1. Settings - Environment
“Blastery Karpathos”, as it’s called in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, is located in the tempestuous Carpathian Sea, between Rhodes and Crete. It is the second largest island of the Dodecanese after Rhodes. A 100 m wide channel called Diaplous or Steno separates the uninhabited now island of Saria, the natural continuation of Karpathos.
Save its southernmost part, Karpathos is a mountainous island with deep gorges, cultivable valleys, steep rocky shores, picturesque beaches and several forest areas, despite the great 1982 and 1990 blazes. At 1215 m, Kali Limni of the mountain chain of Lastos is its highest peak. The largest port is at Pigadia, whereas another one was also built in 1922 at northern Karpathos, at Diafani. Up to then, boats were used for disembarkation.
Because of pirate predations scourging the island for centuries, most villages developed in the hinterland, away from the sea. One of the largest and richest ones is Aperi, the old capital of the island and see of the Karpathos-Kasos diocese up to now. North Karpathos is a separate geographical and cultural unity. Olympos is its sole community and Diafani is its port.
Formerly, Karpathos used to be self-sufficient in agricultural and farming products. Nowadays, most crops are olive trees, a few vines and fruits mostly for domestic consumption. The majority of residents occupy themselves with tourism and the relevant jobs, whereas many Karpathians are emigrants in the U.S.A. or live in Athens and Piraeus. All of them are closely connected with the island though.
2. 1. Prehistoric Times – Antiquity
The oldest traces of habitation date from the Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age (4000-3000 B.C.). In 1700-1500, the Minoan Civilization also spread to the island, with Pigadia being the chief settlement. Within the area of Agiartis, at the southern part of Karpathos, recent excavations have uncovered two Minoan domanial villas. From the 14th century up to the early 13th century B.C., the Minoans were succeeded by the Mycenaeans. Remnants of the Mycenaean civilization intensively influenced by the Minoan tradition have been traced all over the island. The excavation at Pigadia recently uncovered a workshop with two pottery kilns, whereas a hewn chamber tomb with numerous vessels had been previously found. There was also a Mycenaean center at Arkasa, with an acropolis on Paliokastro hill and a necropolis at Vonies.
In the early 1st millennium, Dorians settled on Karpathos. The island’s cities during historical times were Karpathos, Arkasia and Vrikous. 1st century geographer Strabo referred to a fourth city called Nisyros, which has been doubted, even though many researchers think it was located at Palatia of Saria. At the 5th century B.C., the three cities joined the 1st Athenian League, along with autonomous communities of Saros (on the island of Saria) and the Eteokarpathians, descendants of the native pre-Dorian population. In 408 B.C., after the confederate Rhodian state was founded, they were integrated as municipalities, following a common historical course ever since. From Hellenistic times on, Potidaion or Poseidion –modern Pigadia– turned into a chief center.
Roman and mostly paleochristianic times (5th-6th century B.C.) were a period of growth for Karpathos, as demonstrated by the 20 known paleochristianic basilicas and the settlements that turned into seaside locations after Later Roman Times.
2. 2. Byzantine Period – Later Times
Arabic incursions during the 7th century, as well as later ones in the 9th and 10th century, following conquest of Crete in 824 by the Arabs, marked a difficult and shadowy era for the island. After Nikephoros Phokas liberated Crete in 961, peace was reestablished in the Aegean. According to 11th century historian Michail Attaliatis, Karpathian ships showed Nikephoros Phokas the way to Crete.
After the Franks conquered Constantinople in 1204, noble lord Leon Gavalas declared himself lord of Rhodes, Kos, Kalymnos, Leros and Karpathos. First him, and then his brother Ioannis, held the island under their suzerainty up to 1255/6. From 1282 up to 1306, Karapathos was ruled by Genoese brothers Andrea and Ludovico Maresco, and in 1306 by Venetian lord of Crete Andrea Cornaro. After the Maresco family failed to recover the island and the short rule of the Knights Hospitaller of Rhodes (1313-1317), the Cornaro family recovered the island in 1316. They ruled up to 1538, when the Ottoman fleet with infamous pirate Hayreddin Barbarossa took it over.
