The façade of the Temple and the Hestiatorion after the restoration.
Below, the archaeologist Yannos Kourayos.
The central cistern of inner dimensions 7,50×5,50 m and remaining depth of 3,80 m south of the sanctuary was the first section of the project to be discovered.
Below, about one metre south of the great cistern lay one more rectangular structure measuring 6×4 m divided into two smaller filtering cisterns.
Left, Archaic female figurine that was found in a building of the sanctuary.
Right, the ceramic vessel in the shape of a bull is unique. A rare votive offering to the temple of Apollo.
Aerial view of the excavation showing the rectangular cistern, the two filtration cisterns, the 25m long stone conduit and the 11m diameter circular cistern. On the southern side of the circular cistern, a large opening was located which probably served to channel the water from a source at a higher point on the hills.
This structure made of tufa stone and located in the middle of the reservoir, at the connection with the conduit, was intended to control the water flow.
Below, this corner that stood out drew the attention of the archaeologist. So, he started the excavation that would reveal this great technical project of water management.
The construction of the path that leads visitors to the archaeological site. At the end of the wooden jetty is “Sargos”, the boat that connects Antiparos with Despotiko.
Below, Yorgos Marianos has been transporting archaeologists, workers, students and visitors with his boat to Despotiko for years.
An excavation in progress
Text: Avgi Kalogianni
When I first set foot on the island of Despotiko back in 2004, I couldn’t possibly imagine what the place would look like today, twenty years later. At that time, the foundations of the temple and the ceremonial banqueting hall (hestiatorion) were barely discernible, and it was basically a desert island with the only living presence being a population of a few hundred goats and the shepherd’s two watchdogs. The animal pen stood a little further on –hence the location’s name, Mandra (fenced enclosure)– at a spot where archaeologist Yannos Kourayos had moved it, so that he could carry out the excavation of one of the most important sanctuaries of Apollo in the Cyclades.
Yannos Kourayos, director of the excavation and archaeologist of the Ephorate of Antiquities of the Cyclades for Paros and Antiparos, he has been working for years, with unfaltering enthusiasm and roughly the same team comprised of archaeologists Ilia Daifa and Alexandra Alexandridou, architect and restoration supervisor Goulielmos Orestidis, and an array of other experts, university students, workers and marble craftspeople. The place is now bustling with life, sometimes with excavation and other times with restoration works, for at least seven months of the year while hundreds of visitors are flocking to the island on a daily basis.
The restored temple and the ceremonial banqueting hall, which are now visible from Antiparos as well as from passing ships, preside over the site alluding to the magnificence of the sanctuary. We should perhaps clarify at this point that what archaeologists call a “banqueting hall” (hestiatorion) is the place where worshipers used to consume the edible parts of the animal they had sacrificed. At Despotiko, we can see the only recorded case so far of a ceremonial dining area being joined to a temple into a single interconnected space, reminding of the sites lying adjacent to chapels where the dining table is typically set up and laid in traditional Cycladic festivals.
Across the two monuments stands the impressive semi-circular altar, while, in various spots around the site, a number of so-called eschares (grills) have been discovered, that is, ancient structures used for cooking the meat of the animals that had been offered as a sacrifice to the god. The process of sacrificing the offering on the altar, cooking it on the numerous grills and, finally, eating the meat in the banqueting hall, as well as the libations performed by the worshippers, played an important role in the worship of god Apollo. Other rituals included the purification in the bath which has been discovered to the south of the temple, as well as the sacred dance that was performed, in all probability, in the large circular “threshing floor” on the islet of Tsimintiri lying between Despotiko and Antiparos.
Throughout its long history, the sanctuary of Apollo, god of light and music, on Despotiko must have served both as an extra-urban religious centre for Paros and a sanctuary particularly beloved to seafarers, as evidenced by the numerous oblations from the four corners of the Eastern Mediterranean.
However, the discovery in 2020 of a large-scale technical project of water collection and management, as yet unprecedented in the context of the archaic Cyclades, bears testament to two facts: firstly, Despotiko still has a lot to give and, secondly, back then, just as now, the biggest problem of the Cyclades was water.
It is certain that, due to its strategic position and leeward port, Despotiko received a lot of marine traffic in its heyday, which is confirmed by multiple finds. As a result, the need for water to feed the pilgrims and restock the ships was definitely high, especially during the 6th and 5th centuries BC.
This very prominence and prosperity of the sanctuary was what probably provoked Athenian general Miltiades’ outburst of vengeful rage after a failed attempt to occupy Paros in 490BC, in the aftermath of the battle of Marathon. The signs of this destruction were revealed during the excavation, together with the immediate reconstruction of the sanctuary even with the use of fragments from the vandalized kouroi (archaic Greek statues representing standing male youths).
Lately, the excavations have been further extended to Tsimintiri. The structures found there, all large and sturdy, were connected to the operation of the port as the islet was essentially its northeast arm. We should not forget that, in antiquity, Tsimintiri was linked to Despotiko forming the isthmus connecting Despotiko with Antiparos. Twenty years after the uncovering of the temple and the banqueting hall, we are excited to witness the completion of their restoration aiming at both the preservation and full integration of the archaeological evidence as well as a more comprehensive understanding of the monument by the general public.
In recent years, all the necessary works have been carried out to turn Despotiko into a fully operating archaeological site open to visitors. Important final steps in this direction are the construction of the pathway leading from the pier to the monument, as well as the erection of a guardhouse at the dock.
So, what remains is seeing the final stages of the project completed by the Ministry of Culture so that Despotiko can officially open its gates to the public. The gripping, pristine landscape of the uninhabited island, coupled with the distinctive features of the monument, are bound to elevate Despotiko to its rightful place as one of the most popular archaeological destinations of the Cyclades.