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The port lies a few hundred metres to the east of Mandraki, the island’s capital, whose houses spread attractively along the bay as far as the rocky western promontory crowned by the Knights’ castle and the whitewashed complex of the Panaghia Spiliani. Along the level top of the higher hill behind are visible from afar the massive walls of the ancient acropolis. At any time of year, the port and town stand out vividly against the dark earth and the vegetation which is much denser here than that on any of the neighbouring islands.
The low, arched Port Authority building opposite the harbour-mole dates from the Italian occupation of the Dodecanese, and has the generally horizontal emphasis and unadorned primary geometric forms characteris tic of Italian colonial architecture of the 1930s. A recent mosaic image of one of the island’s patron saint, Aghios Nikias, looks out to sea from a niche in the rocks on the hillside above. The main street (right) into the town pass es the island’s sizeable water-tank: in spite of good surface water for cultivation, Nisyros has no deep freshwater sources, and now relies substantially on imported and desalinated water. Beyond is an open-air display of traditional household objects—querns, presses, millstones etc.—made from the local volcanic stone. Strabo (Geog. X.5.16) mentions that in Antiquity the island was famous for this hard rock and the millstones made from it. After 250m the street divides to either side of the island’s only bank. (The right branch follows the shore line and passes (150m) the projected new Museum of Archaeology and Folklore, currently under construction; the unusual, carved grave stelai from Nisyros, now in the Archaeological Museum in Rhodes (see MGI vol 7, p. 74), may eventually be transferred here together with other antiquities originally from the island.)
The left branch of the road leads towards the centre of Mandraki. Along this route are a number of scattered ancient remains which indicate that this area was close to the heart of the ancient settlement of Nisyros. These are to be found, as follows. Shortly on the left is the village cemetery: a small ossuary chapel (to the right on entering) incorporates several ancient and Early Christian fragments and decorative details, while at the far end of the enclosure, in front of the two contiguous chapels, an area of Early Christian decorative floor-mosaic is partially visible. Above, to the northeast of the cemetery and below the school building, is an open area with several stretches of ancient wall of the early 5th century bc, made from local volcanic basalt and constructed in highly irregular courses which give the appearance almost of polygonal masonry. A headless, draped Roman statue stands at the higher level; while just below, in the forecourt of the church of Aghios Savvas, other ancient and Early Christian spolia have been collected together.
Just past the cemetery, on the right and well below the street level (across from the Taverna Panorama), are two tiny and venerable churches, oriented head to tail. The further church, dedicated to the Taxiarchis Michai―l—which may be from as early as the 13th century—is marked by a late Roman Corinthian capital standing in the centre of its tiny, pebble-mosaic forecourt: two more of them are incorporated inside, together with two different capitals with palmette-design. The stone ribs of the vault are supported by a variety of ancient and Early Christian spolia—lintels, up-ended architraves, and engaged columns. Immediately abutting its east end is the second chapel, of Aghios Kostantinos: its interior is plain and its age hard to determine with accuracy since the building has been restored and re-pointed some time in the last hundred years. The churches are on the edge of an attractive area of orchards and vegetable-gardens known as the ‘kambos’, which forms the green core around which Mandraki has grown, and which may once have been a harbour, now silted up—possibly even the ancient one mentioned by Strabo.
Not far beyond these two churches, the street opens into the delightful Plateia Ilikiomenis (‘Square of the Elderly’). It is an intimate and always lively space, shaded year-round by two vast (but different varieties of) Ficus trees, and populated by cafes, tavernas, shops and a Municipal Library (containing a number of useful books on Nisyros and the nearby islands). Above its south side is the church of Aghios Ioannis Prodromos, a particularly beautiful example of the miscellany of vernacular decoration and architectural design, which is typical of the best island churches. (If locked, the key is held by the Papas, whose office is just by the eastern exit of the plateia). The church is set low down in an enclosure of stone walls planted with fruit trees, and is preceded by an open, vaulted narthex which constitutes a veritable antiquarium of ancient and Early Christian stone oddments, some with inscriptions: a fine piece of acanthus leaf frieze acts as lintel of the door in the courtyard to the north of the church. The building, originally 15th century, has been restored in the mid 19th century; the interior incorporates Byzantine columns, antique capitals, and a fine 18th century chochlakia floor. The painted iconostasis of local craftsmanship (signed and dated 1852) bears a beautiful icon of Christ as the True Vine to the right of the central doors.
There is a variety of architectural styles in this area of the town. Overlooking a raised courtyard above the main square is a curiously pedimented late 19th century residence in grandiose, classical style; west of the plateia, a narrow right-turn leads to the minuscule square of the Demarcheion (Town Hall), passing on the left an un plastered stone house with an articulated façade; its floor levels are divided by string-courses and windows framed with shallow pilasters and arches. The four-square, sym metrical façade of the Demarcheion itself—reminiscent of its counterpart on Patmos—though built in 1931, has not adopted the mainstream, prevailing style of Italian Colonial architecture: it has something of the appearance of a town hall in mid-Wales. Everywhere in this area houses nurture hidden courtyards full of flowers.
In a narrow passage to the southwest of here, is the Panaghia Potamiissa, a highly decorated late-19th century construction, which is the town’s principal church. Perpendicular to its west end runs the original main-street of the town, no more than a winding alleyway which climbs slowly towards the south. Immediately north (downhill) from here on the left, is the impressive and immaculately constructed talus of the Castle of the Knights, rising 30–40m to where an eroded, triple-escutcheon in white marble is visible. Further north the street passes the small Church Museum (collection of liturgical and ecclesiastical objects: open summer only, 10–3), and reaches the shore beside the church of Aghios Nikolaos, cut into the rock of the cliff, with ancient spolia by its door and in its altar. A footpath leads round below the cliff, over rocks of solidified magma, shot through with veins of yellow ferrous oxide, to a bay of volcanic rocks and crystalline water.
South (uphill) along the street from the Potamiissa, is another rock-cut church on the right, dedicated to Aghia Aikaterini and referred to also as the ‘
catholicon’. Entry is by a lateral narthex, and the whole satisfying space of the interior area is cut back into the rock. Again the altar is composed of an ancient column and piece of
dentils still visible. Across the street a little further up, at the top of some stairs is Aghios Ioannis Theologos (key in electricity meter box, beside door): the interior is spacious with high cross-ribbed vaults typical of the church architecture of the Dodecanese. A simple stone
templon screen, with a series of beautifully painted scenes of the Passion along the top (recent work) and an elegant pebble-design floor, adorn the space. A pagan al tar with carved garlands and bucrania stands by the door (outside), and ancient capitals are re-used inside.
Stepped alleyways to the west lead steeply up from this winding street to: (1) the Castle and the Panaghia Spiliani (from the lower end, 5 min. climb); and (2) to the ancient acropolis (from the upper end: 25 min. climb), neither of which visits should be missed.
Nisyros Island is part of the Dodecanese Island Group, Greece.