A tiny blue-tailed salamander darted along the cobbles on the path to the ruins of the Episkopi Church on Sikinos, undaunted by our presence. Like some magical elfin guardian of a sacred shrine, it took us straight to the entrance of the fenced site of the Roman-era mausoleum and later Christian Orthodox church. And what isn’t enchanting about this 17-century-old ruin, perched alone atop a hill on what was once the Aegean island’s ancient capital, Agia Marina, overlooking the sea?
The church operated nonstop until 1940, when it was shut down because of its increasing state of disrepair, and hosts worshippers only on August 15 for the annual festival marking the Dormition of the Virgin, held in its courtyard. An operation to salvage this important site was set into motion in 2017, following multiple efforts by the Municipality of Sikinos, the Hellenic Society for the Environment and Cultural Heritage (ELLET) and, chiefly, the Ephorate of Antiquities for the Cyclades, spearheaded by its director, Byzantologist Dimitrios Athanasoulis. The relevant studies were carried out, sponsors were found to bankroll the project and experts to carry it out, and the budget was approved for what is one of the toughest restorations the Culture Ministry has carried out.
The original building is thought to date to the 3rd century AD and underwent all sorts of changes and repairs through those 17 centuries, including four major overhauls. It started out as a temple-shaped mausoleum and went on to acquire an arch, a dome and new doors, as well as having its interior rearranged. The alterations carried out in the Middle Ages respected the ancient monument and the onus is now on the new team to show the building that same reverence.
The team of archaeologists and conservators have been working feverishly to ensure that the scaffolding surrounding the structure comes down, as planned, in the first half of September – and their efforts are showing.
One of the biggest breakthroughs made since the project began was the discovery in the summer of 2018 of an unplundered grave belonging to a woman, with an inscription bearing the Greek name Neiko. She was buried with her jewelry, but her hands were placed behind her lower back and she had evidence of a terrible injury to the area of her mouth. The grave, moreover, was buried in a concealed spot, possibly in an effort to protect it from looters. But archaeologists also discovered sulfur and tar on her chest, leading to the supposition that she may have undergone some kind of “exorcism” and was buried in such a manner so that her demons stayed in the grave with her.
Neiko’s fate is not the biggest enigma surrounding Episkopi, as the entire mausoleum is a mystery for archaeologists. A poor island with little in the form of agricultural production and even less in maritime commerce, Sikinos was a place of exile in ancient times. So, who had the money to erect such a monument? Was it a wealthy exile or someone from another land? The building’s shape resembles funerary monuments discovered in Asia Minor and other reaches of the Roman Empire, but it is still too soon to jump to conclusions, insists Athanasoulis, who recently welcomed Culture Minister Lina Mendoni to the site. The official traveled to Sikinos to inspect progress on the project, but also to announce the site’s opening to the public this coming spring, along with the inauguration of the Sikinos Archaeological Museum in an early 20th century school building that will allow Neiko – now in safe storage at the Cyclades Ephorate – to be brought back to her proper place.
Athanasoulis also notes that the archaeological research being conducted at the ancient city and necropolis in the broader vicinity of the monument is also the first of its kind and is expected to go a long way toward shedding light on the history of an island about which very little is known beyond what has been found on a few inscriptions. The monument itself has proven a trove of valuable evidence, from inscriptions to murals and sculptures, but more research is needed if we are to discover the secrets of Neiko and Episkopi. In the meantime, the opening of the site and the new museum are expected to give the island an important boost.
“We are so happy that the Archaeological Service is actively contributing to shaping a new identity for the island, which can upgrade it into a high-end tourism destination,” says Athanasoulis.
As we started to leave the site, I noticed a few statue pedestals and torsos in the yard, brought down from hard-to-reach areas of the ancient city. Back in the Middle Ages, the residents of the Cycladic islands would smash and fire ancient sculptures in kilns to produce lime. Maybe these pieces were too heavy to be hauled down the cliff that looms over the ancient city’s port and they evaded destruction. They are so heavy, in fact, that they could not even be brought to Episkopi by mule, prompting the shipowner who funded the studies for the site’s restoration, Athanasios Martinos, to hire a helicopter for the task.