The ancient port

The modern harbour of Pythagoreio (c. 36,000sq. m) is considerably smaller in area than the ancient port (c. 66,000sq. m), owing to subsequent silting and sedimentation on the north and west sides. The original harbour walls on these two sides can be traced today, some way inland of the present water-front. In Antiquity, the wealth of any city in the Greek Islands depended on its ability to manage or dominate sea-trade. Samos had a larger fleet of military and commercial ships than any island city, even Aegina, in the 6th century, and it needed to house them and protect them from the frequent and destructive south winds. Herodotus mentions ‘boat-sheds’ at Samos (III. 45), and these were probably built by Polycrates in the decade between 535 and 525 bc during the same period in which he upgraded the port. But what caught the historian’s attention most was the long artificial protecting mole, which ran out to sea across the south side of the harbour, for almost half of a kilometre from its back (west) wall, into a depth he claims of 20 fathoms of water. Laying foundations at such a depth, and building securely on top of them underwater, was an extraordinary feat for those times. It must have been the first example of an endeavour of this kind, on such a scale, and like the first colossal temple of Hera, it was a clear change in thinking from anything that preceded it. The present-day mole dating from 1862, where the ferries dock, is of considerable length; but the Polycratean one was longer and began from further west. It now lies under water, further south out to sea: it is a stone structure made of rubble and re-used architectural material, running for 480m. Only its base exists today, submerged at a depth of 3m near the shore, and at almost 14m at its eastern end, where it begins to turn north and goes beneath the modern mole shortly before its eastern terminus.

   In addition, underneath the present north mole of the harbour (which runs north–south), lies a further 6th century bc structure: this was an extension of the land fortifications, and closed the harbour to the east. It is estimated it was about 175m long and 20m wide.

   Today’s breakwater, enlarged and extended in 1862, would seem to be based on a later (and less ambitious) Hellenistic mole. A 30m stretch of its neatly cut masonry, with compact surface and finely-edged borders and paving, is preserved in the space between the taverna, Varka, and the houses that front the west of the present harbour. From this point it is possible to follow the projection of its line west for over 150m, past elements of it which are incorporated into recent buildings along the way, until it becomes no more than a cut line in the bedrock towards the end. It terminates in the base of a bastion to the west, where there is a deep hole, as big as a small gateway, cut down through the rock below. Interestingly, Herodotus mentions a secret passageway, leading from the citadel to the sea, in Book III, 147, of his Histories. From here the line of the west harbour walls runs inland to the north, parts of which are visible as far as Kanaris Street, beside the Stratos Hotel, in the third block back from the water front. Tracing these lines gives a vivid sense of the much greater area of the Archaic harbour by comparison with today’s much smaller port.

Samos Island is part of the Northern Aegean Island Group, Greece.

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