Aegina, lying 17 nm south-west of Piraeus, is a hilly and fertile island of limestone with isolated rounded hills of volcanic origin. For the most part the coast falls steeply down to the sea, with few sheltered bays. The main occupation of the inhabitants is farming, in particular the growing and export of the island’s excellent pistachio nuts. Fishing, sponge-diving and pottery manufacture are also of some economic importance. Aegina is noted for the production of its water-coolers (kannatia) – two-handled wide-necked jars in a porous fabric which keep their contents cool by evaporation. With its mild climate and low rainfall, Aegina has long been favoured as a summer resort by the prosperous citizens of Athens. In recent years it has become increasingly popular with foreign visitors.
The legendary ancestor of the Aeginetans was Aiakos, son of Zeus and Egina and father of Peleus and Telamon, who was celebrated for his wise and just rule and became judge in the Underworld together with Minos and Rhadamanthys.
The earliest traces of Pelasgian settlement on the island date from the 3rd century BC. In the 2nd century, Aegina was already an important trading-station, dealing in pottery and ointments, as finds of Helladic, Cycladic and Minoan material have shown. It is first recorded in history as a colony of the Dorian city of Epidavros, and together with Epidavros was ruled in the 7th century BC by Phaidon of Argos.
This was the occasion of further conflicts with Athens, which saw the strong neighbouring island as an obstacle to the expansion of its sea-power.
At the beginning of the Peloponnesian War (431 BC) the Aeginetans were expelled from their island and the land distributed to citizens of Attica. After the final defeat of Athens in 404 BC many of them returned, but the island’s great days were over. Athens rapidly recovered and after a series of military campaigns regained control of Aegina, which thereafter shared the fortunes of the Athenian State.
The main town, Aegina (pop. 5000), lies on gently rising ground on a wide bay at the north end of the west coast. It occupies the site of the ancient city, Egina, which was larger than the present town. From the harbour, sheltered by a breakwater, there are fine views of the smaller islands of Metopi and Agistri to the south-west and Moni to the south and of the hills round Epidavros. The Archaeological Museum contains material from the temples of Aphaia and Aphrodite, together with pottery and other grave-goods ranging in date from the 3rd century BC to Roman times.
On the hill of Kolona, to the north of the town, is an 8 m high Doric column. According to Pausanias this belonged to the temple of Aphrodite by the harbour (460 BC): in fact the temple was dedicated to Apollo. Under the temple were found remains of Mycenaean and pre-Mycenaean settlement (3rd century BC). To the west were two smaller temples, probably dedicated to Artemis and Dionysos. A sphinx (circa 460 BC) which was discovered here in 1904 is now in the Archaeological Museum.
Below the temple, to the south, was the ancient commercial harbour, now silted up. When the sea is calm the old quays can still be seen under water. The modern harbour, on the site of the ancient naval harbour, is still protected by the ancient moles which have been maintained in good condition. On the north mole, the longer of the two, is an early 19th century chapel dedicated to St Nicholas.