This small island is steeped in history and has the temples to prove it.
Inhabited since Neolithic times (c. 3000 BCE), the island became a leading maritime power after the 7th century BCE because of its strategic position, famous for minting the earliest coins in Greece which were accepted all over the Mediterranean region. According to the classical writer Ovid (43 BCE – 17 CE), the island was originally known as Oenone. As the myth explains, the god Zeus, in the shape of a great flame, carried off the nymph Aegina and kept her on the island. In time, she gave birth to a son, Aeacus, the first king of the island and grandfather of the famous Trojan hero Achilles, who renamed the island after his mother.
Aeginas earliest history is probably as a trading port. Ships from the nearby Peloponesse would trade with boats coming from the Greek mainland. The island is a convenient halfway point between the two. Minoan artifacts, dating to 2000 B.C. prove it’s vast reach.
The Aegina Treasure, gold jewelry unearthed on the island, appears to date back to between 1500 and 1800 B.C. Unfortunately, it, like many other items relating to Greece’s history, is in the British Museum.
Aegina coins (staters) dating back to 700 BC indicate trading was going on in ancient times.
The islands period of glory was the 5th century BCE, as reflected by the legacy of sculpture and the poetry of Pindar. A well-preserved 5th-century-BCE temple to Aphaea, the ancient Aeginetan deity related to the Cretan Britomartis (Artemis), is situated on a wooded crest in the east of the island. Its Doric peripheral construction (having columns surrounding the building) of local gray limestone has been partially restored.
The period between the 7th and 4th century B.C. is somewhat hazy. It is clear that Athens and Aegina were strong rivals, but dates and facts conflict.
Towards the end of this period, Aegina shows signs of decline. Probably from the loss of trading due to battles with the Athenian navy keeping the traders away.
We do know that Greece and the Peloponnese fell to Philip II, King of Macedonia around 322 B.C. By 122 B.C. the Romans are in charge.
The Roman Empire had control over Greece for the next almost 500 years. Christian communities spread out from nearby Corinth with leaders baptised by the Apostle Paul. By the end of the 2nd century A.D., Jewish communities begin to appear as they fled from the Barbarian attacks on the mainland of Europe. Like the rest of Greece and much of eastern Europe, the next several hundred years have similar histories.
With the splitting of the Roman Empire in 395 A.D., Aegina remains Eastern Roman (Byzantine) with Constantinople as the seat of power. As an island, it avoids some of the attacks and seizures mainland Greece went through over the next several hundred years.
With the Fourth Crusade in 1204, all of Greece including Aegina was split up by the Frankish as war prises. They oversaw the area for the next 200 years.
In 1451 A.D. the growing powerhouse of Venice took control of much of Greece. It held on to most of the Peloponesse, including Aegina until 1537.
Suliman, the Ottoman sultan, declared war on Venice (and all of its holdings), and in 1537 they conquered Aegina, killing all the men and enslaving the women and children. The Venetians fought back, and for the next almost 400 years Aegina was in turmoil, with various captors and shaky treaties.
In 1821 after the Greek War of Independence, Aegina beame an administrative centre for the Greek revolutionarie, and served as the first Capital of the newly-founded Greek state right after the revolution (1826-1827). On this small island the first European democracy of the then Ottoman-ruled Balkans was established. Ioannis Kapodistrias was the appointed Governor, and he immediately began building the nation’s first three educational institutions; an orphanage for the hundreds of kids that lost their parents in the war against Turkey; a school for them; and a “Central School”, to train 700 teachers who would subsequently educate the country’s youth. The newly found state’s beginnings are evident on many of the neoclassical buildings still standing, often next to traditional houses. Although the capital was officially transferred to Nafplion in 1829, Aegina island remained a focal point of Greece’s vibrant social, political, financial and commercial life.
It’s fascinating how an island can encompass all of Greek history.
The island became a favourite getaway for other Greeks in the 1960s. The resort area of Ag Marina was one of the most popular until the 1980s when local politics crushed development. It is slowly regaining in popularity. The island is still more popular with Greeks than tourists.