During the Ottoman Rule, it enjoyed privileges granted by the Sublime Porte, as it was self-governed with elders and proestoi, whereas the Ottoman authorities only collected taxes. During the 1821 Revolution against the Ottomans, Karpathians’ participated actively financing the revolution. In 1828, the island was integrated into the Greek state, only to return to the Ottoman Empire, as the rest of the Dodecanese.
In 1912, the Italians took the Dodecanese over. Their seemingly temporary rule became harsher after fascism ruled over Italy (1922), whereas from 1937 on teaching the Greek language was prohibited. A German garrison was soon established on Karpathos during World War II because of its proximity to Crete, and because of the British-American embargo, food supplies were inadequate. After the Germans were defeated and left the island, Karpathians –with residents of Meneti leading the way– disarmed the Italian garrison, which was ruling the island once more, on October 5th 1944. They were the first amongst other Dodecanesians to declare the integration into mother Greece. On March 7th 1947, the island was integrated into the Greek state, as the rest of the Dodecanese, after a short rule by Great Britain.
3. Archaeological sites and monuments
3. 1. Pigadia
On the acropolis of ancient Potidaion, just above the port, there are extant retaining walls dating from Hellenistic Times. At Myli, on the outskirts of Pigadia, there is a monumental hewn chamber tomb with a pediment. At Istia and Vathypotamos there are two country sanctuaries. The three aisled paleochristianic basilica of Afoti has been uncovered at the beginning of the road leading to Aperi.
3. 2. Menetes
At Kouri, impressive are two sarcophagi-like graves probably dating from Roman Times.
3. 3. Arkasa
At Paliokastro cape, where the acropolis of ancient Arkasia used to be situated, there are some Hellenistic retaining walls with cyclopean and polygonal masonry. At the foot of the hill, excavations of the Italian Rule period have uncovered the paleochristianic basilica of Aghia Anastasia with in citu mosaic floors, as well as the basilica of presbyter Eucharistos to the southeast. At Eksiles, between Arkasa and Menetes, there is the church of Aghios Mamas with a distinctive conical dome and frescoes dating from 1300.
3. 4. Lefkos
In 1968, a paleochristianic basilica with its apse in the sea was uncovered at the beach of Lefkos. Just a little to the north, at the gulf of Fragolimionas, there are remains of a paleochristianic bath. Behind the chancel of Panagia i Gyalochorafitisa, there is the apse of another church. Fragments of 14th century frescoes have been preserved at the second church. At Ria of Lefkos, there is an underground Roman cistern with a central hypostyle room and galleries. At Pelekito, there is an ancient quarry, inside of which rooms and a cistern had been built, probably during Roman Times. At Rizes, to the north, there are some ancient walls, buildings and a hewn circular cistern. Near the crossroad of the roads leading to the beach of Lefkos and Mesochori, there is the rare five-domed two-conch church of Aghios Georghios, adorned with two layers of frescoes, the oldest of which dates approximately from 1300. On a bulge, just above the church, there is a Hellenistic fortress with a tower with ashlaring and underground cisterns.
3. 5. Sokastro
On Sokastro islet, opposite of Lefkos, there are many ruins of a mediaeval settlement with vaulted buildings and fortifications. It is thought to have been a replenishment station for the Byzantine fleet.
3. 6. Aperi
On Koraki hill, probably the acropolis of ancient Karpathos, there are extensive ruins of a castle dating from the times of the Cornaro family. At beautiful Pini, near Volada, there might have been a country sanctuary of Apollo, as concluded by an inscription (Δωρικόν ψήφισμα, meaning Dorian voting) found in the area. In the lowlands to the east of Aperi, fragments of probably 14th century frescoes have been preserved at the church of Aghios Georghios o Arapis, whereas to the northwest there is the half - torn down church of Aghii Theodori (Ai Thoris) with two layers of frescoes, the oldest of which dates from the 13th century.
3. 7. Apella
On the dirt road leading to the picturesque beach is the cavernous church of Aghios Loukas decorated with frescoes dating from the second half of the 13th century.
3. 8. Spoa
At the north end of the beach of Aghios Nikolaos, there are walls of some height of the paleochristianic basilica of the Eftapatousa, as well as ruins of a paleochristianic bath.
