Exambela, platys Gialos, Chrysopigi & Pharos

Exambela (1.5km)—meaning the ‘vineyards outside’ or ‘beyond’ (although some sources wishfully derive the name from the Turkish ‘aksŸam bela’, meaning ‘trouble in the evening’ and referring to the eating, drinking, dancing and singing for which the village was evidently famous under Turkish rule)—is almost contiguous with Apolloni­a and overlooks it from an eminence to the south. The school building and several substantial houses are in elegant neoclassical style, suggesting the village’s prosperity and independence at the turn of the 20th century. There are walled orchards, gardens and vineyards, thanks to the presence of abundant superficial water. At the southern extremity of the village, near the church of Aghios Demetrios, is one of the island’s best preserved ancient towers, known as the Mavros Pyrgos, or ‘Black Tower’ because of the dark moss-green schist used for its construction, which occurs naturally in an outcrop to the tower’s east side. The tower is large in diameter (c. 11m) and stands to a height of nearly 6m, with 16 surviving parallel courses of constantly varying width, as well as areas of interlocking polygonal masonry. There are a number of refinements here: a protruding base (first two courses); beveled joints in the first seven courses, changing to flush joints above; an arched entrance (now half-filled with earth, and miss the key-stone) with striking chamfered borders to the arch and a decorative groove which echoes its curve. The overall impression is not of Hellenistic masonry, but of earlier work—perhaps of the mid-5th century bc.

The ancient towers of Siphnos

There are the remains of more ancient towers (55) on Siphnos than on any other island. One quarter of those known so far in the Aegean are on Siphnos: and Siphnos in terms of size is only 30th among the islands. It is significant that the island which has the next largest concentration, Thasos (33 towers), was also known for its mining of precious metals in Antiquity. The evidence points clearly to the fact that fortified towers played an important role in guarding the mines and in temporarily storing the ore which, because of its value, needed special protection. Looking at the visible evidence of the dispositions for bolts on the door of the ‘White Tower’ above Platis Gialos, it is clear that some of the towers functioned as ‘safe boxes’. In an age before banks and their vaults, there was a very real problem of safeguarding the island’s accumulated wealth before it was coined, bartered or shipped elsewhere. The lesson of the story told by Herodotus (see above pp. 149–150) of the Samians who arrived in 525 or 524 bc and extorted 100 talents of silver from the islanders, meant that protection became a matter of particular urgency: and the first and finest towers on the island were constructed in the immediate aftermath of that event, probably at communal expense. Nicholas Ashton in his definitive study of the towers (see ‘Further Reading’) notes that, probably in a second phase which lasted right through the 5th century bc, the state built up a network of intercommunicating watchtowers around the island which was designed to provide an early-warning system in case of attack. This accounts for between a dozen and 20 towers at the most: the remaining 30 or more towers, built later, are harder to account for, especially since mining activity was clearly declining in that period. The production of ore did not stop over night, however, and the wealth it still brought to the island’s small population of citizens could well have been something that laid them particularly open to raids and pirate attacks. A number of the 4th century bc towers which are built not on vantage-points but in centres of population and agricultural activity, may simply have been places of refuge, easily accessible for the local population when attack seemed imminent. Finally, the economic changes which came in the Hellenistic era favoured the emergence of large land-owners. Siphnos was a fertile island, with good soil and water by comparison with its neighbours: its land-owners may have followed in the long tradition of tower-building on the island, and built towers at their own expense which surveyed their lands and could be used as storage spaces for produce and machinery, such as olive presses. In short, there are several different types of tower, responding to different needs in different periods of the island’s history.
   The towers are round because they begin as defensive buildings, and round structures have notable ad vantages over rectangular ones in terms of strength and impregnability. The stairs visible inside the better preserved towers point to their having often had two or more floors; some had water cisterns in their base; all had well-designed doorways for accommodating robust doors with bolts. What is intriguing for the visitor is the variety of refinements in such apparently homogeneous buildings: different designs of masonry, sometimes interlocking, sometimes isodomic, sometimes beveled, sometimes flush, but always meticulously drafted and set; there are different finishings to the blocks, and different materials even, varying from the dark green schist of the ‘Black Tower’ in Exambela, to the clear—probably Parian—marble of the ‘White Tower’ at Platis Gialos. Some have defined bases; some have insets; some have arched doorways with framing grooves whose purpose is nothing more than embellishment. When they survive to an appreciable height, the towers are always majestic and they appeal through the simple beauty of their craftsmanship.

Exambela ends some distance before the main road crosses the steep valley of the Erkies Torrent, which is lined with terraces of olives, dovecotes and chapels, as it runs down to Seralia Bay below Kastro. To the right beyond the bridge, the monastery of the Panaghia Vrysis or Vrysiani­ (2.3km) is visible up a flight of steps from the road on the edge of an area of ruined houses which was once a dependent agricultural community. The monastery, as its name—‘of the fountain’—implies, was founded beside one of the island’s strongest springs: it was built in the mid-17th century thanks to the endowment of a Logothete (a high-ranking official) named Benjamin. The catholicon, dedicated to the Nativity of the Virgin, is of classic 17th century inscribed-cross form: it has been recently renovated and, as a consequence, a little denatured. Two floors of cells, and the refectory and kitchens surround it in a tight fortified space: there is a small exhibition room of ecclesiastical objects, reliquaries, vestments and manuscripts. The delight of the building is its long * entranceway—a deep, finely-proportioned gallery whose length is rhythmically broken by a series of graceful tapered arches which spring from semi-embedded columns and capitals. The ceiling is raftered with cypress and the floor laid with pale flagstones. It is an architectural space of great beauty and dignity.
   After Vrysiani­, the road divides by the electricity-generating station (2.7km):
* The left (eastern) branch descends to Pharos (7km), small fishing village whose original heart was the low protuberance of rock in the middle of two sweeps of sandy bay at the head of a protected inlet. It possibly takes its name from the ancient tower which once stood here, a small part of whose base is just visible protruding beneath the corner of the house at the western end of the eastern beach, about 5m in from the shore, to the side of the stepped path. The tower—unique for being built at shore-level—makes no sense as an ancient ‘pharos’ or lighthouse because of its location, but must have been a valuable defence for the harbour which was used for shipping the gold and silver that was mined at locations not far inland of here. To the south of Pharos is the sandy, tamarisk shaded bay of Fasolou, which is ideal for swimming.

