• May 15 2015

The Greek Game of Thrones

A rich heritage of architectural structures

With its mix of mountains and sea, cosmopolitan resorts and tranquil countryside, Halkidiki is the ideal tourist destination, offering the visitor a beautiful natural landscape and rich historical heritage. When this history is artfully blended with the tales and legends of each individual region,it can transport the visitor back through the centuries into the distant past. Stories like that of Queen Galateia, whose yarn slipped from her hands and revealed her hiding place to the pirates who took her life, are transformed on the loom of Joyce Lock into one of the famous carpets produced in Ouranoupolis.  

Traces of more than a hundred towers can be found in the region of Halkidiki; some have been reduced by time to a few piles of masonry, while others have been preserved intact, basking in the admiring gaze of local people and visitors. Most of them belonged in the past to dependencies of the Athonite monasteries – historians and archaeologists maintain that up until 1924 there were no fewer than 54 such dependencies on the peninsula, small religious houses under the control of one of the large monasteries on Mt. Athos. Many of them were destroyed in 1821, victims of the Greek War of Independence and the uprising against the Turks. Some fell victim to natural disasters, like earthquakes, and some became home to refugees in the exchange of populations in the 1920’s, when thousands of ethnic Greeks were forced from their homes in Asia Minor. In more recent times, they became the property of the Greek state, rebuilt or restored by the Ministry of Culture. Archaeologists tell us that most of the structures served as watchtowers for the local monasteries, while others served a defensive purpose and offered the monks somewhere they could flee to for protection when the area came under attack. For local people, the towers are an emblem or symbol of the region. 

. For more than twenty years now the Sani Festival has been entertaining guests at the Sani Resort and visitors from farther afield, earning international acclaim for the quality of its performers. The festival events are all staged in the shadow of the tower, standing on Sani Hill above the resort. The tower dates from 1543 and was built to protect a dependency of the Stavronikita Monastery. The tower is in an excellent state of repair; it is eight metres high, but the archaeologists believe at least one upper floor is missing, and the original tower was much taller. It is assumed that the tower stands on the site of the acropolis of ancient Sani, the city built by colonists from Eretria, and which was one of the main urban centres of Halkidiki up until Roman times. Others believe that the tower was used in the past as an observation post, where local people kept watch for approaching pirates. All we know for sure is that the Stavronikita tower, as it is generally known, still stands proud, looking out over the beautiful waters of Sani. And on summer evenings, as music fills the air, it provides the perfect setting for a midsummer night’s dream! The tower is owned by the Ministry of Culture, but repair and maintenance are carried out by Sani Resort. 

 The Tower of Ouranoupolis rises imposingly from the shore of the town, at the very edge of Mt. Athos, the "garden of the Virgin", where man is united with God. And beneath it there gather every day dozens of pilgrims, waiting in the town’s little harbour for the boats that will take them along the coast to visit the monasteries.  The tower was built at some time before 1350; the first source to refer to it dates from 1344, but the tower is believed to be older than this. It was destroyed by earthquakes in the 16th century, rebuilt, and then badly damaged by fire in 1821. It was the property of the Prosphorion dependency, and is sometimes known as the Prosphorio Tower. In May 1379 the tower hosted the governor of Thessaloniki, Ioannis Palaiologos, who exempted it from all taxes in a gesture of gratitude for the hospitality he had enjoyed. In 1922, following the Asia Minor catastrophe, the tower was used to accommodate refugees from the Marmaronisia and Caesareia. In 1928 it became home to the Lock family from Australia, who offered assistance to refugees and, in 1932, to those who had lost their homes in an earthquake. It was the Lock family who first carried out restoration work and repaired a lot of damage the tower had sustained. For more than fifty years Scotsman Sydney Lock, from London, and his wife Joyce, from Queensland, Australia, worked to revive the art of carpet weaving, providing valuable employment for the young women of the village. The designs and motifs of the carpets and rugs woven here were influenced, according to Panayiotis Diamantis, Professor at the Sydney University of Technology, by the nearby monasteries of Mt. Athos, and their reputation spread as far as Athens, where the ‘carpets of Ouranoupolis’ were keenly sought after. In 1986 the tower was made over to the Ministry of Culture, and consolidation and restoration work was carried out by the 10th Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities. An external buttress wall was built to provide necessary structural support. The tower is now open to the public, housing a museum and regular exhibitions. 

A few kilometres outside Thessaloniki, on the road to Sithonia, we come to the Tower of Galatista, the emblem of this little market town, just 28km from Polygyros.  The tower is not yet open to the public, although plans have been made for it to host a permanent exhibition.

In the picturesque seaside village of Nea Phokia, in the little harbour, stands what is perhaps the best preserved of all the towers in Halkidiki. It is also one of the smallest, at just 17m in height. Although there is no certain evidence to date the tower, it is likely to have been built in 1407, and partially destroyed by fire in 1821. The interior of the tower was investigated in 1996, with a view to finding evidence that might help date it. All that was found was a fire layer in the tower’s basement, evidence of the damage caused in 1821. The tower was the property of the dependency of the Agios Pavlos Monastery, one of the largest of the monastery’s dependencies. It is usually known today as the Nea Phokia Tower, although the older name is still remembered. Legend has it that the Apostle Paul went to Ierissos to preach the gospel, but the local people hounded him out of their town. Desperate for somewhere to take refuge, he prayed to God to rescue him. In answer to the prayer, the ground opened up before him, forming the entrance to a tunnel, which he entered, following it until he emerged somewhere in Cassandra.

The Krounas Tower is located about a kilometre north-west of the market town of Ierissos, and is one of the main sights to see in the area. It is believed to date from the 14th century, and in Ottoman documents of the time is listed as a property of the Korouna dependency of the Helandari Monastery. The tower suffered severe damage from fire in the hostilities of 1821. 

Another important archaeological site on the ‘first foot’ of Halkidiki is the Zographou Tower. This is a post-Byzantine structure, which belonged to a dependency of the Zographou Monastery, in the area of the same name close to Nea Moudania. According to the 10th Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities, the tower was built before the end of the 15th century, but its present form is the result of later building work. Other interesting items at the same site include the church of Aghios Georgios, some 19th century cottages and the original fountain of the monastery, located just fifty metres from the tower.

The final stop on our tour of the towers of Halkidiki is just two kilometres north of the town of Olynthos, to the left of the country road to Polygyros. This is the Mariana Tower, which Mr Papangelos believes to be the finest in Halkidiki. It is definitely one of the most characteristic examples of the Byzantine tower in the region; its builders used not only stone but also tiles, bricks and architectural fragments from the remains of ancient Olynthos. Archaeologists have concluded that the damage to the building was caused by a lightning strike in 1914, since before this date there are photographs showing the tower in its earlier form. The tower was first built in 1374 and belonged to the Docheiari Monastery, acting as a focal point and defence for the dependency of the same name. It was probably surrounded by a wall which also enclosed the little hill and chapel. A characteristic feature is the cross formed of tiles set into the masonry of the southern wall, which confirms the ownership of the tower. Most scholars are agreed that the land on which the tower is built was sold by Anna Kantakouzini Palaiologina, in 1373, to the Docheiari Monastery, at a fraction of its real value, by way of a gift to the monastery for the salvation of her soul. (ph. 05)  

For more information on the visiting hours of the above sites: 
 Ministry of Culture and Sport, Tel: +30 21313 22100, www.culture.gr  / 10th Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities, +30 23710 22060,