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(Herakleia, Schinousa, Koufonisia , Keros, donousa)
The waters of these islands are among the most protected in the Aegean, shielded from the North winds by the great bulk of Naxos . In the early morning especially, they can have the appearance of a lake in the middle of a ring of mountains and hills, with lacustrine mists sometimes enveloping the islands momentarily and hiding them from view. It was the proximity, intimacy and relative ease of communication that the islands offered which encouraged early man to settle here, and to flourish in a loose network of trading communities in the 3rd millennium bc. It is a unified and unthreatening seascape, offering the simultaneous boons of independence and community— remarkably similar to that of the Lesser Sporades to the north and east of Alonnisos, another area, uninhabited today, but which was in the vanguard of the earliest human settlement and commerce in the Aegean. One of the principal differences between these and the Sporades islands however, is the astonishing productivity of worked marble objects found in this area: bowls, goblets, and above all countless figurines, mostly of naked female forms. Almost one third of the Early Cycladic figurines known today comes from the uninhabited is land of Keros at the eastern edge of this group. Not all of them were created in these islands by any means, but they ended up here. Something of the enigmas raised by these archaeological discoveries is discussed below. Donousa, though close by, stands apart from the other islands because its geography is different. It lies in the full swell of the high sea, by contrast—often inaccessible because of the winds. Its importance was its strategic position on one of the critical sea-crossings of Antiquity, between the western and eastern seaboards of the Aegean, between the Cyclades and the western point of Ikaria which was often used as the point of departure from Asia Minor for the central Aegean. For this reason its significant habitation is largely later than the Lesser Cycladic islands, and dates from a time when the technology of sailing was more advanced. It is an island with good sources of water and sheltered harbours, which makes it harder to explain why its importance suddenly faded, and that it should have had a flourishing settlement at Vathi Limenari in the 9th and 8th centuries, but then apparently little of importance thereafter until modern times. Some of the islands in this group—Donousa and Her akleia—are havens of tranquillity; others—Schinousa and Pano Koufonisi—are developing fast into centres for visitors, attracted by their limpid waters and sandy beaches which are ideal for snorkelling and for messing about in boats. All of them offer a simplicity and intimacy which contrasts markedly with the larger, surrounding islands.
Where Herakleia’s profile was mountainous, that of Schinousa is gentle, with low rolling hills and a deeply indented coastline of beetling promontories. Long gone is the island’s rich vegetation that was able to supply the Chozo viotissa Monastery on Amorgos with timber, according to the monastery’s archival records. A couple of large private compounds, fitted out with helipads, recreation areas and regimented tree-plantations strike a jarring note in the landscape, but in spite of sacrifices made to tourism it is remarkable that on Schinousa it is still possible to find some of the best fresh local wines and cheeses in the Cyclades. Schinousa prides itself on its split-peas for making fava—one of the most traditional of Cycladic dishes— courageously challenging the supremacy of Santorini.
The road from the attractive harbour of Mersini up to the Chora in the centre of the island (15 minutes by foot) is bordered by rock scarps shot through with grottos and declivities, some of which may have been burial places in origin but which were used throughout more recent centuries as hides for the local population of pirates. The Chora straggles to either side of an axial street. At the centre is the modern church of the Eisodia tis Theotokou (Presentation of the Virgin); pieces of fluted and un-fluted ancient columns and Early Byzantine stone elements have been gathered in its courtyard. In the area immediately around the church, can be seen the outline of the former kastro, whose quadrangle of houses still forms the core of the village.
Five hundred metres west of Chora is Tsigouri Bay, a wide beach of grey sands shaded by tamarisks. At the isthmus at the south end of the bay is a dense scatter of potsherds, both modern and ancient (amphora handles, cup bases, etc.), amongst an area of collapsed masonry which comes from a small-scale Roman and Early Christian presence here.
The island’s fortified point was always the hill of Prophitis Elias (120m) which lies 1km to the south, by the left-hand branch of the road south from Chora. The southwest shoulder of the hill has the remains of prehistoric fortifications, with the plan of a rectangular bastion visible. Vestiges survive of the base of the wall along the north side. There are scatters of mediaeval pottery sug gesting that the site was also used much later. Its position commands the south of the island and the waters between Amorgos and Naxos . Below the hill to the south east are the ruins of a substantial, late-mediaeval ‘pyrgos’.
Schinoussa Island is part of the Lesser Cyclades Island Group, Greece.