3. 9. Vrykounta
The remnants of the ancient city spread to an oblong rocky cape, at the end of which there is the cavernous church of Aghios Ioannis. The enceinte (4th century BC) has been partly preserved to some height, as have some hewn chamber tombs too. Near the path leading to Vrykounta, there is a monumental hewn tomb adorned with apses and swords in relief. Remnants of three basilicas attest continuation of life there during paleochristianic times. Three more basilicas have been found to the north, near the natural port of Tristomo, which probably was the see of the pan-Rhodian sanctuary of Poseidon the Porthmeios in antiquity.
3. 10. Olympos
Interesting is the single-room church of Aghia Anna the Catholic with its abstract decoration probably dating from the Iconoclasm period (8th-9th century), and the church of Aghii Saranta right next to it, with 11th century frescoes.
3. 11. Saria island
There are traces of habitation dating from the Late Neolithic Times (4000-3000 B.C.) and the Early/Middle Bronze Age (2300-2000 B.C.). The acropolis on Kastello hill, to the south of the gulf of Palatia, is connected with Saros of historical times. Some remains have survived on the west slope, as well as two hewn chamber tombs. To the east of the chancel of Aghia Sophia at Palatia, there is the apse and the synthronus of the large paleochristianic basilica. A little to the northwest, there is a contemporaneous bath. There are two more basilicas on the slope to the north of the gulf, while on the top of the ancient acropolis at Kastello there is also a three-aisled basilica with a narthex. The mediaeval settlement (probably 9th/10th century) at Palatia is very peculiar. It has stone-built single-room houses with vaulted conical roofs, while some have small porticos. There are similar tile-built structures at settlements of Syria and Southeastern Turkey.
(Transl. Onoufrios Dovletis)
4. Early Christian Churches
Karpathos’ prosperity during the Early Christian period (4th – 7th century), is testified, amongst others, by the large number of Early Christian basilicas. The important role of the church and local bishops as the main conveyors of ideological, political and financial power, as well as the rivalry between various Christian groups, contributed to the construction of many and large churches.
In southern Karpathos, Potideo and Arkasa, continued to prosper during the 5th, 6th and first half of the 7th centuries. Architectural fragments (columns, capitals and the monolithic font), of the large early Christian basilica of Potidaios (first half of the 6th century), to the SW of the classical Acropolis, have survived.
Along the beach of the bay of Pigadia (anc. Potidaio), two early Christian basilicas have been identified, the church of “the Afoti” and the anonymous church at the “Kefali” location. The church of the Afoti, three-isled with rich marble interior decoration, was probably built on the site of an ancient temple.
The large three-aisled Basilica at Kefali is built on a dominant position on the hill and replaced an ancient temple. Three building periods have been identified. During the first the floor was adorned with mosaics, during the second with marble and local stone plaques, while during the third a small chapel was built in the area of the sanctuary. The architectural decoration consists of Corinthian capitals which date from the fist quarter of the 6th century.
In Arkasa, to the SW of the island, 5 early Christian basilicas have been identified. These are large monuments with rich mosaic decoration and many votive inscriptions connected to donors. They have been dated to the last quarter of the 5th century.
Roughly half way down the island, at the coastal settlement of Lefkos, three early Christian basilicas have been located. The basilica of the southern harbor (first half of the 6th century), has three aisles, marble columns and capitals, and mosaic floors. The other two are the basilica of the western headland with ruined baths, and the basilica located on the site where the mid-Byzantine church of the Gialohorafiotissa survives. East of the church survive early Christian graves which formed the settlement’s cemetery.
North of Mesochori, at the bay of Aghia Irene, is the church of Aghia Irene, built on the site of the sanctuary of an early Christian basilica.
At the seaport of the Spoa settlement, on the bay of Aghios Nikolaos, at the Marathi location, there is a large, three-isled basilica known as Eftabatousa. The sanctuary’s apse and the side exterior walls survive. The church’s floor was adorned by mosaics and the sculpted interior decoration was rich, consisting mainly of white marble. Immediately neighbouring the basilica to its south exist early Christian baths. North of the basilica, at the highest level of the settlement there is a second early Christian basilica (first half of the 6th century).
The settlement of Vrykounta, on the NW tip of the island, remained thriving until the mid 7th century, when it was abandoned; it remains in ruins. Three early Christian basilicas were built there.
