Chalcis, Eretria & Amarynthos

Chalcis (Halkida) (Chalcis = 0.0km for distances in this section) Chalcis—‘Halkida’ in demotic Greek, and ‘Negroponte’ to the Venetians—is the capital of the nome of Euboea. Busy, historically important and beautifully sited on both sides of one of the most curious channels of sea water in the Aegean, the city itself and its architecture—built and rebuilt after countless earth tremors and sprees of destruction—would win few beauty contests. Although there is now a new suspension bridge that spans the channel for through traffic, any exploration of Chalcis needs to start at the old bridge over the Euripus: it was this that gave the city life, significance and wealth, as well as two harbours and dominance of one of the most lucrative trading hubs in Greece after Corinth and the Piraeus.

Chalcis was throughout antiquity the chief city of Euboea. Its position, controlling the narrowest point of the Euripus channel and the principal crossing to the mainland (first bridged in 411 bc) with harbours both north and south of the city, destined it to considerable commercial importance. It is probable that the city’s main economic resource was bronze-working and that the name ‘Chalcis’ (from χαλκός, meaning copper) reflects the preeminence of that industry. Because of continuous subsequent occupation of the same site, little of the ancient city has survived: there are some remains from the Late Geometric period, but little is known of the exact whereabouts of the earlier Mycenaean city of the ‘big-hearted ‘¦ Elephenor’ and of his ‘swift Abantes’ of which Homer speaks (Iliad II, 536–540). The city was a busy and influential commercial hub, handling and trading the raw materials produced in North and Eastern Greece and in the Black Sea area (timber, grain, salt-fish, precious metals etc.) which were headed to Athens, Corinth and the Peloponnese, against the finished products, pottery, and olive oil, which returned from those centres back up the same trade routes. Chalcis did not just trade, however, it set about energetically securing the trade routes for itself by planting a wide diaspora of colonies along them. Few Greek cities, in proportion to their size, could have given rise to a greater number of colonies than Chalcis—so many on the Macedonian peninsula between the Thermaic and Strymonian gulfs that the whole peninsula was called ‘Chalcidice’ (mod. ‘[C] Halkidiki’). It also pushed far to the west in the Mediterranean, settling its inhabitants and interests in Sicily—at Naxos , and Messana (Messina)—and on mainland Italy—at Rhegion (Reggio Calabria) and Cumae. Cities were often forced to colonise when their population became too great for the available resources or supply of fresh water at home; this can scarcely have been the case at Chalcis, and the instinct to colonise so extensively here must be put down to the re markable εμπορικό πνεύμα—the ‘entrepreneurial spirit’—of its citizens.
   Another defining element may have been the city’s constant struggle with nearby Eretria (only 20km away) for possession of the fertile Lelantine plain which lay between them. This was not just an idle local struggle, but a bitter war which dragged on for decades in the second half of the 8th century bc, and involved a number of other Greek city-states as distant as Miletus (which supported Eretria) and Samos (which supported Chalcis). The outcome is not altogether clear, although Chalcis appears subsequently to have controlled the plain in the 7th century bc. The city’s last king, Amphidamos, who was a contemporary of Hesiod, was killed in this struggle. Afterwards the government passed to the aristocracy (although Aristotle in his Politics cites a later tyrant named Phoxus, who is otherwise unknown.) After the city sided with Boeotia against Athens in an attempt to reinstate the exiled tyrant Hippias, the Athenians over whelmed the city in 506 bc, confiscated and settled clerurchs on their territory, dismantled their navy and took control of their Italian and Sicilian colonies. According to Herodotus, Chalcis contributed 20 ships in 480 bc to the Greek fleet at Salamis and its soldiers took part in the battle of Plataea. Demosthenes saw Chalcis as instrumental in extending Mac edonian attempts to control Greece. The city was taken in 338 bc by Philip of Macedon, who settled a garrison on the mainland side of the Euripus. In the 2nd century bc it was largely under Roman control, and was attacked punitively in 146 bc (in the same year that Corinth was also razed by the Romans) for disloyalty during the struggle between Rome and the Achaean Confederacy.
   In the 6th century ad, the Emperor Justinian had an innovative, movable bridge constructed on the Euripus to in crease the ease of passage for commerce. The city appears to have maintained a discreet commercial importance through out the Byzantine period, with the production and trade of silk becoming a new and increasinlgy important element of its economy. In 1210 Chalcis was seized by the Venetians, who fortified it with walls and made it the capital of their kingdom of Negroponte. The name ‘Negroponte’ is an Italian variant on ‘Egripo’ or ‘Evripo’. With considerable expense of military energy the Turkish forces of Mehmet the Conqueror took the city in 1470, built their first castle of Karababa over the Venetian fort, and Chalcis became the headquarters of the Kaptan PasŸa. The Venetian admiral and doge, Francesco Morosini, tried to regain the city in 1688 but had to call off his siege after 4,000 of his troops died of malaria. The city was only freed of Turkish control in 1833 when the whole is land of Euboea became part of the independent Greek state.

The mainland approach via the old road to the Euripus is guarded by the Karababa (‘black father’) Castle, the for tress greatly amplified by the Turks in 1686; vestigial cuts in the rock suggest an ancient fortress on this site, possibly the Macedonian fort built in 334 bc. The walls give a comprehensive view of the strait and the whole town. The unusual bridge (1962) that carries the old road over the Euripus, opens by a double action; the carriageway descends just sufficiently to allow the two half-spans to roll on rails under their own approaches. The channel is only 38m wide at this point.

