More than any other small island, Samothrace has a solitude and grandeur that are epic. Its rugged gorges and peaks, its trees, waters, winds and shores, are not overwhelming or unwelcoming, but they possess something of the primeval simplicity and the scale of epic. Its forests are those evoked by Homer; its winds are those that propelled and tormented Odysseus; the view from the summit of Mount Saos is the view that Poseidon had of the battle of Troy. Few islands leave so deep and clear and sober an image in the mind as Samothrace. It is perhaps no surprise therefore that an important and very ancient cult of un-nameable and mysterious ‘Great Gods' should have evolved here on the slopes of Mount Saos. It was for this that the island was famous in Antiquity. The excavated remains of the Sanctuary of the Great Gods are unusual and little visited. Few Greek sites raise so many important questions which yet remain unanswered.
Samothrace has always derived importance from its position as a strategic refuge and landmark on the busy and very ancient maritime trade routes of the Northern Aegean. Inhabited since the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, it was first occupied by people of Thracian stock. The non-Greek Thracian language and religion survived the arrival of Greek colonists around 700 BC and was used in cult ritual as late as the 1st century BC. Archaeological evidence contradicts the Classical tradition that the colonists came from Samos before that date; Strabo suggests that the Samians invented the story for their own glory. The colonists' language has been shown by inscriptions to have been Aeolian rather than Ionian, and probably derived from Lesbos or the Troad. Homer appears familiar with the island, and in the Iliad (XIII, 12) envisages Poseidon watching the fighting on the plains of Troy from the ‘topmost peak of forested Samothrace'. A legend relates that Troy was supposedly founded from the island, though it now seems more likely that it was from Lemnos.
In the 6th century BC Samothrace had a silver coinage, the city reached its greatest extent and colonies were established on the mainland opposite. The Samothracian navy was represented at the Battle of Salamis, fighting on the Persian side. In the 5th century BC the island's power declined, though the fame of its cult increased until the island became the chief centre of religious life in the North Aegean. Herodotus and Lysander of Sparta were initiated at the Sanctuary of the Great Gods, and Aristophanes and Plato refer to its ‘Mysteries'. Philip of Macedon met and fell in love with his wife Olympias of Epirus, mother of Alexander the Great, at the sanctuary. The island was formally incorporated into the Macedonian kingdom in 340 BC, and the dynasty continued to adorn the sanctuary until their downfall. Samothrace was used as a naval base by the Second Athenian League, by King Lysimachos of Thrace and by the Ptolemies, Seleucids and Macedonians in turn. After the Battle of Pydna in 168 BC, Perseus, the last king of Macedon sought refuge on the island only to be taken prisoner by the Romans. Aristarchus, commentator and editor of Homer, and head of the Library of Alexandria around 153 BC, was from Samothrace.
The belief that Dardanos, the legendary founder of Troy, had come from Samothrace and that his descendant, Aeneas, had brought its cults to Rome gave the island a particular interest to the Romans. In 84 BC the sanctuary was pillaged by corsairs, but soon revived under Roman patronage. Varro and the statesman and collector, Lucius Calpurnius Piso (father-in-law to Julius Caesar), were initiates. St. Paul appears to have stopped on the island on his way to Neapolis (Kavala) and Philippi (Acts 16.11) in 49/50 AD. Hadrian also visited Samothrace in 123 AD. A severe earthquake in c. 200 AD began the sanctuary's decline, although the ancient religion survived remarkably into the 4th century.
In 1431 the island was ceded by John VIII of Byzantium to Palamedes Gattilusi of Genoa, whose descendants styled themselves ‘Princes of Ainos and Samothrace'. In 1419 the island was visited by Cristoforo Buondelmonte, and in 1444 by Cyriac of Ancona who has left posterity a couple of valuable sketches from his visit. Samothrace was taken by the Turks in 1457 who moved the inhabitants to Istanbul, and it remained an Ottoman possession (with the exception of brief occupations by the Venetians between 1466-70 and by the Russians between 1770-4), until it was liberated by the Greek fleet under Admiral Koundouriotis in 1912.
The discovery of the ‘Victory of Samothrace' by the French Consul, Champoiseau, in 1863 reignited scholarly interest in the island and pulled it back from obscurity. The Sanctuary of the Great Gods was partially examined by French and Austrian archaeologists in the 1860s and 70s respectively; but the systematic uncovering of the site has mostly been the work of an American expedition (organised from New York University) which began its work in 1938 and has excavated continuously since then, with only a brief interruption during the Second World War, when the island was under a repressive Bulgarian occupation. The island received a large émigré influx from Asia Minor between the wars: the population has fallen to 2,700 today from a recorded 4,258 in 1951.
Samothrace has no good, naturally sheltered, harbour anywhere on its perimeter; the few inlets offering refuge that were used in antiquity have since filled with sand and shingle. Nor is sailing always easy in the vicinity of the island: the vast and impending mass of Mount Saos creates strange and unpredictable avalanches of wind that can tumble off the mountain at any time of day or season, throwing the waters around the island into confusion. Homer placed Poseidon, alone on this summit, watching the events of the Trojan War unfold; his presence here is still felt in the capricious phenomena of the sea and the winds.
Ancient Samothrace and the Gattilusi Towers: Of the ancient settlement and city of Samothrace, which lay on the ridge of the mountain to the east of the Sanctuary of the Great Gods, only the walls remain today above ground. The walls constitute an enceinte of 2,400 metres – almost two thirds complete – which can be seen climbing up the ridge to the east to a look-out post at a height of 275m a.s.l., after which they drop steeply down the eastern side of the ridge, traceable only at intermittent points. Originally constructed in the 6th century BC, they have been repeatedly repaired, with a number of the corners and bastions clearly reinforced around the 3rd century BC. They are similar in construction to sectors of the walls of Thasos, with two parallel curtain walls in-filled with rubble. Five gates are still identifiable, the most interesting being just to the right of the main pathway – combining a curiously protruding protective bastion in its structure. The city is known to have had an important sanctuary of Athena, but this has not yet been located, though archaeological soundings have concentrated in their search for it at the eastern extremity of the area near the ruins of the church of Aghios Giorgios.
Info: McGilchrist's Greek Islands
(From McGilchrist’s Greek Islands, © Nigel McGilchrist 2010, excerpted with his gracious permission. Click for the books)