The fertile plains of Western Thrace extended as far as the eye could see, bathed in silver and bright yellow hues from the shimmering olive groves and the sunflower fields. It was June, and the sunlight flickered indolently on the sapphire fringes of the sea, while the imposing figure of Samothrace – the dragon-guardian of the coastline – rested content at the background. Despite the heat, the land was welcoming and alive, beckoning to us to follow the well-camouflaged paths that led into the secrets of its past.
We had only four days to spend in this district of my country that remains unexplored – at least to most Athenians who rarely venture so far away from the Cyclades islands for their summer holidays. Even though we tried, my friend and I, to make the most of our time, often limiting our meals to a souvlaki and a Greek salad while spending hours roaming among ancient ruins and trying to decipher their meaning, we only managed to scratch the surface of the rich inheritance bestowed on such a small piece of land.
The broader Thrace region, including the areas that today belong to Bulgaria and Turkey, was inhabited, since the Neolithic era. Its indigenous people were tribal communities that fell under the Persian dominance during the 6th and 5th centuries BC and got connected into a unified kingdom only during the time of the Odrysians (the Odrysian Kingdom, 5th c BC – 1st c AD: a state-union of over 40 Thracian tribes and 22 smaller kingdoms).
The Greek side of Thrace – often referred to as “Western Thrace” – stretches between the Evros River (on the far East) and Nestos River (on the West): a distance of, roughly, 300 km. The coastal line was colonised by Greeks since the 7th century BC, which led to the creation of some of the most influential cities of the area and the Hellenization of the region – with a significant impact on the future history of Thrace. The subsequent dominion of the Macedonian Kings, the Romans, the Byzantines, and the Ottomans left indelible traces on land and people alike and, today, Thrace represents one of the most culturally diverse areas of Greece.
Some of these traces are not difficult to see. The minarets that rise in the centre of most cities and villages are a unique phenomenon in this rather homogeneous, Orthodox Christian country. Additionally, the roads are dotted with the familiar, brown-shaded signs that direct the traveller to the numerous historical sites lying in the vicinity. Yet, despite the signs, many of these sites are difficult to find; others are painfully neglected and overcome by nature; and, finally, the main archaeological areas are open to the public only until 3 pm, which, given our limited time, posed a significant restriction and forced us to explore quite a few just from afar, through the openings of the fence.
The roads of Thrace had always connected the East with the West, this being one of the primary motives behind the Greek colonisation of the coastline. However, it was during the Roman era and the construction of the Egnatia Way (Via Egnatia) that this geographical advantage gained unprecedented significance.
Via Egnatia was one of the most important commercial and military roads of the Roman Empire (connecting Rome with the East) and the first route of this magnitude constructed by the Romans outside Italy. It was built between 146 and 120 BC by Gnaeus Egnatius, Proconsul of Macedonia, on the marks of the ancient routes that had been used, among others, by the Persian Kings Darius and Xerxes on their expeditions to Greece, and by Alexander the Great on his way to Asia. The road started in the cities of Apollonia and Dyrrachium (in today’s Albania) and reached the Hellespont and Byzantium on the East (a total distance of 696 miles or 1,120 km). For more than 2000 years, it served as the central highway, defining the region and the cities that lied by its side.
Given the Romans’ affinity for organisation and practicality, there were stations and inns built along the length of Via Egnatia (every 10-20 km and 45-60 km respectively) to address the needs of the travellers. Moreover, milaria (mile stones, i.e. cylindrical stone stelae) were raised at intervals of a mile with information inscribed in Greek and/or Latin on the distance between stations and the names of those responsible for the construction and maintenance of the specific part of the road. The impact of this structure was so strong on the map of the region that, even today, the major cities in Macedonia and Thrace are situated at a distance of 45-60 km from each other, echoing centuries-old practices.
The construction of the ancient road was meticulous and engineeringly methodical. The ground was dug up to 50 cm from its natural level, and the hiatus was covered with alternating layers of pebbles and clay, compressed through constant sprinkling with water. The top of the road was covered with large, flattened stones, while vertical rocks were placed on the verges to hold the surface in position, and long, slightly protruding stones were positioned along the centerline to indicate the separation of the lanes (each lane being around 3 meters wide).
Today, there are several parts of the old Via Egnatia stretching next to the remains of the ancient cities. We saw relevant signs close to the archaeological site of Zone – Mesembria, however, we failed to find the location. A distinct part is visible inside Philippi, close to Kavala (but, this being in Macedonia and not in Thrace is not included in this article), and another part is next to Evros River. This last one is clearly marked on the road, yet, it was difficult to pinpoint as, during our visit, it was covered in waist-high weeds. We finally managed to identify the area by the big explanatory signs outside a fence-restricted, padlocked piece of land which was not accessible to the public. The promised “thrill of walking on the ancient road surface” proved to be more of a sentimental tale rather than reality.
