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The North of the Island
The tranquil north coast of the island at Partheni Bay is reached at 12km from Lakki. The island’s earliest human settlement (Late Neolithic, 3500–2800 bc) was uncovered here at Kontarida, beside the central southern creek of the bay in an unprotected and open coastal position.
A civilian airport, a non-functioning dam, a number of gravel-pits, quarries and cement-works , have compromised what would otherwise be a heavenly corner of the Dodecanese. The natural landscape of low hills, deep bays, islands and coastal marshes, was once the setting for the island’s principal sanctuary, dedicated to the cult of Artemis or, more correctly, of the ‘Parthenos Iokallis’—a chaste, female divinity, perhaps of local origin, whose cult became assimilated with that of the greater divinity of chastity and hunting. The setting of the temple (whose remains have not been located with certainty) in a marshy estuary by the coast, has affinities with the sanctuary of Artemis Tauropolos at Nas on Ikaria.
ARTEMIS AND GUINEA-FOWL
A particularity of the cult of Artemis on Leros was its odd association with the story of the sisters of Meleager. The latter is first heard of in the Iliad (IX. 525 et seq.), where his complex story is told by Phoenix to Achilles in the hope of enticing the warrior out of his retreat into his tent. Meleager had killed the ferocious boar of Calydon which had been sent by Artemis in a fit of pique at having been excluded from an important harvest sacrifice. He was later cursed by the goddess, after killing his mother’s brothers in an ensuing fight, deliberately fomented by Artemis, over the spoils of the hunt. When his own sisters (referred to collectively as the ‘Meleagrids’) were, in turn, inconsolable at Meleager’s own untimely death, Artemis—more out of irritation than pity—turned them all into guinea-fowl (Ovid, Metamorph. VIII, 542–6), immortalising the sounds of their grief in the plaintive bleeping of the bird, which today bears the taxonomic designation, Numida meleagris. These beautiful birds probably frequented the sanctuary here filling the air with the sound of their calls, just as peacocks did at the sanctuary of Hera on Samos . A passing reference in the 2nd century ad ‘Tabletalk’ (Deipnosophistai) of Athenaeus of Naucratis (XIV, 655 b&c) mentions a (now lost) work, On Miletus, written by Aristotle’s pupil, Klytos of Miletus. Klytos evidently commented on the fact that the priests took upon themselves the raising of the chicks of these sacred birds, and that the ‘‘¦ place where they are kept is marshy’. The edges of the bay here are still swampy and the name of the sanctuary is preserved in the modern name, Partheni. All that is needed is for the sound of guinea-fowl to break the prevailing torpor of the atmosphere.
Ancient remains, once erroneously thought to be those of the temple of Artemis, can be seen in the centre of the southern side of the bay. Here, on the summit of the ridge just to the west of the airstrip (reached by the road west, before the airport) is the platform and base of a square Hellenistic tower (c. 8 x 8m), probably similar in concept to the tower on Lipsi; the position appears chosen to command both the entrance to the harbour, and the fertile land around the bay. The blocks are cut and inter locked with the care and precision typical of 4th century bc masonry. Other smaller, later buildings have left foundations and square cuts in the rocks, to the south. To the north of the tower an early mediaeval church, now roof less but still in possession of an apse, has been constructed almost entirely from blocks of the ancient tower. Two hundred metres further north, along the same ridge (path below, along east side), is the early 11th century church of Aghios Giorgios. On the south wall of its interior there is a darkened wall-painting of St George lancing the Dragon, dating probably from the 15th or 16th centuries; behind the iconostasis stands a carved slab from the marble templon of an Early Christian church as well as other more ancient spolia, now heavily whitewashed. The slab probably came from the Palaeochristian basilica found and excavated here in 1980 when construction work on the airstrip began. Its mosaic floor and other carved elements were transferred to the Archaeological Museum. In the same excavations, the ground-floor of a secular building consisting of workshops and storage areas arranged around a pebbled court also came to light near the basilica. These digs have provided evidence of a continued habitation here through Roman times and the Early Christian period, until the abandonment of the settlement in the 7th century. Today Partheni is a tiny community which lives off fish-farming and the large boatyard.
The area is punctuated with relics of the Second World War—the peaks all round are marked with Italian military watch-towers; the Italian barracks at Partheni— which later served as a prison for political detainees of Greece’s Military Junta between 1967 and 1974. The bay of Plefoutis (1km east of Partheni), is a beautiful circular inlet, backed by olive-groves and hills, and marked by the former Italian military buildings in the pines at the southeast corner of the bay—harmless and elegiac, now that their sting has been removed.
The most remarkable monument here is in the tiny chapel of *Aghia Kioura, on the rise of the isthmus separating Partheni and Plefoutis Bays (1km northeast of Partheni). The interior of the recent chapel is decorated with images, painted in 1970 by detainees of the Colonels’ Junta, who were exiled to Partheni. The murals (executed in a polyvinyl paint which is beginning to blister) are interesting, but understandably variable in quality. There are several hands at work—amongst them one who specialised in calligraphy, and another in decorative borders. Perhaps of greatest artistic merit and simplicity is the Deposition along the north wall. These pictures are now (technically) protected by law, but only after some were painted over by Orthodox religious enthusiasts who resented their style as incongruent with the Orthodox pictorial tradition. The remoteness of the place and the circumstances of its creation are reminiscent of the Italian Prisoners’ Chapel on the southern tip of Orkney. Both are moving testimonies of faith flourishing in adversity.
Leros Island is part of the Dodecanese Island Group, Greece.