1. Name – Natural world – Environment
Astypalaia, otherwise known as Astropalia, Astoupalia or Stambalia, is the westernmost island of the Dodecanese Prefecture and is located between the Cyclades and the Dodecanese.
Astypalaia, whose name in ancient Greek means “old town”, was according to mythology the daughter of Phoenix and Perimidi and sister of Europa. During antiquity it was known as “ichtheoessa” due to the abundance of fish from its sea, while it was also referred to as the “bank of the Gods”, for the abundance of its produces. Its characterization by Archimedes as enemy of the snakes refers to the absence of snakes on the island. The more recent name of Astropalia is, most probably a corruption of the ancient, although it has, at times, been connected to – probably etymologically wrong – interpretations which refer to the brightness of its starlit sky on clear nights.
Astypalaia is divided into two sections, the Inner and Outer Island, interconnected by a narrow strip of land. The western part is higher (482 metres). The island’s population is divided into four settlements: Astypalaia (Chora), Analipsi, Livadia and Vathi. The largest percentage of population is located in the village with the same name, built amphitheatrically on a rock. The houses begin at the port, Pera Gialos, and reach up to the castle which stands on top, built of dark local stone and from which the white domes of the churches of the Evangelistria and Aghios Georgios rise.
A dry and waterless island, Astypalaia is 97,8% covered by hardy bushes used for gazing animals and apiculture. Over the last decades new types of financial activity have emerged, as a result of the island’s touristic development.
The island was first inhabited during the prehistoric years, as testified by findings from the Cycladic settlements at Archavali, but also from later ones from the Mycenaean locations of Armenochori and Sygkairos. Amongst its inhabitants are mentioned Minoans and Karians, while during the Historic years it was colonized by settlers from Megara and Argos. During antiquity the island boasted a rich and important fleet and was an important naval centre. The growth of commerce is connected to its key geographic location along the commercial sea routes connecting the two sides of the Aegean.
Astypalaia was a member of the 1st Athenian Alliance (454 – 424 BC). It had a Parliament and elected Council of Elders, a Prytaneum, Stoa, Agora and sanctuaries dedicated to the worship of Zeus, Asklipeios, Athena, Poseidon, Artemis and Dionysus, as well as the two Olympic Game winners Oneisikritos and Kleomides. During the Hellenistic period it was a port-stop for the Ptolemys and Egypt. It developed great marine activities and had a reputation for an abundance of agricultural products, something which comes into contrast with today’s uncultivated picture of the island. During the Roman period it was used by them as a base for their operations against the pirates of the Aegean.
In 1207, three years after the Fall of Constantinople by the Franks during the 4th Crusade, the duke of Naxos Markos Sanoudos surrendered the island to the Venetian aristocrat Giovanni Querini. The Querini family kept Astypalaia until 1522 at which time the island fell under Ottoman domination. During this time, Astypalaia, like many islands of the Aegean, enjoyed privileges handed down by the ottomans, according to which it developed a degree of communal autonomy.
In 1830, according to the protocol of London, Astypalaia was not included in the dominion of the newly formed Greek State, but remained under Ottoman rule. Over the next century it followed the historical course of the rest of the Dodecanese. In 1912 it passed to the Italians, in 1945-1947 it found itself briefly under British rule and finally, in 1948, it was unified with Greece.
3. Archaeological sites and monuments
Traces of Cycladic settlements exist at Archavli, where vessels, pots, traces of fire and lamps have been found, while remnants of a Minoan settlement and ruins of a Tower dominate the entrance of Vathi bay.
The remains of an early Christian Basilica (5th century), with noteworthy mosaics existed at Maltezana. The chapel of Aghia Varvara with an Ionic capital in its lintel was built on this site.
At the peak of the slope on which the Chora is built, is the castle of the Querini, a noteworthy example of an insular fortified settlement. Within the ruined castle are two churches. The oldest is the church of Aghios Georgios with a wood-carved icon stand. At the castle’s entrance is the church of the Panagia Portaitissa or Panagia tou Kastrou (Evaggelistria), built by Hosios Anthimos in the mid 18th century. It has a wood-carved icon stand, covered in thin gold leaf, unique of its type and a sculpted two-headed eagle on the floor. A small collection of old icons is housed next to the church of the Panagia.
The Monastery of Panagia Flevariotissa in the Chora is built in a depression of the slope. It is a very ancient site of worship as testified by architectural elements in the courtyard.
An important archaeological collection containing funerary steles, podiums, reliefs and capitals is housed in the Narkisseios Municipal Library.
(Transl. Klio Panourgias)
4. The castle of Astypalaia
The Castle of Astypalea lies at the top of a hill overlooking the island’s port, located between two protected coves, and follows its outline. It is thought likely that an ancient acropolis existed on the same rocky rise. The narrow and elongated flat area which is formed inside the Castle is where the island’s medieval settlement developed. The maximal dimensions of this natural formation are approximately 120 Χ 45 m.