The ancient city of Zone (whose ruins, for many years, were believed to be the city of Mesembria) belonged to the so-called “Peraia of Samothrace” or “Samothracian forts”: a region that extended from the Evros River until Mount Ismaros and included several towns like Drys, Sale, Zone, Mesembria, Makri, Cape Serreion, Tempyra, and Charakoma. Today, Zone is the best researched and excavated site in Thrace, having revealed information of major historical significance.
Settlers from the island of Samothrace arrived at the Thracian coast in the mid-6th century BC and founded cities to take full advantage of the routes that connected the East with the West, as well as the sea with the inland. The still-visible acropoles of these cities are a proof of the strategic and political importance of the region. Based on the finds, it seems that Zone was among the most significant urban centers, reaching the peak of its prosperity during the 5th and 4rth centuries BC (an era that coincided to an extent with the Golden Epoch of Athens – Athens having financial interests and diplomatic connections with the region – as well as with the growth of the Odrysian Kingdom). The city gradually declined, though new constructions (following a Hippodamian urban plan) have been identified, remaining in use until the 2nd century BC. The weakening of the Athenian presence, especially after Athens’ defeat by the Spartans in the Peloponnesian War, and the prevalence of the Macedonians and, later, of the Romans, changed the socio-economic balances in the region, leading to the further decline of Zone which was gradually abandoned. In the end, there are only a few traces of occasional habitation of a temporary nature dating until the 5th century AD.
The city was encircled by a fortification wall reinforced at intervals by towers. This wall enclosed a hill at the north, which was the acropolis of the settlement. Within the city walls, a large section of the urban tissue has already been uncovered with streets, usually small, defining building blocks. One can still see a part of the western wall of the city, along with remains of the west gate. Big houses, wine-producing presses, kilns, and the finds from the cemetery have shed light into the life of the ancient inhabitants of Zone, their daily routines, their wealth and economy (relying mainly on commerce), as well as their high cultural level.
Two buildings attract most of a visitor’s attention: The Temple of Apollo and the Amphorae House.
The temple, dating to the end of the 6th century BC, is considered one of the most important finds of the recent years. Inside it, an unusually high number (around 300) of inscribed potsherds was revealed. These inscriptions were written in Greek characters but in the Thracian language, and, even though they appear incomprehensible in the beginning, they constitute the biggest collection of Thracian writings discovered until today, contributing to the deciphering of the local dialect (which was apparently closely related to the Greek language).
The Amphorae Building, on the other hand, is probably a residence. In the foundations of three of its rooms, 188 amphorae were discovered, placed with their mouth pointing downwards in such a way that their bases were all at the same level, regardless of the size of each amphora. This structure represents a rare method of protecting the floors from the dampness of the earth, since, despite the pertinent construction of the roads and the house for the collection of the rain, the water could still penetrate the masonry of the building, causing dampness and destruction in its foundations.
The Cyclops Cave
According to the legend, Odysseus, on his return to Ithaca from Troy, plundered the city of Maroneia (on the Thracian coastline) but spared its king, Maron, who was related to god Dionysos. In gratitude, Maron gave to Odysseus the famous, ruby-red Maroneian wine which he, in turn, gave to the Cyclops Polyphemus to get him drunk so that he (Odysseus) and his companions could escape from the cave in which they were held as prisoners.
There seem to be two caves on the Thracian coastline that claim to be the lair of the Cyclops: one somewhere between Alexandroupolis and Zone, the other closer to the town of Maroneia.
Following the signs on the road, we visited the first one, though we did not venture into its chambers given our lack of adequate equipment and expertise. It did not look like being open to the public and on the outside, it was disappointingly small for a cyclops! The other cave is between the settlement of Proskinites and Maronia village on Mount Ismaros and also claims to have been home to Polyphemus. Unfortunately, we did not visit this one which, based on photos, seems to be attractive. Although Polyphemus’ presence is questionable, the cave has been used over the centuries by farmers and wine producers for the preservation of their produce, or as a refuge for the locals in difficult times.
