Thasos Island, Greece.
Yves Grandjean & François Salviat, Guide de Thasos (Paris/Athens 2000)—an exemplary account of the ancient city which will long remain unsuperseded.
Thasos Travel Guide
The east & south coasts of the island
(Limenas = 0.0 km for distances given in the text)
The road that leaves the centre of Limenas past the Gate of Silenus joins the ring road that by-passes the city to the south, on the eastern outskirts of the town. Just north of the junction (behind a service station) are the remains of another sanctuary of Demeter and Kore—situated once again well outside the ancient city walls, as was customary for a chthonic cult of this nature. What remains of the sanctuary is mostly the terracing, perfectly oriented to the cardinal points and well-paved in parts, with the base of a small shrine clearly visible.
Beyond this point the main road south rises swiftly in the space of two or three kilometres to the watershed on a forested spur of Mount Ipsarion (Ancient Hypsarion), whose massif (like an inverted ‘V’ on the map) forms the backbone of the island. From its depths rise numerous springs, especially on the eastern slopes. It has five peaks over 1,000m, of which the two highest are Prophitis Elias (1,109m) and Ipsarion (1,206m). There are several routes for climbing these peaks which afford magnificent panoramas towards Samothrace, Lemnos, Mount Athos, and into Thrace and Macedonia. Most convenient is the (signed) path which leaves from the north side of Potamia village and reaches the summit of Ipsarion in around three hours. The lower slopes of the mountain near the sea on the northeast coast have been extensively quarried both in Antiquity and today for a fine-grained dolomitic marble: it is a pure white stone, free of veins, and more widely used for sculpture than any other Greek marble with the exception of Parian and Naxiot marble.
A sequence of ancient ‘lighthouses’ or signalling points punctuated the eastern seaboard of Thasos . The sites of at least four of these have been located. The few remains of the first in the chain, nearest to Limenas, can be seen in the northeast corner of the promontory of Evraiokastro (see p. 50), north of the port; while a second, now reconstructed to a height of three courses of masonry, is above the promontory of Phanari, 1.7km southeast of Evraiokastro point (best reached by the path north from the resort of Makriammos on the coast, east of Limenas). The third at Pyrgos point (9km southeast of Evraiokastro) is the largest and most significant one (discussed below). The last of the series is on the south coast at Vathy, close to the monastery of Archangelos, just beyond the main marble quarries at Alyki. There may have been others which have since disappeared. Their presence is a measure not of the hazardousness of the coast (which by Aegean standards is relatively benign), but of the quantity of important marine traffic that used this route and the seriousness with which Thasos maintained its safety and security.
The most impressive relic of this communications line is the Late-Archaic lighthouse of Akeratos, built around 520 bc at the northeastern extremity of the Bay of Potamia: a spur of the headland descends southwards, and the tower is to be found there close to a small stand of pines, not far above the water. (Take the road past the Hotel Dionysos from Chrysi Amoudia, and follow the headland track to the point where it turns sharply up the northeast coast: a track to right leads a short distance from here through an olive grove and then finishes. At this point the tower is just visible below in the undergrowth. The last few hundred metres are without path and are particularly hard-going over rough terrain.) The tower is much over grown, but stands to a height of about 2m: its drum has a diameter of 5m and is composed of carefully cut ashlar, marble blocks. A dislodged block near the foot of the tower bears an inscription transcribed as follows: ‘I am the monument of Akeratos, son of Phrasierides. I am here at the mouth of the harbour to alert and protect ships and sailors. Greetings.’ Akeratos was a shipping-owner and prominent Thasian citizen, who had remarkably served as archon both in Thasos and in Paros. On the platform top of the tower a fire could be raised which was visible out to sea at night. The Greeks were no strangers to practical chemistry, and it is not unimaginable that they may have added elements to the conflagration to make it burn with a more intense glow, or a particular hue of light: metal reflectors could also have been used on occasions of particular urgency. Unlike the ‘monument of Cleoboulos’ at Lindos, whose position as a landmark at the entrance to a harbour is comparable with this, there appears never to have been a chamber inside this tower.
