Castles of the Aegean

1. Introduction

Fortifying island settlements was unnecessary during the first years of the Eastern Roman Empire, since security prevailed in the Aegean Sea. Although Alaric’s Goths put mainland Greece into trial in the late 4th century, sea domination remained almost steadfast. Demonstrative is the fact that in Procopius’s De Aedificiis, where the fortresses built by Justinian (527-565) are mentioned, no island fortifications are mentioned.

But this changed when the Arabs appeared and started their sea incursions, beginning with the conquest of Rhodes in 654. This new parameter forced inhabitants to change their life styles in order to survive: people of the Aegean Sea evacuated settlements by the sea and sought refuge in the islands’ hinterland to be as safe as possible from incursions. Many settlements and castles were built at that time on many islands in the hinterland; some of them have been preserved until now. That is where people from mainland Greece also turned to, since it was paralyzed by the descent of Slavic groups.

2. History of Fortification

Makeshift construction is what many of these fortifications had in common, since the Arab threat made their construction hasty. Such are the castle of Lazaros on Samos and the fortress at Emporios of Chios. This also shows that these castles were rather built by local societies than were the product of central administrations’ organized action and planning. Within the narrow limits of fortified settlements, the previous urban life style inevitably came to an end.

Insecurity grew stronger during the 9th century as Saracene pirates’ incursions increased. Crete, which was under Arab control, was their base. The Cyclad islands suffered a great deal, since they were very close to Crete. On the island of Naxos, which paid taxes to the Arabs of Crete for a while, the capital was moved to the inaccessible hinterland, at the Castle of Apalyros, where it remained until 1207.

After the Byzantine domination was reestablished in the Aegean in 961, there was an effort to fortify significant ports and other locations crucial for battles. Fortification works were carried out at Myrina of Limnos, Pythagorion of Samos, the Castle of city Chios and Volissos on Chios, Mithymna (Molyvos) of Lesvos, on Kalymnos, at Pyli of Kos, on Leros, at the city and other country locations of Rhodes and elsewhere. These Byzantine castles of the Aegean are very little known, since almost all of them have undergone radical changes and additaments over the following centuries by the Latins and the Ottomans. Therefore only little of their original form has been preserved.

When the Byzantine Empire was broken down after the Fourth Crusade in 1204, the Aegean was politically fractured and an era of constant changes and conflict began. The small autonomous island dominions of the Latins, the Venetians and the Genoese, as well as the Byzantine land were all in almost constant conflict with each other. Piracy also increased significantly, while from the mid-14th century began the Turkish incursions, which increased in the following century, frequently causing the desolation of entire islands, since residents were captured or sold as slaves.

The outcome was that fortifying settlements and strategically significant locations became vital both for the survival of locals and the protection of political and trade interests of the Latins, and mostly of those of the two Italian naval republics, Venice and Genoa, rivaling over the control of the Aegean. Dominators of the islands built many castles and carried out fortification works. In most cases, the old Byzantine castles underwent radical repairs and additaments. The vast majority of the extant mediaeval castles in the Aegean comprises of the numerous new forts built during the Latin Rule.

Most of the Latin castles were built right after the island states and districts were formed. Nevertheless, building activity continued. For building them, they used the materials available at each place, sometimes they even used ancient ruins, like in the case of the Castle of Parikia on Paros. New walls frequently did nothing but complement natural fortifications of significant locations. Namely, they built ramparts and towers at steep bulges. Large scale fortification works were not that common during the first Latin Rule years, since small feudal states could not afford them.

The increase of Turkish incursions and piracy forced the Latins to take more systematic measures, since productive population left the islands one after the other. Antiparos is a different case, since a new castle was built there in 1440, and residents settled to cultivate the land. The castle’s design combined security with saving space. The back walls of the consecutively built three-storey houses formed the castle walls creating a square. The densely built settlement grew up in the interior. At the center there was a tower functioning as the last resort in cases of emergency. Residents exited the settlement every morning from the sole gate, after making sure there was no danger, and came back at a specific time before the gate closed at night. This system was also used in the 16th century on Kimolos and the Mastic Villages of Chios.

