The configuration of the islet of Saría in relation to Karpathos is similar to that between Scarba and Jura in the Hebrides; a small, steep, uninhabited island, separated from the uninhabited northern tip of a larger neighbour by a narrow strait famous for its tidal races. The shapes on the map, the profiles from the water, even the seabirds in the air, are similar. But Saría is separated from Karpathos by only a 40-50m stretch of water. The race of the current through the narrow passage, and the pressure of water when the wind is up, is clearly visible. This effect is enhanced by the fact that the depth is minimal – a mere 3 metres. Steps lead down to either side of the strait at the narrowest point.: until recently livestock was ferried across at this point at the beginning of each new season. The animals had to swim the channel, tied to boats which were rowed from one side to the other. The practice probably goes back to ancient times.
The island (20.5 sq. km) is only seasonally inhabited by goatherds and bee-keepers; it is built like a natural fortress with sheer cliffs on the southeast side offering no anchorage or shelter. The only refuge is in the northeast corner where the small bay of Palátia, marked by two rock-stacks to the north of the entrance, cuts in from the coast at the foot of a deep valley. Due west, the valley narrows into a gorge between rock cliffs, perforated with countless holes and caves. On the summit to the north side of the gorge is an abandoned settlement, known as Argos, which was inhabited intermittently from prehistoric times right through until the end of the last century. The gorge debouches into the protected valley which ends at the shore of Palatia Bay; ruined habitation can be seen on both the south slope of ‘Kastéllos' to the left, and the north slope of ‘Palátia' to the right.
The finding of a dagger blade, a bronze chisel, various weapons – including a stone axe now in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge – as well as surface pottery sherds both on the plateau of Argos and at Palatia, suggests that Saria has been inhabited since the late 3rd millennium BC. The first written evidence of Ancient Saros is in the tribute lists of the Delian League. It appears that the ancient settlement of historic times was in the area of ‘Kastéllos'; there are the remains of an enceinte of walls of uncertain date on the summit, and a stretch of fortification walls in polygonal masonry on the lower western slope, perpendicular to which are later Hellenistic walls in isodomic masonry. A rock-cut tomb, also of Hellenistic times can be seen below and to the west. Some have suggested that these belong to the city of ‘Nisyros', mentioned by Strabo (Geog. X, 5.17) as the fourth city of the Karpathian tetrapolis; but there is little to corroborate the conjecture, and since there are references also to ‘Saros' and to the ‘Sarioi', these would seem the more obvious names for the ancient settlement and its inhabitants.
The most substantial visible remains, which cover a surprising area and suggest a large community, are from the Early Christian and Mediaeval periods. The curious style of some of the standing buildings on the hillside of Palatia to the northwest of the bay, with steep vaults and corbelled beehive cupolas which have parallels in the Middle East, has led to the suggestion that the island was used as a settled base by Arab raiders from the 8th to 10th centuries. Settlement appears to have continued through the Middle Ages. The most recently inhabited settlement on the island, the village of Argos high up on the northern plateau of the island, was finally abandoned around 1980.
Just inland of the shore and to the left (south) is the modern chapel of Aghia Sophia. The interior is plain, with an altar made from an ancient column fragment and a carved marble plaque with the cross of the Knights of St John immured in the wall above. Outside, many fragments of Early Christian marble – Corinthian-style capitals, pieces of architrave, and broken columns – lie around the precinct. Traces of mosaic floor are visible in front of the entrance. The chapel is built over the sanctuary of a 5th century basilica whose synthronon can be seen behind the apse. To the south lie the remains of baths.
The most visible ruins of habitation are on the hillside of Palatia opposite, to the north: they have more the lay-out of an encampment than of a well-organised settlement. What is remarkable is the fineness of some of the construction: the unmistakable ‘beehive' domed buildings are constructed with immaculate corbelling, and fine proportions. If these were mere Arab raiders who settled here, their skills as builders were surprising. As well as the domed buildings there are also many other structures roofed with a type of simple vault whose pitch is comparably steep. Not apparently oriented to function as places of worship, it is generally thought that they may have served as grain-stores, even though they possess similarities to the vaulted Early Christian tombs on the island of Telendos. There are also cisterns beside several of them.
Info: McGilchrist's Greek Islands
(From McGilchrist’s Greek Islands, © Nigel McGilchrist 2010, excerpted with his gracious permission. Click for the books)