After Santorini, Nisyros is the most significant volcano in the Aegean. From hewn blocks of a dense basaltic rock created by this volcano, the ancient inhabitants of Nisyros constructed daunting walls to protect the acropolis of their city. They are extensive and very well preserved, and they constitute one of the most impressive (and least known) ancient remains in Greece.
Strabo, in his account of the island (Geog. X 5.16) points out that ‘Nisyros is said to be a fragment of Cos.' Study of the geology of the area bears this out: until a catastrophic eruption around 160,000 years ago Nisyros may well have been a part of Kos. The legend, he continues, is that Poseidon in his pursuit of Polyvotis, broke off a fragment of the island, and buried the fuming giant beneath it—explaining in this way the island's habitual volcanic activity.
The most significant prehistoric human presence (Late Neolithic) discovered so far was on the island of Gialí, just opposite Nisyros, which had important obsidian deposits. The first written mention of Nisyros is in Homer (Iliad II.676), where it is said to have participated in the expedition of 30 ships to Troy under the leadership of the sons of Thessalos. The Dorian character of the island is apparent from Herodotus (Hist. V11. 99) who says that its inhabitants came from Epidauros. In the early 5th century it was, together with Kos and Kalymnos, under the control of Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus; but the five ships that went with her to the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC, deserted to the Greek side according to Herodotus. After this the island joined the First Athenian League and supported Athens at the outset of the Peloponnesian War, although it later turned to Sparta and then back again to Athens as fortunes changed.
In the 4th century BC Nisyros was an autonomous city state, minting its own coinage (bearing various motifs, most commonly dolphins). In 200 BC, the island became part of the Rhodian State. The Nisyrian admiral, Gnomagoras, who had fought together with the Rhodian navy against Crete, was received with honours, a golden crown and the title of ‘Governor' on his return to the island in 153 BC. Later the island became subject to the Ptolemies and then to Rome.
Subject in the 7th century to the Caliphate of Syria, and in the 11th century conquered by the Selcuk Turks, Nisyros was eventually reunited with the Byzantine state in 1204, and then taken in 1312 by the Knights of St. John.
Four years later the vassalage of the island (together with Chalki, Alimnia and Tilos) was given by them to the Assanti family of Ischia in thanks for help they had given to the Order. In 1433 it passed to the Venetian admiral, Fantino Querini, the governor of Kos. The island's population was decimated by the attack of Sultan Mehmet II in 1457 during his campaign of subjugation of the Aegean: in 1523 the island came under full Ottoman control together with Rhodes. Although a self-liberated Nisyros momentarily participated in the Provisional Administration of Free Greece in 1823, the island remained under Ottoman control until it passed to the Italians in 1912. In common with the other neighbouring islands it was liberated by Allied forces in 1944 and was incorporated into the Greek State in 1948. Major eruptions of the volcano in 1871, 1873 and 1887, and a strong earthquake in 1953, have repeatedly wrought damage to the buildings and altered the landscape of the island.
A delightful climb up a stone pathway in Mandraki(starting between some houses just south of Aghia Aikaterini), winds through terraces of olives, oak, figs, almonds and flowering cactus, and brings you to the ruins of Palaiókastro in just under half an hour, passing occasional ancient relicts (marble column bases, etc.) along the route. On the plateau, the ponderous fortification walls of the acropolis* come into view—unexpectedly massive and well conserved, and standing to a full height of 7m in places.
These are among the finest ancient walls anywhere in the Greek world. They consist of two parallel curtains of perfectly dressed blocks, with massive rock in-fill in the centre.
This can best be seen at the western extremity where a breach in the walls makes this method of construction visible. Solid rectangular bastions project, which served effectively to cover the areas of wall in between from attack: their external corners are meticulously drafted with admirable precision. These bastions were accessible by broad staircases in the interior, of which three are still extant. The dark, red-tinged stone is a dense basaltic andesite which, along with the granites and porphyries, is one of the hardest of all stones to work by hand. One of the quarry areas for this rock may still be seen a little way to the north of the walls.
A perfect horizontality of parallel courses is maintained in the exterior curtain, while the interior curtain— no less robust and well-constructed—is generally more irregular and polygonal in method. This might suggest two campaigns of construction: an earlier period (early 5th century) for a single wall structure (inner wall), later reinforced as a double curtain, 50–100 years after, by the addition of an outer wall and solid in-fill. It is strange that a city as apparently insignificant as Ancient Nisyros should have felt the need to defend itself with walls of such magnitude. What is visible today, however, does not constitute a complete enceinte, and it is not clear how far the walls may have extended to the north, or what protected the western side other than the natural drop of the land: if there were other extensions of walls of comparable size, their remains have very successfully vanished.
The monumental doorway had double doors, whose imposts, fixing-holes in the threshold and bolt-holes in the jambs are all clearly visible. Any approach was well marked by the projecting bastion opposite. A revealing 4th century BC inscription* carved on the wall prohibits the erection of any building in proximity to the exterior surface of the walls. This is to be found north of the gate at eye-level on the south-facing wall of the east bastion and on the adjacent stretch of the main, east wall, written across the corner: it reads ‘Damosion to ch/orion pente podes / apo to teiche[os]', ‘Five feet from the walls belongs to the municipality', i.e. no building within five feet (1.5m).
Any such building would be considered as compromising the security of the fortifications. Inside the walls, excavations are underway in the southeast corner revealing the neat masonry and steps of an earlier building campaign. Further inside, among the trees, are the remains of the Early Christian basilica of Aghios Ioannis. A half-buried row of white marble columns from the nave (some with fine crosses carved on them, similar to the columns reused in the church of Aghios Ioannis Prodromos in Mandráki, see above) are being brought to light by excavation, as well as a number of fine Byzantine Corinthian capitals.Wikidata ID: Q38282168
Info: McGilchrist's Greek Islands
(From McGilchrist’s Greek Islands, © Nigel McGilchrist 2010, excerpted with his gracious permission. Click for the books)