Series selected as 'Books of the Year' by Bettany Hughes and by The Economist

Twenty Books

Seventy Islands

A hundred and twenty maps & plans

Three thousand four hundred pages

These books about the fascinatingly diverse world of the Aegean Islands are written with a rare combination of scholarship and passion. They are the fruit of three decades of occasional exploration followed by seven years of dedicated study of the islands. And they document, in a detail not attempted before, the wide range of art, architecture, archaeology, history, natural phenomena, fauna and flora of this island world.

At over 3,400 pages they carry more than twice the amount of information that is available from any other source. That space also gives them the possibility to cover a wide variety of subjects, and to look at those topics with unhurried precision. The exquisite wall paintings of Bronze Age Santorini; the mountain flowers of Samos; the secret rites of the sanctuary of Samothrace; the sponge divers of Symi; the earliest beginnings of European sculpture in the delicate Cycladic figurines; the fantasy architecture of the 1920s & 30s on Rhodes and Leros... whatever the subject, they not only describe but explain the evolution and story behind what the visitor sees and wants to know.

They are the ultimate resource for the interested and curious traveller.

We hope that they belong to a new generation of guides which appeal to the thoughtful visitor – to those who are not seeking the shallow, fractured, sound-bite information of the busy picture guides, but who want to penetrate to the heart and spirit and hidden joy of the places they visit.

And, yes, we are working on Kindle versions of the books. Please check the 'Buy the Books' page to see which editions are currently available.

The guides work like this...

Each island – famous or little-known – has its own volume, or chapter of a volume. The study begins in each case with an introduction, setting the island in its context and elucidating particular aspects of its individuality:


Cosmopolitan, spacious, immensely varied, blessed with a fullness of vegetation and an unforgettable radiance of light, the island of Rhodes has always been a proudly self-sufficient world of its own. The first line of Horace’s seventh Ode cites ‘claram Rhodon’ as a paragon of beauty, and the poet’s choice of the word clarus artfully evokes not only its ‘fame’ but also the ‘brilliance’ of its light: the island was, from the beginning, sacred to Helios, divinity of the sun. Roman statesmen and emperors travelled here to enjoy and imbibe the island’s art and culture, and intellectuals from all over the civilised world came to study with its scientists, thinkers and orators.

The island has a long and important history. One of its most fascinating moments relates to the creation of the city of Rhodes itself. It is a testimony to the pragmatism and (intermittent) farsightedness of the Ancient Greek mind that three, well-established, thriving and competing ancient cities in different parts of the island—Lindos, Ialysos and Kameiros—should have taken the peaceful and momentous decision to ‘synoecise’ in 408/7 bc—that is, to renounce their individual independence and combine together so as to found and build a new and greater city which was to be called, like the island, ‘Rhodes’. This phenomenon had happened elsewhere in the Greek world but rarely on such a significant scale. Each city knew that what it was combining to create would eclipse its own individual importance: but the result was the emergence of one of the richest cities of the later Greek world, extravagantly praised by Strabo and Pliny for its beauty and wealth of art.

Out of the blue, over a thousand years later, the island’s character was once again utterly transformed, this time by the arrival of an international group of wealthy, aristocratic warriors—the Hospitaller Knights of St John— who embellished and cultivated and fortified the island as a chivalric kingdom in the sea. The Knights too were a kind of synoecism—an unique confluence of different nationalities with common Christian interests, creating something that was not a state, nor a nation, nor anything that had a precedent, but which was nonetheless a fully independent entity and which became a crucial—sometimes solitary—player in the theatre of Mediterranean history. Finally, at the beginning of the last century, the Italians arrived with different ambitions and built Rhodes into a regional capital of their empire with a new centre created in a memorable, but somewhat alien and eclectic kind of architecture. In short, there is nothing commonplace in the story of this remarkable island.

As a consequence, of all the cities in Greece Rhodes is the only one that comes close to Athens in the density and richness of its monuments. In fact, in the sheer variety to be seen—Hellenistic, Mediaeval, Ottoman, Traditional, Italian Colonial—it substantially outshines the capital... (continued)


The introduction is followed by a history of the island from prehistoric to modern times, and a brief discussion of its early legends and myths:

from NAXOS

Zeus himself is associated with the island, not just in name – Mount Zas, and the former name of the island, ‘Dia’ – but by a tradition relating that it was on the island’s peak that an eagle gave him the gift of thunder. Above all it is his son, Dionysos, who is most closely connected with Naxos and remained the island’s presiding spirit throughout antiquity. In one version he was committed as an infant by Zeus to the care of nymphs on Mount Koronos, and grew up in a cave there. It was also on a journey to Naxos, that the Tyrrhenian pirates or sailors of his boat, not recognising the god, planned to kidnap him and sell him in the slave-markets of Asia. Dionysos turned their oars into serpents, immobilized the boat with riggings of vine leaves, and filled the air with the sound of invisible flutes – so greatly frightening the sailors, that they leapt overboard and drowned. The island is best known, however, from the story of Theseus’s leaving of Ariadne on Naxos (see box below) while on their way back from Crete to Athens. Dionysos found her abandoned and grieving, conceived a love for her, and had a number of children by her. The story is celebrated in one of the most accomplished poems of Catullus, in a masterpiece by Titian, and in an unusual opera by Richard Strauss.

