Dr Lita Tzortztopoulou-Gregory (AAIA Executive Officer, Athens) takes you to her ancestral home of Kythera and its medieval capital Paliochora
As our first site in the new AAIA Virtual Tour Series, I have chosen to visit Paliochora, the medieval ‘capital’ of the island of Kythera, known in the sources as Ayios Demetrios.
The choice for this site is not accidental; it is the backdrop of one of the AAIA’s long-term archaeological survey projects (APKAS-The Australian Paliochora-Kythera Archaeological Survey), and a site most familiar to me from my childhood growing up on my ancestral island of Kythera. Indeed, the origin of the APKAS project back in the late 1990s involves a group of us as then young Australian scholars from the University of Sydney with roots to Kythera, including Cosmos Coroneos (well-known maritime contract archaeologist and director of Cosmos Archaeology) and the AAIA’s very own, Stavros Paspalas. But that is a story for another time!
Known today as Paliochora (Old City), the Byzantine city of Ayios Demetrios is dramatically located in the north-central part of Kythera, at the head of a great gorge (locally known as the Kaki Langada, the Evil -or Bad- Gorge), approachable on only one side and protected on the other three sides by nearly sheer cliffs.
Ayios Demetrios was the only major city on the island from the time of its founding, perhaps in the 12th century A.D., until its destruction by the notorious Ottoman admiral Hayer ad-din Barbarossa in 1537. The site is an impressive one, commanding one of the most beautiful (and perhaps terrifying) vistas in Kythera. Until a couple of decades ago, the site was nearly unreachable by vehicle along a very bad dirt road, or accessed by foot or donkey along one of several paths that ran from several of the nearby villages of the upland plain.
The absence of good modern access to Paliochora kept the site more or less free of looting and vandalism, until a broad modern road, now asphalted along most of its route, was cut through the landscape, largely ignoring the traditional routes, but rather slashing through valleys and ridges on its way to the site. This road now does allow tourists to visit Paliochora, but it also has brought looters and others, who have systematically destroyed much of what was standing at the site only a few years ago. Up to this moment, the site remains unguarded, and there has been only limited restoration and conservation undertaken by the Archaeological Service. There has been no systematic excavation within the medieval site, while an archaeological survey carried out by a Greek-British team in the 1980s is yet to be fully published.
The architectural survey carried out by the British identified a total of 70 houses, most of them small single storied-windowless dwellings of irregular or rectangular shape and two groups of elite houses, 22 churches, two defensive circuit walls, and a flat area between the kastron wall and the outer defensive wall and adjacent to the Church of the Panayia (Kyra tou Forou-Lady of the Forum), which seems to have been the square or ‘plateia’ of the city (referred to as the ‘foro’).
There has been considerable disagreement about the date of the founding of Ayios Demetrios, the reason for its construction, and its role in Kytherian society before 1537. However, a date in the 12th century seems reasonable and this is supported by the earliest pottery identified by the British survey.
It is clear that the Evdaimonoyiannis family from Monemvasia (in the southeast Peloponnese) had control over Kythera prior to 1204 (and over much of the island after that) and it is not unreasonable to think that they were responsible for the original foundation of Ayios Demetrios. Concerning the reason for its foundation, it is clear that defense must have been a primary consideration and some scholars have simply pointed to the natural strength of the site’s location and left it at that. Yet, there must have been some broader purpose, since the inhabitants of the settlement must have had some means to maintain themselves. It is true that the Evdaimonoyiannides were notorious as pirates and it is not impossible that at an early date they may have sought to use the settlement as a hideout, far away from the sea, and there are many examples of similar choices by pirate groups elsewhere (not least on Antikythera, during the Hellenistic period). Nonetheless, this hardly seems to reflect the broader socio-economic system that we know dominated Kythera from at least the beginning of the 13th century onward, which was based primarily on agricultural production and the exploitation of both the little land that was reasonably productive and the peasants who farmed it, largely for the benefit of the nobles who were in control of all aspects of life.
