often, to gather herbs, which he later used to make medicine.
Archaeological evidence proves that the island was first inhabited in prehistoric times. A milestone in the history of the island was the year 75AD, when non other than Julius Caesar, in his mid 20s, was captured by pirates and detained in this very island for 38 days. It is said that the Cilician pirates were not aware of the true identity of the “Roman aristocrat” they had kidnapped. They did collect ransom to release him, but soon after that, they were killed, paying for their “naive mistake” to mess with the very-very wrong person…
The era of the pirates is well behind us, but the sea around Pharmakonisi, just like several other parts of the east Aegean, is now “home” to ruthless smugglers of migrants and refugees. The island lies just six nautical miles off the Asia Minor coast, the “trip” between Turkey and Greece/European Union is small enough to tempt countless desperate people to attempt the crossing, not always successfully. The sight of desolate migrants/refugees struggling to disembark from their overcrowded vessels onto Greek soil, has become all too common these last years. As a result of all this… “activity”, Pharmakonisi often makes the news, and not for good reason. Nowadays, hearing about Pharmakonisi on the news, is hearing about vessels capsizing, often leading to several people dying.
For many years, the island was inhabited by shepherds from nearby Leros and Kalymnos. They and… their lambs, called Pharmakonisi home, and were supplied with a small amount of money from the Greek State, as a “bonus” for their physical presence there, individuals, someone could call them “hermits”, famous for their rough look, just as for their love and dedication to their home country, Greece.
The semi-wild goats of Pharmakonisi seem perfectly adapted to the extreme conditions of the island and are regularly visited by their Kalymnos-born owners. Nowadays, the island is inhabited throughout the year by military personnel. F16 fighter jets originating from Greece’s… eastern neighbor may often fly above the heads of the Greek men in uniform, creating tension not just there but in the Greek-Turkish relationships in general, but the Greek military personnel that is stationed there are well aware of the significance of the duty they are daily called to serve.
Just so you know, there are no passenger ferries connecting “Pharmako”, as locals affectionately call it, with any other island. The only sea link is offered by chartered vessels that transport to the island whatever is needed by the Greek servicemen and servicewomen.
For me, Pharmakonisi will always be the acritic place where I spent part of my military service. A coveted little island protected by people who, as we say in Greek, “are guarding Thermopylae”, meaning that despite not being too many, are protecting an “entry point” of Greece from whomever attempts to… break in, no matter how powerful that “whomever” may be(…). Pharmakonisi, a rugged corner of our country that smells of cedar and salt, where the blue and white flag of Greece has been, still is, and will go on waving.