Skyros is large (more than 200 sq.km) and the inhabitants are few (2,700); for this reason it feels quiet, spacious and self-contained. Its geography is that of virtually two different islands: the north – fertile and densely wooded, scattered with habitation and cultivation – is like the other islands of the Northern Sporades: the south – empty, mountainous, wild and rocky – has more the landscape of a Cycladic island. Sophocles called the island “windy”; Statius called it “rocky”; Pindar and Strabo praised its herds of goat; and the tyrant Polycrates of Samos is said to have appreciated the quality of its meat. All these attributes are as true today as they were over two thousand years ago.
Achilles sojourned on the island: disguised as a girl, he was sent by his mother Thetis to the court of Lycomedes, king of Skyros, to prevent his going to the Trojan War. Her precaution was in vain: by a subtle ploy, Ulysses uncovered the disguise and lured the hero to Troy, where he was eventually killed before the city fell. Neoptolemos, or Pyrrhos (“red-head”), son of Achilles and Deidameia, daughter of Lycomedes, grew up in Skyros, and was also taken to the Trojan War by Ulysses after his father's death (Sophocles, Philoctetes, 239). It was in Skyros that Lycomedes treacherously killed Theseus, king of Athens, who had sought asylum with him, by pushing him “over a high cliff” (Plutarch, Theseus, 35).
There are important Neolithic and Bronze Age sites on Skyros, with clear trading links to the Northern Aegean and the Troad. The most important and best understood is Palamari, which was a flourishing centre in the late 3rd Millennium BC. Apart from a (probably fortuitous) lacuna of evidence for settlement between 1650 and 1300 BC – the time of the heroes, Theseus and Achilles – there appears to have been significant habitation uninterruptedly through to the Geometric period, and into Archaic and Classical times. In 476/5 BC Cimon of Athens came to Skyros, conquered the island, enslaved the inhabitants and planted Athenian settlers (Thucydides I, 98). An augury led him to where the bones of Theseus were buried; he had them disinterred, transported them to Athens and there buried them in state in a Heröon near to the Acropolis – thought by some to be what we call the Theseion today. Skyros thereafter remained an Athenian clerurchy, with only brief interruptions – when it was ceded to Sparta between 404 and 394 BC, at the end of the Peloponnesian War, and again when it was held by the Macedonians between 322 and 197 BC. It was captured by the Roman fleet in 197 BC, but was only finally taken for Rome by Sulla in 86 BC.
Invading Goths pillaged the island in 276 AD, and the Saracen Arabs during the 9th century. In the 4th century, Skyros was promoted to a bishopric; in 895 the Episkopi church was built, and in 960 the Church of St. George founded on the Kastro. After the 4th Crusade of 1204, Skyros came under Frankish domination, but was returned to Greek Byzantine control in 1276. Less than a century later, in 1354, it was taken by Giovanni Sanudo V, Duke of Naxos, and a systematic repair of the citadel's walls was undertaken by the new overlords. After the capture of Constantinople it was ceded in 1453 by Sultan Mehmet II to the Venetians, who held it for 85 years. In 1538, the Turkish admiral, Khaireddin Barbarossa, captured the island and returned it to a subsequent three centuries of Turkish dominance, with only a brief interlude between 1770 and 1774 during the Russo-Turkish War, when the island was temporarily occupied by Russian forces. Skyros participated in the Greek Independence uprising in 1821 and became part of the new Greek State, together with the other Sporades islands, in 1830.
The steep and dramatic site of *Skyros Chora and its acropolis is a gift of nature for any settlers seeking a safe refuge for their dwellings which could be easily defended. The fame of its form had even reached Homer who refers to it in the Iliad (IX, 666-668) as ‘αἰπύς' (steep). The palace of Lycomedes, where Achilles was hidden, must have been here; for whoever was ‘king' of this castle was lord of the island of Skyros, and whoever was lord of Skyros chose this place to be the expression of that dominance. When the 9th century bishop of Skyros, two thousand years after Lycomedes, sat enthroned in the middle of his clerics at the centre of the synthronon in the church of the Episkopí on the very same spot, he was making his power and supremacy similarly clear to his flock.
In addition to its natural defences, the acropolis was heavily fortified and re-fortified in different epochs. Most visible today are the mid 13th century, Frankish fortifications (restored in 1354 by Giovanni Sanudo, Duke of Naxos) at the summit, compactly constructed in irregular stone, with no sharp angles in their course. Mainly at the south and seaward sides, but also at other points, it is clear that these early mediaeval fortifications are in turn built on top of the larger rectangular, ashlar masonry of the ancient, late 5th century BC walls. The most visible evidence of this enceinte is what remains of the gates and towers in the lower walls (which were repaired and rebuilt in the 4th century BC). These are visible on the east side of the acropolis, half way between the summit and the sea, and also at the north end below Plateia Brooke. They are massively yet precisely constructed and would have been a more effective deterrent than their later mediaeval counterparts.
The gate to the *Kastro stands at the top of the street, surmounted by a marble lion. Although placed by the Venetians during their 85 year presence here, this is not the customary, Venetian winged lion of St. Mark; it is probably an ancient fragment which served as a grave marker, and for this reason has no wings. (The Kastro was extensively damaged by an earthquake in 1999, and the area and its buildings endangered. It is due to reopen in 2015, The huge vaulted, double-chambered structure which crowns the rise to the north is a magazine erected during the Venetian occupation of the Kastro between 1453 and 1538. Nothing remains to be seen of any ancient temple or palace on the site, although finds in the area – such as the large piece of architrave with a triglyph displayed in the courtyard of the Archaeological Museum – are evidence of their existence.
Info: McGilchrist's Greek Islands
(From McGilchrist’s Greek Islands, © Nigel McGilchrist 2010, excerpted with his gracious permission. Click for the books)