Ikaria: ‘Just Do It… Later’

Ikaria (also spelled Icaria) is a Greek island in the eastern Aegean Sea, not too far from the Turkish seaboard. Although technically one of the eastern Sporades, on the map it sits immediately north of the Dodecanese, with whom it shares much of its historical ebb and flow.

View from Drakano tower in northeast Ikaria, overlooking the strait between the islands of Samos (on the left) and Fourni (on the right)

A Little History

The island has a rich history. There is plentiful evidence of Prehistoric inhabitation, and two of its cities (Oenoe and Therma) paid financial tribute to the Delian League (a.k.a. protection money to the Athenians) in the 5th century BC. Like many of the Dodecanese islands, it passed through a number of hands: Roman, Byzantine, Genoese, the Knights of St John of Rhodes, and Turkish, until it finally joined the Greek state in 1922. During the Greek Civil War (1946-49) and Colonel’s Junta (1967-74), the island became a place of political exile, as a result of which it today retains a strong left-wing political identity.

Ikarian Lifestyle: Just Do It… Later

Today Ikaria is perhaps best known for being one of only five ‘Blue Zones‘ in the world (the others being Loma Linda in California, Sardinia, Okinawa in Japan, and Nicoya in Costa Rica). These are areas of the world that have statistically the best life expectancy, a result put down to such factors as healthy diet and lifestyle. Indicative of the Ikarian stress-free attitude to life is their motto, ‘Just Do It… Later’, a prudent modification of Nike’s motto, and a most appropriate one for an island whose shape bears some resemblance to the Nike logo (a tick: one of the island’s ancient names was ‘Long’ (Dolichi)).

Images: Scenes from the Karimalis Winery in Pigi (photo credits: Eleanor Weaver)

In order to get a taste of the Ikarian good life, and bank some of its longevity, we stayed at the Karimalis Winery in the village of Pigi, roughly 8km south of Evdilos. All food and wine served to us there had been produced on the farm, or (in the case of fish) caught that day – the island’s edible marine life has always been one of its selling points, attested by the fact that it was known as ‘Fishy’ (Ichtheoussa) in antiquity. N.b. the dog pictured was not part of the menu.

The wine produced in Ikaria is a distant relative of ‘Pramnian’ wine, famous in antiquity for being the wine that the sorceress Circe employed to metamorphose Odysseus’ men into swine in Homer’s Odyssey. In the Homeric poems it is mixed with grated cheese or barley (a medley I’ve yet to try).

Ikarian Myth

The island’s name is linked to the mythical character of Icarus (although it may also be linked to the Phoenician word ikor, meaning ‘fish’: see above on Ikaria’s piscine attributes). Icarus was the unfortunate son of the legendary craftsman Daedalus, who constructed a boat (according to Pausanias) or wings (according to Ovid) in order to escape from Crete. Depending on which ancient author one believes, Icarus was either involved in boating accident near Lebinthos (modern Levitha, due south of Ikaria) and washed up on Ikaria, or came crashing down into the sea off the southern Ikarian coast after having flown too close to the sun and melted the waxen components on his wings.

Modern sculpture of Icarus’ crash-landing (on the left), in the harbour at Aghios Kirykos

In defiance of the ancient geographer Strabo who claimed that the island ‘has no harbours’, Ikaria in fact boasts two harbours, one in Evdilos in the north and the other in its capital Aghios Kirykos in the south. A mole of the latter is home to a rather strange, abstract bronze sculpture standing 7m in height and representing Icarus’ fateful seaward flight. Somewhat ominously, it is placed over a message that reads ‘Welcome to the Island of Icarus’, and offers a sober note of caution to anyone parking in the harbour’s car park (over which it dominates).

The Hellenistic Settlement and Tower at Drakano

The Hellenistic tower at Drakano at the northeastern tip of the island is (in my view) the most spectacular of the ancient ruins on Ikaria. Dating to the 4th century BC, the tower overlooked two ancient harbours (and was thus strategically crucial), and was the strongpoint of a series of fortification walls and bastions that surrounded the elements within. The tower itself is jaw-droppingly well preserved, still standing 30-courses tall.

Image slideshow: the tower at Drakano, and one of the doorways in the enceinte walls

Ancient Hydrotherapy on Ikaria

The ancient town of Therma, situated towards the eastern end of island on the southern coast, was blessed with hot waters that could cure all sorts of rheumatic ailments. This was no magic, but an effect of the radioactive properties (radium in particular) of the hot springs that emanated from the rocks in this area. As a result, the site became dedicated to Asclepius, god of healing. This was a lucrative move for the town, which became a hydrotherapy spa and tourist attraction.

