The History of Mastic
The mastic tree (Pistacia lentiscus), also called “skinos”, grows all over the Mediterranean. However, the tree Pistacia Lentiscus Var. Chia is a special variety that grows only in the Southern part of Chios and mentions can be dated back to antiquity. Some of the oldest references for mastic are credited to Herodotus and date back to the 5th century BC when the ancient historian described the locals chewing a sun-dried resinous substance that flowed from the trunk of the mastic tree. Its medicinal properties were well known to Hippocrates; Roman ladies used it to brighten their teeth. From the tenth century onwards it gained unprecedented fame and Mastic started to interrelate with the history of the island which retained its monopoly of Gum Mastic (Masrticha).
During the Ottoman rule the mastic producers benefited from the new regime. The Turks ceded a number of privileges to the mastic villages. They were allowed to organize their own administration and to retain the island’s central authority. They were granted a high degree of religious freedom and autonomy in trading overseas. Chios remained under the Turkish yoke for 80 years after the foundation of the Greek Independent State in 1830, and joined Greece in 1912. During this time mastic production had escalated and by 1910 it had reached historical levels. Laden with centuries of history and interrelated with the island’s life, famous and highly coveted, Masticha is a true gift of Mother Nature to the land of Chios and to be more precise exclusively to its Southern part.
The Mysterious Boundary of the Mastic Trees
The climate in Chios is temperate and temperature rarely falls below zero in winter whereas it almost never climbs above 40° C during summer. Evidently the absence of extreme weather conditions in combination with the appropriate soil constitution make up the conditions conducive to the cultivation of mastic trees.
The uniqueness of the mastic trees growing in Chios is hard to explain. There are other parts both in mainland Greece and in the adjacent shores of Asia Minor that share the same climatic features required for the development of the mastic trees. Nevertheless, all attempts to cultivate them have failed dramatically. There have been efforts to plant them in Attica and in several Aegean islands. Some promising results were initially delivered but at the end the attempt proved abortive. However, the uniqueness of the mastic tree is narrowed down to an even more subtle detail. Its cultivation is successful exclusively at the southern part of Chios. There is an invisible line which literally cuts the island in two and connects from east to west the villages of Lithi, Ayios Georgios Sikousis, Vaviloi, Neochori and Thimiana; any attempt to expand the cultivation of mastic trees beyond this invisible line has fallen through. This undisputed boundary led Pernot in 1856 to call this line a “natural and mysterious boundary”. Mother Nature bequeathed the twenty four so called Mastic Villages with this unrivaled gift.
Getting familiar with these villages is a breathtaking travelogue of unmatched beauty and charm; old-age traditional houses, ancient churches with queer architecture, countless chapels that turn up at each step, medieval castle gates and lunette arches that hide the sun rays, narrow charming alleys, beaches of celestial beauty with crystal-like waters, mountain tips adorned with the remnants of the Genoese castle towers that once stood vigilant over the Aegean Sea. The Mastic Villages are a true gem of the island!