The Asfendiou Mountain Villages and Palaio PylIi

The verdant northern slopes below the peak of Di­kaios command wide views of the plains below and out to sea beyond: for this reason they were a safe and practical refuge from piracy during periods of insecurity, yet remained always in proximity to the island’s main agricul tural areas. The earliest and most important settlement here was Palaio Pyli­ which evolved behind a spur of the mountain at its western end in early Byzantine times. Much later, in the 18th century, a chain of villages, referred to collectively as ‘Asfendiou’—Aghios Demetrios, Asomatos, Evangeli­stria, Zia, Lagoudi and Amaniou— grew up further east in more open space, sometimes around the nucleus of a pre-existing church or hermitage. With the sole exception of Zia, whose picturesque-ness has made it a prey to organised tours, these villages of old stone-built houses (many abandoned) are a peaceful and welcome contrast to the pressure of tourism on the coast. They may be reached either by the (signed) road due south from the centre of Zipari, or by continuing on the paved road west, beyond the Asklepiei­on.
   The eastern-most village of Aghios Demetrios is now deserted, its roofless houses, overgrown with trees, show the fractures wrought by earthquakes. Its church is prob ably a 16th century foundation; it incorporates two flut ed, ancient columns in the north door of the narthex, and the interior is dominated by a handsome iconostasis. In the narthex, a photograph of 1944 showing a populous school festival at the church bears witness to a significant human presence here only a few decades ago; beside it is the copy of an Imperial Firman or decree of the Ottoman Sultanate, dated 1220 (=1800), giving strict guidelines for the restoration of the ‘ancient church’ of Aghios Demetrios in ‘Chai―choutes’, as the village was then called.
   Three kilometres of unmade road west though cypress and pine woods brings you to Zia (3km west), the highest of the villages: the path to the watershed at the ridge and then on to the summit of Dikaios, leads up from here—a climb of not more than 90 minutes from the village. A short distance east of the peak is the chapel of ‘Christos’ or of the Metamorphosis tou Soti­ros, built on the site of a hermitage supposedly founded in the 11th century. The remains of some hermits’ cells can be seen southwest of the church: the sublimity of the views suggests that their retreat here was not in vain.
   At the western end of the chain of villages is Amaniou, to the south of which the paved road ends below the impressive Byzantine and mediaeval site of Palaio Pyli­. As you approach, a short stretch of wall in polygonal masonry can be seen not far below a cave on the low er, right-hand side of the slope below the castle. Its date and purpose (so low on the slope) are hard to assess; but fragments of Mycenaean pottery have been found in the area, suggesting an early settlement on this impregnable site, long before the mediaeval presence which is its main interest today. Masonry from Ancient and Early Christian buildings is also extensively included in the existing churches on the site. The site is large and densely covered with buildings, amongst which it is not hard to come upon pieces of glazed Byzantine pottery and mediaeval coloured glass still lying on the surface of the ground. It constitutes one of the most interesting and unexplored places on the island.