Ruins of the bath installations from the Roman / Byzantine period of the thermal spa

The ancient hydrotherapy spa at Therma enjoyed varying fortunes: in the 3rd century BC the citizens became known as ‘Asclepieis’ (‘those of Asclepius’), but by the 1st century AD Pliny refers to the spa as ‘lost’ – was it destroyed and submerged after the earthquake of c. 200 BC and subsequently rebuilt? It’s tough to say, but what is certain is that the hot springs are still alive and kicking: it brought me some relief from a repetitive strain injury I had been carrying for 6 months.

Eilithyia (the goddess of childbirth) at Drakano

Opposite the enceinte walls, there are the recently-excavated remains of the base for a temple, which an inscription tells us was in honour of Eilithyia, the goddess who presided over childbirth (see images below).

Foundations of the ancient temple, perhaps for Eilithyia (the island of Fourni in background)
An inscription recording a dedication to ‘the Eilithyiai’ by the ‘wife of Sophilos’, presumably in thanks for a successful childbirth (now in the archaeological museum at Aghios Kirykos)

Samians living in ancient Ikaria

Ikaria is easily visible from Samos. Clearly the attraction of the Blue Zone, stress free life was too magnetic a pull for some ancient Samians, who packed up their suitcases and made the permanent move to Ikaria. Not only that, but once comfortably ensconced they advertised their presence on the island, fascinating evidence for which we have in the form of an inscription dating to the reign of the Roman emperor Nerva at the end of the 1st century AD.

Inscription on marble column, dedicated by the Samians who settled on Ikaria

This inscription reads ‘The Samians living on Ikaria [dedicate something or other] to the emperor Nerva Augustus’. It was found in the ancient city of Oenoe (modern Kambos), and currently sits just outside the 12th-century chapel of Aghia Eirini, which is itself built on top of 5th-century Roman basilica.

Ancient Adolescents on Ikaria

To be a teenager was no informal business in Ancient Greece. In fact, if you were an ‘ephebe’ (meaning roughly 18-20 years old), you’d be enrolled in an institution called the ‘ephebeia’. This was a social institution that prepared young men for adulthood, and involved military training via physical exercise and weapons practice, as well as a number of ritualised aspects (rites, processions etc.). Originally the ‘ephebe’ would emerge from this training as a fully formed citizen soldier, but after the Classical period the institution gradually shed its military character and became a kind of rich boys club.

As throughout the Greek world, the ancient Ikarians took this institution seriously, seriously enough to inscribe a rather beautiful, small marble column (a koiniskos) with the names of the ephebes and their tutor (pictured). The inscription was found in Oenoe and dates to the 1st century AD.

The ‘Ikaria Stele’

This remarkable sculptural relief is one of the highlights of the Archaeological Museum in Aghios Kirykos. It depicts a seated woman (perhaps a goddess) holding a child, approached by two adult brothers and two children. All eyes are on the seated figure.

The ‘Ikaria Stele’

Its meaning is unclear, but it is perhaps a votive or funerary monument, in which the two brothers present a new member of their family to the goddess. The inscription at the bottom is written in the Parian alphabet, and reads ‘Platthis of Paros made me’. Again, this is evidence for a presence on Ikaria of non-Ikarians who are happy to advertise the fact (see above on the Samian settlers). The piece dates to the second half of the 5th century BC, and was unearthed on the grounds of a primary school in the village of Katapygi.

Ancient Religion on Ikaria: Artemis at Nas

At the point at which the Chalari Gorge issues into the Aegean Sea in northwest Ikaria, we find the site of the ancient Sanctuary of Artemis Tauropolos (‘of the bull’) at Nas (a corruption of the word naos, the ancient Greek word for ‘temple’). Set back from the beach on the slope of the valley, it is one of the oldest sanctuaries of Artemis in the greek islands. In antiquity, this was an important pit-stop between the Asia Minor, and the famous sanctuary of Apollo on Delos.

The Chalari Gorge, with the remains of the Sanctuary of Artemis beginning from the water’s edge on the right hand side. The remains of the temple wall are visible further up the slope
Modern worshippers of Artemis Tauropolos reverently congregate on the beach and erect tents before popping into the cove for a swim

According to an ancient source (Clement of Alexandria), the sanctuary of Artemis at Nas contained a sacred image of the goddess (an unworked, featureless piece of wood). It is possible that the four perfectly circular perforations on the rectangular grey-granite base (visible in the photo) were for the protective railing that would have surrounded the goddess’ sacred plank. I learned from the menu of the restaurant overlooking the beach and the sanctuary that, according to ancient lore, the goddess’ sacred image fell from the sky.

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