Kastro Apalirou, Naxos

I climbed up to the mountainous peak of Kastro Apalirou in central Naxos eleven years ago. A decade later David Hill told me about the Norwegian Institute’s survey of the fortress, sending me sections of the monograph that is now just published (in Athens). Thought-provoked, and on my way to see Colin Renfrew’s excavations on Keros, re-tracing ‘my steps’ to see the archaeology of this Middle Byzantine stronghold was irresistible.

Naxos and the Byzantine Aegean

I parked near the tiny church of Ayios Ioannis Theologos and then followed the track to a T-junction. From here there were no clear directions so I ventured right along a mule-track, then hurdled some fences before making an hour-long assault on the steep north face, picking my way up the scree. I set up some partridges and when the Aegean wind diminished finches kept up a constant chatter. Potsherds are thick in number amongst the tumbled stones.

The fortress itself is more of a village than a castle. At least two tiers of dwellings occupy the uppermost part of the steep mountain. The little castle hangs out over the north-east edge, prominent yet strangely diminutive. No less prominent is the aisled church that sat proudly exposed on the top. Much of it remains, with clumps of yellow crocuses peeping through the tumbled rubble. A cistern occupies the narrow west end of the long spindly hill.

Village houses on the north-facing slope

The very thought of living here is awe-inspiring. Yes, the views in every direction make it a magnificent defensive point. But this was first and foremost a large village in its heyday, not a refuge. The sheer quantity of pottery that colours the rock and spare ground speaks to its normality even if procurement demanded herculean effort. Huge numbers of pottery vessels were hauled up here.

Kastro Aparilou from Ayios Ioannis

The publication provides a welcome appraisal of this exceptional place. There is a later Roman phase, then a Mid Byzantine occupation that flourished as Byzantium generally flourished in the 11th-13th centuries. Does this fortress speak to the fear of maritime raiders or a desire to command the heartlands of Naxos? One thing is certain, it is an amazing place.

Descending gingerly, my admiration for the Norwegian Institute’s team and their diligent research is boundless!

See James Crow & David Hill (eds.) Naxos and the Byzantine Aegean: Insular responses to regional change (Athens, Norwegian Institute at Athens, 2018).

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