Amorgos

Introduction

Amorgos (pop. 2,000), long and narrow, (31 x 4 km), is shaped like a seahorse, swimming east towards the Dodecanese and Turkey. Oriented southwest to northeast, it’s the easternmost Cycladic island, and at 45km northwest of westernmost Dodecanese island Astypalaia, it’s the closest to the Dodecanese. Some include Amorgos in the so-called Small Cyclades, that grouping of a half dozen or so islets southeast and east of Naxos, but it is several times larger than the other Small Cyclades and rightly is a member in good standing of the Cyclades.

The name possibly comes from the word amorgά, which is the Greek word for the long roof beam of a building. Its long, narrow configuration could be likened to a roof beam, but for my money it looks more like a seahorse, and if it were to be named after what it resembles, it might better be called Ippokambos, which is what Geeks call that strange-looking creature. Another possible name origin is that the island grew flax, which was used to make robes, called “amorgos.”

Amorgos has a beautiful, cliff-filled coastline, but with enough inlets, coves and bays to be a swimmer’s and snorkeler’s paradise. It gained a certain measure of fame when the French feature film The Big Blue was partly filmed here in the late 1980’s. It is an exceedingly beautiful place, and a popular summer destination for both foreign and Greek tourists. The most famous image of the island, its symbol, and its chief tourist attraction is the monastery of Panagia Hozoviotissa, built into the nearly sheer cliff face 2km north and mostly east of Hora, the capital, its whitewashed facade like a projecting bulwark of the cliff. The island is criss-crossed with a network of ancient walking paths which see use by tourists and locals alike. The path from the main port at Katapola to Hora, the inland capital, was used as a safe alternate route during the Greek War of Independence (1821-30) to ferry supplies between the 2 points.

Amorgos was also used as an island of exile during the right-wing dictatorship of the Colonels commonly known as the Junta (1967-74). George Mylonos, a moderate left-winger  who was the Minister of Education under the first of 3 Papandreau PMs, George (the other 2 being George’s son, Andreas, and Andreas’s son, George), in the mid-1960’s, describes life in exile in his book Escape from Amorgos, where he was forced to live until rescued by a cabin cruiser commanded by his son in law, a Greek-American scion of ship owners. When Elias Kulukundis, the son in law, was asked why he risked imprisonment himself to rescue his wife’s father, he simply said, “I have a problem with dictatorships.”

History

Amorgos has had many names throughout history: Yperia, Patagy, Psichia, and Karkisia among them.

The island has been inhabited since for at least 5,000 years. The 3rd millennium, BC was a time of peak civilization for Amorgos, when it was considered a leading island, along with Naxos, of the Cyclades. During the Early Cycladic period (mid-2000’s  BC), the island had about 12 fortified population centers. Amorgos was the place where what is known as “Dokathismata style” figurines were first found in a number of graves in villages around the island (one of them being named Dokathismata).

These are the classic Early Cycladic figurines that have so influenced modern sculptors such as Picasso, with their simple lines, geometric (usually triangular) body shapes, featureless faces except for a single vertical line of a nose and just a hint of sexual organs using simple points and lines.

During the Middle Cycladic Period  (2000-1600 BC), trade with the then at its peak Cretan Minoan civilization  raise the profile of Amorgos considerably, and it served as important base for the Minoans from 1600 BC to the sudden end of the Minoan culture in 1450 BC.

With the rise of the Mycenaeans (1400-1200 BC), mainland Greeks began to migrate to the island. During the Geometric period (900-800 BC),  colonists from Ionia (Greek western Turkey) came to Amorgos by way of Naxos, founding Arkesini on the island’s southeastern coast. During the 600’s, other Ionian colonists founded Aigiali on the northern part of the west coast.  

Along with the older city of Minoa, during the Archaic era (700-480 BC), the island was home to 3 city-states (Arkesini and Aigiali being the other 2)  which shared a common currency but had differently-worded constitutions. They called their little commonwealth Tripolis (3 cities), and for awhile that was the island’s name, too.

