The Byzantine Fortress of Apalirou

The most important Byzantine fortress of Naxos is located in the southwest of the island between the small village of Sangrí and the bay of Agiassós. The large castle complex occupies the top of the 450 m high mountain of Apalírou and overlooks one of the largest plains of Naxos. The mountain and the castle got their name from the buckthorn (Rhamnus lycioides, gr. apaliriá), which can still be found here today. Today it grows only as a low shrub; in the past, however, it is said that there were whole forests of large trees of the species on Naxos, and the very durable wood was used for roofs and other constructions.

To visit the fortress of Apalírou, one passes Sangrí (coming from the Chóra) and follows the road to Agiassós to the south. After about 1.5 kilometers, one turns left onto a small dirt road and follow it to its end. There one starts the ascent by a sign “Kastro Apalírou”, which stands near the house at the foot of the slope.

view of the mountain of Apalírou from the asphalt road

The path that leads up to the fortress is not very obvious. On the whole, you have to climb diagonally to the right steeply up the slope. It’s best to stick as much as possible to the largest goat path. First one passes through sparse vegetation, then through an open maquis of Phoenicean juniper; in some places there are also small groups of Kermes oak trees.

The first part of the hill is covered by an open maquis, mainly of Phoenicean juniper.

On the first hilltop, the view opens up to the uninhabited valley in the east and to the top of the mountain with the fortress. The path runs southwards over the saddle and then continues diagonally up the steep slope of the mountain. Again, one should try to stay on the widest path, because the steep slope below the fortress is covered in gravel and therefore slippery.

View into the barren valley on the eastern side of the mountain of Apalírou; in the background mount Zeus

On the saddle the view opens towards the fortress of Apalírou, which is proudly perched on the summit.

The slope below the fortress is very steep and rather difficult to ascend. It is littered with rubble with lots of potsherds. In the Middle Ages, the inhabitants of Naxos had given up the harbour towns (like the millennia-old settlement in the Chóra) because of the continuous threat through pirate attacks, and retreated to the sheltered interior of the island. During these times the largest settlement on the island was here in Apalírou. The inhabitants cultivated the large fertile plain below the mountain.

During the Middle Ages the largest settlement on the island lay on the mountain of Apalírou below the fortress. The steep slope below the castle is covered with rubble.

Quite high up on the slope, the path turns back and runs now, rather indistinctly, diagonally to the left, that is towards to the northern part of the castle, where most of the better preserved buildings lie. Approaching from below you can see the impressive defensive wall of several meter height which in its northwestern part is largely intact. In this area there are two walls that are located directly above each other. In this area the foundation of a large round tower belonging to the outer wall has been preserved. Traces of other towers can also be detected. Within the area of the fortress lies a whole series of buildings and many large and small cisterns. An accurate mapping of Castle of Apalírou has been carried out since 2010 by archaeologists from the Universities of Oslo and Newcastle. Within the perimeter walls, especially on the west side of the hill, a large number of buildings (at least 75 houses) were found, a total of 40 to 50 cisterns, two church complexes and a monastery. The houses had a sewer system and were sometimes two storeys high. The fortress of Apaírou is by far the largest such complex of its time in the Cyclades.

Directly above the lowest defensive wall lies this second wall, which is reinforced with bastions. Behind it lie several buildings.

This large, well-preserved cistern is built from raw stones in the shape of a barrel vault. From the inside the walls are plastered.

It is mid-September and the first bulbous plants are in bloom, here the delicate Prospero autumnale.

Looking towards the northwest over the wide plain which ist still today cultivated with grain. Approximately in the middle of the picture lies the Temple of Demeter, to the right the village of Sangrí. In the background the villages of Ágios Prokópios and Ágia Ánna are visible.

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