Greece – The Cyclades

IF you look at the map of Greece, you will see that the Attic peninsula and the island of Eubcea lie parallel to one another, and that each has a string of islands dangling from its southern extremity. Originally, no doubt, they all belonged to the continent. A few islands at the end of each string serve to join them in a loop or chain. They form a sort of geographic federation. Their old Greek name has clung to them, and nothing better could be found.

AEgina is not one of the Cyclades, but it was on a trip through the Greek archipelago extending to Asia Minor that I first set foot on this isle whose name, mentioned in the Homeric catalogue and shared by the gulf in which it lies, has come down to us through the mists of antiquity. It has an area of only thirty-two square miles, and about seven thousand inhabit-ants. The one monument of its past that allured us was the old temple of Athene. We dropped anchor, disembarked, and climbed by a rough pathway along the edge of a grain field and over stony debris to the site of this temple, which is one of the oldest and best preserved examples of the Doric style. About twenty of the columns are standing. The plan is easily traced, and its early origin is seen in the simple form of the capital. The floor, was covered with cement, and traces of paint are clearly seen on it. The vigorous and animated sculptures which adorned the pediment, representing combats between Trojans and AEginetan heroes, are now in the Glyptothek at Munich, still wearing that patent ” AEginetan smile.”

The view from AEgina is fine. Athens, its ancient rival, lies across the gulf, and you can even see the King’s Garden. Pentelicus, Hymettus, the mountains near Eleusis and Megara to the north, and the mountains of the Peloponnesus to the west loom up. Salamis lies to the north and Pores to the south.

Leaving the Saronic Gulf we sail into the island-studded sea. Under the shelter of Sunium lies Makronisi, the ancient Helene, seven miles long and three wide, an uninhabited pasturage, with no monuments. Its only title to fame is the tradition that Helen once landed there. On the other hand Ceos, thirteen miles from Sunium, is rich in association and interest. The merchant goes there for valonea, figs or wine, the antiquarian to see its famous lion, sculptured like that of Lucerne in the living rock, and the literary pilgrim to see the birthplace of Simonides, Bacchylides, and Prodicus. A fresh interest is awakened in this isle by the welcome discovery in Egypt of the manuscript containing the poems of Bacchylides. It-is as if the poet had strung his lyre afresh and given to the world sweet harmonies of which before only single notes or broken chords had sounded in the ear. Andros, the most northerly of the Cyclades, is really but a prolongation of Euboea, from which it is separated by a narrow strait, and Tenos is but an extension of Andros. Naxos is the largest of the group, with twenty-two thousand inhabitants. West of it is Paros, renowned for quarries from whose beautiful marble were summoned immortal works of art. There are twenty-five islands of the .AEgean belonging to Greece, some of them barren and uninhabited, others fruitful and populous. Geographically the centre of the group is Syros or Syra, with its spacious harbor round which is built prosperous Hermopolis. While other islands are living on their antiquity, Syra is one of the most active and thriving ports in Greece.

But on this island trip we were not looking for the largest jewels on the chain. We were seeking the real gem of the Cyclades. It is an island so small that on a Baedeker map it is only large enough to be visible. It has no commerce and literally no population. Few make pilgrimages to this island to-day; but what throngs came here once to worship ! And what money, time, labor and skill were needed to rear the temples, halls and treasure-houses, and to chisel the statues which glorified Delos, the holy island of Greece ! The entire island was a shrine hallowed as the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. Here the worship of Apollo was observed with great fervor, —not as a local cult, but as the chief shrine of thousands of Ionian worshippers. Nowhere save at Olympia have I been so impressed with the number of buildings devoted to the service of the gods. Here was the great temple of Apollo, the famous Horn Altar to the same god, the Hall of the Bulls, the temple of Leto, the temple of Artemis, and one devoted to the worship of Egyptian divinities. An imposing colonnade surrounded the agora, and among the host of statues was the great one dedicated to Apollo, whose colossal base still stands bearing a legible inscription: From the same stone am I and the base,” meaning probably that base and statue were both made of Naxos marble. The statue, which was one of the oldest works of Greek sculpture, dating back to the sixth century before Christ, exists only in scattered fragments, which it is not likely that any resurrection of art will summon together. The immense block on which it stood preserves its integrity and bears the imprint of the colossal foot.

To the French School at Athens, under the intelligent direction of Monsieur Homolle, belongs the credit of conducting the fruitful excavations which give us some idea of what Delos was at the height of its fame and glory. Of the great temple of Apollo only the foundation and some of the ornaments exist. Near by are the foundations of an earlier one, probably dedicated to the same divinity at a time when Delos was under the political power of Athens. We thought we discerned the skilful hand of the Attic workman in the steps, the columns, and the ornaments of this building which may have been built about 450 or 430 before Christ. This temple is described by the French as oriented toward the west; but Dorpfeld suggests that a small hall which would form a pronaos was probably overlooked. This would make it face to the east, as most Greek temples do.

Two of the wonders of the world were on this little island,— one the Horn Altar to Apollo, and the other the Hall of the Bulls. The latter was a building some 220 feet long and 29 feet wide, where the animals to be sacrificed were brought. The capitals of the Doric pilasters which supported the long hall were adorned with beautifully cut bulls’ heads, from which the building takes its modern name. The foundations are well preserved, and near by were some of the capitals and triglyphs of clean white marble, seemingly as fresh and unstained as when they were first cut.

It is unnecessary to ask whether the ancient Greek was a churchgoer. These beautiful temples were not built for the passer-by alone. In the propylaea of the holy precinct there is a threshold which has been worn down in a remarkable way by the thousands of reverent feet that entered the hallowed place.

