Naxos Island, city and culture
More Ancient Culture
Let’s talk about the Cyclades and not only about Naxos; the Cyclades are a group of islands in the south-western Aegean, comprising some thirty small islands and numerous islets. The ancient Greeks called them kyklades, imagining them as a circle (kyklos) around the sacred island of Delos, the site of the holiest sanctuary to Apollo.
Many of the Cycladic Islands are particularly rich in mineral resources—iron ores, copper, lead ores, gold, silver, emery, obsidian, and marble; the marble of Paros and Naxos ranks among the finest in the world.
Archaeological evidence points to sporadic Neolithic settlements on Antiparos, Melos, Mykonos, Naxos, and other Cycladic Islands at least as early as the sixth millennium B.C. These earliest settlers probably cultivated barley and wheat, and most likely fished the Aegean for tunny and other fish. They were also accomplished sculptors in stone, as attested by significant finds of marble figurines on Saliagos (near Paros and Antiparos).
In the third millennium B.C., a distinctive civilization, commonly called the Early Cycladic culture (ca. 3200–2300 B.C.), emerged with important settlement sites on Keros, and at Halandriani on Syros. At this time in the Early Bronze Age Mediterranean, metallurgy was developing at a fast pace. It was especially fortuitous for the Early Cycladic culture that their islands were rich in iron ores and copper, and that they offered a favourable route across the Aegean. Inhabitants turned to fishing, shipbuilding, and exporting of their mineral resources, as trade flourished between the Cyclades, Minoan Crete, Helladic Greece, and the coast of Asia Minor.
Early Cycladic culture can be divided into two main phases, the Grotta-Pelos (Early Cycladic I) culture (ca. 3200?–2700 B.C.), and the Keros-Syros (Early Cycladic II) culture (ca. 2700–2400/2300 B.C.). These names correspond to significant burial sites. Few settlements from the Early Cycladic period have been found, and much of the evidence for the culture comes from assemblages of objects, mostly marble vessels and figurines, that the islanders buried with their dead. Varying qualities and quantities of grave goods point to disparities in wealth, suggesting that some form of social ranking was emerging in the Cyclades at that time.
The majority of Cycladic marble vessels and sculptures were produced during the Grotta-Pelos and Keros-Syros periods. Early Cycladic sculpture comprises predominantly female figures that range from simple modification of the stone to developed representations of the human form, some with natural proportions and some more idealized. Many of these figures, especially those of the Spedos type, display a remarkable consistency in form and proportion that suggests they were planned with a compass. Scientific analysis has shown that the surface of the marble was painted with mineral-based pigments—azurite for blue and iron ores, or cinnabar for red. The vessels from this period—bowls, vases, kandelas (collared vases), and bottles—display bold, simple forms that reinforce the Early Cycladic predilection for a harmony of parts and conscious preservation of proportion.
According to a story in Greek mythology, the young Zeus was raised in a cave on Mt. Zas ("Zas" meaning "Zeus"). Homer mentions "Dia"; literally the sacred island "of the Goddess". Karl Kerenyi explains (speaking as if he were an ancient Greek): This name, Dia, which means 'heavenly' or 'divine', was applied to several small craggy islands in our [ Aegean ] sea, all of them lying close to larger islands, such as Crete or Naxos. The name "Dia" was even transferred to the island of Naxos itself, since it was more widely supposed than any other to have been the nuptial isle of Dionysus. (Kerenyi 1951 pp. 271–272).
Naxos City, temple entrance landmark or the "Portara"
One legend has it that in the Heroic Age before the Trojan War, Theseus abandoned princess Ariadne of Crete on this island after she helped him kill the Minotaur and escape from the Labyrinth. Dionysus (god of wine, festivities, and the primal energy of life) who was the protector of the island met Ariadne and fell in love with her. But eventually Ariadne, unable to bear her separation from Theseus, either killed herself (according to the Athenians), or ascended to heaven (as the older versions had it). The Naxos portion of the Ariadne myth is also told in the Richard Strauss opera Ariadne auf Naxos.
The giant brothers Otus and Ephialtes figure in at least two Naxos myths: in one, Artemis bought the abandonment of a siege they laid against the gods, by offering to live on Naxos as Otus's lover; in another, the brothers had actually settled Naxos.
In 502 BC, an unsuccessful attack on Naxos by Persian forces led several prominent men in the Greek cities of Ionia to rebel against the Persian Empire in the Ionian Revolt, and then to the Persian War between Greece and Persia.
During the 8th and 7th centuries BC, Naxos dominated commerce in the Cyclades.
In the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade, with a Latin Emperor under the influence of the Venetians established at Constantinople, the Venetian Marco Sanudo conquered the island and soon captured the rest of the islands of the Cyclades, establishing himself as Duke of Naxia, or Duke of the Archipelago. Twenty-one dukes in two dynasties ruled the Archipelago, until 1566; Venetian rule continued in scattered islands of the Aegean until 1714. Under Venetian rule the island was called (in Italian) Nasso.
