The Ancient Towers Return

Today a very special event returns to Sifnos. Friktoria, the lighting of its ancient towers, antiquity’s communication system on this island.

This celebration was one of so many cancelled in 2020 due to Covid-19. We can all hope that its return, though still without its grand after-party for this year, is a sign that we are on our way back, finally, to a more normal way of life.

The following is a repeat of a blog I posted in 2018. Whether you’re on Sifnos or just wishing desperately you could be, happy Friktoria to you. Xronia polla.

2018: If you’re on the road from Kamares to Apollonia and you keep your eyes peeled, you might see a giant stone archway on the top of a hill. One of the lesser-known treasures on this island, it was built in the 6th century BC and is what remains of the Tower of Kambanario. At that point in antiquity, Sifnos had active mines producing gold, silver and iron, and was at the height of its wealth and prestige and vulnerable to pirate raids. So over the next three hundred years, Sifnians built stone towers, one every square kilometre or so. They built them near mines, atop hills and at least one at the edge of the sea, every one of these within in sight of another. Then with smoke and mirrors, they’d flash good news and bad around the island. The cell phones of old, you might say. If an attack was coming, people would rush to the tower and find shelter inside.

By this century, of course, time had taken its toll on these structures, communication methods had changed and, in fact, local knowledge of many of the towers had been lost. Then in 2003, a sailing race was scheduled to reach Sifnos and an idea was hatched. Volunteers were gathered and they lit fires in a few of the towers that were known then to welcome the boats. 

Through archeological work that dates back at least 30 years now, a total of 78 ancient towers have been found and interest in this aspect of Sifnian history has grown. Some of these towers, like the one at Agios Giorgios near Cheronissos, are mere scattered piles of stones that are barely distinguishable from the rest of that rocky hill. Others are much better preserved, some with wells, presses and millstones. Some are readily accessible, others at the end of a long walk through difficult terrain. Visitors can easily reach at least two ancient towers, Mavros Pyrgos, the Black Tower on the edge of Exambela and Aspros Pyrgos, the White Tower, a short walk from the road into Platys Gialos. Enough of both remains that with a bit of creative thinking, you can imagine what they once were.

Since then, sailing race or not, the lighting of the towers has become an annual event held on the 50th day after Greek Easter, the Sunday at the Pentecost. Every year more and more volunteers come and last year they lit 78 ancient towers, 4 acropolises and 3 ancient sanctums, some reachable only after a good two hour trek. In 2018 the event falls on May 27 with at least 81 spots planned for thus far. At 7 o’clock as always, the tower chosen to be the first one will send its smoke signal high into the air. Those towers that see this will respond, setting off a chain reaction that over the next minutes will light up towers all across the island. Just as in times of old.

Well … except that the smoke these days is orange and comes from a canister. And the local radio station broadcasts the event live, on the internet too, with volunteers calling into the studio to describe their group, their tower and how many signs they see from their spot. 

Afterward everyone will gather in the island’s centre for a huge outdoor party with a music concert, treats for one and all and photos and videos from each tower to watch. This being Sifnos and this being the way they’ve so long done things here, everyone from near and far will be welcomed to the party, no matter how long-standing or recent their attachment to this island. 

Except for pirates, of course.

You can learn much more about the ancient towers of Sifnos at https://www.sifnos-towers.gr/en.html.

Many thanks to Lambros Galanis for the use of his photograph above. Those below are courtesy of the Sifnos Tourist Information office.

SHARON BLOMFIELD IS THE AUTHOR OF THE SIFNOS CHRONICLES: TALES FROM A GREEK ISLE AND, NEW IN SPRING 2019, SIFNOS CHRONICLES 2: MORE GREEK ISLAND TALES. THESE BOOKS ARE AVAILABLE AT TO BIBLIOPOLEIO, THE BOOK SHOP IN APOLLONIA, SIFNOS, AT TITHOREA, A GREEK FOOD SHOP IN ROCKWOOD, ONTARIO, CANADA AND ON AMAZON.

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