The arrangement of the theatre, which is about as large as that at Athens, can be well distinguished. The ample auditorium is supported on each side by great walls. A small canal, like that at Megalopolis, bounds the orchestra. Before the proskenion, which was of the same height as in other theatres, were placed statues whose bases are preserved. The presence of these statues excludes the possibility of the proskenion having been used to support a stage, as the statues would have been so high as to interfere with the view of the spectators.’

Climbing the steps of the theatre, we reach above the terraces the grotto of Apollo. A natural opening in the rocks has been widened and roofed over with heavy stones. The grotto is not deep and dark like that at Delphi. It is only a few yards in depth, and light comes in from an opening behind. This is probably the oldest site of the worship of Apollo on the island. In front of it stands a circular marble base, which may have borne a tripod.

But more imposing than grotto or tripod, and rising behind them, is the summit of Mount Kynthos, affording a commanding and delightful view of most of the Cyclades. To the north lies Tenos, unwooded and irregularly cut; to the northeast Mykonos, with its high hills. Near at hand is a mere stretch of rock. almost a bridge between Delos and Mykonos. Far away to the northeast that faint blue cloud on the horizon is Samos. To the south lie Naxos and Paros; and further to the southwest, Siphnos and Seriphos. To the west are Rhenea, or Great Delos, beyond it Syra, and to the northwest Gyaros. By turning on your heel you can see most of the links in this island chain. The sea is blue and calm, and these islets are as quiet as if they were brooding over the long history of the past.

The ancient fertility of Delos and its luxuriant growths are suggested in the only reference to the isle which we find in the Odyssey. When Odysseus is supplicating the aid of Nausicaa, he compares the tall beautiful princess to the young palm he had seen at Delos: “At Delos once, by Apollo’s altar, something like you I noticed, a young palm-shoot springing up; for thither too I came, and a great troop was with me, upon a journey where I was to meet with bitter trials. And just as when I looked on that I marvelled long within, since never before sprang such a shoot from earth; so, lady, I admire and marvel now at you, and greatly fear to touch your knees.” I did not find the palm near the altar of Apollo, but I had a surprise which was quite equal to that felt by Odysseus. I shall never forget the display of color which astounded me, when in search of a good place for a swim, I walked to the south of the island. Jumping over a stone wall, I landed in a field of flowers which in abundance and brilliancy excelled anything I have ever seen. I remember coming unexpectedly upon a lovely park in the Black Hills where Nature had wrought a similar miracle, but with no such brilliancy of color as fairly dazzled the eye at Delos. Poppies and anemones of glowing red were massed with nameless yellows and purples in prodigal profusion. If I could have towed this island into Boston Harbor, thousands of people would have gone to see this floral show; here in the Aegean Sea only a few shepherds know of its existence. But “Beauty is its own excuse for being.” Such a symphony in color tells of Nature’s own delight in the revolving panorama of existence; and in this wonderful flower-bed there seemed to be the joy without the tragedy.

We went to Delos to see what is left of some of the wonders of the world. That night we sailed to Samos to see another. Samos, like Crete, ought to be on the map of Greece, but both are on the map of Turkey. When we sailed into the harbor of the capital which, like the modern town of Ithaca, is called Vathy, the rain was descending as if celebrating the anniversary of the flood. But instead of forty days it was content to fall forty minutes. Then it slackened its zeal, and permitted us to set our feet for the first time on Turkish soil. Samos is famous for its wine; and I have a list of the Boston ladies who went back to the ship with large bottles of it under their cloaks, and I can furnish the name of the so-called temperance man who used his Greek to negotiate the purchase. However, we had come not to inspect the wine-works, but the famous water-works which Herodotus describes.

A short trip round the other side of the island gave us a view of the Asiatic shore with lofty Mykale, the mountain monument of the Persian naval defeat, and brought us to the old village of Tigarni. An hour’s walk, and we reached the hillside opening of the famous aqueduct. Lighting candles we entered a hole about four feet high and just large enough to admit one person. Fifty feet farther it widened into a capacious tunnel, some eight feet high and as many broad, with a small channel on the side for the water. Herodotus tells us that the excavation was made from both ends, and that the workmen met in the middle. The source of the water was at a high point on the mountain, so that the tunnel penetrated for a great distance into the mountain’s heart. Just why this vast subterranean aqueduct was made, when the water might have been conducted on the outside of the mountain, it is not easy to explain, except on the supposition that it was for greater protection in time of war and that the sources were carefully concealed.

After an hour’s walk from the tunnel we reached the ruins of the great temple of Hera, one of the largest ever built. Its breadth was equal to the length of the Zeus temple at Olympia, 210 feet; its exact length cannot be determined, because it has not been sufficiently excavated. Only one vast Ionic column is left to give some idea of the height of this imposing building.

At night we reversed our course and anchored in the morning at Mykonos, opposite Delos, where the portable art treasures found in the excavations at the latter place are kept. The town is pleasantly situated on the hillside. The houses are white and surrounded with courts and gardens. Stone walls run in all directions over the slope. There are many indications of thrift. One seldom sees a cleaner, whiter-looking Greek village. The streets wind picturesquely, and a fine road runs up the hill into the country. We walked into an old palace garden, where the grounds are still well kept, though it is no longer used as a palace. There is an archaeological hospital filled with broken legs, hands, arms and heads, but with some interesting fragments and well-preserved inscriptions. It is melancholy to think of the havoc that time and vandalism have made with the treasures of art; but an enthusiastic archaeologist can go into raptures over a head or a foot as an anatomist can wax eloquent over a single bone.

It was late in the afternoon when we rounded Sunium and found the smoother water on the west side of the Attic peninsula; but it was not too late to have a view of the temple of Athene on this commanding headland. The Acropolis and the Parthenon were shrouded in darkness as we sailed up to the Piraeus, but we knew they were there.