Traveling Classroom Foundation
Monday March 27th 2023

Towers of Naxos, Part 2

We begin the day with preparations for another journey through the hill country of Naxos in search of old fortified towers built by the Venetians. Immediately after leaving the main ring road of Naxos Town we are traveling through rich farm country, where vegetables, olives and wine grapes are grown commercially. This is important to recall when reading about Naxian history (or any history for that matter) because events affecting people often arise from the greed of others.

This island has always been self-sufficient because of its central location in the Cycladic islands, its size and its natural resources. Even the ancient writer Pindaros called Naxos “liparana” (fatty). From antiquity the island was famous for its fruits, olive oil and wine. Poets have compared its wines to “nectar of the gods.”

Under the peaceful rule of the Eastern Roman Empire at Byzantium (renamed Constantinople), the Naxians grew wealthy by selling their produce and goods, especially the fine white marble that makes up more than half of the island. During the Byzantine era many monasteries and churches were erected in the hills – sometimes over the ruins of temples dedicated to the ancient gods – while merchants built fine homes near the ports.

This was too good to last during troubled times. An era was ending. It is one of the ironies of history that the demise of the Byzantine Empire was hastened not by invasions of Arabs from the east or barbarians from the north, but by fellow Christians from the west. In 1095, the First Crusade set out from France – the first of several crusades over the next two centuries – to liberate the Holy Land (Palestine) from the Muslims. These crusaders were a rough and rapacious bunch who desired the riches they saw in eastern lands. Not content with “liberating” Palestine, where they had to keep fighting the Islamic people who lived there, they set about attacking and looting the now weakened Byzantine Empire.

In 1024 Venetian invaders established the Duchy of the Aegean, with its capital at Naxos – the wealthiest of the Cycladic islands. They had a strong foothold in Greece by 1196, when the Byzantine emperor Alexius asked Venice to help defend against the Normans who had invaded Greece. Being shrewd businessmen, the Venetians agreed on the condition that they could use Byzantine trade routes and be exempt from taxes. Over the next few centuries they acquired all of the most strategic Greek ports, and became the wealthiest and most powerful traders in the Mediterranean.

Venetian rule drastically changed the lives of Naxians. They went from being independent farmers and businessmen to working under the domination of a foreign power. It is not surprising that Venetians built fortresses to separate themselves from the people they ruled.

Things got even worst in 1204, when knights of the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople and carved up the empire into feudal states run by self-styled princes. Afterwards there was constant fighting over territory, and none of this squabbling was good for Naxians. Their homes and lives might be lost whenever another foreign prince tried to take the island away from the Venetians.

However, the rule of Venetian dukes in Naxos survived until 1564, when the Ottoman Turks invaded. Yet, Naxians lived in greater fear of Europeans than of the Turks. Turkish administrators on Naxos were mainly interested in collecting taxes for the sultan, so they did little to disrupt normal commerce. The people of Naxos built monasteries, churches and schools, and went about their business. However, European nations wanting to undermine the Ottoman Empire often behaved like pirates ā€“ attacking and looting Greek towns under the rule of Turks. In those times, Turks used the Venetian fortresses for protection against French and Venetian raiders.

Not far from Naxos Town, we come to Galanado and shortly arrive at the Belonia Tower. We expected something a bit more fortified. This place appears to be a home. In fact, it is a home with a nice walled garden filled with pretty flowers. Venetians wanted some style in their defenses, especially if they had to live in these forts. Looking a bit more closely we can see that the garden wall is thicker than necessary and the house would probably withstand cannon fire. To get to the door, one must walk up a flight of stairs. This would not be possible in the original design.

Unlike other Naxian towers, the Belonia Tower is like a house

The standard design of a Venetian tower includes a stone ladder to the balcony of the second floor, where there is a main entrance. In some towers the ladder doesn’t reach to the entrance and a wooden draw bridge is extended. This, of course, would be raised during an attack. Towers had auxiliary spaces, warehouses for storing the harvest and other supplies, and stables for animals. There was also a large reception room, which we saw at Crispi Tower. In later years some towers added more floors and better living space.

