How One Tiny Island Took on the Ottoman Empire and Won

Before uniting with Greece in late 1912, the island of Ikaria was briefly one of the world’s smallest independent states. That same year, islanders successfully rebelled against the Ottoman Empire.

May 27, 2024By Dale Pappas, PhD Modern European History, MA History, BA History, Italian Studies

toman empire tiny island won ikaria


In 1900, the Ottoman Empire ruled parts of Africa, Asia, and Europe. That changed by the eve of World War I. Internal nationalist rebellions and defeat in wars against Italy and former Ottoman Balkan states cost the empire much territory. In 1922, the Ottoman Empire collapsed. The story of Ikaria’s independence from Ottoman rule is part of the empire’s troubles before WWI. But remarkably, this remote Ottoman possession achieved independence with almost no direct outside support or bloodshed. How did this island become one of the smallest independent states before joining Greece in late 1912?


Ikaria in the Ottoman World

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A Popular Depiction of the Battle for Ikarian Independence. Source: Pan-Icarian Brotherhood of North America Archives.


Ikaria is an island in present-day Greece near Chios, Samos, and the Turkish coastline. It is roughly 25 miles long and no more than six miles wide. Despite its tiny size, the island boasts several claims to fame. For example, its name derives from the mythological story of Icarus, whose unfortunate aviation experiment allegedly concluded with his death on a rock lying between the island and Samos.


Ikarians were no strangers to conquest long before the Ottomans took control in the 1520s. In fact, the Ottomans replaced the Knights of St. John, who were preceded by the likes of the Genoese and Byzantines.


However, the islanders were strangers to just about any foreign influence. None of Ikaria’s ruling powers set down extensive roots on the island. For instance, by 1912, the Sultan’s government was represented by a handful of police and an Ottoman Greek civil servant. On the other hand, nearby Chios boasted an Ottoman garrison of 2,500 troops.

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While few outsiders settled in Ikaria, Ikarians forged close ties to communities across the Ottoman Empire and eventually as far as the United States. For example, Ikarians benefited from close commercial links to the prosperous Ottoman port city of Smyrna. Moreover, many islanders would leave for better economic opportunities in Mediterranean ports like Smyrna and Alexandria. By the early twentieth century, Ikaria came to rely on financial support from its diaspora based in these cities and many places across the United States.


The Road to Independence

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The Ottoman Governor Surrenders Rhodes to Italian General Ameglio, May 1912. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


By 1912, the Ottoman Empire had been fighting a losing war against Italy for nearly a year. Ottoman territory from Libya to the imperial capital Constantinople (Istanbul) was threatened by Italian forces.


Italy’s seizure of Rhodes and the other nearby Dodecanese Islands in April 1912 encouraged Ikarians eager for independence from Ottoman rule. However, these Ikarians did not wish to become subjects of a growing Italian Empire. Instead, they wanted enosis (union) with Greece.


Why did Ikarians take up arms to seize the island from the Ottomans? Beyond the desire to achieve union with Greece, the islanders had several grievances with the Ottoman government.


For starters, many Ikarians resented changes brought about by upheavals in the Ottoman Empire, including the Young Turk Revolution of 1908. Issues included changes to the island’s tax status and the possibility that military service would be required for most young men.


Local leadership lobbied Ottoman officials to exempt islanders from military service, as losing laborers in such a poor and small place as Ikaria would be a burden. Nevertheless, Ottoman officials carried out a census to identify potential military recruits.


Ikarians were equally concerned by a ban on tobacco growing on the island. Once again, islanders feared financial ruin if they could not profit from the island’s modest tobacco production. These issues did not encourage Ikarians to trust the island’s Ottoman Greek administrator, Thucydides Efendi.


Revolutionary Leadership 

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Dr. John Malachias (left), and fellow Ikarian Rebels, 1912. Source: Pan-Icarian Brotherhood of North America Archives.


Ottoman officials did not realize their misfortune in the war against Italy, and domestic issues like tobacco production and military service galvanized an Ikarian independence movement, which included the ultimate objective of union with Greece.


Two men emerged to lead the movement for Ikarian independence from the Ottoman Empire. The first was Dr. John Malachias. Born on the island in 1876, Malachias studied medicine in Athens and Paris before returning to Ikaria in 1906. He quickly secured a leadership position in local affairs and worked tirelessly to combat conscription and the tobacco production ban. As a result, Thucydides Efendi disliked Malachias and had him placed under house arrest for a time.


Like Malachias, George Fountoulis caught the attention of Ottoman authorities for his anti-government activities. But Fountoulis had gone much further, enlisting in the Greek army during the war with the Ottomans in 1897. For this, Ottoman authorities sentenced him to death. However, Fountoulis evaded capture and was eventually pardoned because of his architectural abilities. Thus, Ottoman officials welcomed back a Greek nationalist with military experience to Ikaria. It would not be long before he used his architectural and military skills against the empire.


Like other anti-Ottoman activists on the island, both men hoped to see Ikaria united with Greece one day. However, to this point, Greek officials remained cool to the idea of liberating the island from the Ottomans. For Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos and fellow nationalists, annexing Ottoman Crete and several other areas remained a higher priority than tiny Ikaria.


Opening Moves  

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Ikaria in red. Source: Wikimedia Commons


However, by July 1912, Greek officials would be unable to control whether Ikaria would be free of Ottoman rule. Instead, Malachias, Fountoulis, and many Ikarian volunteers seized the initiative.