Our own work in the APKAS project has identified significant activity on the land in the broader area of Paliochora in the period of its efflorescence. This activity seems to have included small settlements and there is good evidence that most of the villages surrounding Paliochora probably should trace their beginnings to the period before (rather than after) 1537. This brings up the question of the precise nature of the settlement at Paliochora: was it “a town, village, or city.” The preliminary reports of the Greek?-British team at Paliochora called the settlement a city. Another argument is that Paliochora was not a city at all, but rather a mere village. More recently Ince and Ballantyne argued that there were two large house complexes at Paliochora, probably the grand residences of two wealthy families, but that all the rest of the buildings were small and poor, probably just hovels where humans and animals spent the night. As a result, they suggested that the settlement was both urban and rural, and that it was “more than a village but less than a town.” Our own argument is that given its size and arrangement, the settlement was in fact a city, which acted as the main military and administrative centre for the satellite villages it controlled in its broader hinterland.
Throughout the 11th and 12th centuries the city developed into the administrative capital of the island. The strategic position of Kythera was never made more apparent than in the division of the Byzantine empire amongst the victors of the Fourth Crusade (1204), when the island was awarded to the Venetians. Kythera was of critical importance to the Venetian sea empire, serving as a staging post between Venice and its possessions in the Levant. Ayios Demetrios appears to have been fortified during this time by the Evdaimonoyiannis family, with later additions made by the Venetians.
Throughout the 13th century the political status of Kythera fluctuated, as the Venieri family (the appointed Venetian overlords of the island) and the Evdaimonoyiannis clan struggled for control. A semblance of stability was achieved when the Venetian government took direct control of the island in 1363. The Venetians established their power base on the island in the south, at Avlemonas and Chora. This was a logical choice, as both these locations had immediate access to fertile land, strong natural defences and excellent harbours nearby, three critical characteristics that Ayios Demetrios appears to lack.
With this shift in the political and economic geography within the island it could be expected that Ayios Demetrios would fade away. In fact the opposite happened. Ayios Demetrios retained its role as the focus for Greek culture on the island and the obvious wealth of the settlement is displayed in the number of private churches located within its walls.
During the 15th century the Byzantine Empire was crumbling under the onslaught of the Ottomans. Some refugees would have found their way to Kythera, especially after the fall of the Despotate of Mistra in 1458. Many family names on the island may be derived from the titles of Byzantine officials who found refuge on Kythera: names like Logothetis, Strategos and Komninos.
As the Venetians directed their defensive attention in the southern part of the island, Ayios Demetrios was left relatively undefended when it was captured and sacked with remarkable ease by Barbarossa’s forces in 1537. In the same year Barbarossa destroyed Venetian and Frankish settlements on Amorgos, Astypalaia, Ios, Anaphe, Seriphos, Antiparos, Paros, Skyros, Skiathos and Skopelos.
The sacking of Paliochora was a catastrophe for Kythera. The Venetians claimed that 7,000 people were killed or enslaved. The magnitude of these events is evident when the first Venetian census taken on Kythera in 1583 records the population at 1,850. The figure of 7,000 taken in the raid cannot possibly all have come from Ayios Demetrios since the site could only have housed a tenth of that number. More likely Barbarossa’s captives came from the satellite settlements around Paliochora, or—just as likely— the number of victims has been seriously exaggerated by later tradition.
The sack had a significant effect on the development of the island for the next few hundred years. The remaining population contracted to the southern and western half of the island where the forts at Milopotamos, Avlemonas and Chora afforded some measure of security. The population of the island may not have reached its pre-1537 levels until the start of the 19th century. This, coupled with the neglect effected by the decaying Venetian government throughout the 16th to 18th centuries led to a Dark Age for Kythera.
Today, a visit to Paliochora begins with a stop at the church of Ayia Varvara (St. Barbara) outside the walls of the settlement. This is a cross-in-square type of church, which dates to the 12th century or so.
The main approach to the settlement comes from the west, along the only route that is reasonably possible. The path passes among several houses and at least two churches before reaching the outer wall of the settlement. This is a relatively low defense that had its gate on the south side, where the path now passes.
Today, of course, the entire city is completely deserted, with the exception of only one functioning church (Kyra tou Forou) near the main entrance to the site. It stands out with its bright, white painted walls and red tile roof. In the half dome of the apse is a paitning of the Panayia Platitera tou Ouranou (the Virgin ‘Broader than Heaven’ with the Christ-Child).
