The site of ancient (historic) Thera is open daily 8.30–3 except Mon. The siting of Ancient Thera* is one of the most audacious in the Aegean. It occupies the exposed, eastern spur of Mount Prophitis Elias, known as Mesa Vouno, looking across the water to the island of Anaphi thirty kilometres to the east. To the west rises the island's highest summit; on all other sides the mountain drops over 300m, straight to the sea. The Prophitis Elias protrusion is the only solid limestone on the island where foundations can be sunk into rock rather than into volcanic pumice. The remains of the city are interesting and varied: it was the only large settlement on the island in early historic times. Access by foot is arduous: either by an unrelenting, thirty-minute climb up a switchback road from Kamári (on the north side), or by a rough track from Períssa (on the south side); there are no buses but taxis will, somewhat reluctantly, take visitors to the top of the road. These two paths converge on a narrow saddle, which was occupied by the ancient cemeteries of the city, between the summit of Prophitis Elias (567m) and the acropolis of the ancient town (366m) to the east. The city was founded and settled around the 9th or 8th century century BC, by Dorians from Laconia, under a Spartan leader, Theras. The site was strategically placed to dominate the maritime routes both between Crete and the Aegean, and between the Greek and Asia Minor mainlands. Below the mountain were harbours both to the north and south sides, one or other of which afforded protection whatever the direction of the wind. The finds from the Geometric and Archaic cemeteries of the city show that Thera knew considerable prosperity early on. Herodotus recounts that, after a protracted drought of several years around 630 BC, the city was forced to found a colony of its own at Cyrene on the North African coast. This was its only colony, but one which grew to unforeseen wealth and importance. Thera, as was typical of Dorian settlements, was conservative both in its art and its external relations. It only became a truly cosmopolitan centre in Hellenistic times under the rule of the Ptolemies. It is from this period of prosperity that most of the visible ruins and the plan of the city date.
The site was first examined and the cemeteries excavated by the German scholar, Hiller von Gärtringen, between 1895 and 1903. The next systematic excavation was begun by Greek archaeologists under Nikolaos Zapheiropoulos in the 1960s, and continues today.
The extensive cemeteries are disposed along the saddle or col which joins Mesa Vouno to the main mountain of Prophitis Elias. Long before reaching the ridge as you climb up on the Kamári side, clear cuts and stepped platforms in the rock reveal the sites of tombs on the hillside to the north of the road, dating largely from Hellenistic times: then in the last few switchbacks, the bases and steps of a wide variety of slightly earlier funerary buildings can be seen, often in different colours of stone—red, white and grey—to either side of the ancient road up to the city which is also visible in stretches. The simplest graves would have been marked with a cube of stone engraved with the name of the deceased; the important early Archaic graves were marked by standing, marble kouroi; later ones by small architectural structures.
One would have arrived at the city through a forest of funerary monuments, unable to see the habitation yet, but with wide, open views to the sea. On the Períssa side, just below the enclosure fence of the site, are more monument bases again in different colours of stone. The rich finds—statuary, votive gifts and funerary urns—found in these cemeteries are on display in the Archaeological Museum in Chora. As recently as November 2000, a fine Daedalic kore of the late 7th century BC was uncovered on the south-facing slope: the well-preserved, monolithic statue of a female figure, with long, braided hair, stands 2.3m high, and once marked a tomb. It is a particularly fine piece of early Archaic sculpture.
As you climb towards the remains of the city itself from the entrance to the enclosed area you pass the double-nave church of Aghios Stephanos, which dates from perhaps as early as the 9th century AD, and is built within the remains of a 5th century AD Early Christian basilica, dedicated to the Archangel Michael. Monolithic columns without capitals rudimentarily support the vaults, and ancient blocks and tomb-covers from the Christian basilica, engraved with crosses and inscriptions, constitute parts of the walls. The area of rock behind the church shows signs of quarrying: all the stone in Ancient Thera, apart from the elements of white marble and red, volcanic stone, comes from the ridge itself.
