The steep and dramatic site of * Skyros Chora and its acropolis is a gift of nature for any settlers seeking a safe refuge for their dwellings which could be easily defended. The fame of its form had even reached Homer who refers to it in the Iliad (IX, 666-668) as ‘αἰπύς’ (steep).The pal ace of Lycomedes, where Achilles was hidden, must have been here, for whoever was ‘king’ of this castle was lord of the island of Skyros, and whoever was lord of Skyros chose this place to be the expression of that dominance. When the 9th century bishop of Skyros, 2,000 years after Lycomedes, sat enthroned in the middle of his clerics at the centre of the synthronon in the church of the Episkopi on the very same spot, he was making his power and supremacy similarly clear to his flock.
The busy town below the acropolis is so hidden from the seaward side and from the view of passing pirates, that you could sail up and down the east coast of the is land and hardly know that it existed. Before the few houses and buildings which have been erected in the last 100 years appeared on the eastern slope, there was nothing to give away the presence of the Chora. For much of the history of the Aegean, coastal communities have been so constantly a prey to piracy and the power of princes or prelates so vulnerable to attack and contestation, that it was of the utmost importance to build on sites as hidden and as impregnable as this.
In addition to its natural defences, the acropolis was heavily fortified and re-fortified in different epochs. Most visible today are the mid-13th century Frankish fortifications (restored in 1354 by Giovanni Sanudo, Duke of Naxos ) at the summit, compactly constructed in irregular stone with no sharp angles in their course. Mainly at the south and seaward sides, but also at other points, it is clear that these early mediaeval fortifications are in turn built on top of the larger rectangular ashlar masonry of the ancient late 5th century bc walls. The most visible evidence of this enceinte is what remains of the gates and towers in the lower walls (which were repaired and rebuilt in the 4th century bc). These are visible on the east side of the acropolis, half way between the summit and the sea, and also at the north end below Plateia Brooke. They are massively yet precisely constructed and would have been a more effective deterrent than their later mediaeval counterparts.
A visit to the upper town of Skyros best begins at the slightly soulless esplanade known as Plateia Brooke, half way between Chora and the castle at the northern end of the acropolis hill, accessible by road from the coastal side or by foot from Chora. There is a good view from here over the coastal plain of Kambos, an area dense in archaeological finds from Archaic and Geometric times, which stretches from Magazia northwards and which must al ways have been the island’s food-basket. The sandstone quarries at Pouria are visible on the eastern point. The plateia is open and windswept and makes the nakedness of the bronze statue in memory of Rupert Brooke, which is the focus of the area, a little uncomfortable. Rupert Brooke was buried on Skyros after dying at sea during the First World War (see pp. 128–129). In reality this is not a statue of the poet but of the spirit of ‘Immortal Poetry’, erected in 1930 in memory of Brooke. It is the work of a notable sculptor from Andros, Michalis Tombros. It possesses the seriousness and academic qualities typical of Tombros: even though it is the depiction of a ‘spirit’, there is a certain ‘earthbound-ness’ to the piece, which is also characteristic of his works.
From here a stepped street leads up towards the sum mit. Approximately 50m up on the left, is the church of the Aghii Pende Martyres (The Five Holy Martyrs). Be fore the entrance door are ancient grave loculi, cut into the rock underfoot: there are more inside. This was the area of one of the ancient city’s cemeteries. The church, which probably dates from the 13th century, is tiny and preserves slightly damaged remains of paintings from a later century in its upper area and in the shallow dome. Further up the street, the main path to the centre of Chora leads off down to the right. The uphill path twists to the left, and after a further 20m, rises alongside the large church of the Panaghia, which stands to the left. This is the principal church of the upper Chora, with an ornate unpainted wooden iconostasis. On the exterior of the church’s south side, a wide decorated sandstone arch frames a window: it is 17th century work, depicting a fruit-vine which finishes in two scallop shells, and frames an eroded coat of arms in the centre. This elegant detail may have framed a water fountain here before the window was opened in the wall. A few metres to the south of the church of the Panaghia, and entered under the arch of a building, is the ancient church of Aghios Athanasios. A marble plaque by the entrance, placed by a certain (?Bishop) Theodoros, is of the 16th century, but the church is older. Its interior is simple, but contains a number of slender marble columns with early Byzantine capitals. There are the remains of wall-paintings, with some particularly well-preserved decorative passages with abstract designs.
On returning to the axial path leading up the hill, beside a small shaded plateia on the right, is the Skyrian Town House Museum of the Yalouris family. (Open daily, except Mon, in July and Aug, with erratic opening times outside the summer months.) This is a neatly pre served Skyrian dwelling, typical of houses in this part of the Chora, which are mostly earlier than the 19th century ones in the town below. It is only the size of these houses, and not the basic design, that changes with time.