According to local tradition, some of the people of the city fled from the onslaught of Barbarossa’s men and sought safety in the church. Miraculously, they were saved, and the result is that every year, toward the end of August, the people of the nearby villages who claim direct descent from these Paliochora survivors, come to the church and celebrate a liturgy in honour of the miracle and to commemorate the dreadful act that brought an end to Ayios Demetrios.
Moving along towards the kastron is the church of Ayios Antonios, with its beautifully framed Gothic- style entry door and complex floor plan. The church had well preserved wall paintings of the 13th century, including a full-length image of Ayia Aikaterini (Saint Catherine), with her wheel of martyrdom, now displayed in the Byzantine Collection in Leivadi. There is also a representation of the Panayia enthroned and at her feet is a kneeling man in western dress, shown in small size, and beseeching the Virgin for assistance.
Just past this church is the inner fortification wall, a massive defensive work, with a battering wall, designed to withstand cannon fire. The entrance to this was likewise on the south side, although the gate has been completely destroyed. It is, in fact, not by chance that the gateways of both fortification walls have been destroyed, since these were where Barbarossa’s troops undoubtedly entered the fortified settlement, after his cannons, presumably placed on the undefended heights to the west had blown the gates apart.
One may go around to the north of the site, noticing the interior of the powerful inner fortification wall, and then the remains of many houses, tumbling down the precipitous sides of the rock.
Toward the end of the north side is a vaulted church, now almost completely devoid of decoration and the whole of its western wall. The saint to whom the church was dedicated is not known, although it may have been to the Archangel Michael. Not long ago the painted decorations were well preserved, and two remarkable images – one of the Virgin and Child and one of Christ, both from the templon (icon screen) have been taken to the Byzantine Collection in Leivadi. The wall paintings in the church are from the 15th century.
Moving along to the east side of the site, one has spectacular views down into the Kaki Langada gorge as it makes its way to the sea.
At the highest point of the settlement, perched above ruins that are now almost completely destroyed, is a large church that was clearly built as part of a larger complex. Its dedication is not certain, but many have suggested that it should have been dedicated to Ayios Demetrios, the patron of the whole settlement, and so it is usually known under that name.
The church now lacks its roof but some wall paintings survive in two layers both belonging to the 14th century. At least two of the wall paintings have been taken to the Byzantine Collection in Leivadi, but the scene of the Koimisis (Dormition) of the Virgin on the north wall is still reasonably well preserved in situ, although every year we notice its gradual deterioration. At the bottom one can see the angel with drawn sword who is about to strike an unbeliever wishing to disturb the sacred scene. From this church one can return to the entrance via a northern or southern path, the latter offering impressive views down to the houses and churches hanging on the cliffs below.
While the city of Ayios Demetrios now lies deserted, Paliochora, as it was named sometime after its destruction, still lives on in the local imagination, as both a haunted and cursed place, inhabited by the fantasmata who are thought to be the ghosts of the people who were killed during the siege, mainly the Christian Greeks, but also perhaps the ‘pirates themselves.’ A place of legends and folklore, to be avoided at all costs, as my late grandmother would tell me as I was growing up. When, as an adult, I told her we were to begin an archaeological study around Paliochora, she crossed herself and said: “There are no archaia (antiquities) in Paliochora, only ghosts and pirates”. She insisted to be careful, as “the pirates would get us”. “There are no pirates nowadays, yiayia,” I said to her. And she replied: “There are always pirates on Kythera; pirates and xoparmata (spirits).
The following video is an aerial view of Paliochora created by John Fardoulis (Mobility Robotics).
Dr Lita Tzortztopoulou-Gregory, AAIA Executive Director in Athens, holds a PhD from La Trobe University in Australia. She has worked extensively in Greece, but also in Cyprus and Jordan. She is Co-Director of the Australian Paliochora-Kythera Archaeological Survey, and project co-ordinator of the Ohio State University Excavations at Isthmia. Her research interests have focused primarily on landscape and survey archaeology, mortuary studies relating to issues of commemoration and identity, and the archaeology of post-medieval and Modern Greece.
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