So, what can be seen and experienced here in Naxos today?
Artefacts from graves, sacred buildings and small settlements can be seen at many museums and excavations, such as the Archaeological Museum in Naxos, the Demeter Museum at the Demeter excavation (530 BC, Demeter and Persephone) in Sangri, two museums in Apiranthos, and the excavation Iria at Glinado. Circled stone graves from the Geometric Age, marked with a monolith, are found close to the village of Tsikkalario, which lies below the Apano Castro, an ancient defensive castle of the Naxien inhabitants that was captured by Marco Sanudo in 1207.
And there is much, much more!.
Surprisingly, the city's landmark is not the small, whitewashed chapel of Panagia Mirtidiotissa, built on a small islet in the middle of the harbour. No. It is the huge marble door frame of an ancient temple of Apollo, which you can clearly see from many kilometres away while arriving by boat.
It is the largest such ever made for a Greek temple.
Built in 530 BCE under the order of Lygdamis, tyrant of Naxos, it is part of what was intended to be the biggest Temple of Apollo in the world. However, due to the fall of Lygdamis it was never finished. Originally there was more to the building than you see today, but over the years the townsmen- particularly Marco Sanudo- used the building as a quarry and recycled the stone. Much material from the original temple is now part of the 'Kastro.'
Only the door frame remains, because at 20 tons of weight it was just too heavy to transport!
Naxos Chora is known to have been settled as early as 3000 BCE. It was established in a form resembling an amphitheatre on a low hill, close to the sea. Abandoned in Byzantine times, the Venetian nobleman Marco Sanudo built his Castro there in 1207, as the centre of the Aegean Empire, the 'Ducato dell’ Archipelago.' The Venetian Dukes ruled until 1566, when the Turks occupied the islands; the last Venetian rulers were the Crispi. In 1821 the islanders joined the Greek War of Independence, which freed Naxos from Turkish rule
Today, have a stroll along the Paralia, the busy port road by the sea, where you will find all the banks, travel agencies, ferry offices, souvenirs, restaurants, taverns, bars and pastry shops.
However, the centre of Naxos Chora is the aristocratic 'Kastro' (castle) of Venetian nobleman Marco Sanudo. Manorial houses, some still occupied even now, formed an exterior defensive wall, which was interrupted by seven towers. Today only two remain; a 12 meter high round tower in the northwest of the Kastro, the 'Glesou Tower,' and at the highest point of the Kastro, the Donjon (keep)- 'Sanudo’s Tower'- still stands, now used as a water tank.
- a. Donjon, the castle keep, and the remains of Sanudo’s Tower
- b. Glesou Tower at the Trani Porta
c. South Gate at Pradouna Place
Only a few people still live in the old walls of the Kastro; most of them members of the old Catholic families. Everything remains very original, and it still smells like the Middle Ages.
For that reason you will frequently meet photographers and artists here, who seek to capture the unaltered atmosphere.
All the alleys and lanes open onto the central square, which hosts the Catholic Church. Not far away is another church in a former Capuchin Abbey. In addition there is also the Convent of the Ursulines, and next to it the Archaeological Museum, the former Jesuit Abbey where Nikos Katzantzakis, the famous Cretan author, attended school.
Unfortunately, the Archaeological Museum had to hand over its richest treasures to the Athens Museum, but there is still a lot to see and admire. There are ceramics and gold, grave steles and Cycladic Idols, mosaics, black figure ceramics and Roman vases. You can even see a statue of Marcus Antonius, found in the Temple of Dionysus.
Three gateways lead into the Kastro; from Pradouna Place you pass the South Gate alongside the Barozzi House. The North Gate, the Trani Porta with a pointed arch, still has the iron fogged wooden door. On the right hand is the hospitable House of Della-Rocca.
The Southeast is no longer a gate; the hill declines abruptly. But you are met with the impressive height of the seven story walls of the Ursuline Convent.
By the North flank of the Kastro is found the medieval quarter named Bourgos, first developed in the 11th century and inhabited by Greeks. This area has it's own very unique character, and is well maintained. It is quite similar to other Cycladic settlements on other islands.
The houses are smaller and more demotic than in the Kastro. It's not as busy now as 500 years ago, but there remain many shops with special charm. In the Bourgos you will find the last baker who still bakes his bread in a big wooden baking oven.
Worth mentioning is 'Grotta,' the quarter where an Early Cycladic Settlement was found. Today, one section is an open air museum, while the greater part now lies sunken beneath the Aegean Sea.
There are more than 40 orthodox churches and chapels in or near the city. Most of them are open, but the best time to visit is after the church service, or in the evening when the popes light the oil lamps.