Fifty metres beyond Aghios Stephanos you come to the Temenos or Shrine of Artemidoros of Perge, who was admiral of the Ptolemaic fleet in the late 4th century BC. Little remains of the superstructure of what was a grand and complex monument, intended equally to honour a group of divinities and to promote his own glory. The carved symbols of the principal divinities are clearly visible in the rockface behind: the dolphin of Poseidon, the lion of Apollo and the eagle of Zeus. Artemidorus—as sailor and admiral—has had his own image positioned above the dolphin of Poseidon and carved in numismatic profile. The cutting away of the platform of the shrine would have provided stone for construction in the town.
After a final rise with steps, the path drops into the agorá of the city. The area is not built around a central square as was most common, but is drawn out along the ridge of the mountain, as determined by the steep lie of the land. The bases of shops are seen to the seaward side, while the residential area climbs up above, to the right. This is a good point at which to observe the variety of masonry: in the shops are many elements in a dark red, volcanic pumice brought from the north of the island, which provides vivid chromatic relief; visible on the hillside, well below to the left, is the perfect, drafted, 4th-century BC masonry of the corner bastion of a deep podium for a building on the slope, referred to as the ‘platys teichos', or ‘broad wall'. On the hill above the agorá, the walls display areas of similarly well-cut and laid ashlar masonry, alternating with other areas of rough and irregular masonry: the latter would probably have been faced with plaster, the former left exposed. This meant that the appearance of the ancient town was not that dissimilar to many historic Mediterranean towns today, in which the corners of large buildings—which always take the brunt of knocks and bangs—are in clean masonry, while the long stretches of wall were rendered with a stucco. On the slope, the public buildings to the seaward side broke the wind, and reflected the stepped buildings facing them higher up. The streets of the area are endowed with a network of covered drains.
A little further along the main path and to the right-hand side is the so-called Royal Stoa, an elongated building, with a central spine of columns, running below terraces above. This was a roofed and closed edifice, built at the start of the 1st century AD, which functioned as the city's principal civic and judicial building. The central columns supported a hipped roof which (according to inscriptions) collapsed in an earthquake during the reign of Trajan and had to be restored. The building would have exhibited decrees inscribed on stelai, similar to those in the back wall of the building which have been haphazardly immured there at a later date.
To the south, the main street narrows, passing a municipal water-house—a communal cistern which husbanded the city's precious supply of stored water, so as to supplement that of the private houses which were nearly all endowed with individual cisterns for collecting rainwater. To the east of it, opens out the small, highly panoramic, 3rd-century BC theatre. This began as a Greek-style theatre with a circular orchestra and low skene; but, as often happened, it was remodelled in Roman times with a large skene which now took up half the space of the original orchestra. The street beyond the theatre leads down between finely built ashlar walls of houses to either side, towards the oldest and most sacred area of the town. Before following it, we retrace our steps to the north end of the Royal Stoa, so as to explore the residential area further uphill.
Our route is indicated on the cornerstone of the building above the north end of the Royal Stoa by a large, engraved phallus, an optimistic symbol of fortune and prosperity, more than a sexual proposition. The design, in which the circles have been cut using a compass, looks like a later engraving on a panel which had previously eroded. It points appropriately to the small, Hellenistic Temple of Dionysos, opposite, on the right hand side of the stepped street. In the spaces adjacent to the latter temple, there are fragments of architrave decoration, including a run of triglyphs in marble, which have been unearthed in excavations. At the top of the steps, a path which dog-legs to the right leads across a space occupied by a gymnasium to an imposingly large residence with a clearly visible entrance atrium, before which sits a ‘bomb' of black lava, of the kind ejected by the volcano when active. This building was arbitrarily dubbed the Governor's Residence, because of its position at the highest point and its grand propylon or porticoed doorway which marked the entrance from the street to its east. To the left, from the top of the steps above the Temple of Dionysos, the street descends through some of the best-preserved residential buildings on the site: one conserves its foricae in good condition, and a plastered cistern supported by pillars for storing the water deriving from an impluvium above; others have coloured threshold blocks in red and black volcanic stone; and most preserve vestiges, at the base of their interior walls, of the redpainted plaster which coated their surface. Beyond, the path drops down to the Temple of Pythian Apollo of which little remains, beyond a finely cut lustral basin. The building was converted in the 6th century into an early Byzantine church, whose apse can be seen to the east. At this point, to south and west, an immense view opens out over the south coast at Períssa and Vlycháda, with the mass of the mountain rising in vertical striations sheer out of the flat, coastal shelf below.
