A man from Siphnos literally wrote the book on Hellenic Cuisine – Nicholas Tselementes. In his classic ‘Greek Cookery’ one learns how to make baklava and other treats with layer upon layer of ‘filo’. You can taste the best when you visit the wonderful West Cyclades Island – but you can also feel the layers of history: In the faces and names of the natives, in their food, and buildings that seem to grow out of the ground.
Preferring the ‘palimpsest’ metaphor, Dr. Giorgos Gavalas, professor, author, and official with the Ephorate of Antiquities of Cyclades of the Ministry of Culture with responsibility for Siphnos and Serifos – who is from Amorgos – shared his love and knowledge of Siphnos with The National Herald.
Word of mouth has been recently joined by the raves of the global media about Siphnos: food, pottery, natural beauty – including hiking trails and beaches – and a rich history stretching back more than 6000 years.
Archaeologists have been working on Siphnos since the 19th century. In the 1930s archaeologists Brock and John Young excavated Kastro, the island’s renowned hilltop town and often-capital that rises sheer from the Aegean Sea.
After WWII distinguished archaeologist Varvara Philippaki, who hails from Siphnos, began her work on the magnificent acropolis of Agios Andreas, with its significant Mycenean remains from the 15th century BC – and its unsurpassed views of much of Siphnos and the surrounding islands. Her research was continued by Christina Televantou, which has resulted, through EU funds, in an exceptional archaeological experience for visitors.
“There is a debate over whether this was the ancient island capital of Siphnos in Mycenaean times, named Apollonia or Minoa, said Dr. Gavalas. The possible links of the latter name to Minoan civilization, which extended to Siphnos, are tantalizing but indefinite.
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Dr. Gavalas’ director is Dr. Dimitrios Athanasoulis, who works hard to develop innovative ways of presenting the riches of the antiquities of the Cyclades to the world. The former is also justly proud of working for many years with the renowned Archaeologist Collin Renfrew, who pioneered research linking the spread of Indo European languages and peoples into Europe not from South Russia as we learned in school, but from eastern Asia Minor, across the Aegean and the Mediterranean and on to the Atlantic, carrying farming technology with them and building remarkable monuments along the way, including, according repots of recent DNA studies, Stonehenge.
Some of the most exciting archaeology in Greece is happening in places like the tiny islands of Keros and Despotikon off Naxos and Antiparos respectively, where complexes – mainly religious – of shocking extent and archaeological riches have been found. Dr. Gavalas, who worked there for many years, is co-author of a scholarly tome edited by Renfrew about the Dhaskalio Kavo site on Keros.
He is devoted to the museum that houses Siphnos’ archaeological finds. The Maridakis family in the 1990s donated its home in ‘Inner Kastro’ for the current building, and its expansion is being planned.
There are many current archaeological projects on the island, including the German initiative ‘Siphnos and Beyond.’
In between visits to nice beaches and fine dining, there is plenty to explore on Siphnos. Among its attractions are its many ancient – usually round – towers. It is not clear whether they were private or public structures as they appear to be a mix of fortified homes and commercial structures – or both – including wine presses and metallurgical facilities. They were also used, as they were throughout the Cyclades, to signal attacks by pirates or foreign navies.
The island’s numerous ups and downs formed a resilient but hospitable population. The biggest and most famous tower, the White Tower near the beloved broad sandy beach of Platys Gialos, is located where there were gold mines and likely gave the name to Siphnos’ world renowned monastery of Chrysopigi – ‘the source of gold’. That is on the finger of land extending into the Aegean that is seen in every one of Greece’s tourism videos and is the scene of dozens of weddings and baptisms every ‘normal’ year.
Alas, the mines were exhausted and the island became impoverished – although there were revivals under Roman, Byzantine, and Italian rule.
I must note that my family is from there before saying I believe the most fascinating spot is the ancient town and stronghold of Kastro, which was rebuilt in Byzantine times, possibly in response to Arab raids that became very dangerous in the 8th century. In the 14th century the Spanish Da Corogna family seized Siphnos and built the current walls with homes built into them that surround and crown Kastro today, a wall pierced by its four – reportedly there used to be five – gateways, known to the locals as ‘lotzia’ – Venetian-era loggias.
Herodotus referred to classical Kastro as ‘αστυ ́- ‘the city,’ impressed by the public buildings on its acropolis built entirely of white marble, including a temple of Apollo.
Scattered remains suggest there was a substantial temple of the Ionic order and other monuments and Dr. Gavalas believes visitors can get an idea of what it looked like from the famous Siphnian Treasury at Delphi, He hopes the surviving elements of those buildings will be displayed at the new museum.
The major church of the Byzantine era was Agios Giorgos, down below, in the town’s port now known as Seralia, where there are also plans for restoration and maintenance of the buildings on the shore.
Substantial restoration of the church of Chrysopigi that has revealed its several phases will soon be completed and numerous noted icons are undergoing restoration at the workshops of the Ministry of Culture in Athens.
“Siphnos is truly a historical palimpsest. It is shocking to be in church and see in one moment an archaic column and a pre-historic vessel, and then to turn and see a Byzantine icon on a post-Venetian iconostasis while listening to a resident of Kastro chanting during the Diving Liturgy – it is living history,” Dr. Gavalas declared.
The interiors of many homes are virtual time machines.
Given the rising popularity of the island, it is hoped that development in areas of potential archaeological interest will be controlled until exploration has taken place. “I believe people are starting to understand that if Siphnos’ unique colors and important traditional architectural elements are not preserved, something very important will be lost,” after all, that is what is now drawing all those tourists.
Since his assignment to his current position in 2018, Dr. Gavalas has tried to present two events a year to draw more people to the museum.
“I conduct a walking tour in Kastro, explaining what we see and how it was in ancient and Byzantine times. Then we go to the museum and spotlight certain objects and recent finds during a brief lecture. We conclude with a musical event in the courtyard of the Church of John the Theologian. During the Full Moon events of August 2019, atop Agios Andreas, we did a concert and a theatrical presentation related to Greek mythology. One year we had a wonderful concert at Chrysopigi with pop singer Fiona Tzavara.”
There is something for everyone on Siphnos – there has been for a long time.