Paradise Found: Sikinos

Welcome to my blog! My name is Anna Sitz. As an archaeology PhD student, I spend quite a bit of my time wandering around the Mediterranean. I’ve visited many of the famous, must-see sites, but I’ve also made my way to some of the more obscure places. In this blog, I will introduce you to some of my favorite places and share with you why I love them. Although I’m writing from the perspective of a scholar, this blog is for the general public, and I’ll try to avoid jargon or excessive detail. When visiting a new area, I have benefited greatly from reading blog posts about what to see, where to stay, and how to get around. Whether you are considering taking a trip yourself or just want to learn more about some of the amazing places inhabited by people long ago, I hope you will read, think, and contribute your own thoughts!

It seems appropriate that my first blog post on Sitz Unseen (my last name is pronounced like “sites”) is about a place that not only is rarely seen by travelers, but that I had actually never heard of before my research interests led me there! Allow me to introduce you to a small island in the southern Cyclades called Sikinos (Greece). As you may know, the Cyclades are a group of islands in the Aegean Sea. The islands have a long and colorful history, which I will not try to summarize here. The most famous island, which you probably have heard of, is Santorini (Thira), home to the thriving ancient Cycladic culture that was brought to a quick end by the eruption of a volcano c. 1600-1500 BCE (there’s controversy on the dating of this event, but I won’t go into that). Though Santorini is visible from Sikinos, the two islands today offer entirely different experiences to visitors.

Sikinos in the evening
Sikinos in the evening

Sikinos was probably as little known in antiquity as it is today. We have few historical sources for the island, and we know of only one ancient town on the island, called Oinoe. Information about the island in the Byzantine period (my own area of focus) is even scarcer. Yet the incredible extent to which humans have shaped this landscape indicates long-term investment by the population. Nearly the entire, mountainous island is covered with terraces used for agriculture. The island looks like a full-scale version of a topographical model!

Terracing on Sikinos
Terracing on Sikinos
Example of a topographical model, howardmodels.com
Example of a topographical model, howardmodels.com

At present, the island has a population of about 300 people, and almost all of the terraces are unused. In the past, there must have been many more people on the island to work the land. When you hike around the island, you may be kilometers from the nearest modern home, but you are surrounded by evidence of human intervention in the landscape. Today, the islanders live in two small towns called Alopronia (the port) and Chora/Kastro (the main town). Chora is a beautiful, typical Cycladic town painted white and blue with several small chapels.

Sikinos' main town, Chora
Sikinos’ main town, Chora

The port town has a lovely, clean beach and a few hotels, but not much else. I much preferred Chora, which is built in and around an old “castle,” i.e. a small fortified area. These walls are not well preserved, but if you look closely you can see them built into the houses. Life moves slowly here, with almost everything (mini-markets, restaurants, shops) closing for the afternoon hours. Fortunately for those of us unaccustomed to afternoon naps, one coffee shop in Chora stays open all afternoon, serving lovely cappuccino freddos (cappuccini freddi?) and snacks (Greek yogurt with fruit, anyone?).

The main activities on Sikinos for visitors are hiking and the beach. I spent most of my days hiking to the two ancient settlements on the island. A couple of years ago, an organization called “Paths of Culture” marked out hiking paths all over the island – they did a fantastic job, and most of the trails are well-signed and fairly accessible. I was drawn to Sikinos by the presence of a church, called Episkopi, built into a well-preserved ancient building.

Episkopi church
Episkopi church

Though early travellers thought the structure was a temple to Apollo, the current interpretation (A. Frantz, H. Thompson, and J. Travlos, 1969) is that it was a third century CE tomb built in the form of a heroön (shrine). Probably in the seventh century, the building was reused as a church, which then collapsed in an earthquake and was rebuilt, with a dome, in the seventeenth century. The tomb is near an ancient settlement on a mountain, today called Agia Marina (St. Marina) after the chapel at its peak. There is a path from Episkopi to the summit. Unfortunately the ancient settlement is rather poorly preserved, but the spectacular views from the mountain are worth the hike.

View from Agia Marina, towards Episkopi
View from Agia Marina, towards Episkopi

Episkopi is fascinating to me because of the persistence of the site as a place of local importance. From tomb to early church to seventeenth century monastery to present day tourist attraction, the building has been maintained through political, cultural, and religious changes. It may be tempting to see this as simply inevitable continuity – throughout the Mediterranean, many ancient monuments continued to be used in the medieval period and beyond. Yet many others were abandoned and fell into ruin. The people of Sikinos made a conscious choice to reuse the Episkopi heroön, as well as specific choices about how to reuse the raw building materials. It is this sense that the present state of the site is not inevitable, that it is not simply a reflection of “society’s” religious or political beliefs, but rather an aggregate of decisions made by individuals, that fascinates me.

Episkopi at dusk
Episkopi at dusk

Stay tuned next week for more on Sikinos!

*I would like to thank CAORC for their support of my research on Sikinos.