East of the monastery of Episkopi & Pera Meria

(For distances in text, Merovigli junction above Chora = 0.0km) The eastern branch of the road (left) from the junction at Merovigli, climbs above the south side of Chora beneath a ridge crowned by dozens of ruined windmills. Visible on the crest of the hill to the east as the road turns sharply south after 2km is the church of Aghia Anna (3km). This is the catholicon of a defunct monastery whose ruined buildings surround it—structures of some sophistication judging by the well-constructed arch in the southwest corner, erected probably in the 16th century. The surviving church is earlier, but appears to have been built in more than a single campaign, given the discrepancy between the good masonry of the south wall and the poorer quality of the north wall. The door-frames, both inner and outer, incorporate marble spolia (heavily whitewashed) from ancient buildings. The late period wall-painting in the interior is confined to the sanctuary and the central apse; little remains visible other than the Pantocrator above. Each of the altars in the three apses is composed of ancient fragments—Doric capitals and a fluted column shaft.
   Less than 2km further south along the road, another re markable ex-monastery comes into view on the left side— the monastery of the Episkopi­, seat once of the island’s Metropolitan, as its name implies. Here it is the remark able rock-formation which has given rise to the establishment of the monastery, and which has probably been a place of cult since earliest history. It is worth going round the north side to see the imposing overhang and platform of rock, which has the form of a vast toadstool: in the middle of the field below the church to the northeast an outcrop of rock conserves a square-cut depression which may possibly be of pre-Christian, cultic significance. In addition, there are two springs and sundry caves; and the buildings dominate an area of considerable fertility.
   Although of dignified profile, the church itself, which was renovated in the 19th century and has been modernised inside, is of less interest than the surrounding ruined buildings and tower. It must have been an important mediaeval fortified monastic settlement, with walls and vaults finely constructed in carefully packed schists rather than the customary rubble-masonry. There are also ancient spolia in the area: a fine Doric capital in front of the west entrance of the church and, prominent in the east wall of the tower, the cut and chamfered stone block from an ancient olive-press.
   From the main asphalt road, c. 80m back, northwest of the turning to Episkopi­, one of the island’s most at tractive stretches of ancient kalderimi heads uphill to the south, towards the summit of Mount Prophiis Eli­as. Originally constructed in Antiquity to link the ancient cites of Ioulis and Karthaia, the paved and stepped road has been constantly maintained, improved and used throughout the intervening centuries up until the advent of the asphalt road. It is one stretch of a whole network of ancient ways on the island linking the former centres of the Tetrapolis and their water-sources, whose exploration is one of the greatest joys of walking on Kea. A map of the various, signed routes can be obtained from the town hall in Chora, and with some initiative, patience, and the occasional help of a taxi or car, can be followed with relative ease.
   The kalderimi passes close by the summit of Prophiis Eli­as (now a telecommunications relay-point) where Aristaeus instituted the cult of Zeus Ikmaios—the ‘rainy’ or ‘provider of coolness and moisture’—on the island’s summit (see ‘History and Legend’ above). The cult was continued through Antiquity; and the moisture has fa voured the groves of a tree which is especially associated with Zeus—the ‘royal oak’ or ‘Valonia (Walloon) Oak’, which grows in abundance here, shading the path. The semi-divine Aristaeus was subsequently worshipped on the island, probably here at Prophiis Eli­as: he was credited with the introduction of apiculture to mankind, as well as the pressing of olives for oil. Kea in Antiquity was celebrated for both its oil and honey.

 The Valonia oaks of Kea

The profusion of venerable Valonia Oaks—Quercus ithaburensis (or aegylops) macrolepis—is the single most beautiful characteristic of the upland landscapes of Kea. It is an ancient and majestic tree, which is fast disappearing from the Eastern Mediterranean landscape. It shares many characteristics of appearance with the ilex or holm-oak tree, but its form is less dense, and its leaves and its acorns larger. Its profile is broad and voluminous; its colour, a dark and variegated grey-green; its leaves almost ‘felted’ on the underside. Seen against the pale hillsides, with the sea distantly visible, it is a tree of great beauty and stateliness. Because it requires a lot of light to the whole body of foliage, the Valonia Oak grows sparse ly—not in dense woods, but in spacious groves, with generally no more than 50–60 trees in a hectare of land. It catches the wind with great effect, and it was surely this species that was the oracular oak of ancient Dodona, through whose rustling movement Zeus made his divine will known.
   The acorn develops inside a luxuriant, touseled, scaly crown, about 4cm across, which forms the cup: it is high in tannin and can be eaten after leaching in water and cooking, although it is generally given only as fodder for animals. The cup produces a black dye which has been used for centuries in the tanning of leather. The abundant acorns of Kea were harvested and shipped to the tanneries in Samos and Lesbos, constituting an important part of the island’s economy. Prof. Irving Maratt, citing a line of Simonides, surmised in his book, Aegean Days (1913), that it was this same dye which might have coloured the crim son-black sails of the ship of Theseus on his fateful return to Athens. Certain galls which form on the tree were also used in Antiquity as an astringent. The oaks can grow to considerable size and age: a famous specimen in the Salento valley in Puglia, at Tricase, is said to be over 600 years old.
   The foliage thins slowly through the autumn and winter before regenerating, so that the tree provides a long period of protection for the soil beneath. With their particularly deep roots the oaks are drought resistant, and their sparseness makes them far less prone to the fires which annually devastate Greece’s densely packed pine forests. With the declining need for natural leather-tanning products, the Valonia Oak has been eradicated in large areas of the Balkans as the land has been turned over to more intensive cultivation. Here, in the centre of Kea, the oaks survive in greater concentration than anywhere else in the Aegean. Together with the dry-stone walls and corbelled farm-buildings, they constitute a landscape whose appearance will have changed little since Antiquity.

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

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