Throughout the Bronze Age, Naxos played a leading role in Cycladic culture. This had been preceded by a strong Neolithic presence on the island, both in the heights of the interior – in the cave of Zas (c. 750m a.s.l.) – and by the shore. Although there were many Early Cycladic settlements scattered around the island, as is indicated by the great number of cemeteries, the only one to survive vigorously and continuously throughout the Bronze Age was the substantial settlement at Grotta on the north shore of today’s city of Naxos. This remained the island’s main trading centre throughout later Mycenaean times, and it preserved enough population and momentum to survive the difficult centuries after the destruction of the Mycenaean world. In the 8th century bc, Naxos planted a (homonymous) colony in Sicily, and one on Amorgos (Arkesine). The island was never divided into city-states but constituted a single state, with its city on the site of the present town.

Because of its wealth of natural resources the island entered the historic period in a position of advantage. “Naxos was the richest island in the Aegean” (Herodotus V, 29). Its deposits of fine sculptural marble and emery (see box below), together with the fertility of its interior, meant that it was able to dominate the Ionian group of islands and their sacred centre at Delos. The 6th century bc sees a remarkable flourishing of marble sculpting and building, in which Naxos, together with Samos, led the Greek world in innovative technique and designs in both areas; evidence can be seen of this in the grand monuments built by the Naxians both on the island itself, and at Delphi and on Delos. In 536 bc a civil war resulted in the overthrow of the landowning class and the instating of a tyrant, Lydgamis – himself an aristocrat, but a champion of the lower classes. In this period some of the island’s most signal monuments were raised. Lygdamis was overthrown in 524 bc, and after a brief oligarchy, democracy was established. In 506 bc the island successfully withstood a four-month siege by Aristagoras, Tyrant of Miletus, supported by a group of disaffected Naxiot oligarchs in exile. At the end of the century the island was at the peak of its power and influence: Herodotus suggests (V, 30) that Naxos could raise an army of 8,000 hoplites, in addition to the fleet it possessed.

Naxos’s ‘golden age’ ended with the Persian Wars. The island was devastated and its sanctuaries burnt by the Persians in 490 bc. It nonetheless fielded 4 ships to join the Greek fleet at Salamis in 480 bc, and fought at the Battle of Plataea. In 479 bc it joined the Delian League: but it was not long before it began to feel the oppressive hegemony of Athens and, recalling its own former power and glory, it attempted to secede in 473/2 bc. The Athenians firmly put down the revolt, subjugated the island, settled 1,000 clerurchs, and imposed a heavy annual tribute. Naxos never again regained its former status. In 377 bc, in the straits between Paros and Naxos, the Athenians routed the Spartan fleet with whom Naxos was then allied, and the island was forced once again to capitulate to Athens. In 338 bc the island came under Macedonian rule, then Ptolemaic rule, and finally under the Romans in 41 bc, who used it as a place of exile.

Saracen raids in the 7th century ad, forced the abandonment of the coastal settlements; but the island had a large enough interior which was agriculturally self-sufficient to remain unscathed. The surprising number of important churches of the 6th-9th centuries with decorations – some with strictly abstract designs dating from the period of the Iconoclastic debate – suggests that there was a quality of life on Naxos not known elsewhere in the Cyclades in the same period. Historical documentation is exiguous, however, for the period of Byzantine dominion. In 1207, in the aftermath of the 4th Crusade, the island was taken by the nephew of Doge Enrico Dandolo, Marco Sanudo (see box below) who established a Venetian ‘duchy of the archipelago’ based in Naxos. The extraordinary renaissance of church building and decorating on the island in the 13th century is ample testimony of the prosperity and security that this brought. His descendents, and the succeeding dynasty of the Crispi, ruled over Naxos and the Cyclades for 360 years... (continued)


The island is then described through a series of logical and easily-followed topographical itineraries which cover all the monuments, collections, curiosities and points of interest. The descriptions were mostly sketched out on site, so they help the reader to see clearly how to explore a town, an excavated site, or a museum collection, and to distinguish the crucial items from the less important ones:

from KEA

The town of Ioulis or Ioulida (Chora)
Already in the parking area below the town, a large fragment of fluted column announces the antiquity of the site. Higher up, as you enter the habitation, on the right-hand side beside the Ethniki Trapeza is a doorway whose marble frame is composed of three re-used ancient, marble architectural elements: the lintel-block was re-carved with Byzantine motifs and an inscription in the early 19th century. The town today officially keeps the name of its pagan predecessor, Ioulis (or ‘Ioulida’ in the more demotic form), but is generally referred to as ‘Chora’.