* The (main) right branch of the road after Vrysiani­, continues south and at 5km branches right for the monastery of the Panaghia tou Vounou (5.7km) (open daily in summer, 11–2), a 19th century foundation built in the customary fortified manner with machicolations above the door, on the spur of a hill overlooking the bay of Platis Gialos. In the catholicon, which enshrines a miraculous icon, are ancient columns. The much wider vantage point of the spur to its south east is occupied by the island’s earliest and most magnificent ancient tower, the Aspros Pyrgos or ‘White Tower(reached by a track left from the main road at 6.8km). This was a multi-purpose tower and has many interesting features still visible in situ.

Given the vicinity of ancient (?)gold and silver mine galleries immediately to the south and east, the tower’s primary function was protection and safe-storage: the position also affords a wide-sweeping view of the area’s coasts and harbours, giving the structure value also as a watchtower. It has an uninterrupted sightline to the acropolis of Aghios Andreas. The dimensions are large; the diameter exceeds 13m. Both the material and the method of construction with large regular and trapezoidal blocks, suggest a date around 500 bc for the tower. The clear white marble, which rendered the tower more visible and useful as a landmark to mariners, does not appear to be the native stone and may have had to have been brought from Paros (this applies especially to the high-quality, white marble used for the doorway).
   The construction has many refinements and unusual features: the drafting and chiseling of the blocks of the outer face; an inner lining in smaller stones; a corbelled staircase, with ten steps still surviving, in the interior; a substantial cistern recessed beneath the floor. A carefully crafted stone olive-press block, with channels for the liquid, and other pieces clearly related to mechanical machinery, suggest an agricultural use for the tower, perhaps in a later (Hellenistic) phase. In fact the inner walls, which divide the interior into three areas could possibly be a later addition, though still antique. Of particular note is the doorway on the south east side, which has been cut and shaped for the fitting and locking of the door: it conserves on the inside two large, protruding, vertical stone rings, integral with the wall, to hold a transom for blocking the door. The curved walls of the interior must have meant that the ‘travel’ distance of the transom was limited, however, suggesting that it was prob ably made of metal.

From just before the White Tower (6.8km), a branch road to left (east) crosses the ridge and descends to the shore with good views of the picturesque monastery of the Panaghia Chrysopigi­, beautifully situated on a tongue of rock protruding from the shore. The monastery was a 17th century foundation; the buildings, constructed in local schist and added to in the mid-18th century, have been considerably renovated and are perhaps most beautiful when seen as a group from the hill above. What can not be seen from a distance, however, is that the rocks on which the church sits are in fact sundered from the shore by a narrow fault, 2m wide—a miraculous cleft wrought by the Virgin Mary, no less, who created it in an instant to separate some pious ladies from the pirates who pursued them. Beyond the church to the east, is an esplanade with a baptismal font at its extremity, facing into the sunrise over distant Paros and Naxos .
   Panaghia Chrysopigi divides the bay in two: the delightful sand beach of Apokofto to the north, and the rockier cove of Saoures to south. A path leads north along the shore to Pharos (1km) and subsequently to Fasolou: these are the island’s most attractive beaches. The path passes below the hill of Aghios Ioannis where there are more ancient silver (and possibly gold) mining galleries. The hill is marked by another late 6th or early 5th century ancient tower. James Theodore Bent thought he saw, in the terraces and walls round this tower, the ruins of Ancient Minoa.
   The main road from Apolloni­a ends at the long strand of Platis Gialos (8.5km) which is the island’s most developed tourist resort. As early as 1896, a prehistoric cemetery was explored here at Akrotiraki, on the west side of the bay. Beyond are scenic walks south to the tip of the island and to the sheltered cove of Fikiada Bay (90 minutes).
   Visible from the road to Platis Gialos and from the coastal walks, is the uninhabited island of Kitriani­ which is separated from the main island by a channel of c. 400m (excursions are sometimes offered from Kamares, not from Platis Gialos, in the summer). Evidence that this channel was an important maritime passage comes from the two ancient shipwrecks from the Hellenistic period which have so far been located in the immediate area. It is no surprise, therefore, to find vestiges also of yet another circular ancient watchtower on the hill to the east of the church, which marked the channel and would have communicated with the towers on the main island. A far more ancient presence on the island is attested by localised finds of worked and discarded obsidian. The beautiful Byzantine domed chapel of the Panaghia Kitriani­, or ‘Kypriani­’, may date from as early as the 11th century, making it one of Siphnos’s oldest surviving churches. The presence of earlier spolia in its vicinity and its structure suggests that there may have been an Early Christian church, and possibly a pagan shrine, on this same site.

Siphnos or Siphnos Island is part of the Cyclades Island Group, Greece.

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