A small blue-tailed salamander darted along the cobblestones on the path leading to the ruins of the Episkopi Church in Sikinos, not being intimidated by our presence. Like a magical elf guarding a sacred shrine, he took us directly to the entrance to the fenced site of the Roman-era mausoleum and later the Christian Orthodox Church. And what’s not enchanting about this 17th century ruin, perched alone on top of a hill on what was once the ancient capital of the Aegean island, Agia Marina, overlooking the sea?
The church operated continuously until 1940, when it was closed due to its growing state of disrepair, and only welcomes worshipers on August 15 for the annual festival to mark the Dormition of the Virgin, which stands in his yard. A rescue operation for this important site was launched in 2017, following the multiple efforts of the municipality of Sikinos, the Hellenic Society for the Environment and Cultural Heritage (ELLET) and, mainly, the Ephoria of Antiquities of Cyclades, hosted by its director, the Byzantologist Dimitrios Athanasoulis. The relevant studies have been carried out, sponsors have been found to fund the project and experts to carry it out, and the budget has been approved for what is one of the most difficult restorations the Ministry of Culture has had. carried out.
The original building is believed to date from the 3rd century AD and has undergone all kinds of changes and repairs over those 17 centuries, including four major overhauls. It started out as a temple-shaped mausoleum and went on to acquire an arch, dome, and new doors, as well as its remodeled interior. The alterations carried out in the Middle Ages have respected the ancient monument and it is now up to the new team to show the building this same reverence.
The team of archaeologists and curators have worked feverishly to ensure that the scaffolding surrounding the structure falls, as expected, in the first half of September – and their efforts are visible.
One of the biggest advances made since the start of the project was the discovery in the summer of 2018 of an unpaved tomb belonging to a woman, with an inscription bearing the Greek name Neiko. She was buried with her jewelry on, but her hands were placed behind her lower back and she showed signs of a terrible injury to her mouth. Additionally, the tomb was buried in a hidden location, possibly in an attempt to protect it from looters. But archaeologists also found sulfur and tar on her chest, which suggests that she may have undergone some sort of “exorcism” and was buried in such a way that her demons remained in the grave with them. she.
No more mystery
Neiko’s fate isn’t the biggest conundrum surrounding Episkopi, as the entire mausoleum is a mystery to archaeologists. A poor island with little agricultural production and even less maritime trade, Sikinos was a place of exile in ancient times. So who had the money to erect such a monument? Was it a rich exile or someone from another country? The building’s shape resembles funerary monuments unearthed in Asia Minor and other parts of the Roman Empire, but it’s still too early to draw any conclusions, insists Athanasoulis, who recently hosted Culture Minister Lina Mendoni. on the site. The official went to Sikinos to inspect the progress of the project, but also to announce the opening of the site to the public next spring, as well as the inauguration of the Archaeological Museum of Sikinos in a school building from the beginning of the 20th century. which will allow Neiko – now in safe storage at the Cycladic Ephorate – to be brought back to her place.
Athanasoulis also notes that the archaeological research carried out in the ancient city and the necropolis in the wider surroundings of the monument is also the first of its kind and should go a long way in shedding light on the history of an island on which very little is known beyond what has been found on a few inscriptions. The monument itself has proven to be a wealth of valuable evidence, from inscriptions to wall paintings and sculptures, but more research is needed if we are to uncover the secrets of Neiko and Episkopi. In the meantime, the opening of the site and the new museum should give the island a significant boost.
“We are very happy that the archaeological service is actively helping to shape a new identity for the island, which can make it a high-end tourist destination,” said Athanasoulis.
As we started to leave the site, I noticed a few pedestals and torsos of statues in the courtyard, descended from hard-to-reach areas of the ancient city. In the Middle Ages, the inhabitants of the Cycladic islands smashed and burned ancient carvings in kilns to produce lime. Perhaps these pieces were too heavy to be carried along the cliff above the harbor of the ancient city and escaped destruction. They are so heavy, in fact, that they could not even be brought to Episkopi on the back of a mule, which prompted the shipowner who funded the site restoration studies, Athanasios Martinos, to hire a helicopter. for this task.