The entry into the town is through a passage under buildings; such ‘stegadi’, as they are called, are a common feature of the urban architecture of Chora. The street to the left out of the tiny square beyond leads up to what was the acropolis of the ancient city, where the Temple of Apollo once stood. As you climb the steps beyond the church of Aghios Charalambos, you are confronted to the left by a stretch of Archaic fortification or retaining wall in large rectangular blocks, on top of which rises the smaller, irregular masonry of the Venetian kastro built by Pietro Giustiniani or Domenico Michieli around 1210, most of which was taken down in 1865. All that now remains is the long, arched gate-house, with its series of placements for gates. The interior of the kastro is occupied by municipal school buildings and other modern structures, but it offers a good view of the superb amphitheatre of whitewashed houses densely packed on the slope opposite. The individual units are simple – similar to the architecture of Dryopis on Kythnos – but, seen as a whole, the expanse is impressive. Little by little pitched roofs have come to substitute the original flat roofs over the last 150 years: this explains why, when the Bents lodged here in 1883, they observed that the inhabitants circulated in the town from roof to roof, tending to avoid descending into the streets which Bent complains were dirty and full of pigs.

The Archaeological Museum
A short distance up the main street to the right of the entrance into Chora, in a custom-built structure is the *Archaeological Museum, a fascinating and beautifully displayed collection of great quality – alone worth the visit to Kea. (Open daily, except Mondays, 8.30 am to 3 pm. €2) There are two floors: the First Floor exhibits the Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic collection; the Second Floor displays the remarkable prehistoric material principally from Aghia Irini. For chronological coherence, we begin with the latter.

Second floor (2 rooms). The earliest items are in the first three cases of Room 1 – Neolithic objects from Kefala; followed by Early Bronze Age items from Aghia Irini down the right-hand side of the room. Worthy of particular note are: the Late Neolithic bowl (#6), which bears the impression of a fine toothed spatula used for finishing the inside of the bowl, as if it were a marble object; and the delight in a subtle variety of different materials among the Early Cycladic stone mortars and pestles (#35-46), and of different forms in the marble figurines (#69-75). There is an elegant simplicity of design which carries through from the Late Neolithic marble conical cup ( #12), to the Early Cycladic objects, such as the elegant ‘depas cups’ (#82), similar to those found at Poliochni on Lemnos, and the ‘pedestal jar’ (#83) from Poiéëssa.

Room 2 contains the Middle Bronze Age finds from Aghia Irini including (centre display) the unique *statues of female figures with broad skirts, narrow waists, bare breasts and arms slightly raised – as if participating in some ritual dance, to celebrate or induce an epiphany. They astonish by both their size and their powerful form. What exact function they had, or what they represented, still eludes us however. It should be recalled that they were brightly coloured – the flesh painted white, and the skirts and the garlands around the neck tinted in fresh iron-oxide colours; they must also have been seen in relative darkness in the interior of the building where they were found. They were probably moulded on a wooden armature, in a clay which appears dense and gritty, even allowing for the rougher surface caused by erosion. Some appear to have a moulded band of plaited hair down the back. Few of the heads have survived intact, but those that have possess a very interesting design – mid-way between the schematic design of the head of the Cycladic figurine and the more developed physiognomies of the Daedalic statues of the early historic period (which in turn approach the Archaic faces that lie behind all later Greek sculpture).

Along the wall at the opposite end of the room from the window, are cases containing Late Cycladic pottery of the 17th to 15th centuries bc, whose magnificent *slip-painted designs are vigorous, confident and fresh – whether of marine creatures (#206), lilies (#213), double-headed axes (#191,193) or abstract designs (#200). Both the forms of the vases and their decorations possess remarkable energy.