Overlooking this sobering sight is a rock shelf, cut with an amphitheatre of niches and ledges: this was the sanctuary of the Egyptian Gods, deities which included Isis, Anubis and Serapis, who were imported into the cosmopolitan world of Hellenistic Greece through commerce with Egypt. Returning again to the agorá and the theatre, we follow the Sacred Way to the southeast, down the ridge of the mountain, to the panoramic promontory where the sacred centre of the Archaic city was built. This area, with its unearthly setting, was the Sanctuary of the Dorian cult of Apollo Karneios*. It spreads over a series of terraces, part cut into the rock, part constructed on massive retaining walls which are visible even from Períssa below. All around this platform of rock, is the sea; above, is the sky; ahead, the rising sun, and the island of Anaphi or Anaphe, ‘the apparition'. The area is overlooked from the northwest by the base of a temple dedicated to Ptolemy III, from which the lay-out can be observed: the humped ridge stretches ahead, with the rectangular base of the Temple of Apollo to the left side, and the larger rectangular Terrace of the Ephebes to the right. The latter is where the Gymnopaidíai, ritual dances and displays performed by ephebes in honour of Apollo during the Karneia festival, took place in the heat of August.
The base of the Temple of Apollo Karneios is cut into the rock of the hillside, with an orientation about 25 degrees off an exact east/west axis: the temple proper is preceded by a pronaos, a courtyard and further rooms, in all occupying a space of approximately thirty two metres by ten metres. The threshold and the door-post slots of the temple entrance can be seen cut in the rock at the southeast corner. The temple is preceded by a court, with a large cistern below at the northeast side, roofed with limestone beams, which collected the water which, by virtue of falling on the temple's roof and precinct, was sacred. To the right side is possibly a priest's residence: to left, the front of the temple. Two doorways, still intact, lead in from the side of the naos through the southwest wall into small rooms that probably functioned as treasuries.
The Terrace of the Ephebes, also referred to as the ‘Square of the Gymnopaidíai', is the long rectangular platform to the south of the temple across the ridge of rock, built out over massive retaining walls of the 6th century BC, repaired in later periods in the upper areas. These are best seen from below, from where a fine stretch of polygonal masonry can also be seen higher up and further to the west. In this exposed area the Gymnopaidíai were held in honour of Apollo from at least as early as the 7th century BC. The rocks in between the temple and the terrace, where the male spectators of these performances sat, are covered with a wealth of scratched inscriptions and graffiti*, ranging in date from the 7th century BC to later Classical and Hellenistic times. Amongst them are some of the earliest examples of the Greek alphabet in the Aegean. The inscriptions, some of which are quite long, are written all over the rocks in a variety of Archaic scripts: they record names and erotic appreciations of the boys who performed dances and martial displays here during the festival. There are drawings of heads, abstract patterns, and engraved outlines of feet.
The presiding divinities of the ephebes as they reached adulthood were Hermes (for mental faculties and quickness of wits) and Hercules (for bodily strength and development): on a level below the south corner of the terrace is a deep cave, penetrating the mountainside, which was the sacred grotto of Hermes and Hercules. Here, too, there are inscriptions all around: from the Archaic period on the left door jamb; two later, Classical ones, higher up; and many more, of Hellenistic times, against the rock face to the left as you look in towards the cave. The surface of the external wall is beautifully finished by hand, with a mason's point. The doorway to the left (west) of the cave leads into the remains of Roman baths. The rock-cut esplanade in front of the cave constituted the heart of the Gymnasium of the Ephebes, a structure added in Hellenistic times to the sanctuary.
As you return from the Gymnasium, climbing back up towards the Agorá, the view opens out over the coast at Kamári: on the hillside below, in the foreground, about 150m to the north of the Temple of Apollo Karneios, is the base of a Hellenistic heröon to an unknown figure. The clear lines of isodomic masonry in its base and walls can be seen below the modern chapel of the Annunciation which has been built into it.Wikidata ID: Q433004
Info: McGilchrist's Greek Islands
(From McGilchrist’s Greek Islands, © Nigel McGilchrist 2010, excerpted with his gracious permission. Click for the books)