We are in Greece, where, during the celebration of the Mass the night before Easter Sunday, it is customary to launch fireworks. However, nothing is as spectacular as the event that takes place in Vrontados, on the island of Chios.
Rouketopolemos, literally rocket war, is the traditional manifestation that takes place every year on the occasion of Orthodox Easter, and which sees two rival parishes engage in a most unusual and dangerous tradition that has been taking place quite possibly since the Ottoman era. The churches, which sit on opposite hillsides about 400 meters away from one another, recreate a yearly “Rocket War”, which is exactly what it sounds like: two groups of people with thousands of craft rocket, which aim to hit the bell tower of the opposing church.
Until 1889 real cannons (which were seized by the Ottoman Turks, rulers of the island until 1912) were used in this annual performance, which no one really seems to know the origin of. Over the years, their cannons outlawed and confiscated, the two churches in question, Angios Marcos and Panaghia Ereithiani (St Mark and Virgin Mary Erethianis), had to resort to homemade bottle rockets that are produced throughout the year for the fiery spectacle that draws a high number of tourists.
Villagers spend the whole year making them and sometimes even get hurt in the process. The “rockets” are actually wooden sticks loaded with a gunpowder mixture and launched from special platforms.
Tourism may just be the only reason the tradition has survived this long. Most locals are (understandably) not big fans of up to 80,000 unstable fire sticks screaming through the sky and slamming into the bell towers of their churches while they attempt to attend mass inside. The churches and surrounding houses are protected by metal sheets and nets, and many of the inhabitants would favor the cessation of this extravagant hostility, which however represents a significant source of income thanks to the many tourists who go to the place just to watch the battle.
By the next morning, ears are ringing, throats are filled with smoke and sulphur, fires have been put out, and burns have been soothed, but a winner is never officially decided on. Every year both congregations declare themselves the winners, they agree to disagree, and settle the score next year, perpetuating the rivalry.