The first large basilica (end of the 5th century), is on the port, three-aisled with an apse to the east, three-sided externally and semi-circular in its interior, its floors decorated with mosaics. Wide-spread use of ancient materials was made in its construction.
The other two basilicas (first half of the 6th century), are located within the walled town. The 1st is three-aisled with narthex to the west and semi-circular apse to the east of the central aisle. To the south of this one is the 2nd basilica, three-aisled with narthex to the west and inscribed apse to the east of the central aisle.
On the northern tip of Karpathos, within the site of the sanctuary of Poseidon of the Straights (Porthmeios Poseidonas), a sizeable early Christian basilica, three-aisled with narthex and outer narthex to the west and semi-circular apse to the east, was erected.
NW of Vrykounta, at the port of Tristomo, survive the ruins of a large, three-aisled basilica known as Aghioi Theodoroi with narthex and outer narthex to the west and large semi-circular apse at the eastern end of the central aisle. The side aisles are separated from the central aisle by ten columns on each side. The floor of the central aisle was decorated with mosaics. Immediately to the SE of the basilica survive early Christian baths.
At the SE foot of the settlement, at the “Evreika” location, survives a three-aisled basilica of the same type.
North of the Tristomo settlement, at the “Pera Limnes” location, is a three-aisled basilica with two semi-circular apses and narthex to the west. All its elements survive in reasonable repair.
East of the existing coastal settlement of Diafani, at the “Palea” location survive the ruins of a small, three-aisled early Christian basilica.
South of Diafani, at the “Philios” location there exists a coastal settlement with unidentified early Christian basilica (first half of the 6th century). Surviving elements include two aisles, central and southern, with a semi-circular apse to the east and narthex to the west. The floor of the central aisle is adorned with mosaics.
(Transl. Klio Panourgia)
5. Traditional architecture
The development of tourism, emigrants’ exchange invested on building residences, as well as modern life needs, have altered traditional architecture significantly, especially in capital Pigadia. Nevertheless, picturesque residences have been preserved at most villages. They are of the urban house type that dominated on the Dodecanese in the early 20th century with neoclassic characteristics. This type substituted for older folk Karpathian house, which originally had a wide-façade room at one side of the small yard, it was stone-built, with no lime-cast, it had a small window above the entrance, a roof made of wooden beams and branches, and a terrace with dirt. The interior structure of the monospito wisely fulfilled day-to-day needs. It was divided into a lower part, the patos (“bottom”), where there was a wooden sofa and a low table (sofras), and into an elevated wooden loft at the back, called soufas, where the entire family used to sleep on mattresses. Handmade embroidery and rugs adorned the rail of the soufas. The most elaborate one, the stylomandila, covered the stylos (“pillar”), a wooden perpendicular beam in the middle of the room. It supported the house both literally and symbolically. Numerous plates and glassware placed on wooden shelves all around the walls completed this lavish decoration. Rooms of the soufas type are still built at modern residences in order to preserve tradition.
Noteworthy examples of traditional architecture are also the windmills (many are extant at Olympos), most of which are horseshoe-shaped or cylindrical, and the agricultural residences, called stavli (“stables”), built near cultivable land. Sometimes they even form whole villages (e.g. the agricultural settlement of Avlona with its 300 stavli). Quite impressive are the stavli of Pelekito, built in a large natural cavity of the rock.
From October 2005, the Archaeological Museum is housed at the west wing of the Prefecture Building. Its three rooms house findings dating from Neolithic Times up to Mediaeval Times.
In the Folkloric Museum at Othos, there is a reconstruction of the interior of the Karpathian house, and farmer’s tools are displayed in the enceinte of the Folkloric Museum of Menetes.
7. Folk culture – Folk art
More than most places in Greece, Karpathos has preserved local traditions, music, dances and extemporary mandinades, which in latter years are being printed in the local press. Other kinds of folk art, such as embroidery, textiles and fretwork, survive to a smaller extent.