THE SKYRIAN HOUSE
The Skyrian town house is based on a single (often small) volume, about as broad as it is high, and with a proportionately greater length—a 5 x 7m plan, with 3.5m height, would be typical. There is usually an ‘avli’, or small paved area, separating it from the street. The interior volume is divided vertically into two parts by an often ornately carved wooden partition called the ‘boulmes’. The front half of the house, entered from the street, which rises the whole height of the building is the reception area where hospitality to visitors is offered (‘spiti’, the Greek word for a house, is cognate with the Latin ‘ospitium’ and our word‘hospitality’). Located in this front portion is the conical fire-place and, displayed on wooden shelves so as to impress visitors, are every kind of ceramic, metal and glass object which a family might possess: most prized of all were any that came from over seas. The rear half of the house behind the partition screen is further divided horizontally into a kitchen area below and a sleeping area above. The former, the ‘apokrevatos’, will often have large storage jars occupying much of the space, sometimes half-interred for greater refrigeration. The sleeping area above, which in winter benefits from the warmth generated in the kitchen and the fireplace below and is reached by a steep and sometimes ornate staircase or ladder from the front room, is called the ‘sofas’—from the word for the low couches on which the whole family would sleep. Some privacy from below was afforded by a low, carved parapet about 20–30cm high.
The roofs of the houses had an insulation that maintained warmth in winter and cool in summer: above a dense raftering in bound canes support ed by wooden cross-beams was an insulating layer comprising much finer canes with leaves and young branches, and a 10–15cm layer of dried seaweed. This was bound and sealed by a dark, clayey earth called ‘melangi’, which is impermeable and dries like a cement. The roof has a low parapet all round and is slightly pitched to allow water to drain into a down pipe and be stored in cisterns to provide for the dry months of the year. The houses possessed few, or even no, windows. In such cases there is normally a double-door onto the outside—a main door and an external ‘xoporto’, which was only half its height, and had a carved face and top. This, if used when the main door was open, allowed a modicum of privacy from the street, without blocking the passage of light and air from outside. Even though they possess notable thermal qualities for the extreme temperatures of the year, these are houses made for a predominantly outdoor life-style and for a kind of society whose doors are, to this day, hardly ever closed.
Shortly beyond the Yalouris House, the street doubles back on itself. Opposite you as you climb up is the interesting 14th century church of the Aghia Triada (Holy Trinity). In front of it stand two antique columns—one in Euboean cipollino marble with sweeping striations; into the bell tower above have been set two Ottoman 16th century Iznik tiles. (If locked, the key is held in a house to the left: lower door at no. 93.) The interior is a simple dome on a square plan, with apse. Almost every surface is painted and decorated, although the condition of the murals is not good in places. There is a traditional iconological program to the layout: a Christ Pantocrator in the crown of the dome, surrounded by Seraphim and Arch angels; the four Evangelists in the pendentives, mediating between the circular heavens above and the square, earthly world below; and holy scenes from this world on the walls lower down. In front of the (much-repaired) wooden iconostasis, stand two Byzantine candlesticks, again in cipollino marble.
A short distance above Aghia Triada, to the left before the last right turn below the castle gate, the entrance-way of a house is paved entirely with Skyrian polychrome marble: this is at its most colourful when wet. (See ‘Skyrian Marble’, pp. 122-124.) The gate to the * Kastro stands at the top of the street, surmounted by a marble lion. Although placed by the Venetians during their 85 year presence here, this is not the customary Venetian winged lion of St Mark; it is probably an ancient fragment which served as a grave marker, and for this reason has no wings. (The Kastro was extensively damaged by an earth quake in 1999, and the area and its buildings endangered. It is currently closed, but entry to parts of the area can be arranged with the agreement of the pappas of the parish of St George, who resides at the Metropolitan Church of Aghios Giorgios, on the road north from the crossroads of Magazia, just before the Molos/Airport road junction.) Through the gate, you enter the tiny square below the monastery of St George (sometimes referred to here as ‘St George the Arab’ or ‘St George the Skyrian’), founded in 960 under the Emperor Nicephorus Phocas. Scattered around in this small space are many ancient and Early Christian stone fragments from the Kastro area. The monastery, which is built up against the rock to the left, is entered through a covered area at a lower level. Beside the steps leading to the church is a fresco of St George in which unusual pictorial emphasis is given to the damsel in her tower whom George is saving from the dragon. The fine interior of the catholicon (considerably dam aged and with most of its icons removed to safety) has a high dome supported on slender monolithic columns. There are extensive 16th century wall-paintings on the north wall (soldier saints, with scenes from the Life of Christ above) in strikingly rich colours. The finely carved wooden iconostasis is 18th century and incorporates some minute scenes—the Temptation, Sacrifice of Isaac, etc.—along the rail below the icons.
A long rising tunnel leads to a narrow staircase above a sheer drop giving onto the upper Kastro area. Directly in front of you is the large tri-apsidal east end of the church of the Episkopi, dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin, founded in 895 ad and once the seat as its name implies of the Bishop of Skyros. Ninth century churches of this magnitude are not common, and this one is 100 years older than the monastery of Megali Lavra on Mount Athos, to which it now belongs and depends. The building was originally domed and extended as far as the door thresholds visible to the west: the interior was painted as vestiges of murals in the window niches show. The central apse contains the synthronon, or tiered seating for the clergy, with the central throne for the bishop in the middle. Here he sat in state, just as his pagan predecessors had done be fore him on this same summit. Higher up the hill, the huge vaulted double-chambered structure which crowns the rise to the north is a magazine erected during the Venetian occupation of the Kastro between 1453 and 1538. Nothing remains to be seen of any ancient temple or palace on the site, although finds in the area—such as the large piece of architrave with a triglyph displayed in the courtyard of the Archaeological Museum—are evidence of their existence.
Skyros Island is part of the Sporades Island Group, Greece.