After the watershed the road swiftly descends to *Panaghia (6km), an attractive village set in the well-forested slopes of the mountain above the bay of Potamia. It was briefly capital of the island after 1838. Spring water runs in channels everywhere in the village—seemingly far more water than could ever have fallen in rain during the year. Panaghia has the feel of a village in the Dolomites. The local style of Macedonian architecture is at its best here: the houses have low, pyramidal roofs in irregular, schist tiles, deep eaves and projecting wooden balconies— a particularly attractive combination of textures, colours and volumes. Huge plane-trees dominate the centre of the village and the path up to the church of the Koimisis tis Theotokou, a large 19th century structure with an unexpectedly Baroque interior. Its size is an expression of the relative prosperity of the village 150 years ago. From a junction just north of the centre of the village, the road leads down into the bay at Chrysi Amoudia, a pleasant resort with a beautiful beach. Beside the road just inland from the shore is the small 18th century chapel of Aghia Paraskevi—undecorated, but with a purity of form and a charming setting. The path to the ancient lighthouse of Akeratos (see above) leaves from the northern extremity of Chrysi Amoudia.
The main road south beyond Panaghia offers wide views of the sea, towards the unmistakable cone of Phengari on Samothrace. After a little more than a kilometre is the village of Potamia, another settlement which has con served a good proportion of traditional houses. Potamia was the birthplace of a distinguished Greek emigre sculptor, Polygnotos Vagis (1892–1965) who worked for nearly all of his life in America. He left Thasos before his 20th birthday and only returned for the first time again when he was 71. On his death, two years later, many of his works returned to his birthplace according to his wishes and the *Polygnotos Vagis Museum was created in three rooms of the former village schoolhouse of Potamia. The museum is in the south of the village beside the western end of the main church. (Open Tues–Sat 9.30–12.30, 6–9; Sun 10–2.) A timeless simplicity is the greatest quality of Vagis’s works. He was a particularly private artist, eschewing the world of competitions, ‘movements’ and galleries; his relationship to his works was almost morbidly paternal. He worked first and foremost out of a passion for his material, allowing the natural stone itself to speak, in preference to any dominating elaboration of it by the artist. Although he did work in wood and in bronze, whenever possible he always returned to his beloved granites. Vagis liked to use large, stone ‘pebbles’; and much of the power of these works lies in his allowing the natural shape of the stone to suggest the figure or face he will coax out of it. The ellipse and the sphere are therefore the shapes that motivate him most. His art is tender and respectful of the material; there are no deep or gouging cuts—ever. The faces that result are haunting, wistful, and distant. Giorgio Di Chirico greatly admired his work.
The museum contains both original works and some (well-made) casts. The influence of ancient Greek sculpture is never far in the background in the heads (Portrait Head of a Woman and Sylvia) or in the reliefs (Poseidon) which he created; while other works, perhaps those most characteristic of his style, have the soft and hesitant quality of eroded death-masks (Revelation, Sleep, and the many variations of ‘Head’—all in granite). One display case contains small pieces of alabaster, quartz, and tiny ‘pebbles’ of agate and stone, minimally carved following the promptings of Nature. ‘I feel that I am freeing the stone… not subduing it’, he said. Owl (1963)—a perfect hieroglyph in sculpture of an owl’s head—so extraordinarily resembles the two eyes and nose carved in the marble block near the Gate of Parmenon in the walls of Thasos (see pp. 57–58) that it is hard to imagine that Vagis had not seen it.
On leaving Potamia in the direction of Skala, the first asphalt road to the right brings you after 1,200m to the modern church of Aghios Ioannis, beside some massive plane-trees: 500m further uphill is the delightful church of Aghios Demetrios, marked by a couple of large cy presses. The profile of its curvaceous, flowing roof and steep lantern has an Alpine feel, which is enhanced by the mountain behind and the rushing streams of water. Its plan is a curious fusion of tri-conch and square. A plaque commemorates a restoration of the building in 1849, but the construction of the church is probably a century earlier.
Beyond Potamia, the main road south crosses the alluvial plain behind the bay of Potamia and, after Skala, circles the foot of Mount Klissidi, a spur of the Ipsari on massif. It is this area—especially the southern slopes of the hill around Palaiochora—which was mined for gold in Antiquity. To Herodotus, in the 5th century bc, it seemed that the ‘whole mountain had been turned up side down by the search for gold’ (Histories VI. 47). Many of the tunnels and shafts have been filled deliberately by local farmers and shepherds so as to prevent accidents befalling their animals. Koinyra (19km) preserves its unusual, Phoenician name, supporting Herodotus’s claim that it was the Phoenicians who first came here to exploit the gold deposits.
