Kastellorizo's position on the maritime route between the Aegean Sea and the Levantine coast has given the island an importance beyond its meagre size: its port represents one of the few truly sheltered harbours along the Asian coast between Rhodes and Beirut. In Antiquity the island was called Megiste (‘greatest’), i.e. the largest of the small archipelago of eleven islets which surround it: the Arabs called it Mayias (a version of ‘megas’, perhaps) and the Turks to this day call it Meïs. Strabo (Geog. XIV 665/6) refers also to another island here, or alternatively to a town on this island (it is not clear which), by the name of Kisthene. The current name ‘Kastellorizo’ derives from the Italian ‘Castel Rosso’. There is, in fact, nothing ‘red’ about its ‘castle’, but the soil of the plateau of the island is rich in iron oxides and has a deep russet colour. Archaeological finds attest Neolithic, and later Mycenaean habitation on the island – the latter could possibly be indicated, according to some, by a stretch of ‘Cyclopean’ walling, high up on the crest above the harbour, although a later date for this (9th century bc) is now more generally accepted. The descendants of Dorian settlers established a fortified town and acropolis on the hill of Palaiokastro, which constitute the principal ancient urban remains of the island. By the mid 4th century bc, the island was under Rhodian administration, and appears to have prospered on a vigorous trade in wine; this is corroborated by the uncovering of a large number of ancient grape-treading areas cut into the natural rock around the island. The island also issued silver and bronze coinage with a motif of grape-bunches, and the head of Apollo on the obverse.
Some Early Christian remains underline the presence of a modestly sized community here from the beginnings of the Byzantine era. In 1306 the island was taken by the Knights of St John; it served as a vital link in their firm grip on the Turkish coast; but also – because of its remoteness – it appears to have been used by them occasionally as a detention centre for disobedient knights. Over the next three hundred years the castle was destroyed and rebuilt several times – seized by the Mamelukes in 1440, taken from them a decade later and rebuilt by Alfonso V of Aragon, king of Naples, whose primary interest was to keep the Turkish fleet out of Italian waters. In 1522, together with Rhodes, the fortress fell to Suleiman the Magnificent. The Venetians succeeded in wresting the island briefly from the Turks in 1570, and again in 1659, when the castle was destroyed once more. Reverting again to a settled period of Turkish occupation, the island gained some commercial autonomy and prospered on trade between the Aegean and the East. A revolt in 1821, inspired by the Greek independence movement, made the island Greek for a decade until it reverted once again to Turkish administration in 1831.
In March 1913 the population took the Ottoman garrison hostage and proclaimed a provisional government; in August of the same year an ‘Overseer’, supported by a force of gendarmes, was sent by the Greek government from Samos. Only two years later, however, an expeditionary force of the French army, seeking a base from which to prosecute their war in Syria, landed on the island and occupied it. This in turn provoked heavy bombardment from Turkey. The French kept the island until it passed to Italy in 1921, following the terms of the Treaty of Sévres. A severe earthquake five years later compounded the accumulated damage to an already declining community. During the Second World War, the British briefly held the island in 1941, only to lose it again to an Italian force from Rhodes, a few days later. In September 1943 the Italians capitulated to the Allies, and the island was held by the British. Under heavy German bombing in 1944, the Allies evacuated the population to safety in refugee camps in the Gaza Strip. British forces pillaged the now deserted houses: during their departure – either accidentally or intentionally – a fire broke out and spread to an ammunition cache, whose detonation caused huge destruction. Kastellorizo effectively only came under Greek administration in September 1947, and joined the Greek State in March 1948, together with the other Dodecanese Islands. What remained was a burnt out shell and a miserably depleted population. Sixty years of peace, combined with the island’s close ties with its emigré communities, especially in Northern Australia, have fostered a growing population once again, and brought some long-deserved tranquility.
*Palaiokastro is the acropolis of the island’s principal settlement during Classical antiquity. Clearly visible are several periods of construction: at the lower level, the outer enceinte of walls, probably of the 9th century bc, with three (later) protruding bastions; above this level (in the southeast corner to the left of the large ilex tree), the inner enceinte of fortifications with the base of a classical tower in perfectly cut, ashlar stonework, of the late 5th century; - three churches – from left to right, Ag. Nikolaos, Panaghia Palaiokastrítissa, and Ag. Stephanos – built in the 19th century. Detached, to the west of the hill, is the church of Ag. Paraskeví; to the east, Ag. Marina – both built into ancient foundations.
The 9th century bc outer enceinte is constructed of a lower level in large, roughly regular blocks, surmounted by the walls composed of smaller, irregular rubble which were added in the Middle Ages. The cleaner cut masonry of the bastions along the east side, suggests they are later additions of the 5th century bc. The fine blocks of the entrance propylon in the southeast corner, must also be of this date; in its vicinity are two stones bearing important 3rd century bc, Doric inscriptions, mentioning the name Megiste, and its dependence on Rhodes. They are both somewhat hidden, low down at ground-level: the first is in the south-facing side of the lowest block to the right of the rectangular gate, and refers to “[B]asilon of Lelos, son of Exa[k]estion” who had been “epistasis (commander) [in Megiste]” ; the second, on a square block, is slightly further in at the bottom end of the wall on the right – this time dedicated “to the Dioscouri” by “Epikratidas, son of Anaxikratis, former epistasis, and his fellow military officials”.
Above this entrance, and below the finely rusticated masonry of the corner of the classical fortifications, is a rock-cut exedra with rectangular pool for water below (its presence inside the inhabited area of the acropolis would tend to suggest that this were not a sarcophagus, as has been suggested); above this, are carved niches for votive statues.
A walk around the area within the fortifications, reveals countless water cisterns cut into the living stone (one in the northwest corner still preserves a carved flight of steps); there are also magazines of mediaeval construction near the southeastern entrance. Inscriptions refer to the cult of Apollo and of Zeus Megisteus; one or both of these two temples could have been here at the top of the acropolis: no signs are visible today, because the summit has been repeatedly modified by military use. The centre of the eastern side of the hill is occupied by what was once an early 19th century monastery, incorporating the two churches of the Panaghia and Aghios Stephanos, which are separated by a pebble floor-mosaic dated 1858. Above them are the remains of a collapsed mansion or hostel. Even its upper-floor fireplaces are still visible.
Info: McGilchrist's Greek Islands
(From McGilchrist’s Greek Islands, © Nigel McGilchrist 2010, excerpted with his gracious permission. Click for the books)