Sailing to prehistory in the Aegean Sea

Main photo credit: Paris Tavitian

The Cycladic Civilization is an innovative Study Abroad program designed to introduce participants to the beauty of the first culture to develop in the central Aegean Sea in Greece. The voyage lasts approximately two weeks and includes visits to eight islands of the Cyclades, home to the famous schematic flat figurines in pure white marble that have become synonymous with elegance and abstraction. During this course, students will explore key concepts of prehistoric art, archaeology, architecture, society, and mythology. There are modules dedicated to travel in the ancient world, maritime archaeology, and the evolution of sculpture in the Greek world. This unique Study Abroad program invites you on a sailing boat to discover a land and a culture unlike any other. And you will do it on the terms of those crafty islanders, who saw the faces of their gods (or themselves?) in the pristine white marble of their homeland.

The circle of light

The island of Delos is near the center of the Cyclades archipelago. The name “Cyclades” comes from the Greek word for “circle” (kyklos) and refers to the location of these islands around Delos, the birthplace of Apollo, the god of light and music. Apollo has been very kind to the Cyclades, since this group of islands is among the most beautiful and sun-bathed regions of Greece. There are thousands of islands, islets, and rocks here, the peaks of a massive mountain range that once extended across much of the Aegean Sea. It did not take long for humanity to discover the charm of the Cyclades. The earliest permanent settlement appeared more than 7,000 years ago and within a couple of millennia, the islanders had created an enchanting and mysterious culture that is now known as the Cycladic Civilization.

Delos (photo © Mentor in Greece)

Boats everywhere… even on frying pans

The islanders had to adapt to a harsh environment. The Cyclades are small, farmland is scarce, and water is even scarcer. But there is mineral wealth here, white marble of unparalleled quality and black obsidian, a volcanic glass that is conveniently brittle and fractures with sharp edges. Before there were stone houses or fortified settlements, the islanders became traders and crossed the sea, carrying this black stone with them. Soon, there were small crafts crisscrossing the central Aegean, carrying with them people, ideas, commodities, and works of art. They were such passionate mariners they even decorated their frying pans with images of boats!

The beauty of marble

The island of Tinos is famous for the miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary and the massive celebrations held each August to commemorate Her Dormition. But Tinos is also endowed with high-quality green marble and its people have developed the art of sculpture to the highest degree. It is almost as if the spirit of the prehistoric islanders, who lived in the area of Kardiani, still wanders among the giant boulders and the craggy mountaintops of this island, inspiring artists to create masterpieces. Some of them are presented at the Museum of Marble Crafts in Pirgos. And who knows, perhaps you will see a descendant of the cranes that Poseidon sent to save the people of the island from the snakes that threatened to overrun it.

Museum of Marble Crafts, Tinos (photo © Mentor in Greece)

Island Hopping

A sailing boat comes most handy when it is time to visit Paros and Antiparos. These two islands were once joined together, but the rise of sea levels inundated the land, leaving only the highest peaks protruding above the Aegean Sea. The earliest seafarers found much to their liking and settled here.

Antiparos (photo © Mentor in Greece)

Saliagos, a tiny islet between Paros and Antiparos, was once a promontory connected to the latter, and it was here that the first permanent settlement of the Cyclades appeared in 5000 BCE. The fat lady of Saliagos may not be in pristine white marble, but it is one of the liveliest prehistoric statuettes discovered so far.

Despotiko is another small, uninhabited island, west of Antiparos. The large bay offered safe anchorage, so it attracted mariners throughout the prehistoric and classical periods. The sanctuary in the northwest part of the island indicates the presence of an extensive maritime trading network that included mainland Greece, the eastern Mediterranean, and northern Africa. Sea travel was crucial to the prosperity of ancient communities, but sailors had to contend with a tempestuous and temperamental sea.

Paros, much like Tinos, is famous for its marble quarries. The local white marble was of such exceptional quality that ancient artists selected it to create some of the most memorable classical masterpieces; the Aphrodite of Milos, the Hermes of Praxiteles, and the Winged Victory of Samothrace are made of Parian marble. Ancient authors believed that Paros was an island full of mysterious natural wonders; forests with trees that never bore a fruit, seas full of fish saltier than normal, and rocks that could be boiled to produce a medicinal juice.

Marble blocks in the ancient Paros marble quarries (photo © Mentor in Greece)

City living

Naxos is the largest and most fertile of the Cyclades, able to support a local population of deer (now long gone). The most readily identifiable landmark is Portara, a massive doorway in the middle of nowhere. It was once part of a temple that may have been dedicated to Apollo, since the door faces directly towards Delos. On the other side of the island is the famous Acropolis of Panormos, a settlement consisting of strong fortifications that protected twenty rooms. To the untrained eye, Panormos may seem like nothing more than stones neatly arranged in squares, but this is a site of tremendous significance for the social history of the Aegean and Greece in general. These humble foundations are a strong indication of the transformation of a group of farmers into an urban society.

