The island of Samothrace has a rich and long history as it has been almost continuously inhabited from the prehistoric period till nowadays. According to one theory, its name means “hill near the sea”; others, however, claim that the first Greeks to inhabit the land came from the island of Samos, so Samothrace means “Samos of the Thrace region.”
According to mythology, it was on Samothrace that Zeus encountered Electra, one of the seven Pleiades; from their liaison, the mythical siblings Dardanos, Iasion, and Harmonia (Harmony) were born. Later, Cadmus, in search of his sister Europa, traveled from Phoenicia to Samothrace, where he found Harmonia, whom he abducted and later married. The story is recounted on several findings in the Sanctuary of the Great Gods, and some of the rituals seem to relate to it as well.
In the 7th c. to 6th c BC, Greek tribes colonized the island (which was, till then, inhabited by other ethnic groups) and founded the town of Samothrace in Paleopolis (“old city”) on the northwest coast. Despite its steep mountainous landscape and lack of a natural harbor or large cultivational fields, Samothrace became an important city-state with strong fortification walls (built in a massive Cyclopean style) and its own currency.
The island’s history is quite turbulent. It passed under the sovereignty of the Persians, the Athenians, the Macedonians, and, later, the Romans; however, it remained strong during all classical times, mainly due to the importance of the Sanctuary of the Great Gods. The influence of the island weakened till it was completely obliterated during the Byzantine period as Christianity gained ground. Samothrace changed hands to the Venetians and then the Genoans till it was conquered by the Ottomans. It finally became part of the Greek Republic during the Balkan wars of 1912, with a brief occupation by the Bulgarians during World War II.
Although the shadow cast by the Sanctuary of the Great Gods is so imposing that all other sites of archaeological or historical interest pale in comparison, it would be a pity for the visitor not to get acquainted with all traces left by the various civilizations that passed by the island. Unfortunately, the sites are not all open every day for the public (due to lack of staff, we were told), and the opening-hours signs are not always to be trusted. Still, acknowledging the historical wealth of the island is more than gratifying and, personally, I was impressed and overwhelmed.
Sanctuary of the Great Gods
It is impossible to walk into the Sanctuary of the Great Gods without a feeling of awe, reverence, and respect. The history of the whole island has been inextricably linked to the shrine, this nation-wide influential religious sanctum where the famous Kabeiria Mysteries were held. Samothrace was home to the Mystery Cult of the Great Gods (a chthonic spiritual practice), whose initiation rites promised the participants divine protection at sea, and the opportunity to “become both more pious and more just and better in every respect than they were before.” The identity of the Samothracian Gods remains enigmatic. Ancient writers often referred to them as the Kabeiroi, but in Samothrace, they were just called the Gods or the Great Gods. According to an Alexandrian writer, Mnaseas, their names may have been Axieros, Axiokersa, Axiokersos, possibly associated with the Eleusinian triad Demeter, Persephone, and Hades respectively. He also added a fourth figure, Kasmilos, whom he connected with Hermes.
The Hellenistic and Roman times were eras of great prosperity for the sanctuary and visitors from all over the known world flocked there, among them many notable individuals like the historian Herodotus (thanks to whom we have more clues about the secret ceremonies) or King Lysander of Sparta. Rumor has it also that King Phillip II of Macedonia and Olympias met (and, maybe conceived Alexander the Great) during their participation in these mysteries.
Today, the entry does not coincide with the ancient entrance at the Propylon. Hence, the visitor is deprived of the visual and psychological effect of having to walk downwards (in a symbolic movement of transcending to another world or the depths of the person’s psyche) to reach the cluster of buildings where the ceremonies were taking place.
The archaeological site is quite extensive, and it requires a lot of time for a proper exploration. It is not easy to gain a basic understanding of the connections, putting together the little available information, and attempting to recreate the processes that had such an impact in antiquity. However, the below structures represent the highlights, especially as far as the initiation ceremony (and its three stages: preliminary myesis, the telete, and the epopteia) is concerned.
Propylon of Ptolemy II
It is located near the ancient city of Samothrace and formed the monumental entrance to the Sanctuary of the Great Gods from the early 3rd c BC. Among ancient Greek gatehouses, only the Propylaia on the Athenian Acropolis matched this Samothracian building in precipitousness of the location and architectural ingenuity. Today, only the massive substructure of the building, penetrated by a diagonally oriented vaulted tunnel through which the waters of the eastern torrent of the sanctuary were channeled, survive. On the east side, the porch was of Ionic, while on the west of Corinthian order; this bilingual architectural expression signals the transition from profane to sacred space.
