Set in its own archipelago of islets off the west coast of Rhodes, Chalki is strikingly different in atmosphere from anything on Rhodes itself. The wealth once brought to this tiny, infertile island by the sponge-trade in the 19th century is immediately evident in the gracious sweep of stone houses of neoclassical inspiration that encircle the harbour. The island supported a relatively large population and several settlements in Antiquity, the remains of which have been found all the way from the east coast (the temple of Apollo at Pefkiá) to the island's western extremity at Cape Kepháli (where there are ruins of a Hellenistic tower), as well as in the area of the island's walled acropolis high above the centre of the south coast. Although the island's name appears to refer to ‘copper' (anc. Greek, chalkós), there is no remaining evidence either of the extraction or the working of the metal on the island. It is possible that the name instead derives from the Phoenician word ‘karki' or ‘kalchi' meaning ‘murex shells', from which purple dye was extracted: indeed the island's mediaeval name, still sometimes used by mariners today, was ‘Charki'.
Neolithic finds on the promontory of Trachiá and at Pontamos provide the earliest evidence of human settlement on the island. Ancient Chalce only steps into the pages of written texts or inscriptions in the Classical period however, first appearing in the fiscal lists of the Athenian League to which the island belonged in the 5th century BC. Thucydides cites that Chalce played an important role as an operations base for the Athenian fleet in 411 BC during the Peloponnesian War, against enemy ships in Rhodes. Its subsequent independence was short-lived, and the island became part of the Rhodian State in the late 4th century BC, subject to the deme of Kameiros. This is confirmed by Theophrastus who describes Chalce as a Rhodian island. Little is known of its structure or cult beyond Strabo's observation that it ‘possessed a harbour and a temple of Apollo' (Geog. X 488).
Apart from some scattered and vestigial Early Christian remains, little is known of the island's fortunes up into the middle Byzantine period except that the constant danger of pirate raids forced the population to move well inland and re-settle in the protected area of the ancient acropolis (Chorió). In 1309 Chalki passed into the hands of the Knights of St. John, who in 1366 granted the island, together with Alimnia, to the Italian Barello Assanti, citizen (burgensis) of Rhodes. The Knights of St John subsequently rebuilt the castle on the acropolis in the mid 15th century, only to lose it in 1522/3 to the Turks, who governed the island up until 1912, when the Italians took control. In May 1947 the island was incorporated into the Greek State together with the other islands of the Dodecanese. From the beginning of the 20th century Chalki saw almost continual decline in population, as those families who had worked in the sponge trade left for the United States.
*Palaio Chorió was the site of the capital of the island in Classical Antiquity and again in Mediaeval times, when piracy had made coastal habitation untenable: a naturally fortified acropolis (Palaiókastro) guarded the whole of the southeast corner of the island. Remains from the two periods can be clearly distinguished— the irregular masonry of the mediaeval construction contrasting vividly with the perfectly regular, isodomic masonry used in the ancient fortification and embanking walls. The short stretches of ancient wall, lower down on the hill, probably formed terraces supporting larger buildings above.
The path leads up first to the early 18th century church of the Panaghia (if locked, the key may be obtained from the taverna at Pontamos). The church has clearly been enlarged westwards in three separate campaigns during its long history, and its construction incorporates ancient fragments amongst which is a conspicuous piece of marble cornice with deeply cut dentils, above a window in the exterior north wall. The interior is a graceful, vaulted chamber with pebble floor, decorated in the apse and on the ceiling with relatively well-preserved wall-paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries, depicting scenes from the Early Life and Miracles of Christ (south side) and from the Passion and Resurrection (north side), together with scenes from the Acathist Hymn (a 6th century hymn of thanksgiving to the Mother of God), and saints in aureoles above. The colours have retained their intensity in many places. The 19th century wooden iconostasis , carved in low relief, is of high quality. On the north wall, immediately be side the door, the plaster has been removed in part to reveal the ancient column and eroded Corinthian capital beneath. A path through the gate at the southwest corner of the courtyard leads uphill to the small church of Aghia Triada, with damaged 15th century wall-paintings and a fine ancient marble drum as altar.
Running west from its entrance, is a particularly good example of Hellenistic walling in perfect courses of regularly rusticated, isodomic masonry. Remains of the ancient settlement become increasingly apparent as you climb: deep, rock-cut cisterns, often with finely shaped mouths; carved rectangular niches; two fragments of inscribed architrave with the legend ‘ISANDROS LYSANDROU IARATEUSAS ASKLIPIOU', clearly legible (‘Isandros, son of Lysander, priest of Asklepios') indicate the presence of a sanctuary of Asklepios; beside it, the base of a statue with holes for the dowels under the feet; and, just before the final climb to the castle entrance, two rectangular thrones – altars cut in a section of rock, with the now hardly legible inscription ‘DIOS EKATES' (‘of Zeus [and] Hecate'), are clearly connected to the worship of these two deities. The entrance of the castle itself is built up on well-preserved, ancient wall-foundations.
The Castle of the Knights of St John bears the coat of arms (above and right of the entrance) of the Order's Grand Master, Pierre d'Aubusson: the fact that this escutcheon does not yet show the cardinal's regalia which was bestowed on d'Aubusson in 1489 suggests a date for the castle's construction between 1476 and 1489. The entrance leads into a roofless guardroom with cannon embrasures, before a magnificent ancient doorway, constructed from ten dressed, monolithic blocks, which opens into the oblong area of the ruined interior of the castle. The finely cas tel lated north wall of the enceinte, which follows the line of the ancient Hellenistic walls, is particularly well preserved, with a narrow sentry walk, central tower (with latrine beside), and rooms built into the interior face to accommodate inhabitants during periods of siege. The south wall is mostly collapsed and preserves only the bases of two of its towers. Midway between north and south walls, a deep cistern (probably of ancient origin) with plaster lining is still visible. Wikidata ID: Q917162
Info: McGilchrist's Greek Islands
(From McGilchrist’s Greek Islands, © Nigel McGilchrist 2010, excerpted with his gracious permission. Click for the books)