Symi:  castles in the air

One of the great things about the smaller Greek islands such as Symi, Nisyros, Tilos, and the smaller villages on the larger islands such as Emborios on Kalymnos, is their peace and tranquillity.  In Greek it’s called ήσυχια.

But it was not always so.

For centuries the islands were plagued by piracy.  The people of the small harbour village of Paloi on Nisyros got so fed up with being raided that they moved up to the crater rim, considering the simmering crater below a safer bet.  An incidental advantage was underfloor heating from volcanic vents.

The Crusades between 1091 and 1295 AD upped the anti big time.  For two centuries the Crusaders successfully defended the Dodecanese islands between Rhodes and Kos from attack.

It’s all very murky and there are many interpretations about what happened and why.  The Knights Templar are now generally considered to be the military arm of the Masons and to have been primarily in pursuit of loot. The Knights Hospitaller, who occupied the Dodecanese islands, seem to have been more about bringing medical aid to pilgrims though they were also a military force.  Medecins sans Frontieres backed by the SAS.

The combined effect of centuries of piracy and warfare left a legacy of fortifications.  Some are extant, like the Paleocastro on Nisyros, the castle above the harbour on Chalki and the fortifications on Rhodes.  Others are mere remnants, some completely obliterated by newer building or lost on abandoned footpaths.

Difficult to work out what went on as layers of culture and settlement sit on top of or replace each other ….. but fascinating to try to piece things together from observation trekking around the mountains.

Last year I wrote about some of the ancient structures on Symi:

Still a lot more to check out and think about.  This blog looks at another two fortifications and a possible third.

The mountain-top monastery and church of Archangelos Michail Kokkimidis can be reached by vehicle but I trekked there via an obscure trail up the steep northern flank of the ridge.  Dramatic location and extraordinarily well-preserved frescoes covering the  interior of the church are good reward for the effort.  I have visited several times in recent years.

But this time I looked behind the obvious.  Having been alerted to the fact by a chapter by Michael Heslop in the book “On the margins of Crusading: the Military Orders, the Papacy and the Christian World”1, I went uphill behind the church to look at the remains of fortifications, part of a Crusader stronghold.

At just short of 600 metres above sea level and perched on the edge of vertical cliffs, the views across much of Symi and across the intervening Aegean to the islands of Rhodes, Tilos and Nisyros would have been a crucial part of the inter-connected lines-of-sight of defensive network.  With remnant walls still over two metres high the fortification would also have been easily defended.


Random-stone walls on top of the cliff behind the church of Archangelos Michail Kokkimidis

Some hundred or more metres below the Kokkimidis fortification another smaller but better preserved fortification stands on a small rocky knoll close to the track.  It doesn’t have the same panoramic vantage point but it’s purpose may well have been very different.

There are a number of beach landing points on Symi but few better than Nanou on the east coast facing what is now Turkey.  With a comparatively easy access up the gorge (for a commando-style invasion force) it would have been a good way up to the ridge at the heart of the island.  The castle occupies a strategic location at the top of that gorge.

One thing has perplexed me about the fortifications on Symi.  The 20-foot high walls of the Paleocastro on Nisyros are built entirely of huge ‘ashlar’ blocks of stone to over 6 metres high.  The archaeological reconstruction in recent years has collected together hundreds of others found lying around nearby.  On Symi, the ashlar blocks of the remaining most fortifications rise to no more than 3 courses, just under two metres high at most.  There are large blocks lying around nearby but nowhere near as many as at the Paleocastro, certainly insufficient to make comprehensive walls to a defensible height.

The more intact walls of the fortification at the top of the Nanou gorge may provide the clue.  Large blocks rise to two or three courses with additional height gained by smaller, random stone.  There could be a couple of reasons for this.  The limestone of Symi may be more difficult to work into blocks than the volcanic rock on Nisyros.  Allied to this may be that the defences had to be constructed in more of a hurry under pressure from potential invasion.  Or it could simply be that the original walls were rebuilt post-Crusades for more agrarian purposes, though that doesn’t explain the paucity of other large blocks.

Whatever the reason, it seems a reasonable conclusion that the other fortifications on Symi followed the same pattern, two or three courses of large dressed stone and the rest of random stone.


Looking across to the fortification from the track.  Stone walls below it may have served the dual purpose of providing agricultural terraces and slowing down attack.


Getting closer shows the lower courses of stone are well-cut but above that the stone is random.  A few but not many large cut-blocks lie nearby.


The threshing circle inside the fortification seems unusually well built.  Most are just a circle of narrow stones set on edge.

The third location in this blog post may – or may not- be the remnant of a fortification.  The path from Horio to Agia Marina is one which I have avoided in recent years because it is increasingly impeded by the invasion of alien ‘tree tobacco’.  I carry secateurs and cut it back but it makes for slow progress.

However, at the end of my stay on the island last October I walked the route, going off-piste, as is my wont, and spotted what may be another fortification.  Certainly, on the top of a small knoll on the ridge overlooking both the main harbour and Pedi Bay it is in a location where a fortification might be expected.

The remnant walls of large blocks of stone are most unlikely to have been for agricultural purposes.  Two lines of such stone are clear, with a few others scattered around, but a lot of clearing of the jumble of rocks would be needed to get a clearer picture.  From its comparatively small size it is unlikely to have been a castle like that above nearby Horio but it may have been an observation point, commanding views of the two main anchorages and the approaches from the mainland.


The thin red line shows the single course of large-cut blocks above current ground level


And running to meet it, another culminating in a large jumble of rocks


1 On the Margins of Crusading: The Military Orders, the Papacy and the Christian World    Helen J. Nicholson     Published by Routledge (2016)

ISBN 10: 1138269832 ISBN 13: 9781138269835


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2 Responses to Symi:  castles in the air

  1. Jean-Bernard de Vaivre says:

    Congratulations to Barry for his photos on these difficult trails (or no trails) I know a lot of them, but some areas were unknown for me.

    May I ask you were the photo 17Ssymi053w0368 was taken ?

    • BarryH says:

      Thanks for the comment. The photo was taken inside the castle at the side of the track down from the mountain-top monastery of Archangelos Mihalail Kokkimides towards the main road. It’s close to the tiny church of Agios Ioannis Tsagrias and defended the top of the Nanou Valley, probably a likely line of attack from the sea.

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