As the road descends to the south coast again (at 27km) after cutting across the island’s southeast promontory of Cape Babouras, the small inlet of Aghios Ioannis is visible to the left below. Recent excavations behind the bay are beginning to uncover the presence of buildings from the prehistoric to Hellenistic periods, and the finding of sarcophagus lids suggests the existence of a small necropolis. The remains are in the early stages of exploration.
A short distance beyond (at 30km from Limenas) you come to the complex and fascinating site of *Alyki which comprises a pagan sanctuary, two Early Christian basilicas and extensive marble quarries, all in a setting of great beauty bordered by a couple of fine beaches. As you descend to the site you come to a row of low, stone, schist tiled houses behind the west beach: these were built in the early decades of the last century from blocks of older constructions found on the ancient site which lies beneath the whole isthmus area. They were mostly used by farmers for temporary lodging during the season of the olive harvest.
One of the unusual characteristics of this site is the double nature of all its elements: two mirror beaches on either side of the isthmus, and two roadsteads; two identical ancient, sacred buildings side by side; two similar Christian basilicas, side by side; two natural caves used for cult.
The steep promontory attached by the isthmus is in fact a small mountain of a pure white marble. The settlers from Paros who came to Thasos in the 7th century bc knew a little about marble and its exploitation, because their native island produced then—and still produces now—the best sculptural marble in Greece. They soon recognised the potential of this small headland, began to quarry it, established a working community on the isthmus itself, with its two opposite harbours (one of which was always protected from the wind) and founded a cult to the principal divinity whom they had brought with them from the Cyclades, namely Apollo. The two grottos in the northwest corner of the promontory (one, contiguous with the sacred buildings beside the shore; the other about 25m southeast, up the slope above) appear to be connected with the cult of Apollo from as early as the 7th century bc; this is confirmed by votive offerings found inside, as well as by a fragment of a much later, 3rd century bc inscription to the god.
The pagan sanctuary
We cannot assume, however, that the two curious *sacred buildings (excavated by the shore at the southern end of the eastern bay) are connected to this cult of Apollo. First, their plan is not that of a normal temple; furthermore, there are two of them (virtually identical). Lastly, there are a number of interesting features in them which would seem to imply that they were connected with something quite different. The preliminary terracing of the area, its protection with a breakwater, and the first cult buildings here all date from the end of the 6th century bc; but the remains we see now date from a re-organisation of the site around 470 bc. What we find are two almost square buildings, of slightly different size but of identical plan, side by side, each with a colonnaded portico on its west front. The porticos open into two separate rooms behind, in each case: one larger room (perhaps for ritual banqueting) with a central, stone-bordered hearth for a fire on the left; and one smaller (?treasury) room to the right. The quality of the stonework is excellent throughout; the columns were fluted in the north building, but appear to have been left plain—or were still awaiting fluting—in the south building. The fine torso of an Archaic Kouros (now in Istanbul) was excavated here. Our greatest clue to the nature of these buildings perhaps lies in the many votive inscriptions and graffiti carved on blocks (such as that standing in the middle of the portico of the north building) and on the steps in front: these are mostly invocations of good for tune and safe-sailing for sailors and their ships, the names of which are sometimes cited: the ‘Heracles’, the ‘Thessalian’, the ‘Artemis’ etc. In one case, however, the votive lines invoke the ‘Two Saviours’—namely the Dioscouri (Castor and Polydeuces). These divine twins were the helping protectors of mariners while at sea. The twin nature of these two buildings; their proximity to the shore; their design, which would appear to accommodate the ritual banquets or theoxenia (‘god-hospitality’) which was a principal element of the cult of the Dioscouri, involving tables laid by a sacred hearth to which the divine twins were invited—all this would seem to suggest that these two buildings should be connected to the cult of these two beneficent ‘saviours’ of pagan Antiquity.
Thasos Island is part of the Northern Aegean Island Group, Greece.