First Floor. The principal interest on this floor is in the far room, where the exhibits convey a sense of the beauty and importance of the early 5th century bc Temple of Athena at Karthaia, through its programme of decorative sculpture. The many drill-holes and perforations in the marble indicate where the figures were embellished with affixed, additions in gilded bronze – for example the Gorgon’s head ‘aegis’ that would have been fixed on Athena’s breast (#65), or the helmeted head of Theseus (#20). The carving of the drapery and foot in the fragment (#86) of the north, pedimental acroterion is of exemplary gracefulness. All these pieces come from tableaux of sculpture (originally painted), which adorned the roof and gables of the temple, telling the story of the struggle between Greeks and Amazons, which culminated in Theseus’s abduction of Hippolyta (also called Antiope), Queen of the Amazons and daughter of Ares. The other items on display are also of high quality: the coins of Karthaia, with the head of Aristaeus on the obverse, and Sirius shining on the reverse, which compare interestingly in quality of image with the Athenian silver drachmae also exhibited; the selection of architectural elements, some with vestiges of colour and pattern still visible (#207); and a rare example of an inscribed plinth for a votive statue, with the fine bronze foot of the statue still attached and its lead dowelling visible.

Beyond the museum the main street climbs into the upper part of Chora. Below the buildings to the left (north) of the street are stretches of the enceinte of 6th century bc, defensive walls of the town: these are best seen from the lower terrace of the café, En Levko (‘ΕΝ ΛΕΥΚΩ’), just before the Town Hall. The Town Hall itself is a piece of very fine architecture dating from 1902 – neoclassical in design, with much of its decoration in good condition, including the two figures of Apollo and Ares standing on the attic balustrade. The *façade is particularly pleasing, with the unusual addition of a circular window-light for the central stairwell, just below the frieze. In the south wall of the building, a fragment of classical sculpture and of a low relief of figures at a sacred event have been immured in a small niche: in the interior of the building just inside the front-door, are a 1st century bc stele (left), and a mediaeval lion, emblem of Venice (right), to either side of the stairs.

Beyond the square of the Town Hall, houses climb the steep concave slope of the hill like seats in a theatre. The network of streets between them often passes under a ‘stegadi’ – one of the covered passage-ways that is a common feature of the island’s architecture –created by two connecting parts of the same dwelling which extend over the street.

The Lion of Ioulis
A 15-minute walk from the upper, east end of the village along an ancient, paved kalderimi which circles the valley to the north – passing several springs, the cemetery with its dovecote, and a number of scattered antique remnants – leads to the site of the *Archaic ‘Lion of Ioulis’, one of the largest and earliest pieces of monumental sculpture from the historic period in Greece. It is a remarkable and slightly inexplicable antiquity, which possesses little archaeological context and few points of comparison elsewhere. It is a boldly conceived image of a recumbent lion, about 6.4 m long, carved from the living rock. Its style suggests a date between c. 620 and 580 bc.

Purpose and meaning. The shape of the natural outcrop of rock may originally have given rise to the image and its pose; but it is hard to ascertain its purpose given the lack of significant context. Theodore Bent implies that it must have been at one end of an ancient stadium, whose rows of seats he observed in the vicinity when he visited in 1883. But it is difficult to see what a recumbent lion has to do with a stadium (which was presumably built later), and we have no other examples of such a combination. The sculpture’s isolation, however, would support the possibility that it may have marked an important grave. In later antiquity, sculptures of lions often marked burials: for example, the celebrated lion guarding over the grave of Leonidas at Thermopylae (now lost); or the still extant Hellenistic lion (of only slightly smaller size) at Krionerá, near Lavrion. Kea’s would then be one of the earliest, existing examples in Greece of lions as funerary monuments. The piece appears to be cut substantially free of the rock-bed, and the sculpted part sits on a well-finished shelf of stone which is a part of the whole. Underneath it has been provisionally shored up with blocks to prevent its slipping. This cavity could originally have been a place of burial.

There is another alternative: the area is rich in springs and it is not impossible that the Lion marked another, now dry spring which rose nearby, or even from under it. The reason for this choice of imagery would lie in the early mythology of the island, already cited above, which related how the native, spring-dwelling nymphs of Kea were frightened away from the island by a lion which descended from the mountains, and that their departure ushered in a period of prolonged drought. This climatic change clearly remained in the collective memory. When it was redressed much later by the intervention of Aristaeus, who created the altar to Zeus Ikmaios, the ‘rain bringer’, on the highest point of the island, and through his solicitations of the Olympian god caused cooling breezes, vegetation and water to return to the island once again, the lion that caused the problem in the first place was seen as pacified. A recumbent, resting lion was perhaps the best symbol of the animal’s pacification and would have been an appropriate tutelary image for an important spring.

Style. The stylised modelling of the tail, the ridge of the back, the haunches and the overall sinuous curve are typical of early Archaic work. The execution is beautiful, and never crude. It is probable that the Lion was brilliantly coloured at first. The head, and particularly the eyes, link it in time and style closely with the famous lions of Delos. The Delos lions have a clear, sacred, symbolic context, relating primarily to Artemis, and through her to Apollo: but no evidence of any Artemision has yet come to light in this area, and the temple of Apollo was on the acropolis hill of ancient Ioulis.

