Sikinos is a small, remote island in the middle of the Aegean Sea. Although it belongs to the Cyclades, one of the most touristic destinations in Europe, Sikinos has so far preserved its unique character from touristic overdevelopment. Access to the beautiful island is complex, requiring a 12-hour boat journey, and the approximately two hundred permanent inhabitants live under difficult conditions.
There, in an unspoilt, typically Cycladic landscape rises the ancient monument of Episkopi, built on the outskirts of the ancient city of Sikinos, which lies on Hagia Marina hill. Created at the turn of late antiquity, in a period of change and transformation, it seems to have always been treated respectfully for its original form.
Around the year 200 AD, built as an impressive mausoleum disproportionate to the size of the island, Episkopi bears the form of an ancient temple. The building was converted into a Byzantine church in the 8th century and has survived until today. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the church became the focus of the religious life of the inhabitants of the island and for eighteen centuries, it has been the symbol of their collective identity.
Christian conversion of ancient buildings into churches was a common practice. However, Episkopi offers a new perspective on the connection with antiquity through architecture, since the recent architectural analysis of the building showed that the medieval phase entailed partial restoration of the antique entablature, establishing a diachronic appreciation of the aesthetic and spiritual value of the monument. The final composition attests to the Greek component of our common European culture that has evolved throughout the centuries.
When the Ephorate of Antiquities of Cyclades began its restoration, the monument was inaccessible for half a century due to fear of collapse. Most of the important damages that have led to its structural deformation were concentrated in its south half, with the most characteristic being the significant deviation from the vertical and the consequent movements, collapses, extensive cracks and deformations in the western, southern and eastern walls.
The implementation of the project of reinforcement and restoration aimed at the preservation of the monument’s authenticity, limiting the impact of interventions to the minimum. The project managed to address the conservation problems of the building by applying measures in compliance with the rules and scientific ethics that regulate the restoration of monuments, as expressed in the Charter of Venice. The works were based on deep knowledge and research, from a multi-disciplinary team, involving archaeologists, architects, conservators, civil engineers, and topographers, which delved into every detail.
Therefore, all the traces of its history were equally highlighted, including those revealed via a meticulous research procedure after removing successive coats of plaster from its masonry, such as unknown inscriptions, and Roman and Byzantine paintings.
Anastylosis of scattered members of the entablature and pediment was limited to the extremities, so as to indicate the original form but not disrupt later phases.
Dealing with the severe static problems of the building was a great challenge. Apart from the damage and distortions caused by earthquakes, the conversion of the mausoleum into a church and the many successive phases also affected its structural capacity. All the interventions had to meet many preconditions simultaneously. The materials and methods used are compatible with traditional techniques.
Moreover, the work carried out included:
i) Installation of inclined steel buttresses to secure the deformed-inclined southern wall until the completion of interventions.
ii) Consolidation of walls (pointing with lime mortar, grouting, local reconstruction of cracked parts) and vaults (careful cleaning of the extrados, pointing and gravity-fed grouting with lime mortar).
iii) Steel rods installation to connect the southern wall and the ones perpendicular to it.
iv) Installation of a steel ring around the base of the dome to secure its geometry, and the supporting vaults.
v) Installation of steel units to support the belfry from overturning.
vi) Reconstruction of the collapsed stone buttress in the middle of the southern wall.
vii) Electrical installation powered by a small photovoltaic panel to cover the functional needs of the monument and architectural lighting of the monument.
In addition, functionality and accessibility have been restored to a previously derelict monument. The surrounding landscape has remained unaltered, and the natural and historic environment is respected by preserving access to the monument via the old traditional path, while cars must be left at a parking area some 300 metres away.
Knowledge gained, we believe, is one of the most vital points of the work achieved in Episkopi. Careful research revealed so many hidden facts regarding the intriguing monument’s history and identity as a mausoleum through the unexpected discovery and excavation of the original burial with the deceased and her wealthy offerings. Her name was Neiko, as mentioned in the newly discovered inscription, and her burial had deviant features, revealing a ritual of necrophobic superstition.
Additionally, the diverse building history of the monument was brought to light. Extensive interventions to obey the Christian ritual needs had left marks for at least two major mediaeval phases. One such mark dates as early as the 8th century, during the turbulent iconoclast era, as indicated by the Byzantine sculptures decorated with crosses. Later, when the original vault collapsed, a new barrel vault was built, without altering the ancient building shell. Byzantine frescoes covered the walls, and a chapel was built next to the ancient monument. In fact, the mediaeval form of Episkopi is roughly reproduced in other churches on the island, which confirms the enduring symbolic character of the iconic building for the island community.
The present form of the monument, with the domed cross-shaped vaulting, dates back to the 17th century, along with the monastic buildings around the original structure. Correspondingly, the impressive wood-carved iconostasis of this phase has been restored and placed in its original position.
The restoration project of Episkopi of Sikinos is dedicated to preserving a monument that embodies Greek history of two millennia, and, therefore, various expressions of culture, architecture and aesthetics. Its cultural diversity, exceptionally manifested in the core of the monument, is a unique testimony of respect for the classical heritage and its integration into the Byzantine tradition. The monument states with clarity the need of the people throughout the centuries to constantly connect - their present with their past; a sacred landmark and at the same time a nucleus of ancestral pride.
In September 2022, in the presence of the President of the Hellenic Republic, the people of Sikinos welcomed with enthusiasm and grand celebration the completion of the works, the opening of the monument to the public and the revival of its religious use.
The Ephorate of Antiquities of the Cyclades bestowed the Sikinians the material expression of their identity, and a valuable resource that will contribute to the sustainable development and, therefore, to the survival of the small island community.
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