Episkopi & the southwest of the island

Just outside Chorio and Kastro, to the north of the road as it heads west, is the church of the Metamorphosis, or Transfiguration, which stands among pine and almond trees beside a turreted neoclassical house, sited on the very edge of the north cliffs of the island; the combination of the view, the peace, the vegetation and the different styles of building make this one of the most enchant spots on the island. The church has origins which go back to the 14th or 15th century, though it appears to have been restored in the 17th century. The steps out side the southeast corner of the church are re-used architraves: the decorative carving on them is identical to that on some of the door and window frames found on the buildings in the square of the Kastro.

Beyond the church of the Metamorphosis, the newly constructed road clings to the barren west slope of Mount Troulos (549m), the island’s highest peak, following the route of the old paved kalderimi which runs nearby, and offering good views to Paros, Antiparos, Siphnos, Kimolos and Milos. The route was described by Theodore Bent in 1884 as ‘lined with immense fig-trees and extensive vineyards, showing the fertility of the place’. The road ends (5km from Chorio) a short distance by foot from the * church of the Episkopi­, which is visible ahead in the middle of a wild and open valley ringed by mountains and ravines—solitary, like an apparition. This is one of the most unusual buildings in the Cyclades: a well-pre served, 2nd or 3rd century ad, Roman construction, subsequently adapted into a church dedicated to the Dormition of the Virgin and set in an unblemished landscape of natural grandeur. Visible ahead to the south is the peak of Aghia Marina (444m), crowned by a small white chapel and the remains of mediaeval fortification: this was the acropolis of Ancient Sikinos whose ruins are scattered down the slope below; the area where the church of the Episkopi­ now stands was the cemetery area, below and outside the ancient city.

The building

The path leads to the rear side of the building, where the protruding apse of the church can be seen, as well as the outline of two successive roof-vaults above. As far up as the distinctive cornice, the masonry is Ancient Roman—perfectly preserved along the sides and at the corners. Above the cornice, surrounding the 17th century dome, is rough masonry added later to act as a fortification. Theodore Bent was told when he visited in 1884 that monks had used this area on the roof as a refuge when besieged by pirates. The south east corner shows the beginning of the original pediment, indicating that the Roman structure originally had the form of a pedimented temple. From the two columns that flank the front entrance to the church at rakish angles, it becomes clear that the Roman structure had the design of a di-style in antis temple, i.e with two columns (c. 10m high) between two flanks which supported the frontal trabeation and pediment. The spaces between these elements have been filled in with rough, improvised masonry. The roughly cubic form and considerable height in proportion to the width link the building to structures of a similar design in the East of the Roman empire—in Syria, and at Diocaesarea in southeastern Turkey, for example. There is no sign of an ancient al tar before the entrance, but instead a deep rock-cut cistern, roofed with large stone slabs. Another cistern lies just to the north. Large pieces of the magnificent, ‘dog-tooth’ or dentillated cornice are built into the improvised wall opposite the entrance.
   It seems unlikely that the building was actually a temple, even though there is a strong tradition dating from the visit in 1837 of the German archaeologist, Ludwig Ross, who first designated the building as a ‘temple to Pythian Apollo’ on the basis of a now lost inscription in the vicinity. Its south westerly orientation is unsuitable for cult, and it is built in an area which appears clearly to have been a cemetery and to have possessed other funerary monuments (see below). More probably, it was a temple-like ‘heroon’ or mausoleum to an important individual, similar to those found frequently in the eastern areas of the Empire. This interpretation raises its own problems, however: Sikinos has generally been considered to have been used by Rome as a place of exile for political undesirables during the period of the Empire. Who, then, on Sikinos in the 2nd century ad could afford or merit a monument of such grand proportions?

The history

Masonry and design suggest that the building is unlikely to date from before the second half of the 2nd century ad. For it to have survived so well into later times, it must early on have been converted into a Christian church—perhaps even as early as the 6th century. At that point the adaptation was probably minimal; the apse dates from several centuries later. The belfry, drum and cupola are additions of the 17th century—the period in which the height of the main vault also seems to have been altered and the buttressing added on the south side. The grandeur of the building made it an obvious choice for an episcopal seat—hence its current name of ‘Episkopi­’. The building was recently deconsecrated, and the interior is now bare and filled with wooden scaffolding to support the precariousness of the structure.

Around the church In addition to the vestigial remains of monastic outbuildings, two 14th century chapels have survived to the north of the building: Aghia Anna, beside the church’s north wall, which has remains of wall-paintings in the apse and along the north and south walls; the other, Aghios Giorgios, further up the hill, where the paintings are better conserved, with the donors who commissioned them also depicted. The fabric of the walls includes several ancient blocks.
   Two hundred and fifty metres southwest of the church of the Episkopi is a deconsecrated, barrel-vaulted chapel: below its southeast corner, an outcrop of natural rock has been neatly cut into three steps and a square recess for the pedestal of a funerary monument. It would appear that this whole area was a cemetery, dominated by the mausoleum to the northeast. The area lay outside the inhabited city and overlooked the small patch of fertile land which must have provisioned the city’s inhabitants.

A thirty-minute walk to the southwest towards the peak of Aghia Marina brings you to the site of Ancient Sikinos. The habitation occupied a triangular area bounded by a fortress at the summit of Aghia Marina (where the chapel now stands); a shoulder to the northeast of it where there are the remains of fortification; and another shoulder to the east where there is a clear platform for a public or sacred building which stood on the ridge looking down to the shore to the southeast. In the concavity between these three points are the remains of retaining walls and a fortified enceinte constructed in masonry of small dimensions. The site is almost impracticably steep and drops straight into the gorge below where there is a wellhead— perhaps formerly a spring. On the slope can be seen two lime-kilns, now abandoned, once used for reducing marble to mortar: this may explain why there is little marble left on the site itself. From the wellhead—known locally as the Pigadi Manali—paths lead to the remote chapels of the wild southwestern extremity of the island: east to Aghios Panteleimon (90 mins); south to Aghios Ioannis (70 mins) on the coast; and southwest to Aghios Spyridon (90 mins), overlooking the islets in the strait between Folegandros and Sikinos.

Sikinos Island is part of the Cyclades Island Group, Greece.

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