Amorgos joined Athens against the Persians during the Persian Wars (500-450 BC), and was later of the Athenian-led Delian League, formed to counteract Persian aggression.

The Macedonians took Amorgos in 337 BC, and in 322 beat the Athenian navy in the sea battle of Amorgos. After that the Romans came, the 3 city-states were subsumed into the Roman province of Asia, and the island’s fortunes declined. Perhaps the Greek Junta used it as an exile island because the Romans, when they came, had done the same thing.

Some archeological evidence, most notably in Katapola Bay, shows the presence of early Christians, and although Amorgos eventually counted itself as part of the Byzantine Empire (330-1453 BC), the residents had to eventually decamp from their coastal settlements because of incessant pirate raids and form new communities in the island’s more defensible highlands.

Amorgos changed hands many times over the subsequent centuries, its overlords including various Venetian factions, and, in 1540, the Ottoman Turks. The Ottomans ruled Amorgos with a light hand, as they did most of the other Aegean islands. The reason for this is probably that the islands served little purpose to their empire beyond places to stop and refit their ships. The islanders, after paying their annual tax to Istanbul, were free to worship and conduct their business unmolested.

An unfortunate by-product of the light hand of the Ottomans was the rise in piracy all across the eastern Med, which caused many islands’ coastal cities to pack up and move their towns inland. Amorgos suffered particularly from these attacks.  In the late 1600’s, sick of the repeated attacks, the whole island moved to much larger and better defended Naxos before returning to their islands after the French had brought peace to the region.

The last and most devastating pirate raid on Amorgos happened in 1797, when 70 corsairs from Mani, the Peloponnese, waited for the men of the island to leave for a fishing trip, and then attacked and pillaged Hora, the capital. The Maniotes, who have always had the reputation of being a wild and rebelliously clannish people, claimed that they turned to piracy only because of their treatment at the hands of the Turks, who left them little choice economically. The villagers of Hora fled into the hills, and the Maniotes even stole their clothes: “The only thing they didn’t take was the names of our dogs,” one memorable poem about the event states.

Things finally settled down in the region with the successful close of the Greek Revolution of 1821 and the subsequent absorption of almost all of the Aegean islands into the newly formed kingdom of Greece.

The Island Today

The long and narrow configuration of Amorgos, and its  historic lack of roadway infrastructure, led it to be an island of 2 ports, both on the west coast: Egiali on the northwest, and Katapola on the southwest. The two ports were finally connected by a drivable road in 1980, but before then you either had to walk from one to the other, or take a boat.

Katapola

The main port is now the southern one of the two, Katapola. It’s on the southeastern extremity of a longish, somewhat narrow inlet which is far enough from the open waters of the Aegean to keep the waves relatively peaceful. There are 3 settlements at the dumbbell-shaped eastern end of the bay; Katapola on the south shore, Rachnidi on a knoll above the east shore, and Hilokaratidi, on the north shore, with beaches on both sides of Rachnidi between it and the other two villages.

Katapola has some nice little windmills, and a Venetian castle to go along with its Cycladic-style houses. The road heading up to Hora, about 7 uphill kilometers away, follows the bend in the bay to Rachnidi, then turns inland and climbs to the capital.

The ancient Minoan acropolis sits on a hill above Katapola. There are the ruins of a stadium, a gymnasium, a temple dedicated to Pythian Apollo, and a necropolis, all of which was excavated by the French School in 1888. Also above Katapola is the chapel of the Taxiarchis, dating from the Byzantine era. The Panagia Katapoliani church is built on some higher ground in the village, on the site of a very early Christian basilica. Before that a temple to Apollo had stood on the same site.