“Portara” (Temple of Apollo), Naxos (photo © Mentor in Greece)

Sailing to a party island

Ios is the island of youth and entertainment. But it is also a treasure trove of history and archaeology. Homer, the famous epic poet who wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey, is said to have died here. When he failed to solve a riddle he heard from some children fishing on the coast, he became visibly upset. As he was leaving, he slipped and fell on the muddy road. He hit his head and died on the spot. On a more prosaic note, Ios was also popular to ancient marines due to the safe natural anchorage it offered. The Minoans, the Myceneans, the Phoenicians, and the Ionians frequented its shores and harbours. The early Cycladic settlement on Skarkos hill seems designed to control the fertile plains and the harbour in the middle of the island’s west coast. The town impresses the visitors with its urban planning and the terraces that follow the natural relief of the hill. From the air, Skarkos looks like a giant bull’s eye but on the ground, one cannot help but be moved when wandering the streets and rooms of these prehistoric houses.

The prehistoric settlement of Skarkos, Ios (photo © Mentor in Greece)

Study abroad on a volcano

Santorini (a.k.a. Thera) needs no introduction. To enter the caldera (still an active volcano) aboard a sailing ship is an experience never to be forgotten. This island is home to Akrotiri, aptly described as the Greek Pompeii. The settlement was buried during the massive eruption of the volcano that also shaped the island of Santorini as we know it today. Akrotiri was a proper town, where the Cycladic civilization encountered the Minoans, giving rise to a society where elegance and beauty reigned supreme. The excavation is ongoing, so you never know what new masterpiece may appear out of the ashes while you are casually exploring the mansions of the prehistoric town.  

Santorini (photo © Mentor in Greece)

The home of obsidian

Milos is home to almost all the obsidian that circulated in Greece and the Aegean in the prehistoric era. This glass-like volcanic rock was a popular commodity because it could be turned into razor-sharp tools. Much like the participants of the Cycladic Civilization program, those in search of obsidian arrived by boat and beached their craft in a suitable cove. Eventually, though, a permanent settlement appeared at Phylakopi. The imposing “cyclopean” walls built with large volcanic blocks enabled Phylakopi to thrive for 1200 years. Local craftsmen produced several distinct pottery styles in dark and light variations. The bird jugs, in particular, proved popular and were exported to Knossos.

Sarakiniko, Milos (photo © Mentor in Greece)

Where frogs do not croak

Ancient mariners avoided crossing the open sea. It was much safer to sail along the coast and stop frequently to rest or take on water and supplies. Our sailing boat will replicate their practice and visit the friendly shores of Serifos on the way back to Athens. This is, after all, an island designed to receive weary travelers. When Acrisius, the king of Argos, put his daughter Danae and her newborn son Perseus in a chest and threw them into the sea, it was Serifos that welcomed the box and its unhappy occupants. Perseus grew up to kill Medusa and brought her head back to the island, where he turned the local king into stone as a punishment for his attempt to marry his mother by force. So I guess it is prudent not to cross any locals. On the upside, you can expect a peaceful night in Serifos, since the local frogs don’t croak, unless you transport them elsewhere. Or so the ancient authors claimed.

Ancient mariners avoided crossing the open sea. It was much safer to sail along the coast and stop frequently to rest or take on water and supplies. Our sailing boat will replicate their practice and visit the friendly shores of Serifos on the way back to Athens. This is, after all, an island designed to receive weary travelers. When Acrisius, the king of Argos, put his daughter Danae and her newborn son Perseus in a chest and threw them into the sea, it was Serifos that welcomed the box and its unhappy occupants. Perseus grew up to kill Medusa and brought her head back to the island, where he turned the local king into stone as a punishment for his attempt to marry his mother by force. So I guess it is prudent not to cross any locals. On the upside, you can expect a peaceful night in Serifos, since the local frogs don’t croak, unless you transport them elsewhere. Or so the ancient authors claimed.

Aegean Sea (photo © Mentor in Greece)
The Cycladic Civilization - Mentor
Link to The Cycladic Civilization – Mentor

The Cycladic Civilization – Mentor

The Cyclades fulfil their collective name (kyklos in Greek means circle) by encircling the sacred island of Delos, the mythical birthplace of Apollo and Artemis, the twin offspring of Zeus by Leto.

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