Karpathian music is closely connected with the residents’ lives, accompanying them at religious festivals, weddings and private feasts. There are numerous tunes and songs, many of which, like the mandinades, have been written down and been published. The instruments of Karpathian music are the pear-shaped lyre, the three-stringed lyre, the lute, the tsambouna and the violin. They are usually played in pairs. Northern villages have preserved the oldest combination of three instruments (lyrotrsambouna). Dances take place at the square of the village or at the church hall. Especially at Olympos, as one can see at great festivals like the one of St. John at Vrykounta, there is a specific ceremony. It starts with religious anthems and folk songs; dancing follows: first the sianos or kato choros (“lower dance”), then the gonatistos (“on the knees”) and last the spirited pano choros (“upper dance”). Women dance to the right of men and must wear the Olympian costume, which for older women is their day-to-day dress.
In the past, social relations and social stratification, as well as the island’s economic development, used to be considerably defined by common law. According to it, parents’ possessions were given in one piece only to firstborn children: the father’s to the firstborn son and the mother’s to the firstborn daughter. Being land owners, firstborns –the kanakarides and the kanakares– were the leading class of the Karpathian society. They used to enter upon communal and church offices, live in specific neighborhoods and stand out with their rich clothes. The kanakares wore golden pounds around their necks called kolaines. Second-born daughters used to remain single and live at firstborn sisters’ houses, doing heavy farming and household work. Second-born boys were forced to emigrate: in the 19th century towards Asia Minor, mainland Greece, Africa and even distant Persia, where they used to work as carpenters and construction workers. Common law is officially invalid now. Some ceremonies related to it still survive though, along with other traditional customs, such as the wedding ceremony, or the epta (“seven”), which took place on the seventh day after the baby was born, and the custom of Lambri Triti (“Glorious Tuesday”) at Olympos with a procession with icons at the village’s churches and cemetery.
8. Olympos of Karpathos
8. 1. The settlement
Olympos, or Elympos, is the northernmost and most mountainous village of Karpathos, amphitheatrically built on a slope of mount Profitis Ilias. Diafáni is its harbor. The broader region of Olympos, taking up most of the northern part of the island and islet Saria, comprises of mountainous land of approximately 37 km2, most of which is covered with forests or is used as pastoral land.
The first time Olympos was mentioned was by Buondelmonti in the 15th century. The settlement though must have been founded between the 10th and 15th centuries. There are several traditional stories about its founding. According to one, its residents are descendents of the residents of ancient Vrykos (modern Vrykounta), located at the northern part of the island, where they had fled seeking refuge from Arab incursions of the 7th-9th centuries. According to another, they are the population that went to the hinterland after the city was destroyed by earthquake.
There is another theory as well, according to which Olympos was named thus because of its altitude (mount Olympos of Thessaly is the highest in Greece) or by residents of village Elympi of Chios, who transferred the name, the customs and the peculiar dialect of their village to their new home.
The information we have on the settlement during latter times is little, since Western excursionists never went there; they only carried an echo of its peculiarities in their texts. According to traditional stories, Olympos was initially out of sight from the sea; a fortified settlement smaller than the modern one, which had a castle with many entrances called “kamara”. That is how it’s believed the «Exo Kamara” (Outer Kamara) neighborhood –it was out of the walls– got its name. Most probably, it is one of the Aegean settlements built in safe locations in the islands’ hinterland, so that residents could avoid pirate raids. In the 18th-19th centuries though, when Aperi was the island’s administration center up to 1892, Menetes and Olympos were the largest settlements. Olympos was one of the most significant production centers of the island, especially for breadstuffs. The numerous horseshoe-shaped windmills attest this.
Residents of Olympos were either shepherds or “despéries”, who cultivated the land. The first lived outside the castle walls, while the latter within them; therefore, they were called “castrini” (Castle people). Save the limited cultivable land of that area, the despéries also used more distant regions, where they built huts. These buildings later turned into “stables” (typical farm houses), or even into permanent residences: e.g. Avlona or Saria.
8. 2. Folk culture
Due to its geographical isolation, Olympos has many cultural peculiarities compared to the villages called “Kato Choria” (Lower villages). Its economic and social development differs. Therefore, Olympos has preserved peculiar customs, its idiom and traditional garment, which old women wear up to now.