On the southwestern slopes of Mount Ismaros, next to a natural bay, there are the remains of the ancient city of Maroneia. Founded in the 7th century BC by Greek colonists coming from Chios island, it developed into one of the leading hubs of the region, experiencing a period of acme during the 5th and 4th centuries BC, and a gradual decline from the Hellenistic times onwards. Despite the city’s downturn, its harbour (today called “Agios Charalambos”) was the seat of the bishop during the Early Christian era. On the top of the Agios Georgios peak, there was the acropolis of the town, surrounded by fortifications that included an imposing megalithic portal of monolithic pillars. It seems that these remains predate the city as they were built in the 9th or 8th century BC, and, it is believed, they are related to the Ismaros town that Homer mentioned in Odyssey.
Today, there are few remnants of the past glorious days: the Temple of Dionysus (4rth century BC); the ancient theatre (which, during the Roman era and as per the common practice of the Romans was altered to be used as an arena); a house of the late classical period with a lovely mosaic floor (exposed and unprotected under rain and sun); a basilica of the 6th century AD; remains of public baths; and a very beautiful Roman propylon, next to the harbor, which acted as the entrance gate to the city.
The distance between the archaeological site of Zone and that of Maroneia is short, however, the sea-side road (which, on the maps, seemed usable) is a dirt road of very poor quality. Unfortunately, we arrived too late to Maroneia, and the sites were closed for the day, so we did not have a chance to explore the theatre or the temple in detail, and we never reached the acropolis area or the museum.
By the propylon, we indulged in sweet, wild berries harvested directly from the tree and, after getting surprised by a fox that darted through the street in broad daylight, we settled for a late lunch in a tavern at the fishermen’s village Agios Charalambos, where we tasted the famous Maroneian wine – a variety that remains intact since the ancient times. We were told that a line of stones in the middle of the harbour represents the remains of the old port. At the end of our meal and as per the popular tradition in most Greek taverns, we were treated to dessert which, our waiter, insisted it was prepared only by men as they did not want women interfering in their kitchen. We were also invited to visit the vineyards of the Maroneian variety, tasting some more of the local wine, but we declined as we still had a long way to go and too many things to see before the evening hours.
Abdera was another important ancient town of the coastline which we did not have enough time to explore in detail since we arrived too late and the archaeological site had closed for the day. To most Greeks, Abdera is known as the home-town of the philosophers Leucippus and Democritus, and the sophist Protagoras. The poet Anacreon, the mathematician Vion, and the politician Nymphodoros were also born there.
The city is divided into two parts – the northern and the southern enceinte – which represent the two major eras of its history.
Abdera (the northern enceinte) was initially founded in the 7th century BC by colonists from the town of Clazomenae in Asia Minor; however, the city did not thrive, as the climate conditions proved to be a challenge for the founders and their population quickly declined. About a century later, new colonists arrived from the city of Teos in Ionia and, mixing with the remaining Clazomenians, managed to develop the town into a prominent harbour of the antiquity. They were also the ones to give the city its present name, paying tribute to their mythical founder Abderus – or, as per the legend, it was Hercules who founded Abdera and named it after his fallen friend.
At the beginning of the 4th century BC, the natural silting of the harbour – and various military events in the region – led to the decline of the city whose economy was largely dependent on the taxes of the passing boats. They finally decided to relocate further to the south, creating the southern enceinte of Abdera and a new harbour. The new part of the city followed the Hippodamian plan and remained prosperous and populous until the 2nd century BC when it was destroyed in raids, and never recovered ever since.
During the Roman period, the floods and marshes close to Nestos River, the creation of Via Egnatia, and the development of Topeiros as a city-station, led to the further decline of Abdera. Its fortifications were left unattended because of Pax Romana, and in the 4th century AD, it was covered by sand in the worst flood of its history.
The large cemeteries that surrounded both the northern and the southern enceinte have shed light on many aspects of the life of the Abderians, while they remained in use until the Byzantine era.
Since the archaeological site was closed, we could only roam around the hills that surround the harbour – which today is the scala, i.e. the fishermen’s village of Abdera. A line of stones inside the sea indicate the remains of the ancient port, while the surrounding slopes are covered with remnants of fortification walls, buildings – some of them looked like churches – and several sarcophagi – some of which contained bones that my friend insisted belonged to humans.
Topeiros (today a municipality in the Xanthi regional unit) was an ancient Thracian settlement, located close the Nestos River. During the Roman times (around the 2nd century AD), it was supported by Emperor Trajan and became a station along Via Egnatia – a decision that led to its development until the Byzantine times, and the respective decline of the nearby city of Abdera.
Today, despite the several signs pointing towards the archaeological remains of ancient Topeiros, we spent more than one hour roaming into dead-ends and getting lost into untrodden fields, before finally discovering by the side of the main road something that looked like old city walls, covered by trees, weeds, and climbing plants. There may be more to see from this Roman hub, but we were unable to find it.