The original bridge leads into ‘Kastro’, the older part of Chalcis and the area of the Venetian town of Negroponte whose northern walls ran along the line of the modern Eleftherios Venizelos Avenue. Immediately to the left, across the bridge, is a modern metal sculpture by Carmelo Mendola, distantly inspired by the Nike of Samothrace. To the right (south), Kallia Street—more an alley way—leads past an old, wooden-framed Ottoman house, whose protruding first floor is supported on gracefully curving beams: the doorway and the corner on the alley way are embellished with carved decoration. One block to the east, stands the late 17th century, Ottoman mosque of Emir Zade. Although shorn of its minaret and lacking its three-domed, arcaded loggia on the entrance façade, the symmetric proportions of its prayer-hall surmounted by a broad octagonal drum and dome are still attractive. The carved marble surround of the door has beautiful calligraphy and design. Substantially later in date is the more decorative fountain facing the mosque. Antique columns and capitals have been deposited in front of the building and the interior is used as a store for mediaeval antiqui ties. The 19th century synagogue of Chalcis is nearby on Kotsou Street.
   From the southwest corner of the square of the mosque, Stamati Street leads towards the monumental church of Aghia Paraskevi which dominates an open area dotted with several venerable houses—one of which, opposite the west door of the church, bears a carved Venetian plaque with the Lion of St Mark above its entrance. Two monolithic Byzantine columns and capitals mark the west door of the church itself.

Recent scholarship (see: Pierre MacKay, Ist. Ellen. Studi Byzantini … di Venezia, 2006) has shown that this was not a Byzantine cathedral church but was built as the Catholic priory church of St Mary of the Dominicans in the middle of the 13th century, as one of the early mission centres of the itinerant branch of the order. It probably occupies the site of a pre-existing Byzantine church which had fallen into disuse. It is an unusual (for Greece) example of early Dominican architecture, which has survived largely undamaged and little modified. The interior is grand and spacious, punctuated with cipollino and Hymettus marble columns (two of which are deeply fluted) surmounted by a variety of carved capitals. The chancel arch is carved with Gothic foliage and with the figures of St Dominic and St Peter Martyr. The heavy marble iconostasis was put up in the church in the last century, compromising the impressive sense of space the building would have possessed without it.

Two blocks to the east of Aghia Paraskevi, in a sombre military building erected by the Venetians, is the Folklore Museum (open Wed 10–1, 6–8;Thur–Sun 10–1) containing a small collection of fabrics, costumes, looms and musical instruments. To the north, at no. 43 Balalai­on Street, is the sole survivor of the many Venetian city-towers which marked the skyline of Negroponte in the 15th century. Unlike the rural mediaeval towers in Euboea, this has a ground-floor entry.
   From the shore just to the north of the bridge, Venize los Avenue leads southeast past the neoclassical building of the Law Courts (ΘΕΜΙΔΟΣ ΜΕΛΑΘΡΟΝ’) to the Archaeological Museum (open daily 8.30–3, except Mon) which, though small, is a collection of particularly high quality.

Much of the sculpture collection is in the courtyard and garden, with the best pieces disposed under two covered porticos. At the left end of Portico A is a * marble panel of the 2nd century bc, delicately carved with three rows of victorious athlete’s laurel wreaths, with inscriptions (IG XII 9.952) at the centre of each wreath explaining the origin of the athlete and the nature of the contest won in the Games of the Herakleia: good example of the beauty with which an essentially documentary list could be endowed in antiquity. Portico B has a choice selection of Hellenistic and Roman statuary in remarkably good state of conservation, including three 4th century bc horse’s-head protomes from a monumental cenotaph.
   The interior is divided into three rooms: to right is Neolithic material from the Skoteini Cave, and Early Helladic pottery from Manika, including the characteristic, Early Cycladic, incised ‘frying pans’. The Mycenaean artefacts include a bronze sword and pots which are exuberantly decorated with lily and vine-leaf designs. A rare, funerary group of Geometric bronze figurines—two humans leading a dozen oxen—comes from a grave at Dokos. The central room is dominated by the two Roman statues of Dionysos and an elegiac, heavy-headed, Anti nous. To the right of the door is a particularly fine Roman portrait bust of Polydeukion, the favourite pupil and protege—the ‘Antinous’, in other words—of the philosopher and philanthropist, Herodes Atticus. Opposite it is part of a pleasingly stylised, 5th century bc * relief of the sac rifice of a ram from Larymna, whose carving is particularly delicate.
   The room to left contains other sculptural pieces: two heads of archaic kouroi of the 6th century bc; three graceful attendants to Artemis from a sculptural group of the 4th century bc; several fine figurative grave stelai, and a votive relief, in excellent condition, unusually depicting the figure of Hades together with Dionysos. A central case exhibits a 1st century bc gold wreath belonging to a talented athlete: beside it is a cup in clear glass of the same period which has miraculously survived whole.

Not far (c. 600m) to the north of the museum, at the end of the first waterside promenade north of the bridge, is the Mallis family mansion, commonly know as the ‘red house’—a prominent neoclassical landmark, with fine marble door and window-frames, which is now a Municipal Cultural Centre.
   To the east of the city-centre, the main north/south ring-road is traversed by the arcaded Ottoman aqueduct, which supplied Chalcis with water from two springs on the slopes of Mount Di­rfys, 25km away.

Euboea Island, Greece

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