The Rocket War of Chios – A Fiery Easter Celebration

We’ve seen a lot of bizarre traditions, but this is Greek custom involving two churches firing thousands of rockets at each other is pretty special. Every year on Easter Sunday, a fireworks war breaks out between two rival parishes on the small Greek island of Chios. Gangs belonging to two orthodox churches (Saint Mark and Panagia Erithiani) in the town of Vrodandos fire rockets with a single objective – to hit the other church’s bell. Of course, not all the rockets hit the target and locals can be spotted frantically running for cover.

The rocket tradition is of such importance that the townsfolk spend several months preparing for it. About 150 gang members are involved in the production of over 25,000 rockets that will be fired at the event. Derelict buildings are used to carry out the rocket-building work, with only one safety measure – they leave the doors open in case they need to make a speedy exit after an explosion. And they use bronze tools to prevent sparks that might ignite the volatile gun powder mixture.

“A good rocket has to fly fast, go far and stay lit until the end,” said rocket maker Vassilis Barkoulis. “You have to be careful in the details and process of its construction for a rocket to be good. If you do that carefully, you can have yourself a good rocket.” Good or not, producing rockets is actually illegal and there’s always the possibility the police raiding the premises. But it has never happened so far. The police prefer to entirely ignore the proceedings.


Photo: Chios Life

The rest of the locals (who aren’t gang members) prepare for the war by carefully boarding up the windows and doors of both churches. They also wrap wire sheeting around the buildings to protect worshippers from stray rockets. Needless to say, not everyone is too happy about the strange tradition. The rockets have caused several fires and even a few deaths in recent times. Some rocket builders were killed when their gun powder mixtures exploded prematurely. And wayward missiles constantly pose a hazard to the buildings surrounding the two target churches. Residents have started to voice their concerns: “We live as hostages to this tradition,” said one local. “We can’t breathe when it takes place, we have to be on standby in case a fire breaks out, because if you are not careful, you can even lose your house.”


Photo: methysmena

But these concerns don’t seem to bother the gang members at all. On Easter Sunday evening, as mass takes place at both churches, the gangs set to work. They light up the fireworks and haphazardly aim at the opposite church’s bells. Tens of thousands of missiles are fired high up in the air, leaving fiery trails like tracer bullets across the night sky. The dazzling spectacle is a great hit with tourists – thousands flock to watch the display of fireworks on Easter Sunday.


Photo: Chios-Taxi

The origins of this tradition have been traced all the way back to the 19th century, when the island (located just off the coast of Turkey) was occupied by the Ottomans. It is believed that the original natives of the island owned ships fitted with cannons to fight off pirates. They apparently enjoyed firing these weapons to celebrate Easter. When the Ottoman occupiers confiscated these cannons to prevent an uprising, the natives switched to firing rockets instead. And the tradition has never stopped since.


Sources: Der Spiegel, BBC

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