Few islands furthermore can boast a more dramatically sited, yet attractive, Chora than Folégandros with its compact mediaeval centre and a chain of beautiful, shaded squares. The first evidence of human settlement on the island, at its northern extremity of Kastellos Point, dates from the Early Cycladic II period (mid-3rd millennium BC). Continuity during the Middle and Late Bronze Age (2nd millennium BC) is indicated by surface finds near the port of Karavostasis and on Palaiokastro Hill, which is where settlement later concentrated in historic times. It is in this period that the island may have acquired its name from the Phoenician ‘phelek-gundari', meaning ‘rocky land'; though it was also known to the Greeks, according to Strabo (Geog. X, 5.1), by the epithet ‘σιδηρείη' (‘like iron') because of the hardness of its terrain. The island was colonised by Dorians, though later received much Ionian influence, eventually developing an Ionian dialect in Hellenistic times. It was assessed to pay a tribute of 2,000 drachmas into the First Athenian League in 425 BC. Most of the visible remains on the island, such as the retaining wall in the cemetery of Chora and the inscriptions in the cave of Chrysospilia, date from the Hellenistic and Roman period however. Folégandros appears briefly to have minted its own coins in the 2nd century BC.
The 12th century Arab geographer, Al-Idrisi, mentions the island by the name ‘Belikendra'. The island was taken by Marco Sanudo into the Duchy of Naxos in 1207 and passed to the Bolognese overlords of Kythnos, the Gozzadini family, in 1336. Although Cristoforo Buondelmonti in his Liber Insularum described Folégandros as virtually uninhabited when he visited in c. 1417, the island appears later to have been re-settled from Crete in the 16th century. The Ottoman Empire took complete possession of the island from descendants of the Gozzadini in 1617. In 1715 it suffered a punitive Turkish raid, leaving it once again depopulated. Between 1770 and 1774 it came under Russian rule along with the other Cyclades during the Russo- Turkish war. In 1828 it joined the newly independent Greek State. In 1918, 1926, 1936, and again in the 1960's the island was used as a place of exile for the political undesirables of the moment. Electricity was only brought to Folégandros in 1974.
The *Chora of Folégandros—one of the best preserved and most dramatically sited in the Aegean—divides into two areas: the older, semi-fortified, mediaeval Kastro to the north; and the settlement of the 17th and later centuries, contiguous with it, to the south. On the north side cliffs drop 200m almost sheer into the sea below; and to the east, above the church of the Panaghia, is the peak of Palaiokastro which rises to 353m above sea level. The Kastro is a mediaeval settlement in which the houses face inwards and their outside walls form the ‘fortified' enceinte. To the north, the rock precipice forms an effective natural defence; the houses had no lime-plaster in earlier times, and were indistinguishable from the natural rock when seen from a distance. Begun in the early years of Venetian domination, it could accommodate almost 200 families within its small—but not cramped—perimeter. The houses have been remarkably well-preserved without resorting visibly to modern materials; where the buildings cross the tiny alleyways, the passages are roofed with cypress and schist blocks; and the characteristic wooden balconies and parallel flights of steps (especially in the ‘Kato Roua', the first street to left) have survived unaltered. At either end of the upper street, or ‘Piso Roua' are two compact, late-Mediaeval churches—Aghia Sophia (west) and the Panaghia Eleousa (east)—the latter marked by a fragment of fluted ancient column by its door. Projecting on an outcrop at the western extremity of Kastro, with an unforgettable view, is the church of the Panaghia Pantanassa, built by a Cretan immigrant shortly before the end of the 17th century: he appears, kneeling, in the predella of the painting on the south sanctuary-door of the screen.
To the left of the primary school building overlooking Pounta Square a street leads into the stepped path which winds up to the church of the Panaghia, below the summit of the hill to the east. As you approach the first bend, the Roman marble bust of a robed male figure comes into view, erected above an arch in the modern cemetery wall ahead: it gives an intimation that this is the heart of the area occupied by the settlement of Ancient Pholegandros. The clearest evidence of this is the long stretch of Hellenistic retaining wall inside the cemetery enclosure (second level, back left) on which the chapel of Aghia Anna sits. The face of the wall is bisected transversely by a carefully executed ‘rope-course' of masonry, which separates the courses of ‘ballooning' stone blocks below, from the flatter more finished masonry above. The wall must date from the late 4th or early 3rd century BC. Further up the hill and in the surrounding area are the vestigial remains of ancient habitation.
The church of the Panaghia itself may occupy the site of a pagan place of worship, which in turn was replaced by an Early Christian church. As you enter the forecourt, some plain ancient column fragments and statue bases can be seen: one of the latter still preserves the tips of the bronze feet of a (probably Roman) statue which stood on it, with the lead filling still visible within the toes. Above, embedded in the lower south wall of the bell-tower, is the robed torso of a Roman funerary statue in marble. The church itself dates from c. 1820, when it was rebuilt to replace an earlier 17th century church to which the carved marble west door frame and the inscription just to the right of the entrance belonged. Inside the spacious interior, the iconostasis and the throne in a grey-white Tiniot marble are the work of the sculptor from Tinos, Konstantinos Kaparias.
The summit above the church of the Panaghia, known as Palaiokástro, functioned successively as the acropolis of Ancient Pholegandros and as a fortress in Byzantine and Venetian times. Only the amorphous ruins of mostly later mediaeval walls, some ancient foundations and a scatter of pottery remain to be seen on the site: the view over the island and towards Milos and Siphnos is particularly fine, however. To both west and east the mountain drops almost sheer into the sea 350m below. Wikidata ID: Q213902
Info: McGilchrist's Greek Islands
(From McGilchrist’s Greek Islands, © Nigel McGilchrist 2010, excerpted with his gracious permission. Click for the books)