(Herakleia, Schinousa, Koufonisia , Keros, Donousa)
The waters of these islands are among the most protected in the Aegean, shielded from the North winds by the great bulk of Naxos . In the early morning especially, they can have the appearance of a lake in the middle of a ring of mountains and hills, with lacustrine mists sometimes enveloping the islands momentarily and hiding them from view. It was the proximity, intimacy and relative ease of communication that the islands offered which encouraged early man to settle here, and to flourish in a loose network of trading communities in the 3rd millennium bc. It is a unified and unthreatening seascape, offering the simultaneous boons of independence and community— remarkably similar to that of the Lesser Sporades to the north and east of Alonnisos, another area, uninhabited today, but which was in the vanguard of the earliest human settlement and commerce in the Aegean.
One of the principal differences between these and the Sporades islands however, is the astonishing productivity of worked marble objects found in this area: bowls, goblets, and above all countless figurines, mostly of naked female forms. Almost one third of the Early Cycladic figurines known today comes from the uninhabited is land of Keros at the eastern edge of this group. Not all of them were created in these islands by any means, but they ended up here. Something of the enigmas raised by these archaeological discoveries is discussed below.
Donousa, though close by, stands apart from the other islands because its geography is different. It lies in the full swell of the high sea, by contrast—often inaccessible because of the winds. Its importance was its strategic position on one of the critical sea-crossings of Antiquity, between the western and eastern seaboards of the Aegean, between the Cyclades and the western point of Ikaria which was often used as the point of departure from Asia Minor for the central Aegean. For this reason its significant habitation is largely later than the Lesser Cycladic islands, and dates from a time when the technology of sailing was more advanced. It is an island with good sources of water and sheltered harbours, which makes it harder to explain why its importance suddenly faded, and that it should have had a flourishing settlement at Vathi Limenari in the 9th and 8th centuries, but then apparently little of importance thereafter until modern times.
Some of the islands in this group—Donousa and Her akleia—are havens of tranquillity; others—Schinousa and Pano Koufonisi—are developing fast into centres for visitors, attracted by their limpid waters and sandy beaches which are ideal for snorkelling and for messing about in boats. All of them offer a simplicity and intimacy which contrasts markedly with the larger, surrounding islands.
Herakleia is the largest of the Lesser Cyclades and is a momentary continuation above water of the chain of high mountains which runs from Naxos to Ios . It is the quiet est and most beautiful of the islands in the group, with attractive beaches and mountain walks. There are two villages: Aghios Giorgios (the port) and Panaghia (the ‘chora’), which has no rooms and just one good taverna and bakery. Half way between the two is Kastro, the abandoned site of settlement in antiquity.
Aghios Giorgios is a deep sheltered port, backed with a tamarisk-shaded beach. Habitation climbs up to either side of a dry torrent-bed. The two principal churches are visible from the port—the patronal Aghios Giorgios in the centre, and the Taxiarchis at the south west end of the village. A column fragment, faintly inscribed with large, ancient lettering, stands beside its west door.
A 15-minute walk south brings you over a headland down to the beautiful sandy bay of Livadi. Dominating the bay from the south is the hill of Kastro, with the re mains of habitation clearly visible on its ridge. This is an interesting site representing several layers of settlement from prehistoric to mediaeval times. Looking up at the north side of the hill from the shore at Livadi, a wall can be seen running across the summit. Its lowest course is constituted by the large irregular boulders of prehistoric fortifications. The principal Early Cycladic settlement on Herakleia is at the site of Aghios Mamas, inland to the south of here: Kastro may therefore have formed a subsidiary citadel, protecting the entrance from the sea. To day the top of the hill is an assemblage of collapsed stone houses, some with their well-built vaults still in place, and with cisterns and threshing floors visible. Habitation was only finally abandoned here in 1930. At the south end of the ridge where the buildings are best preserved, a quantity of large, cut, dark-coloured, rectangular blocks are included in the lower courses of masonry. These come from a 4th century bc, Hellenistic structure which stood here: the shapes of the blocks show that the building— probably a fortified tower—was not circular, but must have been rectangular in design, like the tower at Plaka in western Naxos . It is not evident where in the vicinity this darker stone was quarried. The area of foundations and shallow-cut cisterns stretches some way farther to the south.
About 700m inland, the road to Panaghia cuts across the old, paved mule-path at a sharp bend: there are many of these attractive kalderimi, or mule-paths, on the island. This one leads inland to the west towards the area of Aghios Athanasios—an abandoned community with a commanding view, now inhabited by only a couple of goat-herding families. Eight hundred metres west along this pathway (level with the first olive tree to the left of a scattered grove, and c. 100m before a T-junction) on some exposed, flat-surfaced rocks in the middle of the track, are two prehistoric petroglyphs in the forms of incised concentric rings. Although these are notoriously hard to date, they seem to belong to a common prehistoric visual vocabulary. The examples here are of remark ably similar size, technique and form to the rock-cut ring marks found in one of the most flourishing centres of distant Scotland in the same Neolithic and Bronze Age period—the Kilmartin Valley in Argyll.
The metalled road ends at Panaghia (45 minutes by foot from Aighios Giorgos), which commands the most fertile slope in the island which stretches east down to the bay of Pigadi, with a distant view of the southern tip of Amorgos. The straggling main street is punctuated by the church complex of the Panaghia and Aghios Nektarios, and by two magnificent wind-sculpted Mediterranean pines. From the southern end of the village, the path to the cave of Aghios Ioannis Prodromos, leads down into the valley to the west, before rising steeply to round the shoulder of Mount Papas (419 m). (The walk is tough and there are no springs. Allow an hour and a half each way, and bring a powerful torch for the cave interior.) The land scape, though bare and rocky, is exhilarating and panoramic. The two caves (neither illuminated) are set back in a deep cleft in the hillside. The wide-entranced cave to the left is a large chamber with some interesting stone formations inside. The entrance to the cave of Aghios Ioannis, to the right, is marked by a hanging bell. Entry is through a small hole on hands and knees, but the cave opens out immediately into a series of vast interconnecting chambers. Beyond the modern sanctuary-elements in the fore ground, a clear path to the left side leads past stalactites, stalagmites and billowing calcareous encrustations, into the depths of the cave.
Herakleia Island is part of the Lesser Cyclades Island Group, Greece.