Over and above its stunning presence as a sculpture, the freedom of the piece lying unenclosed in the middle of the landscape, and the freedom of the visitor to examine it unhindered, make this one of the most moving antiquities in the Islands.


Each island has its own map showing road and path networks, with the places of interest mentioned in the text clearly marked:

Larger towns and cities have dedicated street plans:

Important churches and archaeological sites have site- or floor-plans, to help the reader to orientate:

Practical information

Finally, there is a brief section with practical information about the island and the means of access to it, as well as some suggestions of where to stay and eat. These books are not primarily ‘food and lodging’ guides, they are cultural guides: but we have indicated a small selection of places that we think might appeal to the readers of books such as these, and where good, local food can generally be had:

from LEROS

Practical information
85 400 Leros: area 54; perimeter 82 km; resident population 8087; max. altitude 320 m. Port Authorities: 22470 22224 (Lakkí) & 23256 (Aghia Marina). Travel and information: (Lakki) Aegean Travel, 22470 26000, (Aghia Marina) Kastis Travel, 22470 22140,

Access: Leros has a small airport at the north end of the island (12 km from Lakkí), to which Olympic Air operates a daily (morning) summer service. There is also a flight three times weekly to Astypalaia, Kos and Rhodes. Two main ports are used on the island: the daily services by catamaran (Dodecanese Express), and four times weekly by car ferry (F/B Nisos Kalymnos) that ply the route between (Rhodes, Kos) Kalymnos and Patmos (Samos) call at Lakki; from the same port there are late-night ferries to and from Piraeus, four times weekly. The faster Flying Dolphins on the routes linking the Dodecanese Islands, use the port of Aghia Marina on the east coast of the island: these run daily in summer only. There are also local services to Lipsi and Patmos from Aghia Marina, and from Xerókambos to Myrtiés on Kalymnos. The latter is worth taking simply for the beauty of the scenery along the way.

Lodging. One of the dozen nicest places to stay in all the Greek Islands is on Leros, and is to be recommended above all else: the *Hotel Archontiko Angelou (tel. 22470 22749 or mobile 6944 908182; in Alinda, is a fine 19th century, neoclassical mansion set in its own gardens a little way back from the shore. The rooms are comfortable and beautifully appointed without being over-decorated, the breakfast is excellent, and the setting in every way a delight. Price is moderate: a rental car is advisable. At the southern end of the island, in Xerókambos, the studio-rooms at Villa Maria (tel. 22470 27827) are very simple indeed, but are given life by the burgeoning flowers all around: the lodgings are peaceful, inexpensive and pleasant.

Eating. Some of Leros’s best eating places are mezé tavernas, serving a wide variety of small dishes to be taken together with an ouzo or wine. The Mezedepoleion ‘Dimitris’ has the most imaginative selection: it is signposted from a bend on the main Lakkí-Aghia Marina road above the north end of Vromólithos bay, and is hidden away beside the steps that lead down from the road. It has a terrace with a pleasant view. To Koulouki, beside the shore at Koulouki Bay just to the southwest of Lakkí, similarly serves hot and cold mezé on a peaceful terrace. For a shore-side setting of great beauty and for good quality fish, To Kima, on the eastern side of Xerókambos Bay is a reliable taverna. Locals, especially on Sundays, like to eat in the bay of Pandéli (south of the castle). There are three fish restaurants here; of these, Patímenos, is the most original and thoughtful in the presentation of its dishes, as well as the least expensive. But the liveliest experience and best value is represented by the small café, which produces a remarkable variety of mezés – situated in the tiny ‘square’ just in from the shore at Pandéli, where the one-way system turns sharply back up to Platanos and Aghia Marina.

The volumes have helpful glossaries and a more than ample index which make the books easy for consultation.

Explanatory Digressions

A particularly enjoyable feature of the books are the many inset panels within the text which discuss in depth a wide constellation of topics which are mentioned along the way. These can relate to ancient wine, or coloured marbles, or unusual buildings, or ecology, music, rare birds, great battles, ancient rites, famous or eccentric individuals, and even the comparative properties of the natural hot waters you might want to enjoy on the islands... In short, everything you need or want to know.

Here are just a few extracts from the panels to give you an idea of their variety, and to whet your appetite to read these encyclopaedic books.

