The Aegean Landscape

1. Introduction

The Aegean Sea, with its hundreds of small and big islands, constitutes an Archipelago, spreading out from continental Greece to the coasts of Asia Minor, Crete and Cyprus. Due to its geographical location and its landscape configuration it has always functioned as a bridge conveying messages between two continents, a cradle of civilizations, a source of inspiration and creativity.

The Aegean, which consists of islands featuring a variety of shapes, ground quality, coastal configurations, climatic conditions, vegetation and inhabitants’ activities, is a sea that unites.

2. The Landscape of the Aegean

2. 1. The natural Landscape of the Aegean

The natural landscape of the Aegean is distinctive due to its diversity between the islands as well as within them, offering a striking landscape contrast. The elements characterizing the landscape are:
a) The sea, which is important on both the climatic-meteorological and the social level, as it favours trade and migration.
b) The climate, which varies greatly from one area to another, with the temperature fluctuating as one moves from the coast to the mainland and the winds becoming very strong.
c) The luminosity, which highlights the landscape elements.
d) The land. Despite its insular character, the Aegean also constitutes a mountain complex with intense volcanic and seismic activity.
e) The vegetation, which normally is low and varies depending on the topography and the climate –from the prosperous plains to the rocky, droughty and dry areas. The main endemic crops are olive trees, vineyards, figs, holm oaks and pines, while certain species brought into the Aegean area have in their turn left a mark on the landscape: citrus fruits in irrigated lowlands, palm trees along the coast and in hotels, eucalyptus trees along the streets and in hedgerows, and prickly pears on rocky slopes. Maquis vegetation, including shrubs and garrigue, is also typical of the area.

A common feature in almost all the islands are the stone benches, the terraces and the dry stone walls (kserolitihies), which allow cultivation on steep slopes. The shape, the configuration of land parcels, roads and paths associated with agricultural exploitation, and the field, forest and meadow layout within the limits of a community’ s usable area, refer to the social history of the area in question.

2. 2. The anthropogenic landscape of the Aegean

The distinctive Aegean architecture is characterized by smooth and cast monolithic figures, whose plasticity is stressed by the intense light. Light and shadow are also very important for the level change as well as the creation of projections or recesses. The openings are small, due to the intense light and the frequent strong winds. The traditional insular houses of the Aegean were mainly single chambered, with various forms and dimensions. The stately houses were clusters of several single chambered units. The yard was very important, because it was the theatre of a large number of everyday activities. The structure of the towers and castles resulted from the conditions of insecurity prevalent in the Aegean.

Coastal settlements, where the light is more intense, are more densely built; consequently, the streets are protected from the sun and the wind. On the mountains, this kind of protection is provided by the denser natural vegetation. However, this is not solely what differentiates the structure of the mountain settlement from that of the coastal. The location of entire settlements, as well as of individual buildings, is dictated by the surrounding landscape.

3. The Aegean Islands

3. 1. The Cyclades

The Cyclades complex is located in the centre of the Aegean Sea and was named after its shape, which is akin to a circle. The landscape of the Cyclades is characterized by the rough coastal terrain, the steep contour, the arid dry rocks girded with prickly pear trees and numerous chapels and the white village blocks softening the rock curves. The Cyclades islands, more than any other insular zone, represent the stereotyped image of the Aegean. The extraordinary light, the whitewashed walls, benches and joints in the settlements’ paved streets constitute recognizable points of reference.

3. 2. The Northeastern Aegean Islands and the Sporades

The large surface area and the variform landscape, including massifs and plains, characterize the islands of the Eastern Aegean. Some basic common features amongst them are the old urban aspect, the prevalence of continuous buildings and the predominance of cuboids with tiled sloping roofs. The communication of the settlements with the coast of Asia Minor and Constantinople led to diversifications that are connected to the landscape morphology, the quality of local materials, the inhabitants’ occupations and the cultural distinctiveness of each region.
The all-green landscape, evoking the coast of mainland Greece, is distinctive of the Northern Aegean islands and the Sporades.

3. 3. The Islands of the Saronic gulf

The Argosaronikos islands present many similarities as well as differences in the natural and built landscape. In Hydra, the settlement is very complex due to the particular geomorphological conditions, whereas in Poros, it is set out within an interesting grid of streets and squares. The island of Spetses, with its all-green landscape and its stately homes, has formed a singular unit, whereas in Aegina certain urban features have been shaped.

3. 4. The Dodecanese and Crete

The Dodecanese islands are closely linked to the coasts of Asia Minor and have geological and climatic similarities with neighboring island groups of the Aegean. Nonetheless, certain features stand out, lending a certain architectural independence to the Dodecanese architecture as a unity.
Crete, compared to the rest of the Greek islands, is quite different in size, morphology, landscape diversity and climatic conditions. The geographical location of the island, coupled with its inhabitants’ activities, played a decisive role in the formation of the Aegean civilization in all times.