From Symi to Sacsayhuaman in 900 years
The Pontikokastro, or ‘Mousecastle’ in English remains something of a mystery. It is situated on the hill overlooking Yialos on one side and the Pedi valley on the other and is an ancient monument. But what was it? Over the years I have read a few Symi guide books and articles and a few theories have been expounded on its origin and use. A Neolithic stone circle, a commemoration of a great sea battle, the burial pace of King Nireus of Symi or simply an old enclosure for animals; perhaps even something to do with the windmills that stand nearby. Unless it were to be excavated (unlikely) I guess there’s no real way of knowing for sure. But what we do know for certain is that it is a good place to catch a view or two.
Which is what we did on Sunday, briefly, while taking an afternoon walk. You catch the wind up there, hence the windmills nearby, and you certainly get good views: Down to Yialos and over to Nimos and Turkey on one side, and down into the valley and the further hills on the other, with the village laid out ahead of you and the rocky ridge heading towards Agia Marina behind you. You can stand on the top of it and see a full 360 degrees, though I don’t encourage you to stand on any ancient monuments! Walk around its base instead, it’s the same view. It’s a good place for an easy walk, the starting place for a longer walk over to Ag Maria (or a place to pass on the way back) and it’s really easy to get to. So, when you’re here on your Symi holiday, if you’ve not already seen it, and even if you have, you might like to wander up there, and here’s how:
First, get to the village (bus, taxi, walk up) and then the Village Hotel and/or Windmill Restaurant. Follow the main road up the hill away from the village. This (allegedly) one-way street leads you to the crest of the hill where the road turns down to Yialos on one side and down towards Pedi on the other. It’s a T junction of sorts, by some bins and a discarded boat over the wall, and with the start of the main road path to Yialos (also worth a walk up or down one day). At this junction, you head straight across into a track with ruined windmills on one side, and you’re still going uphill. The path becomes stony, but not badly so and you will eventually come to a large gate. (There is also a viewpoint off to your left, look for the blue bench.) You can open the gate easily, and close it after you, and keep on up the rest of the slight hill and you can’t miss the Mouse Castle; the large, round collection of grey stones. Just be careful not to do any damage, it is eroding away slowly and doesn’t need our help.
The formation of the stones in places (says he, knowing practically nothing about this kind of thing) reminds me of the work at locations such as Sacsayhuaman, above Cusco, Peru – which we were lucky enough to see in 2007 – in that they are tight-fitting and dressed. The Symi stones are maybe not as tight as those I have seen in Peru, which were put up around 1100, and some look like they were not dressed to fit at all. But there is no denying that this is a manmade structure with earth piled on top of it. I’m not sure if that was always there, if it has been filled in or whether there was any kind of roof to the structure at any point. By the way, the Neolithic period in south east Europe started around 7,000 BC, the period covers the last stage of the stone age and is, and I quote, “…significant for its megalithic architecture, spread of agricultural practices, and use of polished stone tools.” http://www.ancient.eu/Neolithic/
Which brings me back to the original use of our Mouse Castle. Perhaps it was, after all, something purely for agricultural use. But then again, when you look out at the terracing on Symi you can never be too sure how old it is. Some thousand-year-old terraces are still being used, some have fallen and are virtually gone. If the Pontikokastro was built around the same time as, say, Sacsayhuaman (and the style of stone cutting looks remarkably similar) then there is no reason why it should not have survived for the last 900 years more or less intact. If it were simply an animal enclosure I would have thought that a) it wouldn’t be so well built and b) it would have gone the way of some terraces by now. It’s possible it was for lighting beacons, but again, a huge amount of work, stone cutting, moving and dressing have gone into it; surely too much for agriculture or a beacon. So, the mystery is still there, unless someone actually has evidence for what it was, and it remains a great place for a ponder and good view. Right, that’s my Archaeology note for today, now it’s back to Time Team on You Tube…
Photo of Sacsayhuaman wall from Zigzag Citadel of Sacsayhuaman (I couldn’t find mine, they are on CD somewhere…)