Ancient Karthaia

It is just under one hour’s walk from the Hellenistic tow er below Stavroudaki to the site of * Ancient Karthaia; it can only be reached by foot, and this fact has helped to preserve it as one of the most numinous ancient sites in the Aegean. In its intimate coastal setting it is the embodiment of the ‘romantic’ ruin—although this aspect is now being changed by an ambitious project of improvement and conservation, funded by the European Union, which includes the re-erection of columns with modern elements. The path down the deep Vathypotamos valley to the site is a well-paved mule-track following an ancient route; two-thirds of the way down, almost at sea level, is a plentiful spring of fresh water just below the path: in antiquity its waters were brought into the city along an aqueduct. The last third of the way is along a torrent-bed, among osiers and oleanders as far as the shore.

History and layout

The site was first settled in the 8th century bc. The city evolved into a flourishing centre early in the 6th century bc, and there is evidence that it was inhabited thereafter until Saracen incursions in the 7th century ad caused its desertion. Karthaia was probably the most powerful of the four cities of the Kean tetrapolis and by the 4th century bc had absorbed into its territory the city of Poieessa. The city en joyed a felicitous setting with ample fresh water, a natural acropolis, a protected harbour, and small fertile valleys in land. In 1811 the Danish antiquarian, Peter Oluf Bronsted (1780–1842), examined and dug the site in what was one of the earliest documented excavations of its age; the site was then systematically explored at the turn of the 20th century by the Belgian scholar Paul Graindor.
   The shore of the bay is naturally divided in two by a rocky ridge (‘Aspri Vigla’). This formed the sacred acropolis of the city and was surrounded by a fortification wall with six or more gates. The theatre and a number of the main municipal structures occupied the valley to its southwest side, while the cemetery and principal harbour lay to the northeast side as is evidenced by cuts in the rock at the end of the beach. The small islet off-shore was joined to the foot of the acropolis projection by a harbour mole (still partially visible) which defined two bays, one or other of which would provide shelter against the momentary direction of the wind. The islet itself shows clear signs of cutting in the rock suggesting that it was an integral part of the port and its installations.

222222222222 Visit to the site 22222222222222 The first glimpse of the massive 6th century bc retaining walls, above and to the left of the path as it reaches the shore, is striking. These were part of the adaptation of the seaward end of the projecting ridge of Aspri Vigla into an acropolis, comprising two sacred terraces with temples and other related buildings. At the seaward extremity, on a terrace overlooking the bay, was the temple of Apollo, constructed around 530 bc. The temple had a portico with four columns in antis, and its outer walls were plain. It faced northeast with its back to the sea, and stood just clear of the rock face which rises above it. By the temple’s west corner, the living bed-rock is beautifully carved: one of the pleasures of the site of Karthaia is the extent to which the native rock is given life as part of the overall design. The three limestone steps of the pronaos of the temple, bearing the impressions of the portico pillars, are well-preserved; behind it is the threshold of the inner naos . To the side of the space in front of the temple a low ledge of limestone at the foot of the rock-face is cut with a line of perforations into which standing votive stelai were fixed.
   Between this temple platform and the higher platform further in from the shore, obtrudes a steep outcrop of rock, referred to since Bronsted’s time as the Choragic Rock or ‘chorageion’ in honour of the Kean poet Simonides, who according to tradition had a school of song and poetry at Karthaia. Although the rim of a terrace is visible, the top of this outcrop is mostly an inchoate mass of broken masonry suggesting little more than a density of construction at one time. Just below the second (northern) terrace, the natural rock has once again been beautifully shaped to form both part of the steps of access as well as the supporting wall of the temple terrace, into whose contours the polygonal blocks of the wall interlock with customary Archaic meticulousness. All this work was part of the prow-shaped entrance into the sanctuary: a propylon stood directly above on this corner of the terrace. The terrace has the form of a ‘V’ whose arms embrace the steep hill which rises above towards the church of the Panaghia Myrtiodotissa. On the right arm (east side) is the base of the so-called ‘temple of Athena’, whose dedication is conjectured from the sculptural material of its decoration. Once again the temple, which was constructed slightly later than the temple of Apollo around the turn of the 5th century bc, is built on a ledge cut out from the hill with a steep rock face along its west side. It was a peripteral Doric temple—perhaps the earliest example of its kind in the Cyclades—with six by eleven fluted columns: the bases of those along the west side are well-preserved; others at the south end are currently being replicated. Note the variety of materials employed: the grey limestone of the stylobate, the (originally stuccoed) poros stone stone of the columns, and the clear marble of the walls of the naos : the roof was tiled in Parian marble. The temple was endowed with an impressive scheme of sculptural decoration whose fragmentary remains are seen on the first floor of the museum in Chora. The theme of this was a battle between Greeks and Amazons, or Amazonamachy. The acroteria which surmounted the point of the two pediments were also fine sculptures; at the south (front) end this figured Theseus carrying off Antiope (Hypolita), one of the most important scenes of the iconography.
   Over 200 years later, on the west arm of the terrace an other sacred building, of temple-like design, (Building ‘D’) was added in the early 3rd century bc. It is currently under excavation and its purpose and nature are not yet clear. All that is visible is the flight of steps that led up to it. It stood atop the impressive retaining wall which was visible from below in the valley on entering.
   Descending to the valley once again, the city’s theatre is traceable, low down on the southwest slope of Aspri Vigla. It has been filled with alluvial deposits brought down the Vathypotamos Valley; but some of the seats survive and a vaulted tunnel is visible to the south. On the opposite (northeastern) slope of the hill, cisterns, retaining walls, and fragments of architrave, with triglyphs and other decorations, can be seen.

At the southern end of the bay is the church of the Panaghia of ‘Poles’—perhaps a corruption of ‘poleis’, refer ring to the ancient ‘town(s)’ whose remains have always been visible here. The benign setting of Karthaia in its ring of hills and watered valleys, with its protected southern aspect looking over the sea to Kythnos, and its two enclosed shores, recalls how felicitously the ancients chose the sites of their cities.

Kea Island is part of the Cyclades Island Group, Greece.

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