Well worth a visit is the Chrisostomos Convent, dating from the 17th/18th century, which is located on the Northeast mountain slope and appears to be a white fortress glued to the mountain side. It is about 1 hour's hike from Naxos Chora.
Just the view alone makes this a worthwhile visit, even when the nuns don't invite you in! You will be comforted when you visit the tiny rock chapel Theologaki which is on the road.
There are also more than 40 Byzantine churches and chapels on Naxos, which has been a huge boon to researchers who have been examining these wall and ceiling paintings and graffiti for hundreds of years. The most important churches are: Panagia Drosiani, close to the village Moni, with frescos that were painted in several layers, one over the other; the oldest are dated from 590; also, the Kastro Apalyrou close to the village of Sangri, and the three churches of Kaloritissa, a cave church from the 11th century.
And last but not least, Agias Mamas close to Kato Potamia.
You have a lot to discover ;-)).
Kouros (youth) sculptures were abundantly produced during the Archaic era (700-480 BCE), continuing a long line of small votive statues made of bronze. Around 600 BCE the first monumental figure sculptures appear in Greece, and they depict youths, almost always standing in the nude. These were either votive or commemorative in nature.
Kouros, as with the Kore statues, are usually approximately life-size (though some are much larger), and with few exceptions were made of marble. They are depicted standing in a frontal pose with their left leg moved forward, their arms close to their bodies touching the side of their thighs, and they exhibit an almost strict symmetry, with the different parts of the anatomy depicted as simple geometric forms. In this respect, the Kouros statues have a great deal in common with Egyptian monumental sculpture, which undoubtedly influenced their development.
You can still admire several Kouri (plural of Kouros) which were abandoned in the quarries. The Kouros Flerio (620 BC) lies in a paradisical garden close to the village of Mili; another Kouros is lying in the hills, close a footpath leading to the village of Potamia.
The tallest one (12 meters) may be found above the fishermen’s village of Apollonas. Although he is called a Kouros, because of his beard he is probably a Dionysos figure. ;-))
Come have a look for yourself!.
Temple of Iria. Sketch from Gottfried Gruben
Sangri, Demetertemple, Sketch from Gottfried Gruben
Beginning in 1209, the Venetian conquerors built more than 30 castles scattered across the island. They were intended to protect against pirates and uprising Greek inhabitants. Sometimes you find them proudly in the villages; sometimes they are placed in manorial style in a country estate, surrounded by outbuildings, sheds, oil mill, and the church.
Almost every Pyrgos has a small two-aisle chapel; the left for the Catholic service, and the right for the Orthodox ritual.
In the village of Kourounochori, the 'Pyrgos Frangopoulos,' which belongs today to the Della Rocca family, once hosted the German King Otto. A lot of stories entwine his stay on Naxos. You can still admire an inscribed marble table in a beautiful garden of Kourounochori, where he enjoyed his visit.
Far in the north, the beautiful castle Agia unfortunately burnt down a few years ago.
One of the four Pyrgoi in Apiranthos, belonging to the Zevgoli family, has been beautifully restored; underneath it you may visit the small but remarkable Archaeological Museum. Entrance is free, but as with all museums in Greece, it is closed on Monday.
No other island in the Cyclades has so many and such beautiful beaches as Naxos. Fine sand, rough sand, golden sand, black sand; whatever you want, you'll find it here.
The whole southwest of the island is composed of sandy beaches; sometimes kilometers long, sometimes piled into dunes, sometimes interrupted by rocky capes. Behind the beaches lies fertile farmland.
The main beach, Agios Giorgios in the city of Naxos, is already crowded with hotels; not recommended.
The beaches of Agios Prokopios and Agia Anna are adjacent to a tiny fishermen’s port, where you can find a boat for daily excursions to Paros, Sikinos or Serifos.
These beaches are very popular in the summertime for surfing, water skiing, sky sailing, windsurfing, etc.
You are spoiled for choice between all the bars and taverns on the beach.
But don’t worry; it’s not Mallorca! ;-))
When you are looking for peace, quiet and reflection, you have to go further south!
Plaka Beach is 4 kilometers long, and the further you walk down the beach, the fewer people you meet. But this is not the end of our list. You will find your personal beach, perhaps at Orkos and Mikri Vigla, at Kastraki, or Alyko and Pyrgaki. You don’t have to go so far as Kalantos, where there is a beach and a small harbour, but you can... Rest assured, you will find your favorite beach on Naxos!
There are fewer beaches on the north side of the island, but you will find much more privacy at beaches such as Ammiti or Agias Mammas.
In the east and the south you will find magnificent sandy bays such as isolated, romantic Psili Ammos, Klido or Panormos. Even in peak season you can find beaches where you are completely alone.
Don’t forget your sun block and your water bottle ;-))