The next tower is the foreboding Oskelos in the Polihni area. We drive up a gravel track no wider than our car to reach the site on the side of a hill, where there is now a farm. Like Belonia Tower, it has a commanding view of the surrounding area down to the sea. However, Oskelos Tower makes no pretense about being anything other than a stone fortress. There are only a few small windows high up on the tower, and a large number of slots that might have been for guns. It is not the sort of place you would want to attack.

Oskalos Tower is under renovation, perhaps for use as a home

After visiting Oskalos, we travel northward to the town of Apeiranthos, high on a mountain ridge beyond the village of Filoti, where we stopped yesterday. It is not possible to drive into the village, because there are no roads – only alleys and narrow corridors that twist and turn between homes and shops. We park on the road outside Apeiranthos and walk. Entering the village, we are impressed that the walkways are paved with marble and a large number of the buildings are constructed of marble. We are surrounded by white stone. It makes sense when we stop to consider that marble is a common rock in this area.

Marble buildings and paving in Apeiranthous

Not far into Apeiranthos, we come to Zevgolis Tower, the most prominent feature of the village. Being Venetian, it is different looking than any of the local architecture, and it is made of a harder stone than marble. Supported by a huge arch, the tower is perched firmly on the edge of a cliff overlooking the agricultural valley below. It seems completely inaccessible from below, so we decide to see if there is a way to get a closer look.

Zevgolis Tower is built solidly on bedrock

We climb up very steep and narrow passages, always trying to move closer to the tower. Finally, we find stairs that lead up to a stone wall and a large, heavy door. This appears to be the main entrance of the Zevgolis Tower, but we are not certain. The place is a private home now, and many changes have been made over the centuries. Even so, it would still be difficult for armed soldiers to break into this tower.

Exploring the village of Apeiranthos is no easy thing, because there are no maps or signs to help us through this complicated maze. By pure chance, through a series of turns and guesses, we eventually find our way (by a completely different route) back to the place we started. From there we locate a small cafe and stop for lunch.

Getting through the maze of village lanes

We continue northward, driving along a road cut into the mountain ridges and looking down into deep valleys, terraced for farming. Finally, we reach Cape Stavri, the northern tip of the island. From the edge of a windblown cliff, we can look across the sea to Mykonos and other nearby islands. It is only a short drive from here to our next destination.
Ayia Tower is crouched upon a precipice like a giant watchdog, staring at the sea. As we hike down the dirt path to the tower, we hear eerie chanting in the wind – like voices from the distant past. Arriving at the tower, we can finally locate the source of the chanting. Below us, in a forested vale hidden from the road, is a tiny church and monastery. The monks are singing a liturgy.

Ayias Tower is built on a high cliff overlooking the sea

The tower is typical of medieval defensive design. It has a narrow, steep stone stairway climbing to a second story entrance. The doorway is little more that a hatch – making it very difficult for armed soldiers to break in. There are only a few small windows (probably used only by guards), and none of these is below the third story.  Looking at this defensive fortress on a remote cliff, far away from the nearest village, I wonder why people chose to live here. An even more interesting question is why they continued in this lifestyle for so many generations.  It seems more like a prison than a family home.

Around the tower are other surviving buildings. Without more investigation, it is difficult to say how they were used. In the case of one building it is obvious. There is a large grinding stone in the center of the building, and a cylindrical stone roller lying in the corner. This was where grain was milled to make flour. After exploring the tower site, we turn south for the return journey to Naxos Town. The road continues through farming land, much of it planted in olives or grapes on terraces above the sea. There seem to be no proper villages in this area – only the occasional cluster of farmhouses.

Along the road near Hilia Vrisi Bay, we happen upon a donkey tied under a shady tree. There are stairs leading up from the road to a small cafe with a large shady arbor covered by grape and trumpet vines along the front of the building. After our long day, we cannot resist. We park near the donkey, who watches as we climb the stairs.

Sitting under the arbor and drinking coffee, is the farmer who owns the mule. Otherwise the place is empty. An elderly lady comes out and asks what she can bring for us. We smile gratefully and sit at a table in the cool shade of grape vines.

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