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Hera—powerful and often difficult Queen of the Heavens—was born on Samos : and that fact meant that from earliest times the island was a particularly important centre of cult, with visitors and suppliants coming to it from all points of the compass. The richness—economic, intellectual and artistic—which this brought to Samos is reflected in the greatness the island achieved in the 6th century bc, and which it has never matched since. At that time, under the firm and ambitious grip of the autocrat Polycrates, the island dominated Aegean waters and established a trade network extending from the Black Sea to Egypt: it had probably the largest marine fleet in the Greek world and boasted a capital city which was unsur passed by any other Greek city for its size and sophistication at that time, and which was to leave a deep impression on Herodotus when he visited it a century later. The remains of this golden age of Samos are one of the prime reasons for visiting the island. The collection of Archaic sculpture from the sanctuary of Hera now in the museum in Vathi, which includes the huge Samos Kouros, would be reason enough to come any distance to Samos : for it has no equals outside Athens. Polycrates’s ambition endowed the city with civic and religious structures: a temple that transformed the very concept of the building from a glorified hut into a noble structure of impressive and enduring beauty; a solid harbour mole built out into the sea through a depth of 60 feet of water; and, most unusual of all, the tunnel of Eupalinos, which cuts right through a mountain for just over a kilometre to bring water into the city. In a remarkable combination of technology, geometry andenuity, the tunnel was begun from two sides of the mountain simultaneously and met successfully in the centre: it marks the coming of age in the Greek world of the application of theoretical models to the solving of practical problems. In each case, the need could have been satisfied, or the problem solved, by far smaller and less ambitious projects; but to say that is to miss the point, and to fail to understand the joy that the Early Greeks took in setting themselves a seemingly impossible project, and then pulling it off. There is an energy and excitement in this display, akin to the thrill of see a dolphin leaping through hoops. With time, it calms into the measured maturity of what we call the ‘Classical’ Age—the far smaller dimensions of the Parthenon, and the sobriety of Polyclitus’s sculpture. But nowhere better than on Samos , can the sheer chutzpah of early, ‘Archaic’ Greece be sensed.
Rich in Antiquity,and still visibly rich today in greenness and variety of landscape, Samos , in spite of the ravages of forest fires in recent years, is still a lush and beguiling island—both more cosmopolitan and softer in feel than her more rugged and dowdier neighbours. Palaeontological finds (displayed in the island’s Natural History Museum) show that Samos always had a rich and unusual fauna; its flora, today, is still impressive, with many unique and endemic species to be seen in the is land’s two mountain massifs, and over 60 different types of wild orchid recorded. Both this and the island’s immense archaeological heritage are not without threat to their survival: mass tourism is beginning to be a burden on the island, most of all in the infrastructure and building needed to accommodate it. This is not a recent phenomenon: 30 years ago the airport runway, a large hotel complex and a rash of other building was permitted to invade the heart of the areas of archaeological interest along the ancient Sacred Way—once lined with statuary, which led nearly 6km from the old port to the Sanctuary of Hera. Today, the huge ruins of an Early Christian basilica are hemmed in between the putting course and one of the swimming pools of the hotel complex. Fortunately, Samos is big enough and grand enough to shrug these things off, and to delight the visitor with many peaceful villages of balconied stone houses, and a well-watered landscape which is—but for the repeated fire damage—a walker’s paradise.
Samos Island is part of the Northern Aegean Island Group, Greece.