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General History

History > General History > Chapter 1: About Kythera

History > General History

submitted by Site Administrator on 27.06.2003

Chapter 1: About Kythera

Many thanks to Peter Vanges and the Kytherian Association of Australia for their kind permission to reproduce this excerpt from Kythera, a History (1993), which is still available from the Association. For the contact information, please see the Associations section under "Culture".

No one will ever be able to pinpoint the exact time that humans first inhabited the island known to us by the name Porphyris, Porphyrousa, Scottera, Cerigo or Kythera.

Kythera is the most southern of the Ionian islands and as can be observed from our map, lies about 20 kilometres off Cape Malea at southern tip of the Peloponnese. The island is about 26 kilometres long north to south and has a maximum width of 16 kilometres. With a population at the present time of approximately 3,000 inhabitants, Kythera is one of the most enchanting islands of Greece, as it is still largely untouched by developments and tourism.

Despite its rocky and dry soil Kythera is well covered by vegetation. Olive and almond trees cover most of the cultivated areas. Although the island's history can be traced back to the days of the very early civilisations of the eastern Mediterranean, its habitation by humans is lost in the deepest mists of time. To better understand the history of Kythera one must follow the emergence, growth and demise of major civilisations nearby such as Cretans, Mycenaeans, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Spartans, Leleges, Romans, Byzantines and many others. Their geographic proximity, the demand and need for trade, as well as the freedom of movement of peoples resulted in an "inter-marriage" of these civilisations. In a complex way the decline of one, assisted the expansion of another. In the case of the Egyptians and Cretans, the growth and prosperity of the first nurtured and encouraged the development and strengthening of the civilisation of the Cretans. By examining archaeological evidence, ancient mythology and old customs of the island, historians have concluded that Kythera had close commercial and cultural links with the civilisations listed above.

Such is the geographical position of Kythera that no merchant power or trading nation in the Mediterranean could ignore it. Also the introduction of the worship of the Goddess Aphrodite (Astarte) and the presence on the island of the oldest and most revered statue of all those dedicated to her, ensured that Kythera was placed on the map forever. The question we must try to address when considering Kythera is this: were there native Kytherians, and who were they?

Archaeological findings do not allow us to answer this question definitively as there is no testimony of organised life or the existence of settlement in villages on the island before 3,500 B.C. If there were people living on the island before that time they have left no evidence of their presence. We are certain, however, that the early "Kytherians", as we came to know them through history, were merchants who came to the island out of necessity mainly to use the safe anchorage in the area of present-day Paliopoli. No clear evidence exists to support the view that at this very early time there were any other settlements on the island. The tranquil waters of the harbour were a welcome stop-over for weary sea-merchants and travellers. Having rested, they continued their journey, taking with them memories of the peaceful island of Porphyrousa (Kythera).

Such sentiments gave the word "Kythera", since its very early days, a symbolic, romantic and poetic meaning which has never been forgotten. When the worship of Aphrodite was introduced the importance of the island and its name took on a new meaning. Kythera became the imaginative source for inspiration and spirituality to many. The word Kythera as used by poets, artists and writers refers to a place of beauty, tranquillity and spiritual love. In reality, Kythera is a small and relatively poor island which has been exploited over the years because of its strategic position. Archaeological discoveries permit us to trace organised life on Kythera at the same time as the emergence and growth of the Cretan civilisation, around 3500 B.C. One must keep in mind that there have never been systematic and extended archaeological studies of the island. The few preliminary and brief excavations that have been made reveal that Kythera has been occupied by the Greeks since Minoan times. As far as we know the relationship between Crete and Egypt was a harmonious one based on the needs and rewards of trade. As a result, the shores of mainland Greece provided new markets for both Egypt and Crete. Kythera, because of its harbour at Skandia, became a well-known stop-over. By 2000 B.C. the Minoan civilisation had reached its peak and the Palaces of Knossos and Phaestos had been built. The affluence, power and dominance of the Minoan world is well-documented. At the same time the growth of the Kytherian port of Skandia is also well-authenticated. A most interesting fact about the civilisation of Crete is their use of written script. Initially a method of picture writing was used, but at a later period c.2000 B.C. a system of "linear" signs was developed. In eastern Crete, a language little understood by us, was spoken. Below, two sides of a white steatite seal, with writing from Crete.

Was this language also used by the early Kytherians? Only further archaeological excavation and research may provide the answer to this and other questions.

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