kythera family kythera family

General History

History > General History > Chapter 3: The Early Years

History > General History

submitted by Site Administrator on 29.06.2003

Chapter 3: The Early Years

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

The traditional land of the Hellenes had no specific borders as we understand them today. It had few plains and no large rivers; but it did have distinct mountain ranges that separated and protected individual areas. It is therefore understandable that small and separate communities developed, protected by the mountain barriers. This led to the formation of independent city states. The islands that surround the mainland also formed individual communities separated by the seas, and these, unlike the mountains, allowed easy communication between neighbouring societies. One such island resting between Crete and the Peloponnese and in the arms of two seas, the Aegean and the Ionian, was known to the early Greeks as Porphyrousa (Purple Island). According to the Greek writer, Stravon, the island had a safe anchorage. This was the main reason that it became so important to the Mediterranean powers. One of the first to realise this was the fast developing sea power of the Minoan Kingdom. Crete had silently passed from unknown beginnings in the Stone Age to a period of brilliant civilisation towards the end of the third millennium B.C. By this time the need for expansion of trade was unstoppable, especially with the mainland of Greece and with the region known as Italy, both of which were undergoing a period of development. To these and other destinations, Cretans found Porphyrousa to be a very convenient stopover. The growing development of trade and the continuous use of the anchorage on the island created the need for a permanent harbour facility. Thus the coastal city of Skandia emerged.

By 2000 B.C. according to Stefanos of Byzantium, the island was commonly known as Porphyrousa due to its abundant murex (a mollusc which produces a purple dye). This substance was very much sought after, as the dye was used to colour the fine robes of the nobility and the wealthy throughout the Mediterranean and eastern world. As a result of this trade, Porphyrousa was exposed to the influence of other trading nations and Skandia would have been a cosmopolitan city in its early days. Aristotle also remarks that Kythera was called Porphyrousa, "Purple Island", since both the Phoenicians and the Cretans were engaged in the purple Industry. During excavations in Paliopoli by Huxley in 1966, many shells from murex were discovered, thus authenticating the claims made above, as well as the location of Phoenician workshops.

Walking along Skandia's narrow streets, one would have been able to meet Cretans, Egyptians, lonians, Dorians and Phoenicians, as well as Greeks from the mainland. Porphyrousa had become an important merchant centre in the Minoan Kingdom. The early days of Skandia were peaceful and more and more people made use of this welcoming port. The presence of Mycenaeans from the Greek mainland is clearly indicated from tombs found on the island. The Phoenicians however left no archaeological evidence as far as is known at present. It appears that they did not establish a permanent presence on the island, rather they came to fish for the very much sought after murex. Skandia was growing and thus was created the need for the development of a new and more modern settlement. Along the small creek whose path can very clearly be defined even today, and on the side of a small hill, about 1.5 kilometres from the sea, the city of Kythera emerged. As was customary, the hill would eventually be used to build a fortress for the protection of the city and its residents. The island at this time was covered by virgin native vegetation and it would have been necessary to clear the land around Skandia and Kythera. This was the beginning of the deforestation of the island. Timber was plentiful around the area known to us today as Drymonas as well as at Drymonari (the site of the present village of Kypreotianika). The rich merchants and the local government officials would, of course, have moved to the new settlement with larger, more elegant buildings at the site of the new city of Kythera. We have been fortunate to know the exact location of both Skandia and the city of Kythera by the abundance of information of historians and other writers of the very early period of the island's history. We also know that the distance between the two cities was approximately 2.4 kilometres. The name Kythera itself, according to the historian Stefanos of Byzantium, is of Phoenician origin, relating to the influence and presence on the island of these "red-faced" people from the East. The same name, however, appears at other locations in mainland Greece and in Cyprus, allowing us to conclude that the name Kythera could be much older and predate the arrival of the Phoenicians. The hill in the centre of the city of Kythera was fortified and is known by the name Paliocastro (old fortress). Evidence can be found of the channelling of fresh running water brought to the city of Kythera as well as to Skandia from higher grounds near where Mitata is today. Cultivation of the land was successful and evidence of very early settlements of this era in other parts of the island have been discovered. With the flourishing of the Minoan civilisation, the amount of sea-trade was so great that the Cretans could no longer maintain their monopoly unassisted. To fill this need, the Cretans welcomed the assistance of the Phoenicians who were already there and who provided a readily available work force. The Phoenicians very quickly came to know the entire Aegean area and the emerging new cities on the Greek mainland, as well as the Ionian islands. At about 1400 B.C. Knossos fell and the glorious civilisation of Crete mysteriously disappeared. The splendid palaces were destroyed by fire and all the other settlements of Crete seemed to have been wiped out simultaneously. Were Skandia and Kythera destroyed at the same time? If this was the work of unknown invaders, then they must have appeared out of nowhere and came only to destroy and sail away again, leaving no trace or clues as to their identity. Since the destruction that took place did not include the total elimination of the population and the palaces of Knossos were partially rebuilt later, we can accept that the destruction was caused by some other force. Could it be that some natural disaster of biblical proportions had taken place, and what evidence do we have to support such a theory?

It is now generally accepted that at about 1400 B.C., the largest volcanic eruption known in the history of the area took place, literally blowing sky high Thera (Santorini), an island not too distant from Porphyrousa (Kythera) or Crete. The fact that no volcanic tephra or ash deposits have been found at the later Minoan levels at Paliopoli (the present-day name for the area of classical Skandia) does not preclude the destruction of Crete and the cities of Kythera and Skandia by this eruption, as the prevailing wind direction could have been such that it carried the ash away from Kythera. It is also reasonable to accept that the great tidal wave that followed the eruption hit the coast of Peloponnese, Kythera and Crete, destroying the coastal cities of the time. The discovery of a number of levels in the cities of Skandia and Paliopoli supports the theory that a number of successive disasters occurred which resulted in the need for the rebuilding of both cities. One is convinced that many changes have taken place and many forces have come to play before the area of Paliopoli finally became what it is today. One such important change has taken place at Vothonas Bay, to the north of Kastri, which was much deeper in Minoan times as to allow the Cretans to use this bay as a convenient haven. A. Castellan, who visited the island in A.D.1797, speaks of tombs cut into the rock at Skandia, and which we now know have disappeared into the sea as the result of a strong earthquake in June A.D. 1798. The small streams running down from the higher ground of Mitata have filled the valleys with alluvium and the sea has been pushed back. Such changes permit us to accept that Skandia was destroyed at the time of the eruption at Santorini c. 1475 B.C. and was subsequently rebuilt, as Knossos was. The archaeologist, Doctor Huxley, indeed speaks of a number of levels of construction on the site of Paliocastro.

The eruption of Santorini and the temporary halt of the Cretan hegemony gave time and space for the growth and domination of the Mycenaean Greeks. The destiny of these Greeks from the mainland was to become a great seafaring people. But sea trade was business that required many years of practice. In the meantime the Phoenicians were there to fulfil this need. The rebuilding of Skandia and the city of Kythera was soon completed. Phoenician influence on the island of Kythera had started many years before. Up till now the peaceful co-existence between Crete, Egypt, the Aegean islands and the mainland of Greece had continued uninterrupted, with the Phoenicians acting as carriers. What changed this arrangement was the destruction and decline of Crete. Even though Kythera once again became important, a new order had established itself on the Greek mainland that influenced the destiny of the whole of the Mediterranean world. On the other hand, the Phoenicians had introduced to the island, not only a new religion but most importantly a new style of writing, needed to carry out everyday trade practices and form human relationships. Many Phoenician words are still in use today as a reminder of prosperous trading links between Greece and the Phoenicians.

Leave a comment