From Ikaria (vol 3), on the ancient wine from Mount Pramnos:

Pramnian wine

It was into a concoction based on cheese, fresh honey and Pramnian wine, that Circe poured the potion which was to turn Odysseus’s men into swine (Od. X. 635). In fact, Homer mentions the wine more than once, always indicating that it was mixed with grated cheese or barley: Plato, Aristophanes, Hippocrates, Diogenes Laertius and Athenaeus, also describe or refer to it. But common to them all, is the suggestion that the wine was almost never drunk pure or for refreshment, but was most often used medicinally for its highly nutritive qualities. What can such a wine have been like? Athenaeus of Naucratis, the connoisseur of all matters of the palate, describes Pramnian wine thus (Deipnosophistai, I.15): “it is a kind of wine that is neither sweet nor dense, but with a sharp and astringent and powerful taste”. He goes on to relate how Aristophanes was wont to say that the effete Athenians never took any pleasure either in hard and steadfast poets, or in Pramnian wine, or indeed in anything difficult which might “contract the stomach or cause a frown”. The wine was apparently “black”, was endowed with the “power to assuage anger”, and matured when left to stand (Hesychius of Alexandria). Eustathius, in his commentaries on Homer, says it was “not for quenching thirst, but rather for alleviating satiety” – perhaps somewhat like a modern ‘digestif’. Hippocrates and Galen speak of its therapeutic qualities, both for external application as an unction (Hippocrates) and for internal consumption (Galen). Much later, the French Jesuit missionary, Jacques-Paul Babin, again described the wine as “hard”, but added that the island had “the best winter grapes I ever encountered, being round and red, and growing between the rocks in such dangerous places that they are gathered with considerable hazard.” (The same Fr. Babin was astonished to note that the islanders of Ikaria rowed their boats naked, explaining to him that clothes were an impediment to them and wore out too quickly when rowing... (continued)

From Makronisos (vol 19), on:

The world's largest nautical wreck

On 26th February 1914 the sister-ship of the Titanic was launched in Belfast. The Britannic was 48,158 tons to the Titanic’s 46,328 tons. In the light of the fate of her sister-ship in April 1912 a number of modifications had been made to the design to make her safer. She came into being in inauspicious times, and her first journey was to be not as a luxury liner but as a hospital ship, when she was requisitioned in April 1915 to assist with relieving the mounting casualties from the Gallipoli campaign. In the autumn of 1916 she ran several missions between the Eastern Mediterranean and Southampton. Her sixth journey was to take her back once again to the Naval Base at Moudros Bay on Lemnos. She was under full steam in the channel between Makronisos and Kea in fair weather on the morning of November 21st when an explosion occurred which breached a hole in the starboard forepart of the ship, fatally damaging one of the watertight bulkheads. Even by sealing the remaining water-tight doors (one of which malfunctioned) the ship was flooding at an alarming speed and, as it began to list, open port-holes at the lowest level aggravated the situation. Within 55 minutes of the explosion the ship had sunk beneath water... (continued)

From Santorini (vol 1), on a curious summer festival in honour of Apollo:


In a famous incident recounted by Herodotus (Hist. VII, 208-9), Spartan soldiers, on the eve of the Battle of Thermopylae, were observed by a Persian spy, “stripped for exercise and dressing and combing their hair”: both the spy and his master found the behaviour astonishing. It was later explained to Xerxes by Demaratus – himself a Spartan aristocrat – that “the Spartans pay careful attention to their hair when they are about to risk their lives.” We, too, share Xerxes’s bewilderment: we would not have expected soldiers to have been seen setting their hair before departing for the Battle of Britain – something that suggests that attitudes to warfare have changed out of all recognition between the ancient and modern worlds. The observation is yet more significant because – of all the soldiers of history – the Spartans have the reputation of being the most seriously martial of all.

In a way that recalls aspects of Japanese culture, warfare in the Spartan mind was a sacred art in which the cult and perfection of the male body – its symmetry, its endurance and its performance – were part of a divine calling. This ‘cult’ meant more than doing physical jerks and running assault courses: it meant ritualising martial actions and physical discipline, and exalting organised movement in a group, which led to a vital subordination of the individual will to the larger unit. It also meant more than seeing the body as a machine – an accusation often made in ignorance against Spartan culture; it meant exalting the strength and endurance of a well-trained body as a divine gift, as an emulation of the most beautiful of gods, Apollo. The Greeks never sacrificed an animal that was not perfect and properly prepared: the Spartans at Thermopylae were not blind to the probability of their imminent self-sacrifice, and accordingly they prepared themselves to be fit for such a divine calling, by attending carefully to their hair on the eve of the battle.

