Something of the greenness and spaciousness of Macedonia is distilled in Thasos. Its effect is more intense for being concentrated within the circumference of an island. The beauty of its coast, the peacefulness of its villages and landscapes, and the immense importance of its archaeology, can challenge anything found on the mainland opposite. Beneath the green, is the gold. It was this, in historic times, that brought the first settlers to the island – the presence of metal ore, silver and, above all, gold. In the 5th century BC, Herodotus saw the gold mines in the east of the island; the tunnels and shafts, though mostly blocked, are still there today. The island has never lacked enriching resources, whether these were the precious ores, or wine, or marble – all of which were widely exported and traded by Thasos. They brought continuous prosperity; and since this large island had only one city in Antiquity, that prosperity was all concentrated there. Today its ancient remains are a treasure greater than the island's gold; because there are few other places in the Aegean where it is possible to get such a clear feel for the entirety of an ancient city. Archaeological work has already revealed as many as eight separate sanctuaries to divinities, from Poseidon to Pan, from Demeter to Hercules, small, large, high and low; there are two ports – a commercial port and a military port once furnished with boat-drying sheds; a chain of lighthouses to guide ships to the harbours; two theatres; functional buildings, recreational buildings, official buildings, residential buildings; country farmsteads producing wine, and workshops manufacturing the jars that stored and transported it; even the engraved laws that governed all this activity can be seen in the museum. But perhaps more extraordinary than all of this, is the exceptional circuit of early walls, masterfully built and perforated by almost a dozen gates, no two of which are the same, and most of which are given over to the protection of yet another pantheon of divinities – Hermes, Silenus, Hera, Zeus etc. A series of unique relief images of these deities, carved in the early 5th century, adorn them: a larger than life-size, priapic Silenus marches naked in at one gate; at another, a winsome, pony-tailed Artemis hastens away by chariot. All this is a remarkable legacy still to be seen in situ; but, most valuable of all, is the vivid picture it gives of how the Ancients sensed that a network of divine presences with different areas of influence participated in, and watched over, the daily life of their community. Dionysos caroused with the artists, performers and drinkers in the thick of the town; Apollo watched from the lofty height of his temple way above the city; and Pan sometimes kept company with the lonely guardsmen on the highest look-out posts of the acropolis, when the autumn mist descended. This is the unusual gift of Thasos – that it presents not just a multitude of ruins, but the living texture of an ancient city and its whole imaginative world.
History: The area of Liménas, or Thasos town, has seen human habitation since before 10,000 BC, at which point the island was probably still attached to the mainland. This is indicated by the finding of bone and stone tools which were used to obtain ochre in caves in the vicinity of the town. The discovery of an important Early Bronze Age settlement of the 3rd millennium BC at Sotiras Skala, where defensive walls and carved anthropomorphic stelai have come to light, was followed by a number of other later Bronze Age (14th c. BC) finds in the interior of the island, principally at Kastrí, between Potos and Theologos. A greater need for security from sea-borne attack may have encouraged the move towards the interior from the coast.
Around 680 BC colonists from the Island of Paros arrived to settle the island, purportedly on the instigation of the Delphic Oracle. Their leader was Telesicles, father of the poet and soldier Archilochus, who describes the island's appearance as like “the back-bone of an ass, covered in dense forests”. Herodotus, who visited Thasos to see its gold mines, states that the original colonisers of the island were Phoenicians “who came with Thasos, their leader, to colonise the island which has borne his name ever since” (Histories VI.47). The names of the towns he refers to on the east coast, ‘Ainyra' and ‘Koinyra', are unusual and could well be Phoenician in origin. The mines certainly brought prosperity to Thasos; with growing wealth and population, she in turn colonised the Macedonian and Thracian mainland opposite, in part so as to develop further mines around Mt Pangaios. On the strength of this, the island developed strong trade links with the Cyclades and the Ionian islands, and with Corinth and Athens. In the build-up to the Persian wars, Thasos acceded to Darius's demands that it dismantle its walls in 491; likewise in 480 it offered no resistance to Xerxes, but rather fêted him at huge public expense. After 477 BC the island was part of the Delian League, but it seceded in 465 BC in a dispute with Athens over mining and trading rights. Thasos held out against the aggressions of Athens for over two years according to Thucydides (Peloponnesian War I.101) before surrendering her fleet, once again dismantling her walls, and renouncing her claims on the mainland. A period of compliance with Athens then followed until the island defected from the alliance in 410 BC. In 405 BC, after his defeat of the Athenian fleet at Aegospotami, the Spartan leader Lysander gathered the island's Athenian partisans into the Sanctuary of Hercules by means of a deceit, and massacred them.