The oldest building in Hilokaratidi is the Byzantine church of the Evangelistra (Annunciation), which celebrates its annual festival on March 25th, the traditional day that the archangel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would become the mother of the savior of the world. It is a very big local holiday, with hundreds gathering at the church from all over the island.

Hora (Hora Amorgou)

The capital village was built around its medieval castle, which sits on a fat, column-like upthrust of rock dramatically higher than the rest of the village. Unlike Katapola, which shows evidence of human habitation going back 6,000 years, Hora has had people living on its site for perhaps 1,500 years.

It is one of most picturesque Cycladic capitals, with its warren of narrow streets, little hidden squares with bars and cafes and restaurants, and whitewashed, flat-roofed Cycladic style homes. Hora has arched passageways, a sinuous, twisting main street, and hidden churches with blue domes surprising you at every turn. There is a nice archeological museum at Hora.

About 20 minute’s walk beyond Hora is the monastery of Hozoviotissa (open from 8 AM-1 PM, then from 5-7 PM, modest dress required), clinging to the side of the east facing cliff face, as a French explorer famously described it “like a chest of drawers.” It gives a spectacular view of the sea to the east from its 300m height. It dates back to 1017, and is the 2nd oldest monastery in Greece. It can house 30 monks, but only 3 call it their home today.

The hospitable monks will ply you with raki and Turkish delight. Passing through a low marble entryway, you climb a staircase up to the monastery’s higher reaches, where a number of priceless icons and other artifacts are stored. The best view is from the highest balcony, which makes you feel like an eagle nesting on a cliff face as you look at the sheer drop to Agia Anna beach far below.

The other prominent religious site near Hora is the chapel of Agios Georgios Balsamites, about 2km south of the capital on an easy to follow footpath. The terrace view of the monastery is unforgettable, taking in the most southerly of the Cyclades, Santorini, 50km to the southwest, and Astypalaia, the most westerly of the Dodecanese, also 50 km away, but to the southeast. The chapel’s most historically interesting item is its ancient well, which was believed  to have prophetic attributes. It’s considered one of the last functioning oracles in the Greek world.

Late 19th century travel writer  James Theodore Bent writes:

“At the beginning of this (the 19th) century and during the war of independence this oracle of Amorgos was consulted by thousands; sailors from all over the islands round would consult it (concerning marriage)… the oracle is much consulted by the credulous and reminds one forcibly of the shrine of Delphi of old.”

Bent notes that the water was gathered in a glass from the well, and the fortune of the petitioner was divined by the actions of little particles floating in it. The Orthodox church finally cemented over the basin the water was collected in to discourage pagan practices.

Egiali (Ormos Egialis)

The other port of Amorgos, Ormos Egialis (Landing of Egiali) is on the northwest coast, 15km from Hora. Ormos Egialis  receives ferry traffic from Piraeus and other islands of the Cyclades. It is the port of the village of Egiali, 2km inland.

There is a road from Hora to Egiali. The island becomes so narrow as you approach Egiali that you can see both coasts, including the islet of Nikouria a few hundred meters west off Agios Pavlos, about halfway between Katapola and Ormos Egialis. Nikouria was a leper colony that was finally closed in the 1930’s. The land is tilted, with high cliffs on the east coast, then a sort of bowl-shaped  basin running downhill to Egiali.

Just before the Egiali there is the chapel of Exohoriani (which means “outside the village”), built on the site of a classical period temple to Athena. As is the case with Katapola, there are 3 villages  at the end of the inlet where the port is: There is Potamos, then Ormos Egialis, then Paralia Tholariom. There are some really nice beaches in this, the most beautiful part of Amorgos. Egiali (both the inland village and its port, Ormos Egialis) was the 3rd of the 3 classical city-states of Amorgos, and has some ruins to prove it. Near Tholaria, which is about 1.5 km inland from Paralia Tholarion (the “Beach of Tholaria”) there is an ancient fortress, and around the fortress are some Roman-era tombs, known as tholaria, which comes from the Greek tholos, meaning dome.