Olympos is also known for its enormous musical tradition and the renowned feasts. On religious festivals, weddings and name days, residents feast with the local tunes of the pear-shaped lyre, the violin, the tsambouna and the lute. They adapt extemporary couplets differently each time to iambic fifteeners called mandinada, relevant to the feast (e.g. wishes to the wedded couple), everyday life and current events. They often form dialogues, making the feast more interesting. Only men participate at the feast; women watch from a distance. The most significant festivals take place at Olympos on August 15th, the day the church of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary celebrates for three days, and at Vrykounta on August 29th, on St. John’s day, when the settlement’s residents and other Karpathians go to the impressive cave with the church and spend the night outdoors.
8. 3. The “kanakariá” at Olympos
The custom of the kanakaris and the kanakará (beloved son and daughter), relevant to family structure and bequest, is widely spread on islands. On Karpathos, and especially Olympos, it was the most significant factor shaping social relations. This custom had an impact on the society of Olympos. A social group of landowners came from hereditary transmissions. This group accumulated the community’s economic, administrative and social powers. Within this peculiar group, inbreeding was common. Their symbol of power was the church of the Virgin Mary, where only they could go. When the settlement expanded out of the castle walls, first-borns retained the exclusive right of living at Exo Kamara, which had a view to the sea. Up to 1922, the kanakarides had private pews at the Dormition church and private slabs called “merées” on the narthex floor for women. They also built private churches and had their own windmills and watermills, as well as the most fertile lowland fields of the community. The “kolaína” characterized the kanakará; no other woman was allowed to wear it. It was brocade with sawn golden coins, Venetian florins, Byzantine coins, pounds and other coins.
(Vasiliki Spyropoulou - Maria Konioti)
9. The Mediterranean seal
The Mediterranean seal (Monachus monachus), one of the 35 seal species worldwide, is the most endangered animal in Europe.
Its fur is short and sleek. Its color varies from light brown to black, with males usually being darker than females. It has an average length of 2.5m and weighs approximately 300kg. Newborns are 1m long, weighing 15-20kg. It has been called monachus because of its dark color reminding us of a monk’s cloth (monachos in Greek).
They are very good swimmers because of their hydrodynamic shape, while they can also oxygenate better under water, which allows them to remain longer in the sea. At labour time though, they choose the land. They probably reproduce from July to November. Because of their 12 month long reproductive cycle (10 months of gestation and 6-8 weeks of ablactation), seals give birth only to one pup at a time making their reproduction rate very slow. Seals can live up to 45 years. They feed with a wide variety of fish and mollusks, crustaceans, etc. They need 5% of their weight in food and in order to find it they can travel long distances.
Human activities are the main threat to the survival of the species. Exceeding fishing and its illegal forms (e.g. use of dynamite) lead to a significant reduction of fish stocks. Many seals have also been killed or/and captured with fishing equipment. Moreover, the pollution of the sea and other human activities (arbitrary building, hotel facilities) destroy natural habitats.
Struggling to survive, a large number of Mediterranean seals has sought refuge at the island complex of Karpathos, especially northern Karpathos and Saria. The coasts north of Karpathos are an area of great interest regarding geophysical form and habitats, and the submarine area, where numerous sea organisms live. The submarine flora of Posidonia oceanica, an ideal habitat for fish reproduction, is of special interest.
Non-governmental and non-profit organization “Mom” aims to the protection of the Mediterranean seal. Its action includes research, protecting and attending to injured, sick or orphaned animals, creating protected areas, and informing and sensitizing habitants. Mom carries out programs protecting this species according to the directives and legal measures of the international community.
It takes action in the submarine area of Karpathos and the broader region by establishing permanent “field groups” under the aegis of the LIFE-Nature project “The Mediterranean seal: Conservation actions in two Greek NATURA 2000 sites”.
In 2003, after years’ effort and search, 4 newborns were recorded in the region of northern Karpathos-Saria, as well as an orphaned newborn at southern Karpathos. A great effort has been made aiming to inform visitors. We must also mention the production of a short film about the areas and actions of this research program.
Mom’s significance is attested through its proposal for the establishment of a protected area called “Eco-Development Area of Olympos”. This proposal corresponds with the institutional rules of the E.U. aimed at the preservation of the natural and cultural peculiarity of this area.
(Transl. Onoufrios Dovletis)