The initiates would enter from the Propylon towards the Theatral Circle where preliminary rites (purificatory preparations) were taking place. The structure consisted of a paved orchestral space framed by five tiers of concentric steps which could accommodate approximately 240 standing participants.
Dedication Building of Philip III and Alexander IV
It was donated to the Great Gods by Alexander the Great’s successors: his half-brother Philip III Arrhidaios, and his posthumous infant son Alexander IV. The façade was constructed by Pentelic marble (same that was used for the Parthenon and the other structures on the Athenian Acropolis), while the krepis, back, and side walls were built of marble from the nearby Thassos island.
Anaktoron or Telesterion
Anaktoron means “House of the King,” and it is most probably the area where the first stage of initiation (myesis) was taking place, followed by the second stage (telete) which was unfolding in the inner adyton (sacred corner) in the building’s north edge.
Hall of Choral Dancers:
The remnants of the Hall are very limited, and the initial structure is not very visible. Latest excavations indicate that maybe the initiation (myesis) was taking place here instead of the Anaktoron.
The initiates were led to the Hieron to acquire the higher degree of initiation, the epopteia.
It is a kind of temple although it has only a single, partly restored prostyle (lines of columns) and not the typical periptery (columns surrounding the whole building). The interior – 11 meters – is the largest unsupported span in the ancient Greek world. The south end of this building is an apse, which constitutes the most sacred portion, maybe representing a grotto for conducting chthonic rituals.
Rotunda of Arsinoe:
It was a large tholos – the biggest, covered round space in the ancient Greek world (20 m in diameter). It may have served to welcome the sacred ambassadors delegated by cities and associations to attend the great festivals at the sanctuary. Based on the decoration of rosettes and garlanded bull’s heads, it is possible that sacrifices may have also taken place here.
Among the cemeteries of the ancient town, the Southern Nekropolis with burials of men, women, and children, is the longest-used (mid 6th c BC till the 2nd c AD), the richest, the most congested, and the most extensively explored.
Unfortunately, the museum that hosts a replica of the famous statue of Niki (Winged Victory) of Samothrace (the original being exhibited in the Louvre) along with several findings from the site, was closed, so we did not have a chance to visit it.
Mikro Vouni (“Small Mountain”)
Even though this is a very small site and most of it was covered during our visit due to the ongoing excavations, this was one the most impressive discoveries on the island. It consists of a prehistoric settlement developed on an area of around 2500 acres near the southwest coast of Samothraki. The cultural development of the settlement covers a period from the end of the 6th millennium to approximately 1700 BC. Pottery and architectural remains found at the site correspond to a community of about 500 people organized with urban characteristics. Thus, the settlement of Mikro Vouni is considered to be one of the first “cities” of the Aegean Sea. Among the significant findings that came to light are some clay seals dating to the Middle Bronze Age (19th-18th c BC). These seals were part of a Minoan archive probably from Knossos (in Crete island). It is the first time that an inscription of Linear A has been found so far away from Crete. Seals bearing the syllabic signs of the double ax and cuttlefish were also discovered on the site. Based on these findings, the settlement of Mikro Vouni was possibly a commercial station for palatial Crete linked with the metal trade deriving from the North.
Holy Monastery of Christ
It is located close to Therma village, but unfortunately, it was closed when we visited so we saw it only from afar. The Monastery was built in the middle of the 14th century and was abandoned in the first half of the 19th century. It is considered to be the most important standing medieval monument on the island, of the Late Byzantine period.
Panagia Krimniotissa church
It is located in the broader region of Pachia Ammos, perched on a tall, steep cliff (hence the name of the church, as “Krimniotissa” roughly translates “Of the Cliff”). The church itself is tiny, but the panorama offered from its yard is stunning, while the visitors are introduced to the mysterious myth that surrounds the construction of the temple and its importance for the locals. According to tradition, an icon of Virgin Mary (Panagia) was thrown into the sea by Christians living in Asia Minor, so that it would be spared from the wrath of the iconoclasts during the Byzantine period. Much later, at around 1700 AD, a ship sailing close to Samothrace was about to sink due to a perilous thunderstorm. The captain noticed the floating icon among the waves and commanded that it was collected and brought to him. Immediately the storm was silenced. On that same night, Virgin Mary appeared to the captain’s dream, asking him to take her icon to Samothrace – which he did. The priest of the island placed it in the existing church but every night the icon would escape and, the next day, the locals would find it perched on the cliff. It did not take them long to understand that Virgin Mary was indicating the location where She wished the icon to be hosted, so they built the little church on that spot.
