Symi:  Rambling around the past

WARNING:  make yourself comfortable and a cup of coffee before starting to read this.

If there is anyone out there hooked on Barry’s Ramblings and having withdrawal symptoms, apologies!  I have had people staying with me most of the time on Symi and have been out trekking in the mountains every day.  Very little time to write.

I haven’t been wandering aimlessly but when I haven’t been introducing people to the many walks on the island, or quaffing the occasional beer, I have been pursuing a pet project – trying to track down old settlements and piece together a pattern.  Scrutinise the Google satellite images, go off-piste, and it is surprising how many there are.  It’s a work in progress but somethings are starting to emerge.

The SKAÏ map of Symi, the best available though with significant omissions, marks ‘archaeological sites’.  Trekking little-used paths and scrutinising the track from my phone overlain on Google Earth a number of others have come to light.  None of these sites can be reached by using marked routes though most can be accessed by locating ancient, very obscure and ‘thin’ paths which I suspect are now only used by goats.

I concentrated on the northernmost part of the island and have indicated seven of these sites on the map below.

In the same way that ancient Celtic Christians hid their churches from pillaging Vikings sailing around the coast of Wales (most notably St David’s Cathedral hidden around a bend in the river and with a low, squat tower) so most of these defensive settlements are located in places hidden from view from the sea once plagued by pirates.  Though none is on a scale approaching the massive construction of the Paleocastro on nearby Nisyros, remnants of outer walls built with large dressed stones were an exciting find.

I can’t begin to put a timescale on any of these locations, I’m not even an amateur archaeologist, just an observer, but I draw a couple of conclusions.  The three sites marked on the SKAÏ map are labelled ‘Classic Period Ruins’, ‘Hellenistic Period Ruins’, and simply ‘Ruins’.  I can neither refute nor confirm any of this …. other than to affirm that they are ruins.  With one possible exception.

Sites A, B and C are clustered around Toli Bay and reached by going off-piste from the track down to Toli Beach.  Sites D, E, F and G on the Kokkinochoma Peninsula are reached by taking the well marked path (not shown on the SKAÏ map) up to the ridge-top Agios Nikolaos Stenou monastery, diverting off that close to the top onto a well-trodden but unmarked  donkey trail and then going off-piste from that.

Symi (north) 2

Sites around Toli Bay

A  Hidden to view from the sea behind a hillock forming a small headland this site is visible from the track recently bulldozed down to Toli Beach – if you know it’s there and look for it.  Built with stone from the immediate locality it blends in with the hillside.  Getting down to the site requires first negotiating the loose rubble pushed over the side by the bulldozing of the track and then picking a way over loose ground through dense oregano and thyme.

Much of the outer walls consist of three or four courses of large dressed blocks each as much as 1½ metres long and about ½ metre high and wide.  The entrance is on the landward side, no entrance directly down to the sea, and the walls were obviously built for purely defensive purposes.  A number of large dressed-stone blocks are scattered about in the surrounding vegetation.


The site seen from the track down to Toli beach


Zooming in


One of the well preserved corners


Large stone gateposts at the entrance to the site


Looking along the remains of the wall at the seaward edge of the site


….. and from the other end


B  The next site is very steeply uphill from the Toli dirt track. Having spotted a faint outline on the satellite image and gone in search of it last year, so knowing roughly where it was, this site can be seen against the skyline from Site A and indeed from part of the Toli track.  With walls built of similarly large blocks but in this case made of limestone it is probable that they would have blended into the craggy backdrop when viewed from the sea and without the advantage of modern optics.

Slightly smaller in area than Site A, with the main entrance also on the side of the enclosure, the inside is cluttered with rocks and smaller dressed stone.  Many large dressed stone blocks lie around the outside of the site showing that the walls must at one time have been much higher.  Scrambling around the inside of the site this year I spotted a large rectangular block with cut slots at each end and a shaped groove on one side which struck a chord with one I found at Site D last year.

A depression towards the back of the site indicates that at one time it may have been used for water storage though with limestone bedrock I guess it would have to have been lined in some way.  It would be interesting to revisit the site in the wet season.


Zooming in on Site B from the walls of Site A


Reaching the site after a steep climb


Well preserved corner, here built with limestone blocks


Looking along the seaward edge of the wall


Standing on top of it looking towards Site A which blends into the hillside


Many large dressed stone blocks scattered nearby


…. and in the centre of the site a very precisely cut stone block


This site is on the headland above Toli Beach and much smaller than the previous two.  The remains of the limestone building and walls again blend into the crags in which they are built.  It looks more like a small homestead rather than a defensive site.  It is reached by means of a well trodden but unmarked path, the start of which is obscured by, as so often on Symi, the thoughtless bulldozing of the track.  Marked on the SKAÏ map as ‘Ruins’ I trekked to it a few years ago but didn’t revisit this year.


Sites on the Kokkinochoma Peninsula

D  Like Site A this is close to sea level and hidden behind a hillock forming a small headland but differs from it in a number of respects.  It is reached by dropping down steeply from the ridge-top path along the peninsula over loose ground through dense thyme but there are thin remnants of an old path which can be picked up lower down the slope and even what may be an old ‘stone-on-a-rock’ route marker.

