Alyke (Thasos) Alyki

Alyke, Archaic to Late Antique sailors' sanctuary, settlement, and marble quarry on the promontory of Alyke in Thasos Macedonia
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Latitude: 40.604300
Longitude: 24.743000
Confidence: High

Place ID: 406247UAly
Time period: ACHRL
Region: Macedonia
Country: Greece
Department: Thasos
Mod: Alyki

- Pleiades
- IDAI gazetteer ID

Modern Description: A short distance beyond (at 30 km from Limenas) you come to the complex and fascinating site of *Alykí which comprises a pagan sanctuary, two Early Christian basilicas and extensive marble quarries, all in a setting of great beauty bordered by a couple of fine beaches. As you descend to the site you come to a row of low, stone, schist-tiled houses behind the west beach: these were built in the early decades of the last century from blocks of older constructions found on the ancient site which lies beneath the whole isthmus area. They were mostly used by farmers for temporary lodging during the season of the olive harvest.
One of the unusual characteristics of this site is the double nature of all its elements: two mirror beaches on either side of the isthmus, and two roadsteads; two identical ancient, sacred buildings side by side; two similar Christian basilicas, side by side; two natural caves used for cult.
The steep promontory attached by the isthmus is in fact a small mountain of a pure white marble. The settlers from Paros who came to Thasos in the 7th century BC knew a little about marble and its exploitation, because their native island produced then – and still produces now – the best sculptural marble in Greece. They soon recognised the potential of this small headland, began to quarry it, established a working community on the isthmus itself, with its two opposite harbours (one of which was always protected from the wind) and founded a cult to the principal divinity whom they had brought with them from the Cyclades, namely Apollo. The two grottos in the northwest corner of the promontory (one, contiguous with the sacred buildings beside the shore; the other about 25m southeast, up the slope above) appear to be connected with the cult of Apollo from as early as the 7th century BC; this is confirmed by votive offerings found inside, as well as by a fragment of a much later, 3rd century BC inscription to the god.
The pagan sanctuary: We cannot assume, however, that the two curious *sacred buildings (excavated by the shore at the southern end of the eastern bay) are connected to this cult of Apollo. First, their plan is not that of a normal temple; furthermore, there are two of them (virtually identical). Lastly, there are a number of interesting features in them which would seem to imply that they were connected with something quite different. The preliminary terracing of the area, its protection with a breakwater, and the first cult buildings here all date from the end of the 6th century BC; but the remains we see now, date from a re-organisation of the site around 470 BC. What we find are two almost square buildings, of slightly different size but of identical plan, side by side, each with a colonnaded portico on its west front. The porticos open into two separate rooms behind, in each case: one larger room (perhaps for ritual banqueting) with a central, stone-bordered hearth for a fire on the left; and one smaller (?treasury) room to the right. The quality of the stonework is excellent throughout; the columns were fluted in the north building, but appear to have been left plain – or were still awaiting fluting – in the south building. The fine torso of an Archaic kouros (now in Istanbul) was excavated here. Our greatest clue to the nature of these buildings perhaps lies in the many votive inscriptions and graffiti carved on blocks (such as that standing in the middle of the portico of the north building) and on the steps in front: these are mostly invocations of good fortune and safe-sailing for sailors and their ships, the names of which are sometimes cited: the ‘Heracles', the ‘Thessalian', the ‘Artemis' etc. In one case, however, the votive lines invoke the ‘Two Saviours' – namely the Dioscouri (Castor and Polydeuces). These divine twins were the helping protectors of mariners while at sea. The twin nature of these two buildings; their proximity to the shore; their design, which would appear to accommodate the ritual banquets or theoxenia (‘god-hospitality') which was a principal element of the cult of the Dioscouri, involving tables laid by a sacred hearth to which the divine twins were invited – all this would seem to suggest that these two buildings should be connected to the cult of these two beneficent ‘saviours' of pagan Antiquity.
The Early Christian Basilicas: In the early Byzantine period the pagan sanctuary, with its (by now) abandoned twin buildings, was substituted by a centre of Christian cult further up the hill which curiously was to develop similarly into a ‘double sanctuary' – namely, a pair of *contiguous basilicas of the 5th century AD. The area was originally a cemetery in late Antiquity: then, for some reason – perhaps because of an important burial or a martyrion – a focus of cult appears to have formed at the point on the site which is now occupied by the sanctuary and apse of the northern basilica (the first one you encounter). At the same time, between 400-425 AD, a large three-aisled basilica with apse and narthex was built (the southern basilica) nearby: its aisles were divided by rows of simple columns in local marble and a monumental ambo stood half way down the nave to the southern side. The base and fragments of the elaborate decoration of this ambo are visible today. This must have been a grand and luminous place of worship. At the end of the 5th century, the small chapel to its north, covering the sacred martyrion, was demolished and a new basilica (the present northern basilica), also with three aisles separated by columns, was erected in such a way that it now had the martyrion at the centre of its sanctuary: this was surrounded by a decorated marble screen with columns, the remains of which are still clearly visible in front of the apse. This had probably become by now a focus of pilgrimage, and so a large atrium and narthex area was constructed to its west for receiving pilgrims, including a baptistery and funerary chapel between the atrium and the basilica proper. The fact that this northern basilica was built approximately seventy years later and its positioning was determined by the pre-existing martyrion, perhaps explains why it is built in such a way as to slice into the northeast corner of the earlier basilica.
In the west end of the south basilica is an ancient inscribed stele, which bears a small image of Hercules, resting from his tribulations. This may be related to the marble quarries which start to extend southwards from the very apse of the basilica. The hard-labouring hero, Hercules, was sometimes seen as a special protector of quarry labourers.
Wikidata ID: Q38279937
Trismegistos Geo: 29869

Info: McGilchrist's Greek Islands

(From McGilchrist’s Greek Islands, © Nigel McGilchrist 2010, excerpted with his gracious permission. Click for the books)

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