Indeed, over the previous month, arms shipments came onto the island. However, the Ikarian rebels were still a motley bunch, armed with various weapons.


Initially, Malachias planned a surprise attack on the island’s capital, Agios Kyrikos. Malachias would lead a party of “partridge hunters” and quickly overwhelm the unsuspecting Ottomans. After capturing the capital, these phony hunters would mop up the remaining Ottoman forces scattered elsewhere.


But tipped off by a report of many armed men in the vicinity, Thucydides Efendi put the capital’s garrison on alert. Now, Malachias improvised and brought his rebels north to join Fountoulis. Together, this growing group of armed Ikarians captured a small Ottoman force at Evidlos on 16 July. However, two Ottoman soldiers escaped and retreated to the capital to alert Thucydides Efendi.


A stunned Thucydides ordered nine soldiers from his small garrison to move north and confront the rebels. The stage was set for the only fighting in this struggle for independence.


A Fateful Skirmish 

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George P.N. Spanos, Lone Casualty of Ikarian Independence. Source:


On 17 July, about 50 Ikarians met the nine Ottoman soldiers near a village on the road to Evdilos. Despite a lengthy exchange of fire, neither side appeared to inflict any damage on the other. However, when the smoke finally cleared and the Ottomans surrendered, there was one fatality. Historian Anthony Papalas tells us that for reasons unknown, George P. N. Spanos was late in joining Ikarian rebels and appears to have been killed by friendly fire. Spanos thus became a leading hero of the island’s movement for independence.


Next, Fountoulis and Malachias led the rebels to seize Agios Kyrikos. Meanwhile, Thucydides and his small band of Ottoman troops took refuge in the administrative building. Unfortunately for Thucydides Efendi, no person knew how to attack the Ottoman building better than its architect, George Fountoulis. Now, he and Malachias had the remaining Ottoman forces surrounded. Thucydides Efendi surrendered on the morning of 18 July 1912.


While he shared a name with the legendary Ancient Greek general and historian Thucydides, the Ottoman Greek Thucydides did not possess the same talents. For instance, Papalas explains that Thucydides Efendi blundered by dividing his already small force as the Ikarian rebels massed their volunteers to overwhelm the Ottomans.


Thus, Ottoman rule was ending in this remote area of the empire. But what temporarily replaced Ottoman control earned Ikaria a special place in history.


The Free State of Ikaria 

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Flag of the Free State of Ikaria, 1912. Source:


Although the Ikarian rebels had won the fight with Ottoman forces, the island faced a murky future for several reasons. For starters, Venizelos and the Greek government were not pleased with the revolutionary events in Ikaria. Venizelos was engaged in delicate negotiations to form the Balkan League, a coalition to seize the Ottoman Empire’s remaining Balkan territories. Historian D. Alastos points out that Bulgarian negotiators insisted on a clause in the agreement that would nullify the Balkan alliance if an attack on the Ottomans broke out before an agreed-upon date. Thus, the Ikarian rebels caused Venizelos much anxiety as he smoothed out the final details for the alliance behind the First Balkan War of 1912.


However, Venizelos’ unhappiness was the least of the Ikarian rebels’ immediate concerns. For example, Islanders feared an Ottoman counterattack that ultimately never materialized. At the same time, resources were scarce, and vital trade links with Ottoman ports like Smyrna were disrupted.


With the question of union with Greece on pause, the islanders turned to Malachias to form a government. However, the Free State of Ikaria declared in July 1912 hardly resembled a functioning state. For example, it lacked bureaucracy, currency, and diplomatic relations. Indeed, the Free State possessed little more than a flag, constitution, national anthem, and postage stamps. The fledgling government needed money donated by the island’s diaspora in Egypt and the USA to survive.


Aftermath: Ikaria vs. the Ottoman Empire

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Constitution of the Free State of Ikaria, 1912. Source: Pan-Icarian Brotherhood of North America Archives.


For all its struggles, the Free State of Ikaria’s sheer existence is a fascinating note in the broader story of the Ottoman Empire’s collapse. It reminds us that historical change occurs on both big and small scales.


It may not be surprising that the Free State of Ikaria existed for barely five months. With resources scarce and fear that another power like Italy might seize the island, Ikarians welcomed union with Greece in November 1912. Greek attitudes toward annexing Ottoman Aegean islands changed once the First Balkan War started in October 1912. Indeed, many of the Ottoman Empire’s Aegean islands, including Ikaria, Samos, and Chios, would be united with Greece by 1913.


While the Free State of Ikaria was short-lived, islanders remain proud of their brief period of independence from both the Ottoman Empire and Greece.


In a strange twist, historian Anthony Papalas points out that Thucydides Efendi later became a Greek government official after being expelled from Turkey with the Ottoman Greek population in the 1920s. This only adds to the unusual story of how one tiny island resisted an empire and won.

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By Dale PappasPhD Modern European History, MA History, BA History, Italian StudiesDale Pappas has taught History and Academic Writing at the high school and university levels in the United States and Europe. He holds a PhD in Modern European History from the University of Miami. Dale researches the history of tourism in the Mediterranean and the political history of Modern Greece. When he needs a breather from world travels, Dale lives between Miami, FL and Athens, Greece.