An earlier version of this text first appeared in the now-defunct Athens News in August 2010.
Amidst rocks and trees, two beautiful boys are lying on their backs, not far from each other, stark naked, their open eyes looking towards the sky above them. Their smiles seem unconcerned by the fact that they have been lying like this for a very long time – for nearly 2700 years. The unfinished Archaic (mid 6th century BC) kouroi of Flerio on the Cycladic island of Naxos have been known for generations as one of the most striking attractions on an island rich in historic sites. Only recently, these marvels have been integrated into a network of trails linking them with other key archaeological sites in the vicinity, allowing the visitor to explore a slice of ancient Greek life scattered throughout an unusually beautiful Aegean landscape.
An ensemble of sites in a bucolic setting
Today, Flerio, in the area of Melanes, a series of upland valleys 10 km to the East of Naxos Town, is serene, silent and quite remote, its olive groves and fruit orchards overlooked by the industrious quarries that still extract the famous Naxian marble from the hillsides around. It was not that much different in antiquity, when the area was also rural in character, but from early on it received attention for the two key resources it provided to the city-state of Naxos: marble and water.
Flerio is not one single site that once served a single function, but rather an ensemble of several sites, all within one micro-region. The recent transformation of the area through the construction of a network of pathways and the erection of several explanatory panels, as well as the opening up of several hitherto inaccessible sites, makes it a must-see, a unique opportunity to explore an ancient landscape, offering insights in both its economic and symbolic significance. There is probably more archaeology awaiting discovery in the Flerio area, so we should not pretend to fully understand all its aspects. But of course, we can hardly claim that anywhere…
A shrine to the deities of ground and rock
One of the centrepieces of the Flerio complex, set on the slope of a low hill, are the remains of an unusual sanctuary. Its origins go back to the, and it remained in use throughout antiquity. Now excellently landscaped (preserving its venerable old olive trees), this was never an imposing cult centre like the Acropolis, Delphi or Olympia. Instead, it is one of the best examples of a relatively small sanctuary used by a specific group, as it probably served as a local place of worship for the quarry workers – there are chisel marks on the rocks all around – and was thus devoted to the chthonic “underground” deities, symbolising nature’s generosity in supplying humans with its wealth of water, rock and fertile soil.
Surrounded by an oval enclosure wall, there are numerous structures. Near the top of the site, a large marble outcrop appears to have been a sacred rock: the earliest temple, a small and simple rectangular room, was built against it, with a sacrificial pyre placed beyond it. In the 6th century, the rock appears to have slipped and partially destroyed that structure, which was then rebuilt in slightly smaller dimensions, and replaced with a new larger temple, built over the pyre. The foundations of the new temple are well preserved; of special interest is its massive marble threshold block, with cuttings for uprights on either side, indicating the earliest full marble portal we know in Greek architecture, a direct ancestor to the most famous monument in Naxos town, the Portara.
Down the slope, a terrace held an area reserved for buried offerings, many of which were discovered here by the Greek Archaeological Service’s excavators. Not far off are the remains of a second temple, added to the site in 6th century BC and apparently built entirely of marble, again the first known instance of that practice. Come to think of it, it makes perfect sense that the earliest beginnings of a tradition that would later culminate in the great marble temples we all associate with Classical Greece should be found exactly where one of Greece’s most famous marble sources was, and still is, being exploited. Furthermore, the site also produced one of the oldest Ionic capitals we know of.
The chthonic sanctuary of Flerio, its ancient name completely forgotten as none of the writers of antiquity ever mentioned it, may be a modest place at first sight – but its tangible role in the development of ancient Greek architecture makes it a truly awesome site.
The sleeping boys
Below the shrine, a path leads uphill through a leafy glade, a bucolic area of dense vegetation fed by the copious springs in the vicinity, towards the renowned Kouros of Flerio, a typical Archaic statue of a nude young man, of very large dimensions (over 5.7m tall), lying on his back in a small tree-shaded enclosure. He was carved in this very location around 570 BC, and was meant to be moved to Naxos town or further afield for the finishing touches and final detail. At the time, Naxos was a leading producer of marble and of monumental sculpture, its products prominent in all major centres of Archaic Greek civilisation, as exemplified by the Naxian Sphinx at Delphi.
In all likelihood, the kouros‘ lower legs broke already during the later stages of production – due to a natural weakness in the rock? – forcing the stonecutters to abandon him where he was being carved. Thus, we have to thank an accident or failure of workmanship for an unforgettable sight. To see this work of ancient Greek genius, made possible by the fine crystalline marble of the Naxian hills, still in the very location of its creation, where it has lain day-in, day-out, through wind and weather, throughout the entire history of Naxos, with all its wars, invasions, occupations and changes in belief or lifestyle, is perhaps one of the most tangible and touching experiences of antiquity available in all of Greece.
A quarter hour along the same path, past remnants of ancient (and modern) quarrying, there is a a second kouros (now usually know as the Kouros of Melanes), lying exposed on an open hillside. Of similar age, style and dimensions to his brother further downhill, he probably shares a similar story of accident or failure. He was abandoned a little further along the line towards finishing, as indicated by the still-visible details, such as the beautifully sculpted braided hair hanging over both shoulders. His feet, reconstructed from fragments found in the area, now stand nearby, but will never support him. Remains of ancient quarrying activity are preserved all around.
A masterpiece of early civic engineering: the Archaic aqueduct
From below the chthonic sanctuary, another path runs downhill, passing a small exhibition centre devoted to the archaeology of the area, to another set of sites of great importance: the ancient aqueduct. When the polis, or city state, of Naxos grew larger and wealthier in the 7th and 6th centuries BC, the area’s wealth of water became a highly significant resource. The earliest aqueduct, a line of clay pipes, each locking into the next one, was built as early as the 6th century BC, making it one of the oldest known examples of such a municipal work in Greece.
The physics of getting water from a higher elevation to a lower one are simple enough, but here there was an extra problem: a lowish saddle cuts off the northern end of the Flerio valley from the route to the coast and Naxos town. The challenge was met by the construction of tunnel, more than 200m long and comparable only to its more famous and much larger counterpart of similar age, the Tunnel of Eupalinos on Samos (the great 6th century island rulers or “tyrants” of Samos and Naxos, Polykrates and Lygdamis, are said to have been friends, so the similarity may not be a complete coincidence). The tunnel was in use for many centuries and received a major renovation in Roman times. Its entrance and exit can be visited on either side of the main road running atop the saddle. The Roman water conduit, solidly built of stone, is clearly visible, as are the open shafts at either end of the tunnel,where deep settling basins to allow mud and sediment to to drop, thus preventing the system from clogging up.
More stretches of the aqueduct, including preserved sections of the original interlocking Archaic pipes, are visible in various locations along the main road towards Naxos town.
There is a lot more to see on the island: the great Chora or island capital with its Venetian castle and mansions, innumerable painted Byzantine churches, lots of villages with traditional Cycladic or Neoclassical houses, two Classical sanctuaries, several prehistoric settlements and cemeteries, the intriguing remains of the early 20th century emery mines, and a whole series of distinctive island landscapes.
Naxos is most certainly worth a visit, with the Flerio sites as one of multiple highlights. We’ll be showing guests around there in a few days, on the upcoming Cruising to the Cyclades tour.