In the course of the 5th century BC Herodotus visited Thasos, and Hippocrates lived on the island for almost four years on his return from the Macedonian court – working with the sick and meticulously noting medical conditions and seasonal climatic changes. One of the greatest of all Ancient Greek painters, Polygnotos (fl. 475-450 BC), was born on Thasos, although he worked for most of his life in Athens.
The 4th century BC saw stability and prosperity for the island and a great deal of new building in the city. At first Thasos was part of the Second Athenian League from 375 BC; it then passed under loose Macedonian control after Philip of Macedon's victory at Chaeronea in 338 BC. This was the island's golden age of theatre and drama. The island flourished also under Roman rule after 196 BC and was rewarded by Rome for its staunch resistance to Mithridates in 80 BC. Its wine and marble were much in demand in the Capital, both before and throughout Imperial times (see Seneca, Epist. LXXXVI)
The Mediaeval history of Thasos is relatively obscure. The island was a naval base for the Byzantine fleet, but when taken by the Genoese overlords of Lesbos – the Gattilusi family – it benefited from its Genoese connections and traded its produce as far afield as Northern Europe. In 1455 the Gattilusi descendents gave up the island to the Ottoman Sultan in order to safeguard their rights over Lesbos. In 1770, following a Russian defeat of the Turkish navy, Thasos became a naval base for the Russians who made heavy inroads into the tree-cover of the island for the maintenance and replacement of their fleet. In 1813, depopulated and deforested, the island was given by Sultan Mahmud II as part of a settlement to Mehmet Ali, Viceroy of Egypt. It became in consequence a quasi-independent apanage of Egypt, with its own ‘president', for almost a century until 1902 when it again reverted to Turkish rule. In 1912 Admiral Koundouriotis liberated the island for Greece. The period between the Wars was marked by an influx of refugees from Asia Minor in 1922/3, who were settled mostly at Liménas and Limenária, creating new centres which slowly began to supersede the former inland capitals of Panaghia and Theologos. In 1985, and again in 1989, areas of the island in the south and west were devastated by extensive forest fires, but they are now recovering their thick cover of green once again.
The unostentatious modern town of Liménas is built amongst and over the remains of what was one of the most active and prosperous ancient cities of the Northern Aegean. Its extensive ruins are a rare combination of considerable beauty, variety and importance. They have been excavated over the arc of the last century and documented in exemplary fashion by the French Archaeological Mission: their work is explained in an excellent volume, Guide de Thasos, published by the Ecole Française d'Athénes (1967, revised 2000) – an essential companion for anyone seeking a complete picture of these varied and fascinating remains.
Ancient Thasos had two harbours – a commercial port to the north and a military, or ‘closed', port where the sweep of the present-day (‘old') harbour of Liménas indents the shore. The sea has retreated an average of 50m along this stretch of coast; this means that the course of the ancient sea-walls runs well inland of the current shore (below the line of Poseidonos Street). The ancient commercial port, which was better protected from prevailing winds, lay towards the northernmost extremity of the town (where the present-day boatyards are located). It was defined and protected to the north by a mole – now submerged, but whose outline, running west 100m perpendicular to the shore, is visible under water when the surface is calm. The curve of the current ‘old' harbour occupies the area of the ancient military port, which originally had a more quadrilateral shape, and was bordered by deep, perpendicular boat-sheds (‘neôria') for the storage and drying of the war triremes: the foundations of these can be seen below the surface of the water at the northern end of the curve. These hangars, which measured about 38m x 19m could each accommodate three boats and were essential for keeping them dry. The boat hulls were made of pine-wood and were prone to become waterlogged if they remained afloat too long, causing the boat to lose speed dramatically. There may have been fifteen such drying-sheds (five on each of the three closed sides of the harbour), accommodating a fleet of 45 warships. Protected by a mole on the seaward side, the military harbour was entered from the sea at the northern corner by a small entrance which could be closed with a chain.
Behind the port to the south and just across the street from the entrance to the Museum forecourt, a small excavated area has revealed the Marine Gate, one of the two principal entrances to the ancient port area, constructed in large, finely-drafted masonry, typical of the late 5th century. The flight of steps shows support holes for railing posts. There is a series of separate storage chambers with massive frames for security doors. Just a few metres across the road can be seen a stretch of the ancient harbour wall, heading out northwards.
Info: McGilchrist's Greek Islands
(From McGilchrist’s Greek Islands, © Nigel McGilchrist 2010, excerpted with his gracious permission. Click for the books)