Thera was a Spartan colony, and at the main feast in honour of its presiding divinity, Apollo Karneios, in the month of August, it organised sacred spectacles which, like those in Sparta itself, lasted several days. These were known as the Gymnopaidíai, which as their name implies (γυμνός, ‘naked’ or ‘unarmed’; παίζω, ‘I play or disport’) were performed probably naked, by boys who were passing from childhood into adulthood. They performed what appear to have been dances and martial sequences combining both musical grace and martial skill with the impressive endurance demanded by performing, as Plato points out (Laws, I p. 633 b&c), under heat of the August sun... (continued)

From Naxos (vol 17), on the origins of sculpture and its materials:

Marble and Emery

A pure white marble, of extremely fine quality, and a hard rock known as ‘black sand’ or emery, have together constituted the economy and the influence of Naxos throughout most of its history. Their importance is hard to overestimate: the foundations of marble sculpting for Western art were laid in Naxos, because of the quality of its primary material; and up until the last century, the island was the only major source of emery in the Western world for more than three thousand years. The two materials first visibly come together in the world of the Early Cycladic sculptures of the 3rd millennium bc: the white, translucent marble was sympathetic to the elegantly simple forms of the figurines and cups, and the softness of their contours could only have been achieved by painstaking working and polishing with the emery and pumice. The materials suggested the style; and the figures enhanced the materials.

Naxos marble is a prince among marbles: it is worth picking some up, handling it, and examining it in the light. Its regular crystalline structure is so open that it is almost translucent. That is why the ancient builders were able to roof the Temple of Demeter at Sangrí with marble tiles, and still be sure that the interior would be suffused with a gentle light. It is acknowledged among sculptors that the world’s most suitable marbles for sculpture are those from Paros and Naxos. Michelangelo and Bernini would have used them, if they had been more readily available to them. The Carrara marble which they used instead (and which the Romans called marmor lunensis) is perhaps purer; but it is quite different in character. Its colour is colder and bluer, and it is of a more regular and compact structure, imparting a ‘sugary’ quality to the stone: it is harder and less responsive to the chisel than Naxos or Paros marble, and it lacks their warmth and translucence. Nor do its crystals glint in such a lively fashion. Naxos was able to lead the Greek world in marble sculpting in the 6th century bc, because it had the best primary material, and as a consequence it produced, both for itself and for Delos, the greatest marble statuary of the age. Its hegemony was not to last for long, however: in the next century, Paros and Athens, both with enviable qualities of marble of their own, challenged her supremacy.

Emery is marble’s alter ego: much harder and stronger, and dark grey to black in colour. It is composed principally of corundum (aluminum oxide), mixed with small proportions of iron ore and magnetite. It abrades any softer stone, such as marble, without leaving scores or traces of colour, and can polish surfaces to considerable softness, especially when combined with volcanic pumice... (continued)

From Chios (vol 14), on the unique product of the island:


The evergreen mastic tree (Pistacia lentiscus) is low, dense and ‘sculpted’ in form, with dark leathery leaves and a rough, corrugated bark from which it spontaneously weeps a pale yellow, largely odourless, resin or hardened sap. This ‘weeping’ can be promoted by making incisions (called ‘hurts’) in the trunk and branches of the mature tree and by harvesting the resin from June through to September; ‘hurting’ too young a tree, however, inhibits its growth. The sap coagulates as it drips from the cuts and is collected, rinsed in barrels, and dried: a second cleaning is done by hand. At its prime, a tree will yield 4.5 kg of mastic gum in one season. Many varieties of mastic trees grow wild throughout the Mediterranean area; but it is only on Chios, that the local Pistacia lentiscus chia variety, has become ‘domesticated’ and responded to intensive cultivation.

Dioscorides – observant writer on plants and herbs of the 1st century ad – mentions the mastic gum as used for attaching false eyelashes to eyelids (Materia Medica, I. 91): it was also known in antiquity as a treatment for duodenal ulcer and heart-burn. Christopher Columbus believed it to be a cure for cholera. But the most enduring quality of the gum has been its power, when masticated, to neutralize and to scent the breath. This was widely appreciated in the harems of Arabia and Turkey; 18th century reports suggest that the Ottoman Sultan kept half of the annual harvest from Chios for the Seraglio in Top Kapı – a quantity equivalent to about 125 tons... (continued)

From Rhodes (vol 6), on a valuable hostage:

Cem, Son of the Conqueror

In the austere world of the Order of St. John the exotic figure of the Turkish prince, Cem, sounds a note of colourful relief. In 1481, the year after the first siege of Rhodes, Mehmet II, conqueror of Byzantium, died and his succession was bitterly contested between his two sons, Cem (whose name, a contraction of ‘Jemshid’, is pronounced ‘jem’ and generally written ‘Djem’ or ‘Zizim’ in the west) and his more introverted elder brother, who went on to rule as Beyazit II. Thwarted in his bid for power, Cem turned to the Knights of St. John and negotiated a potentially risky political asylum in their hands, at first promising perpetual peace between the Ottoman Empire and Christendom if the Knights helped him overthrow his brother. He had had contact with the Knights before when he was Governor of Konya and the Southwest Provinces under his father. Grand Master d’Aubusson welcomed the possibility since the prince’s presence on the island, if handled correctly, could guarantee some measure of peace with the Turks. The prince was transferred to a Hospitaller galley at sea and later received in the city with great ceremony in July of 1482. The Master escorted him personally to his specially prepared lodgings beside the Inn of France. Illustrations from the contemporaneous Caoursin Codex show the prince being entertained to dinner by the Grand Master. When emissaries from Istanbul arrived to sue for the prince’s return, Cem was moved to France for greater safety in September of the same year. d’Aubusson exploited the situation adeptly, securing a yearly allowance of 45,000 ducats to keep the prince under permanent guard eventually in the castle of Bourganeuf in the Auvergne. In addition, Beyazit sent the Order one of Constantinople’s most precious relics – the right arm of St. John the Baptist which had been kept in the capital since the 10th century. The prince’s lengthy journey from Nice to Bourganeuf was punctuated with amorous intrigues in the aristocratic houses that offered hospitality along the way – at Roussillon, Puy and at Sassenage, where his host’s daughter, Hélène, became the object of his affections. In 1484 the circular, fortified ‘Tower of Zizim’ was completed at Bourganeuf to house the prince and his retinue: each day he bathed, versified, and drank spiced wine in spite of Koranic proscriptions. His poems are beautifully rendered in English by Elias Gibb, in his collection Ottoman Poems, published in London in 1882... (continued)

From Euboea (vol 9), on one of the many, beautiful coloured marbles from the Aegean:

Marmor carystium: 'Cipollino' marble

Of all the decorative marbles that the Romans extracted from the length and breadth of their Empire – from Aquitaine to the Egyptian Desert, from African Numidia to the Propontis – none had such apparent popularity or was so widely employed throughout the Empire as marmor Carystium, which was available in such inexhaustible quantities in the foothills of Mount Ochi, and emerged from nature in a never-ending variety of subtly different patterns. Elegant and cool in its delicate marine colour, with long, green-blue veins on a translucent background, it was never dull and yet never overly demanded attention. It enhanced any other marble combined with it, and above all set off the white marble of sculpture with exemplary elegance. It was abundant, resilient, adaptable to construction, and not difficult to work. The Renaissance stone-workers called it Cipollino (‘onion-like’) not so much because it has the appearance of sliced onion, but because the veins of mica which colour the calcareous body of the stone, cause it to be easily cut along the seams in the fashion of an onion.

Its illustrious career in Rome began, according to Cornelius Nepos (cited by Pliny, Nat. Hist. XXXVI 48) when it was introduced by Mamurra of Formiae, Julius Ceasar’s chief engineer in Gaul. It was extensively used in the Roman and Imperial Fora (Basilica Aemilia, Temple of Vespasian, the House of the Vestal Virgins, the Palace of Domitian, Forum of Trajan, Basilica of Maxentius etc.), its translucence and colour being preserved and refreshed by annual applications of a solution of chalk and milk... (continued)

Reviews & Comments

The British Odysseus
The Oldie

“For lovers of the Aegean, it is as close to being the definitive guidebook to the region as you are ever going to get.”
Daily Telegraph
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“... delightful, well-observed, literary accompaniments to the Greek islands, by a British scholar.”
The Economist,
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“So evocative and informative, one hardly needs to go... Lovely...”
Bettany Hughes,
Sunday Herald - Books of the Year

“There has never been a Greek islands guide like this one.”
James Campbell,
Times Literary Supplement

“Anyone who likes to explore the environment, history, and culture of the planet will instantly recognise the value of these books... [the] passion is endearing, and the accessible style in which the series is written makes them addictive...”
Mark Merrony,
in Minerva

“Clear explanations, combining fine detail with acute observation, intelligent interpretation and well-judged speculation provide a model for how the best can be got out of a complex site... For the committed investigator, these are essential buys.”
Peter Jones,
The Journal of Classics Teaching

a “remarkable achievement – a complete, island by island, 3,000 page survey of all the historical monuments in the Aegean...”
Barnaby Rogerson,
Country Life

“a real strength of these books lies in their descriptions of the Medieval and post-Medieval islands…. McGilchrist is at his best describing the ambience... in Naxos where there are more than 130 Byzantine churches...”
Andrew Selkirk,
Current World Archaeology

“... can only be praised, and will set a standard that has to be permanently recognised and valued.”
Paul Hetherington,
author of The Greek Islands: Byzantine and Medieval Buildings

“Wonderful... superbly structured; immense learning elegantly, unobtrusively offered; and outstandingly well written”
Prof. Jon Stallworthy,
Wolfson College, Oxford

“A work of astonishing scope, quality and insight.”
Charles Arnold,
author of Mediterranean Islands