There is a second fortress above Egiali on a rocky outcrop, on which has been built a little chapel dedicated to the Holy Trinity.

Ormos Egialis is the place to go on Amorgos if you’re looking for some night life. It’s the most popular hot spot on the island for young folks looking to live it up a little.

One of the more popular of the many hiking trails on the island leads northeast from Egiali to the northeast end of the island, passing, on its way, the ruins of the monastery of Agios Ioannis Theologos, which has some surviving Byzantine-era frescoes. The end of the trail is the cape of Amorgos, the most northeasterly point on the island.

Hiking Trails

Speaking of hiking trails, there are 7 on Amorgos, and they are spectacular. Much of their mileage has been in use since antiquity, and are still used today by locals going to their fields or a neighboring village. Some of them are quite challenging, and with all of them you should be well-provisioned with water, stout footwear and a hat for sun protection. Many of the trails take you over exposed ridgelines where the winds can be so fierce that they can actually blow you off the path, so maybe a pair of walking sticks might be in order, too. Here are examples of just 2 of the 7 (The paths all have numbers and names):

#1- Palia Strata runs from Hora north and west to Egiali Bay by way of the monastery of  Hozoviotissa. It is a difficult, 11.5km course which offers stunning views

#2- Fotodotis also which also starts at Hora, and goes south and west to Katapola and is considered easy, downhill and stone-paved. This is the best-known and most-used path on the island.

There are 3 main archeological sites on Amorgos, and we’ve already talked about 2 of them- the Minoan acropolis above Katapola, and the ancient fortress above Tholaria to the north and its Roman tombs. The 3rd one is the tower of ancient Arkesini on the southwest, 15km from Hora, and reachable by a hiking path. It lays claim to being the most significant ancient monument on the island. Arkesini was one of the 3 ancient city-states of the island. Dating from the 4th century, BC, this inland tower, not visible from the sea, occupies a commanding position on a steep, truncated triangular bastion of stone above the surrounding plain. Next to it is a church which shares the same name. The nearby modern village of Arkesini has only about 100 residents.

Beaches

Agia Anna, you may or may not recall, is the beach you would land on if you did a swan dive from the uppermost window of the Hozoviotissa Monastery northeast of Hora. It’s about a 20-minute climb down the escarpment from the monastery, and not that far from the place where George Mylonos, the former Education minister who had been exiled here by the Junta, clambered down the cliff when his son in law, Elias Kulukundis rescued him. The beach is unorganized and sand and pebble mixed. It’s legal to bathe nude there. If you don’t have a boat, you’ll have to climb up after you climb down, but of course if you had a boat you wouldn’t be doing any climbing in the first place.

This is a great place to snorkel, but the rocks may be a bit tricky for small kids. The popular 1980’s French film The Big Blue filmed a scene at this beach.

Katapola beach is convenient because it’s a harbor beach. You get to watch the movement of boats and large ferries in and out of the port as you enjoy this sandy beach and its clear waters. The beach reaches around through all of the 3 villages along the sweep of the eastern end of the harbor.

Kalotaritisa beach is reachable by car or motorbike on the south coast of the island. This long, sandy beach is partly organized, with thatched umbrellas and sun beds available, and some water sports. Other than a café on the beach, however, there are no nearby businesses. Boat rentals from the nearby harbor can take you to the nearby islet of Gramvousa, where you can swim and snorkel in peace and quiet.

Phoinikas beach is within walking distance of the port at Katapola. It’s a small beach in a cliff-enclosed bay. Any supplies have to be packed in, as there are no facilities. It’s also a nudism friendly beach.

There are another dozen or so beaches around the island, almost all of them non-organized, and many of them friendly to naturists who like to do their sunning in the nude, due to their remote locations.

Amorgos is a small place, but has it all: night life, beaches, geology, hiking paths, and ancient ruins. Its  popularity is growing, and now is a good time to visit.