Archaeology / History / Travel

Island hopping around Greece, volume 4: Samos and Rhodes

The next stage of my itinerant fieldwork round the Aegean islands sees me working my way further alongside the coast of Turkey (parts one, two, and three here). In fact, I was a mere mile from Turkey at one stage — and Didim was perfectly clear on the horizon, where I’ve happily spent the past few summers fieldworking. This time, I was exploring Samos and Rhodes: two islands very prominent in antiquity for connecting major trade routes ‘East’ and ‘West’, between mainland Turkey and mainland Greece.


For my stay on Samos, I was based in Pythagoreio. This was the birthplace of the ancient philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras — famous for his triangles theorem which every GCSE maths student of today has come to love; and for forbidding his vegetarian followers from eating fava beans (a shame really, it’s one of my favourite Greek dishes). Pythagoreio is built on top of the ancient city of Samos, and remains of the agora, the gymnasium, and of the various temples are scattered along the roadside and within the town itself. Most of these need to be viewed from a distance, as the surroundings are either too marshy, or off-limits in the form of a local nature reserve. The town also boasts an extremely well designed archaeological museum. The ground floor works chronologically through various time periods of the city, and it has a particularly impressive display of a Hellenistic well, where items are suspended at the various levels they were discovered within the well’s stratigraphy. Upstairs, a vast collections of marble sculptures, and also objects found from the town cemeteries. Standing architectural remains can be visited in the grounds of the museum — but if you also get stuck in the middle of a thunderstorm and torrential downpour, you may not be overly keen…Up the hill from the town (accessible on-road), the Tunnel of Eupalinos is a real treat. This tunnel (originally an aqueduct) dates back to the sixth century B.C. and the time when the tyrant Polycrates held the island under this thumb. Tours of the tunnel are offered regularly and last about 20-30 minutes. You even get to wear a hard hat and snazzy hairnet in with the price of your ticket!

The other main town of Samos is Vathy (also known as ‘Samos’), a mere bus ride away from Pythagoreio —but no buses run on Sundays! The museum of Vathy is spread across two buildings, and they together show off the finds from the excavations at the Sanctuary of Hera. A highlight is the colossal ‘Samian kouros’, a 5m male nude marble statue. If you can’t make it to Samos to see this piece, you can always pop into the Museum of Classical Archaeology in Cambridge, where a plaster cast of the statue stands majestically in Bay B…The smaller finds from the sanctuary include an impressive array of wood, bronze, and ivory objects, all preserved wonderfully thanks to the particular environmental conditions of the site. The archaeological site itself is a few km west of Pythagoreio — just over an hour and a half, at goat pace. This UNESCO world heritage site is impressive in its grandeur, and the scale of the standing columns is marvellous indeed. But —be careful! The site is rather overgrown, and some of the smaller standing remains (e.g. the smaller seventh century temples, some of the Roman public buildings) are hidden within tall grasses. Ticks abound mercilessly here, so make sure to check exposed skin regularly and bring a pair of tick tweezers if you choose to wander off-path…


The island of Rhodes was one of the most important in Greece’s Archaic period, and three independent city states existed here by the end of the sixth century B.C. Today, the island has fallen prey to mass tourism, and every other shop will sell beach tat, or fur coats —the latter, presumably, for the many Russian tourists who travel here every year. But in and amongst, the archaeological remains and museum collections hold out, and they offer a fascinating glimpse into the island’s history. 

The archaeological collection of Rhodes is housed within the the medieval Hospital of the Knights Hospitaller of St John. The building itself —and the entire old town for that matter— is steeped in history, a real palimpsest of pagan, Christian, Islamic, and Jewish heritage. The museum is extensive, and it contains objects from all of the various sites across Rhodes. Most of the collection from the island cemeteries comprises pottery, much of it pictorial in the distinctly local ‘Wild Goat’ style. These pots are decorated schematically with various animals, but they are particularly noted among archaeologists for their monochrome depiction of the goat, Capra aegagrus. And hiking around rural Greece hunting for archaeology, I’ve certainly come across a goat or two en route…Just outside the ‘new’ town is the Acropolis of Rhodes. Without an entrance fee, one can see temples dedicated to the gods Athena, Artemis, Apollo, [all the A’s] and the Nymphs. Cut into the side of the hill, an impressive stadium and odeon have been restored to an impressive degree, and they are still in use today as festival venues. Further along the coast to the west and by turning off the main road up a leafy hill, one reaches Ialysos —the land of the squawking peacocks. Within the precincts of the monastery of Kira tou Filerimou (Our Lady of Filerimos), one can find the remains of the temple of Athena Polias. There is little to see, and signage is minimal; but the views commanded by the site are rather phenomenal. Much of the north of the island is visible from this point, and it soon becomes clear why this particular spot was chosen as in antiquity as one of the three ancient cities which first inhabited the island.

The other two original city states of Rhodes —Kameiros and Lindos— boast more substantial remains, and they are archaeological sites which are well worth a visit (but then again, every archaeological site is worht a visit!). The highlight of Kameiros has to be its remains of the ancient Hellenistic city. Countless houses stretch right up the hill and give a real sense of the extent of the settlement. Even though the incline is steep and the landscape low on shade, push on to the top of the hill for breathtaking views of the more rural and untouched hills of the island. At the highest point of the hill, you’ll also find the remains of the temple of Athena Kameiras, and a Hellenistic stoa: a row of covered shops, the sort of which appear in the opening few scenes of Disney’s Hercules. To get to the acropolis of Lindos, one is obligated to take the perilous journey through a claustrophobic labyrinth of narrow streets, populated solely by vendors of tourist tat…Keep your head down, and keep heading up. It’s worth it for the (significantly restored) temple of Athena Lindia, the stoa, and —my personal favourite— a second century B.C. ship carved into the stone of the acropolis rock. What’s more, the acropolis is also home to the medieval castle, and there’s a whole set of Ye-Olde-Worldie towers and chapels to bound your way around chivalrously.

That’s it for the time being. I’m back in Athens for the next month, and popping over to Germany for a conference for a few days. But after that, I’ll be making my final fieldwork trip, around the islands of the Southern Cyclades…


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