Ottoman Baths in Traianoupoli
Just a few kilometres from the Delta of Evros River, there is the town of Traianoupoli. Founded in the 2nd century AD by the Roman Emperor Trajan (on remains on an ancient settlement), it was famous for its hot springs and therapeutic baths. The town had a turbulent history, being repeatedly conquered by the Byzantines, the Ottomans, and the Bulgarians, while occasionally getting raided and remaining for long periods in ruins.
In the late 14th century, while the area was under Ottoman occupation and the city was abandoned, the Turk military commander Gazi Evrenos founded an inn (hana) and a Turkish bath (comprised of separate buildings for men – which also had an internal pool – and for women). Remains of these buildings survive until our days.
Today, next to the old baths, there is the building of the new baths where many people arrive per year to cure chronic pains. The water (of a constant temperature of 52-54o C) runs abundantly, a large part of it getting wasted. There, we had a cordial reception, we were guided around the old ruins, and, in the end, we were treated to some fantastic local honey infused with the aromas of the forest, oregano, wicker, sedge, and oak trees.
The Church of Panagia Kosmosotira
The small town of Feres drowsily stretches by the Greek-Turkish borders, less than half an hour from Alexandroupolis. In its centre, there stands the majestic church of Panagia Kosmosotira (translating to “Virgin Mary the World’s Savior”) – one of the most significant Byzantine monuments of Greece. It was built in 1151 AD by Issac Komninos, son of the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komninos, on the ruins of the ancient town of Viras. At the age of 59, Isaac had already been diagnosed with an incurable decease and, in his quest for peace, he found himself by the remnants of ancient Viras – an area utterly deserted at his time. Inspired by the serenity of the surrounding nature and the pastoral scenery of the flowing river, he decided to establish a Monastery (the Monastery of Panagia Kosmosotira) on which he spent almost all his fortune and whose construction he personally overviewed, especially towards the end. He died shortly after the completion of the project and was buried there. The Monastery was strategically located at the crossroads of Via Egnatia and the fertile Delta of Evros River, hence leading to the future development of the region.
The catholicon of the Monastery was the Church of Panagia Kosmosotira, built in the style of cruciform with five domes (the central one having a 7m diameter), on plans similar to those of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. The light that enters through the windows creates an illusion as if the domes hover in the ether. Today, 900 years later, the church still stands in good condition with a large part of its iconography and decoration preserved, even though most of the other buildings of the monastery have been destroyed. Inside the church, one can see the embedded, marble, embossed, single-headed eagle – a symbol of the Komnenos dynasty, and one of the oldest emblems of Byzantium. During the Ottoman occupation, the church was turned into a mosque, and its internal walls were covered in plaster. When Thrace was finally annexed to the Greek state, the plaster was removed (in many cases so clumsily that it caused painful destruction), and the church returned to its initial use. The style of the iconography is much simpler – almost folksy – compared to the traditional, austere and mystic, Byzantine technique, while a line of military-dressed saints is considered to bear a strong resemblance to members of the Alexios Komninos family.
The monastic complex, surrounded by a walled enclosure, included an 8-meter-high, square bell-tower, a nursing home or hospital for the poor, a cemetery, a library, and other auxiliary buildings. The necessary water supply was secured through the nearby aqueduct, the remains of which are still visible today.
The fossilised forest
In the broader Tychero area, by the Greek-Turkish borders and close to the villages of Fylakto and Lefkimmi, there is a fossilised forest developed under a subtropical climate 25 million years ago. Based on the meteorological conditions, the fossilisation process allowed for the preservation of the trunks’ morphological features in excellent condition. Among other things, a large oak trunk has been found, where we have the rare phenomenon of having recovered both the fossilised wood and the leaves from the same tree – making it also the most ancient Oak tree in Europe. It seems that millions of years ago, oak trees – of an average height of 25 m and diameter of 3 meters – were the dominant plants of the region.
The oak tree trunk is preserved under a fenced, covered kiosque with no open path leading to it. We had to walk through waist-high weeds at the risk of stepping onto a snake, a hedgehog, or a turtle of the numerous that roam the fields and roads of Thrace, to reach close to the wire mesh and peek inside. Other parts of the fossilised forest are on display – and entirely exposed – in the courtyard of the Fylakto Arts and Crafts Center (which was also not very easy to find).
Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou
Thrace is not just about archaeology. To explore this district further, complement the above article with a tour to six stunning destinations for nature lovers. The nearby island of Samothrace hides many treasures as well: visit its historical landmarks, and note some of my personal tips and preferences.