   A castle and monastic refuge here (apparently built by the Blessed Christodoulos, the energetic founder of the Monastery of St. John on Patmos) dates from the late 11th century, was expanded and manned by the Knights of Rhodes between the mid 14th century and their departure in 1523, and may have continued as no more than a minor Otto man look-out post until the final abandonment of the site in 1830, when the population moved en masse to the new village of Pyli to the northwest. The village grew up on the saddle of rocky land directly below the castle to the south, safely hidden from view from the sea. Several paths lead up from the spring and ruined watermill in the gorge where the road ends: those further south, climb up first to the church of the Asomatos (Archangel Michael), standing in the middle of the western slope, and recognisable by the graceful, low, ruined arch just north of its entrance. This arch, which springs from an upturned and inscribed pagan altar-block, belongs to the structure of a preceding, larger church: in the door-frames and elsewhere there are other Ancient and Early Christian spolia. The irregular and earthen-floored interior is still decorated with poorly-preserved 14th century wall paintings—scenes from the Passion in the vault, and a Pantocrator and Dei«sis in and around the apse, above an altar composed of ancient fragments. A narthex has been roughly added to the west, containing an unusual vaulted wall-tomb on its south wall.
   A little higher up the hill is a well-preserved hamam, with the perforated dome of its steam chamber still intact: its plastered cistern is adjacent, next to a fountain-head which is another adapted and decorated ancient block. East of here extends a large open plateau, bounded by high walls on the side of the castle, and several collapsed constructions on the opposite side. Below its eastern side, on the edge of a drop, is the long, windowless 11th century church of the Theotokos Kastriani­, dedicated to the Purification (Ypapantis) of the Virgin and built by Christodoulos, before he departed for Patmos, over the ruins of an Early Christian church. The interior, preceded by a narthex, is unusual in that the vault ribs of the roof spring from corbels resting on fine ancient columns standing free and disengaged from the wall, creating a pleasing processional effect.
   To the south, a path leads up to the castle, rising steeply through the main gateway: this is a curious construction, showing the sophisticated fan and herring-bone brickwork more typical of a metropolitan church, than an 11th century rural fortress. The brickwork (rare for Kos) probably belongs to the narthex and interior of a mid-13th century domed church, built (as is suggested by Hetherington—see Further Reading) within the fortress by a Governor sent from Constantinople who was desirous of showing off his sophisticated tastes. At some later stage this collapsed, perhaps in the earthquake of 1493, and the ruined remains were hastily adapted to form a new fortified gate against the pressing emergency of the Turkish invasion. On the final ascent, a labyrinth of underground, vaulted chambers and cisterns is frequently glimpsed: on the ground lies the well-preserved escutcheon of the mid-15th century Venetian overlord, Fantino Querini, together with the arms of the Order of the Knights of Rhodes . Other marble relicts include a piece of marble entablature from a pagan temple.
   By the middle of the 19th century, Palaio Pyli was abandoned and the population had settled at Pyli, 3km to the northwest, in an area that already had a long history of its own, and possessed interesting monuments from Antiquity and Byzantine times. Most unusual amongst these is the 3rd century bc Tomb of Harmylos, uphill from the plateia in the southeast corner of the village (follow signs). This is an uncommon example of semicircular ancient Greek vaulting, achieved with expertly shaped masonry, and here used to cover a hypogeum with 12 burial loculi. The Greeks used the arch sparingly in their architecture, but understood its design perfectly nonetheless. The Ion ic monument which once marked this important tomb or heroon, has been dismantled and re-used in the tiny church of the Ti­mios Stavros above. The templon screen is formed from two huge blocks erected vertically; to the left of the entrance door are two exquisite fragments of carved Ionic cornice with a complex design of egg-and dart, and palmette runs; beside are two rosette volutes, and above a slab carved with a Byzantine cross; and to the right of the door is an inscribed stone, set horizontally, referring to Harmylos and the Harmylii clan. Harmylos was a legendary ancestral king of Cos, and this monument may have been a dynastic monument for the family who claimed descent from him.
   Below and across the centre of the village to the south west is the Fountain of Harmylos, probably once an ancient spring house, but restored in 1592—according to an inscription on its face—into the four-square stone structure with its six gushing water-spouts. The water is excellent and more rounded in taste than the slightly tart water of the Asklepieion. Just downstream from here is a severe, stone building, referred to as the Peripatos Castle (‘Peripatos’ was a name used for Pyli by the Florentine traveller, Cristoforo Buondelmonti, when he came to the island in c. 1418). It is a keep-like structure of the 15th century, with a large (once vaulted) chamber in its centre, constituing the core of a fortified residence for the land-owner of this productive area. Abundance of water and fertility made this a significantly populated area of the island since ancient times. Evidence of this is visible all around: even modern churches in the area, such as the chapel of the Panaghia to the west of the village (continue past Fountain of Harmylos; right at junction, and 250m further on right) has walls decorated with ancient and Early Christian spolia—pieces of ambo, cornice and capitals in marble.

 

Kos Island is part of the Dodecanese Island group
The Asfendiou mountain villages and Palaio Pyli.


Random information you might what to know about Kos Island
Ancient port baths
The Asklepieion

 

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