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The ancient marble quarries
The eastern border of the headland, stretching from the basilicas to the southern point, is one huge *ancient quarry of fine, white, crystalline marble. Alyki’s marble is slightly less compact than the dolomitic white marble which was quarried in the north of the island and was generally preferred for sculpture; the marble here can sometimes tend towards an off-white or a very pale grey in colour, and as a consequence it was used more for building and decoration. When Seneca mockingly observes the fashion for using Thasian marble to line swimming-pools and baths in houses around Rome (Epistulae LXXXVI), it is the stone from here to which he is referring.
It is worth persevering—up and down over artificial mounds of accumulated marble debris—to the southern tip of the promontory. The strange and unworldly landscape is testimony to the fact that 200m of the headland have simply vanished and been shipped away in craft to all points of the Greek world and, above all, to Ancient Rome to satisfy her latterly insatiable appetite for fine materials. Over a period of 1,200 years from shortly after 600 bc to after 600 ad, a quantity perhaps approaching one quarter of a million cubic metres of marble have been quarried here. The hill has been cut down to water level, leaving a low barrier of rock at the southern tip to act as breakwater: around the perimeter, loading bays and moorings for the barges are visible at certain points, as are carved slots for the fixing of winching machinery and pulleys. The surface of the whole area is covered with evidence of the stone-cutters’ tools—the striations of the pick and chisel, and the regular perforations of the running drill holes. Only a few column drums and bases have somehow been left behind by accident, everything else has been loaded and shipped. The sea scarcely floods the area and salt easily forms by evaporation of the sea water: the name ‘Alyki’ (related to ‘als’, meaning ‘salt’) probably derives from this.
At Schidia (31km), 1km further west after Alyki, are the ruined remains of a large rectangular tower and ancient farm to the left of the road—further confirming the sense that this protected southern coast of the island saw a ferment of activity and production in ancient times. After a further 1.5km, a track leads 500m uphill to the largest of the preserved Hellenistic towers on the island, just above Thymonia Bay. This is an impressively wide construction, erected at the beginning of the 4th century bc, in carefully alternating bands of thicker and thinner ashlar masonry. It has a diameter of 15m and stands to a height of over 2m. Its purpose will probably have been manifold: protection and supervision of the quarries along this coast; signalling and look-out tower; and garrison post for a small military detachment, all in one.
At 35km, on a rocky and waterless slope, perched above the sheerest point of the cliff is the monastery of the Archangelos. The original foundation, which was a dependency of the Philotheou Monastery on Mount Athos, was built in the 13th century over a tiny spring and dedicated to the Archangel Michael. Churches near to the sea with dedications to St Michael (an important protector of mariners) often evolve over the site of pre existing shrines to Poseidon, and it is not impossible that this may be the case here. The existing catholicon at the centre of the complex—whose tiny form seems almost overwhelmed by the modern monastery buildings—was rebuilt from a state of abandonment in 1834. There is now a living community of nuns, and it is possible to hear the offices chanted with particular beauty here.
Thasos Island is part of the Northern Aegean Island Group, Greece.