In early 15th century the until then desolate and uninhabited island was settled and fortified by Giovanni IV-Zannaki Querini, the commander of Tinos and Mykonos. A stone incorporated in the remnants of a fortification tower bears the Castle’s foundation inscription, which mentions the name of Giovanni Querini and carries the date 1413 as well as the coat of arms of this Venetian family. This castle was built with ancient material in secondary use, it had a cistern, and was probably the inhabitants’ last resort in case of a siege, or was used the ruler’s residence. A church devoted to the Virgin Mary was built around the mid-19th century on the castle’s site.
The monument can be accessed via a gate situated at the western end of the SW side, through a low passageway covered by three groined vaults. The Castle’s enceinte is, in fact, composed by the contiguous outer walls of the settlement's residences, which were arranged perimetrically, on the fringes of the hillock. Their continuous, uninterrupted outer walls formed the perimetric defensive ring. This is one of the so-called xokastra (i.e. ‘outer castle’). The space inside the fortified area was taken up by the kastrina (i.e. ‘of the castle’s’), densely built residences which allowed minimal traffic space. Among the other residences notable is another castle-like building at the south end of the Castle, known as sarai as well as the so-called “Doctor’s house”.
Central to the life of the medieval settlement was the square, a place of public gatherings, the so-called ‘Blatsa’, which was probably situated around the outer narthex of the Aghios Georgios church. Of the network of narrow lanes which criss-crossed the settlement very few parts have been identified.
The majority of the Castle’s residences collapsed during the 1956 earthquake, which led to the complete desertion of the settlement, approximately after 500 years of use.
(Transl. Nikolaos Koutras)
5. Archaeological Museum
The Astypalaia Archaeological Museum was inaugurated in September 1998 and is housed in a ground floor room granted to the Ministry of Culture by the Ecclesiastical Charity Fund of Astypalaia.
The museum’s exhibits were organized between 1995 and 1996 and over subsequent years the museum was improved and enriched with suitable supervisory equipment and a specialized audiovisual program.
The exhibited finds cover a chronologically broad period from the prehistoric era up to the medieval period. Of particular interest are the pottery vessels, bronze and stone jewelry and tools from the Mycenaean period found at the Armenochori and Sygkairos locations.
6. Traditional architecture
During Venetian rule, the castle’s walls were formed by its outermost houses, the xokastra, which are also the oldest. Gradually, the island’s inhabitants, fearing pirate incursions, also built within the castle which, throughout the first half of the 18th century was dense with houses, almost all of which had three storeys and were single-roomed. During the period 1830-1870, the entire area around the Castle was built on, while from the beginning to the mid 20th century the Castle was abandoned by its inhabitants and the town moved down towards Gialos. The path which joins the hill with the port began to develop and houses were built along it, creating a new part of town which was completed by 1947. Eight neighbourhoods were created outside the Castle: Portaitissa, Asvestoti, Karai, Palos, Megali Panagia, Stavros, Papadaki and Pera Gialos.
The folk house of Astypalaia, like that in the rest of the Dodecanese, looks like its Cycladic equivalent. Common characteristics are the simplicity of the ground plan, resulting from a simple organization of space, economy of space and the cubist shape which defines it externally.
The single house of Astypalaia, the first type of folk housing, as seen in the Castle and later spread to the rest of the settlement, consist of a single, rectangular room which looks onto the street, with a door and a small window.
The cellar (katoi), which was used for housework and storage, connected to the upper floor (anoi), which was initially formed by a single large room, via an external stone or wooden staircase with a latticed railing. The whitewashed or vividly coloured houses are framed by wooden balconies, sun-porches and lintels of Venetian influence.
Notable is the lack of mansion houses, due perhaps to the lack of important social differences amongst the inhabitants.
The further development of housing coincides with the shift in the island’s economy and the relative prosperity brought by tourism.
7. Folk culture
Particular emphasis is placed on the interior decoration of the astypalaian house which is expressed through architecture, sculpture, weaving, embroidery, pottery and, especially, wood carving.
The wood carving of Astypalaia is particularly notable. It can be best observed in the door and window frames and ceilings which are artfully decorated in innovative designs. It’s most artful expression, however, is the wonderful wooden decoration of the bed, with its krintzoles, a unique example of local folk architecture, and the famous carved chests.
Frames and other decorative elements of neoclassical or even Italian origin – after 1920 – are created on the plastered surface of the walls which are often coloured.
Astypalaia is famous for its many and distinguished traditional musicians. Folk musicians, mainly violinists and lute-players, accompanied and continue to accompany the island’s celebrations of the cycle of time and life with their music.
Today, the music school of Astypalaia has been named Niketas Kastrinos Music School of Astypalaia, in memory of the island’s famous traditional violinist.
(Transl. Klio Panourgias)