The broadest and most systematic fortification works were carried out on the large Eastern Aegean islands and the Dodecanese. The Gateluzzi, a Genoese family that dominated Lesvos from 1335 up to 1462, expanded and reformed the castle of city Chios and the large castle of Lesvos. The most impressive fortifications are on Rhodes, built by the Knight Hospitallers, who constantly and methodically looked after their dominion’s defense. The walls’ complex of the city of Rhodes is one of the most significant monuments of that kind in the Mediterranean. The knights also built castles at several strategically significant locations for the island’s security. They also built the castles of Neratzia and Antimachia on Kos, as well as many more Dodecanese fortresses.

Developments in the military technologies field from the 15th century on (use of gunpowder and the development of fire arms) influenced fortifications architecture significantly. The castles built at locations that could easily be attacked with cannons became vulnerable and had to be enhanced with the scarpa –a massive sloping abutment– and new ramparts, where cannons could be placed. When the Venetian-Ottoman wars climaxed in the 17th century, examples of the most developed fortifications of that time were built in the periphery of the Aegean. The Aegean though was almost utterly under the Ottoman control by then.

(Georgios Pallis)

3. Morphology and typology of fortifications in the Aegean

3.1. Introduction

There are many defensive works in the Aegean Sea which present differences as far as their morphology is concerned: towers, forts, fortified settlements and monasteries, fortresses, castles, castella, outposts, bastions etc., which are located inland, at steep places, but also in coastal areas, even on skerries in the sea. The varied mosaic of fortifications reflects not only the complex political history of the Aegean Sea in the Middle Ages, when the Byzantines, Venetians, Arabs, Franks, Genoese, Ottomans dominated and St. John Knights but also it constitutes a fine example of various cultural traditions and innovative fortification and defensive solutions.

3.2. The tradition of fortification architecture and the Byzantine castles

The Byzantine castles were usually constructed on hills and naturally fortified locations to be used as fortresses and shelters for the population, e.g. the Castle at Myrna (Lemnos). They are built for the defence from arms with small percussive power and they follow old, empiric techniques for their design. They usually have two enceintes, while in the later periods they also include a third, wider enceinte, such as Palaiochora on Aegina, Mystras and Athens. The walls include towers, bastions, loopholes and machicolations. Systematic efforts were made for the fortification of many strategic locations in the period of the Byzantine dominion in the Aegean (10th – 12th). From the 12th cent. onwards, the settlements are moved inland due to the insecurity caused by the attacks of pirates and various invaders. On inaccessible locations fortresses and castles are built, like the legendary castle Koskinas (on Ikaria), the Castle of Volissos (on Chios) etc. An individual category of castles includes the fortified monasteries with the monastery of Patmos being the most distinctive example. During the Frankish occupation, the Byzantine fortresses were used by the new rulers with repairs and alterations, which did not generally change their lay out.

3.3. Fortification systems during the Frankish occupation

3.3.1. Towers

After the 12 cent. an increased activity concerning the fortifications is observed in the Aegean, related to the action of the Westerners. In the period of the Early Frankish occupation (13-14 cent.) in mainland Greece and the Aegean islands alike, a new defensive and fortifying construction is observed, the square tower. It is a simple square construction, which is generally interpreted as a secure shelter. However, its use seems to have varied in different periods and places. The towers are found in many important islands, like Naxos, Rhodes, Samothrace, Euboea and so on. Their existence in rural regions, e.g. Naxos, reveals the relative prosperity of the area, as the aim was to provide protection for the population and the production. The towers that are found on coastal and strategic locations, as on the Genoese Samothrace and Rhodes during the domination of the Knights, are related to the organisation of a defensive network, in which they functioned also as watchtowers for notifying with optical signals for the appearance of hostile ships. Quite often, particularly in the hinterland, the towers, e.g. the tower of John VI Kantakouzinos in Pythio, were the symbols of social and political power and had no substantial defensive role. In the period of the Ottoman occupation, the towers sometimes offered security to the population. There are no written sources referring to their construction. As regards their construction, the towers in the Greek region have remarkable similarities with those in West Europe.