The Castle stands on the top of a steep hill to the northeast of Chora (the capital village of the island). It was founded in 1431-1433, and its construction is attributed to Lord Palamedes Gattiluso, who was a member of a wealthy merchant family from Genoa. The Gattilusi family had acquired the ownership of Samothraki, the Thracian coast, Lesvos and Limnos islands from the Byzantine Emperor Ioannis V Palaiologos because they had assisted him in obtaining the imperial throne of Byzantium over Ioannis VI Kantakouzinos. The Castle, along with the Towers of Paleopolis, was part of a fortification program which was undertaken by the Genoese Lord to ensure the defense of the island against enemy attacks. With the dissolution of the Byzantine empire, the Castle passed successively into the hands of the Turks (1456-1460), Dimitrios Palaiologos (1460-1466), the Venetians (1466-1479), the Turks (1479-1770), the Russians (1770-1774) and the Turks again until the integration of Samothraki into the Greek state in 1912. Unfortunately, the Castle was closed when we visited and, thus, we did not have the opportunity to explore it from within.
An inscribed rectangular marble plaque is built on the south wall of the external fortification rectangular tower. The coat of arms of Gattilusi is displayed in its center. On the left side, there is a single-headed eagle, the emblem of the Genoese family, while on the right there is a monogram of the Palaiologos family and their emblem, a double-headed eagle. The inscription is carved in both ends of the plaque indicating (in Byzantine dating style) the year the external fortification was built. The left edge of the plaque bears the name of Master Constantine in a separate frame. “And this tower was built from its foundations by the great brave city loving ruler of the glorious city of Enos and this island, the glorious Palamedes Gateliouzos. This brilliant man erected this project in the year six thousand nine hundred forty-one as a great fortress against enemies.”
Additional Defensive Towers
During the period the Chora Castle was being built, two additional towers were erected in Paleopolis to reinforce the defense of the island further. Finally, a similar tower can be found on the beach of Fonias on the north coast of the island which used to serve the same purpose. The entrance to the Palaiopolis towers was closed, but we managed to visit the Fonias tower which is falling apart next to the sea, very close to the entry of the path leading towards the Fonias waterfall and the respective vathra (water pool).
Apostle Paul’s steps in Samothrace
Samothrace was Apostle Paul’s first stop in Europe during his journey to spread Christianity. According to the Scriptures, in 49-50 AD, the Apostle disembarked in Paleopolis, an event commemorated by the establishment of an early Christian basilica whose traces survive to this day near the ancient port. During our visit, we tried in vain to find this basilica; however, we saw a small jetty, and we believe this may be the spot where St Paul’s boat had supposedly docked.
The construction of the road that leads to the northern part of Samothraki has resulted in the discovery of the premises of an extensive complex of ceramic workshops dating to late Hellenistic – early Imperial era. The foundations of a large rectangular building probably used for the preparation and processing of clay as well as the manufacturing and drying of vessels was discovered there. A nearby former workshop was identified by the depository of ceramic waste. The remains of three rectangular ceramic kilns maintained in good condition were also found at the site. One of the most important findings was a large volume of wine amphora shreds, mainly handles, many of which bore seals similar to the ones found on the coins of Samothraki (caduceus, head ram, star, dolphin). These remains support the fact that Samothrace was a very important city in the ancient world with intense commercial activity.
During our visit, we only saw a sign next to the road and piles of pottery cascading towards the sea. The rest of the remnants were not apparent to our amateur eyes – unless most of the findings have been transferred to the archaeological museum of the island.
(Disclaimer: All the above information is based on personal observations on each site, and basic information found on each spot. There may be historical or archaeological inaccuracies due to my limited knowledge).
Samothrace is far more than just archaeological sites! More details, including personal tips and preferences, can be found in my article here.
Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou