The Easter ‘Rocket War’, Where Two Greek Churches Fire Rockets Back & Forth
Two churches on the small Greek island, Chios, celebrate Easter every year by shooting rockets back and forth aiming for the church bell towers, all while parishioners attend mass.
People don’t usually think of rockets when they think of church, but in a small village in Greece, they’ve gone hand-in-hand for over 125 years. This visually stunning pastime is now a significant tourist draw and source of revenue for the area, but may have stemmed from a much darker time in history.
Every year during Greek Orthodox Easter, celebrations in the town of Vrontados include members of two churches sitting across a small valley going head-to-head in a friendly rivalry.
Partaking in the “rocket war,” church members fire thousands of homemade rockets towards each other while services are held, beginning around dusk the Saturday before Easter Sunday, and lasting until about midnight.
How is victory declared? Whoever strikes the bell of the opposing church, of course. Nonetheless, the result seems to always end up a draw—hence the need for another war the following year.
The “rockets” are actually wooden sticks loaded with gunpowder mixture and launched from special platforms. Villagers spend the whole year making them. Between 60,000 and 80,000 rockets are fired between the two churches.
This festival, called Rouketopolemos, is celebrated by the churches of Agios Markos and Panagia Erithiani. The village is located on the Greek island of Chios, with a population of 5,300. With a strong tradition in merchant seafaring, it’s home to various important Greek ship owners.
The origin stories behind the celebration vary. The festival appears to be a variation of the Greek custom of throwing fireworks during the celebration of the Orthodox service at midnight before Easter Sunday.
Another theory traces the event to Ottoman times, under far grimmer circumstances with real cannons. Under the Ottoman Turkish occupation in the nineteenth century, the locals wanted to celebrate Easter without fear of interference. Members of both churches devised the plan to stage a fake battle with cannons to keep the Turks away, allowing the faithful members to attend Easter services.
Subsequently, the Turks feared the locals would use the cannons to revolt, and took them away. The locals replaced them with their homemade rockets ever since. The Ottoman Empire would eventually cede the island of Chios back to Greece in 1913, shortly after the first Balkan War.
Allegedly, villagers broke tradition recently in 2016 and called off the festival altogether due to safety and cleanup issues. The churches themselves and nearby buildings must be boarded up and protected with wire mesh in preparation for the “rocket war” each year.
The festival seemed to have since commenced again, and continues to be the significant tourist draw it was before.