3.3.2. Fortified settlements

From the middle of the 14th cent. the Aegean becomes a less secure area and more locations are fortified, as well as settlements. In addition, more information regarding the conditions that led to the intense fortification activity is available.

The fortified settlements, especially in the Cyclades, form a different unit. These settlements are dated in the 14th and 15th cent. and are attributed to the Franks, mainly Venetians and Genoese, who occupied the islands up to the 16th century. The scattered settlements are often called “castles” (Kastra in Greek) and maintain names indicative of their use, Kastro, Pyrgi (tower) etc. They do not have a mere defensive character with the exception of the medieval settlements in Mastichohoria (Mastic Villages) on south Chios, which they were constructed according to a certain defensive plan with towers.

The fortified settlements are divided in three categories, according to the relation between the settlement and the fortification: a) settlements that were developed within a preexisting defensive wall, b) settlements that were fortified a posteriori and c) the typical case of the creation of new fortified settlements (e.g. the castle of Antiparos). They are generally characterized by a specific arrangement of the houses in a continuous order so that they form the back wall of the compact defensive wall. Typical examples are the castles on Astypalaia (early 15th cent), the Castle at Pyrgos Kallistis on Santorini (end of the 15th – beginning of the 16th) etc. Most fortified settlements are to be found in the Cyclades: on Paros (Paroikia and Naoussa), Santorini (Pyrgos), and the castles on Naxos, Tinos, Siphnos, Kimolos, Mykonos. A few fortified settlements from the period of the Genoese are preserved on Chios: Pyrgi, Mesta, Olympoi, Kalamoti, Avgonyma, the unique village Anavatos etc.

3.3.3. Fortification of harbours

During the Frankish occupation, the fortification of the harbours was of great importance. As a rule, the harbours incorporated not only walls, but also waterfronts and jetties, which limited the opening and were controlled by one or two towers. The harbours under the sovereignty of the Venetians were fortified with extreme care and had the most advanced fortification systems.

3.3.4. Bastions

The bastions appeared after the middle of the 15th century. They constitute fortifications adapted specifically to the new war techniques. They were particularly developed by the Venetians, mainly on Crete, the eastern coast of Peloponnese, the Ionian Islands and in some cases in the Aegean. The bastion system of fortification, that is the “Fronte Bastionato”, is radically different from the traditional castles and was based on systematic studies made by eminent Italian engineers and architects, such as Michele Sanmicheli, Antonio da Sangallo and Giulio Savorgnano. The main goal of the planning was to avoid the creation of fire-proof areas. The walls are low, with great thickness and slightly inclined. In addition, they have corners specifically shaped to provide the best protection against the hostile attacks and the firearms with great percussive force. Various complex types make their appearance, for instance cordiform bastions with a wide moat. The new type of fortresses is related to the main means of defence, the lateral attack with firearms. The bastions constructed by the Venetians in the wider Aegean area were among the first in the history of fortification architecture and they are milestones in its evolution.

3.3.5. Sea castles

These are individual fortresses by the sea, known as “Castel da Mare “. The sea castles, Venetian in their majority, constituted part of the coastal fortresses regarding their function. They contributed considerably in the defence from the sea as projected bastions. They were constructed after the 14th century for the protection of commercial harbours and naval stations on natural rocks (Methoni) and in specifically shaped islets (Bourtzi in Nafplion).

4. Fortification networks

In the Aegean all the rulers attempted to establish networks of fortifications for the better defence and protection of the sea routes they controlled. The Venetians were particularly effective as they acted in the central and southern Aegean. They usually took advantage of old sites and in certain cases they fortified key-locations in the sea routes. Quite remarkable were also the efforts of the Genoese in north and east Aegean, where they establish a network of powerful castles and towers. The Knights of St. John developed a considerable activity in Dodecanese. In the relatively restricted area they dominated, they organised a very good defensive system for the protection of the population and the control of commercial routes. On the ten islands they occupied, 56 castles are known, fortified monasteries included as well. The most remarkable are the fortifications on Rhodes, Kos, Kalymnos, Leros, Kastelorizo etc. The Ottomans, when they invaded the Aegean, did nothing but to repair and reinforce the fortresses they conquered.

(Eleni Petraka - Guentcho Banev)