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The Forest of Plaka and Aghios Stephanos
The road west of Antimachia circumvents the airport; after 2.5km a paved road leads off right to Plaka. Unex pected and hidden, at the confluence of several eroded folds of the volcanic surface of this part of the island, is a dense and shady forest of pine-trees; unexpected and hidden also, amongst their branches, are dozens of calling—and sometimes displaying—peacocks. The peacock in Antiquity was sacred to Hera, queen of the gods; and her temples, set often in groves of trees, were thronged by these regal birds. There was no temple of Hera here; but the shade and the strident calling of the birds, give a faint idea of the sounds and setting of such a temple in Antiquity. Down a track to the south is the chapel of Aghios Ioannis Prodromos, beside the seasonal stream which feeds the pines and plane trees, and encourages the presence of many butterflies. The continuation of the road through the woods re-joins the main road further west after 2km.
To the south of the road at this point are some of the island’s longest and sandiest beaches—Polemi, Psilos Gremmos and Kamila, different segments, with different characters, of one protracted south-facing shore—as crowded in summer as they are deserted in winter. The sands are backed with dunes and cedar bushes, and the steep escarpment directly behind has meant that they have escaped shore-line building. At their western extremity, the road drops from the plateau to the shore be side one of the island’s most memorable sights—the seagirt ruins of the double basilica of Aghios Stephanos- with the rocky islet of Kastri in front. (Access to the shore by the small paved road to the right of the entrance of the Club Mediterranee complex.)
The site consists of two 5th century basilicas, of almost equal size, contiguous and sharing a common wall, which have been squeezed transversely onto a rocky outcrop protruding into the sea. Both were probably destroyed and abandoned in the following century. There are many marble remains and areas of mosaic. Both basilicas have a narthex to the west; there is a single baptistery to the north east, and some other rooms (perhaps a funerary chapel) to the south west. The sea surrounds them on all sides except to the north.
The choice of site, the double nature of the complex (which compares interestingly with the site of Alyki, on Thasos , see MGI vol 11, p. 73-79), and the chronological order of building, are a few of the many questions which this fascinating site raises. First, the presence of a heap of marble fragments of both pagan and Early Christian provenance, suggests that churches were built on this spot to ‘purify’, and Christianise, a pre-existing pagan place of worship. The beauty of the site is certainly consonant with a place of pagan cult. The ancient fragments are mostly of funerary monuments, but there are also some architectural elements. Sec ond, the twin nature of the construction could be explained by the demands of a rapidly growing Christian community: at first one church was erected, which, even in the short time that it was in use (no more than a century at the most), proved too small and required enlargement by another construction. This is a phenomenon frequently encountered in Byzantine and mediaeval church-building, resulting in many double and triple, contiguous churches. But, the exact fit ting of these two buildings into the tiny space available could equally suggest that they were planned together right from the beginning, perhaps to accommodate two separate dedications—information about which is now lost to us. If they were built successively, however, what might have been the order of construction? When there is a need to enlarge, the tendency is to build a larger structure. The space available here is a determining factor: but even so, the south basilica is larger, as well as more richly decorated and finer in construction. It also has an open apse, i.e. without the concentric steps of the synthronon which was a characteristic of very early churches, and is a feature of the basilica to the north. All this suggests to this author that the north basilica predates the south one, although most scholars have tended to date them the other way around.
A final curiosity lies in the passageway, which runs between the south side of the south basilica and the living rock. A small mosaic panel here is visible in the floor with a clear inscription: the space is ample for the 40 or so letters it contains, but the majority of them are cramped up in rising curves and irregular lines into the top right corner, as if no preparatory sketch to lay out the words calmly and regularly in the available space had been attempted. After eight centuries—from the 5th century bc through to the 3rd century ad—of exquisitely formed letters and orderly inscriptions in Greek and Latin, which filled the area they occupied with symmetry and simple dignity, it is strange to find this chaotic creation executed little more than a century later. Stranger still that the Bishop, or Founders, who lavished such expense and attention on this beautiful building, were not moved to suggest that the mosaic-worker might wish to have another go.
In front of the west entrance and narthex of the South Basilica is the base of an atrium in the form of a peristyle of granite columns, accessible directly from the sea. It is bounded to the east by steps cut into the living rock, which, together with the drainage channels dug in the rock nearby, perhaps belong to a pagan predecessor. From the atrium, there is no central entry into the narthex. Inside the basilica, the bases of the columns in Rhodian marble, and the transverse base of the templon screen are clearly visible; fragments of the ambo lie in the centre, and the carved lid of an antique tomb or naiskos (shrine), on the floor of the apse. The stump of a small (mediaeval) tower, on the rock outcrop to the south overlooks the site.
Two doorways pass from the north aisle of the South Basilica into the simpler North Basilica, which has similar proportions and marginally smaller size. Its piers are in the local stone rather than imported marble: extensive use has been made of a purplish, volcanic rock in the apse, which off-sets the white of the synthronon steps and the fragments of marble paving and templon screen at the east end. Behind it is the separate baptistery—a small structure, scarcely 5m square, which was probably domed—with three entrances (to N, S & W) and a sunken, cruciform font. It stands on the very edge of the rocks, right above the sea.
Providing for what must have been a populous and extensive Christian community at this end of the island, were two more 5th century basilicas, located along this bay: the outline of the first, together with patches of mosaic floor, can be seen 700m to the west, just south of the Sacallis Hotel, on the shore side of the main road; the second, is at the western extremity of the sweep of Kephalos Bay, a little above the harbour of Kamari, where the paved road south turns inland to climb back up to Kephalos town; an unusually broad nave and narrow aisles are visible in plan, as well as the marble door-threshold and other fragments.
Kos Island is part of the Dodecanese Island group
The Forest of Plaka and Aghios Stephanos.