None of the walls are made from the massive stone blocks characteristic of Sites A and B and so no neat rectangular corners.  Rather they are built of random, undressed stones of varying size and geology.  It is more extensive than any of the other sites with multiple internal walls, a building which was clearly used as a dwelling probably into the 20th Century, possibly within living memory, and a communal bread oven in the centre of the enclosure.  It has two entrances, a ‘backdoor’ at the top giving access inland and a main entrance flanked by large white gateposts leading down to the beach.

There are a number of large white semi-dressed stones built into the random-stone walls at various points but most dramatic is a large, finely shaped rectangular block with the same configuration as that in the centre of Site B, cannibalised from an earlier structure of much greater architectural sophistication.

Some distance away in a stream bed filled with dense oleander and other vegetation is another walled enclosure, still to be investigated but possibly associated with water supply.


The site seen from the ridge-top path along the Kokkinochoma Peninsula


…. and zooming in for a closer look


Reaching the top entrance, ‘back-door’ of the site


The main entrance to the site shows the principal access was via the sea, not inland


The community bread oven on a prominent position in the enclosure


Looking from the bread oven up to the back entrance


Looking up through the main entrance


Walls built of random undressed stones


…. except for one piece cannibalised from earlier more sophisticated architecture


The remains of a dwelling which artefacts show was occupied in ‘modern’ times


The stone-walled enclosure in the streambed


E  From the top of the jagged limestone crags towards the mid-point of the ridge I had spotted what I thought could possibly be the top of another wall of large limestone blocks in a valley dipping away to the east.  Dropping down the donkey path into the col and then left downhill into the small valley, with dense thickets of oleander indicating more water than the surrounding arid mountainside, a very thin but trodden path led towards it.  Disappointingly it turned out to be simply an outcrop of rock.

However, hidden inside the oleander thicket is a tiny spring-fed pond with stone walls hidden from view from the crags above.  Once again low down and close to the sea but completely out of view from it, my guess is that this is another ancient settlement.  The steps leading down to the pond are well polished by feet and hooves though the number of wasps attracted to the fresh water put me off getting too close.

The walls don’t seem to form a defensive enclosure but rather a rampart on the side of the valley which could be defended if it ever attracted any piratical interest.  The construction is of random, undressed stone but a few slightly larger blocks scattered around had been cut and dressed.


From the top of the crag forming the ridge-top and then zooming in, what appeared to be another wall of large blocks … but is just a rock outcrop


The small spring-fed pond hidden in the oleander


The rough stone wall in the foreground is probably simply supporting the terrace behind but the wall in the background may well have been a defensive rampart.


Dressed stones indicate there may have been more sophisticated architecture.


F  The donkey path along the Kokkinochoma ridge drops into and finishes in a col with a small settlement which is still occupied and farmed with many indications of modernisation rather than abandonment.

Completely out of site from the sea it is clearly very old.  To the West the cliffs are virtually unclimbable because they are so loose.  To the East the col could be reached by climbing up the oleander-studded valley from sea-level in days when the sea was the main means of transport and communication.  Now the only access is by foot or donkey along the ridge top from the Agios Nikolaos Stenou monastery.  That the path is still used to transport produce, including honey, is evidence by the well trodden earth, donkey droppings …. and the fact that I have seen an elderly guy with his laden donkey heading down to the beach at Nimborio.

I have checked around walls of the settlement, avoiding being intrusive, but have failed to find any evidence of the ‘Hellenistic Period Ruins’ marked on the SKAÏ map.  It may be that the settlement are the ‘ruins’ in which case they may be the only Hellenistic ruins still occupied and with a photovoltaic power supply.  Certainly there is an atmosphere of antiquity about the enclosures and the buildings.  The extreme edge of Europe.


Looking down from the limestone crags to the settlement in the col


Zooming in on the oldest part of the settlement … and the photovoltaic panels


G  Set into the top of the jagged limestone crags from which E and F are viewed are what could be the oldest structures on Symi.  Into one crag a platform has been built, so basic in its construction that it makes me (in my ignorance) suspect it may be Neolithic.  It is very small, no more than 5 metres at its widest, but large enough to suggest it may be used for defensive purposes to protect a family or community rather than simply a lookout platform.  To get onto the platform requires some exposed scrambling and climbing.

On top of the adjoining crag and slightly higher is a structure which looks like a small cromlech or dolmen, a miniature version of those found throughout Wales and indeed many other parts of the world.   Certainly it is man-made not naturally occurring and if indeed it is a dolmen that would support the Neolithic assumption of the nearby platform.


The construction built into the top of the crag


On top of the platform


The dolmen-like structure seen from the direction of the platform


…. and from another angle.


Still a lot more wild rambling and investigating to do.

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3 Responses to Symi:  Rambling around the past

  1. samahab2000 says:

    Very, very interesting. Doing these investigations must take a lot of time….not to mention energy.
    Having visited the island a few times and travelled into the mountains I find this all so fascinating. It may even get me back to Symi one of these days. Do you journey forth on your own, or do you lead walks as well? Looking forward to the next chapter.

  2. BarryH says:

    Glad that you find it interesting. I do the vast majority of the exploration on my own, especially as the treks usually go into and beyond the hot part of the day and are of uncertain duration. Walking in the heat takes acclimatisation and most people only visit for a week or two so the heat gets to them. I start walking in April so chemical changes in the body have built up by summer heat. I don’t lead guided walks, I only take friends out and try to fit the walk to their ability in terms of strenuousness and terrain.

  3. Pat Mears says:

    Glad to see you’ve slowly built up your walking!!! I don’t think!!! Great to see you’re SO fit on this trip. See you soon Jen xxx


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