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Master Class: Asfontylitis: A Cycladic settlement in dry-stone on the island of Amorgos and the development of alternative forms of tourism

Ioulia (Julia) Papaeftychiou K. PhD.
Architect. N.T.U.A. (National Technical University of Athens). All photos © the author.


In Amorgos, the easternmost island of the Cyclades, on a crest at 262 metres above sea level, to the north-east of Hora and to the south-west of Aegiali, lies Asfontylitisi, a settlement used only at intervals, wholly built in dry stone (Fig.1). One could say that Asfontylitis is not really a settlement but rather a cluster of rural dwellings. Such rural dwellings, spread in high numbers all over the island, were used by the local inhabitants during some months of the year, sometimes even continuously, in order to cultivate the neighboring fieldsii. The written sources used for the present research work yielded no information on the origin of the place-name Asfontylitis, although the place-names of Asfontilidiiii and Asfontilitisiv (written with an “i” instead of a “y”) have been encountered in relation to this area. One could however suppose that, possibly, the area was thus named after the daffodils (asphodels) that grow in abundance there.


Until quite recently, before the inhabitants of the island turned to tourism-related professions, when agriculture and fishing constituted the main occupations, Asfontylitis came to life for six months a year. Today, only some buildings are used, and then rarely and in isolated cases, mainly for the grazing and stabling needs of herds of sheep and goats, as well as for the temporary shelter of farmers and shepherds. In addition to daffodils, the settlement is dominated by prickly pears, impressive in their vigorous flourishing and always located within fenced-in areas. One can also distinguish the remains of the old cultivations of vines and cereals which profited from the favourable environmental conditions of the plateau. The high, sturdy dry stone walls, preserved in excellent conditions, used to protect the crops from the animals that grazed in the neighbouring pastures  and at the same time delineated the ownerships and passages between them (fig 2).

Fig. 1. The location of Asfontylitis on a map of Amorgos found in the travel guide Amorgos of Tasso Anastassiou, pages 8 and 9

Fig.2. High dry-stone walls separate and draw up the boundaries of ownerships in the area of Asfontylitis, whilst in the past they also protected cultivations against wandering goats and sheep. (Left: 1998, right: 2009)

In a written testimony dated 1885, among other information on the island of Amorgos, the English traveler James Theodore Bent writesv: “The mountain village at which we lunched rejoiced in the long name of Asphondilitis; it is given to cheese-making, and composed of hovels. The one in which we halted was full of cheeses drying on reeds, which were hung from the wall so as to form shelves, and which they call καλαµακία [kalamákia]. At this village the old men wear an ancient costume consisting of a curious waistcoat or stomacher and the red skouphiá, a knitted cap, which hangs down on one side and which their wives make for them at home, spinning the material and dyeing it with a sort of berry they find on the hills. We visited another ancient tower, and it was quite late before we reached Amorgos [or Chora, the capital of the island] and the demarch’s [mayor’s] comfortable quarters.”

Asfontylitis, according to the findings of archaeologist Lila Marangouvi, is a proto-Cycladic location which also maintained its importance during historical times, as witnessed by the remains of ancient buildings. The settlement is particularly interesting from a morphological and construction viewpoint because dry stone is the only material used in almost all its buildings with the exception of the church of Ai Nikòlas (saint Nicholas). The white-washed church stands out with its bright white colour and its prominent location within the settlement (Image 3). Some buildings show the use of binding mortar and plaster, evidently due to the long-term use that continues until today. The settlement is located on the path linking Aegiali to Hora, once the only land route of communication  between the two settlements

Aegiali lies on the north-western coast of Amorgos and is the second port of the island after Katàpola, while Hora, which lies approximately at the center of the island, is a mountain settlement and the island’s capital. Today, this path, called “Palià strata”, is one of the six Itinerariesxi of Cultural Interest of Amorgos, which create a complete trail system that covers the entire island.

Fig. 3. General view of the settlement from the south. One can see the “Palià Stràta”, the northernmost mountainous section of the island in the background and the white-washed church of Ai Nikòlas on the forefront. (1998).

Asfontylitis displays a wide variety of dry stone constructions, of various uses; terraces however are totally absent since the settlement lies on a plateau without slopes (Fig. 4). All the buildings that have been used for the temporary shelter of farmers and shepherds are protected by high walls, evidently in order to prevent animals from entering the courtyards where small gardens were located. Auxiliary buildings are often to be found along the walls, with an entrance that opens directly onto the common-use areas. The settlement’s water needs were covered by a complex of six cisterns which collected rain-water. The cisterns were located above the central path, serving the needs of passers-by and their animals.
Asfontylitis displays a wide variety of dry stone constructions, of various uses; terraces however are totally absent since the settlement lies on a plateau without slopes (Fig. 4). All the buildings that have been used for the temporary shelter of farmers and shepherds are protected by high walls, evidently in order to prevent animals from entering the courtyards where small gardens were located. Auxiliary buildings are often to be found along the walls, with an entrance that opens directly onto the common-use areas. The settlement’s water needs were covered by a complex of six cisterns which collected rain-water. The cisterns were located above the central path, serving the needs of passers-by and their animals.

The openings of all the buildings were crowned by monolithic slabs of varying thickness. Constructions were always roofed with a terrace structured in two ways: either by placing wood beams made of raw tree-trunks and Phoenician juniper (Juniperus phoenicea) leaves, over which large stone slabs were laid, or with a central pillar made of squared stones supporting the stone slabs placed along the perimeter (Fig. 5).

Fig.4. Trail sketch of the area of Asfontylitis, from a section of a map of the Hellenic Military Geographical Service. In addition to the roofed buildings one can discern at least eleven threshing floor

Fig.5. Pillar of chiselled stones supporting the slabs of the terrace over an auxiliary building, built entirely in dry-stone. (1998).

In both cases, the stone slabs were covered by packed clay ensuring the insulation of internal areas against water. The internal areas were characterized by austerity and functionality: simple construction solutions, creating suitable openings and niches high on the dry stone walls, met cooking and storage needs, as well as the stabling needs (Fig. 6).

Typical outdoor dry stone constructions are the settlement’s threshing floors, demarcated by compact stone walls with handy openings and niches. In contrast to the lightness that characterizes threshing floors in most Cycladic islands, usually demarcated by standing slates, here the threshing

Fig.6. Handy niches inside a dry-stone building in ruins. On the left, one can see the corner hearth used for cooking and heating. (1998)


It would be a mistake not to consider the other dry stone constructions found in Amorgos. These we believe, will make it possible to correlate them to the dry-stone constructions of Asfontylitis, with a view to defining the purpose of these buildings. The evident construction and morphological differences recorded in the dry stone constructions encountered from one area to the other in Amorgos, are apparently due to the different geology of each area. The wider area around Asfontylitis is mainly composed of calcareous stone extending from the north-eastern section of the island to the outskirts of Hora, approximately in the centre.

This is also the most mountainous section, with steep slopes, rocky coasts and numerous cliffs. Across from Agios Pavlos, on the western shores of the island, to the north-west of Asfontylitis, lies the largest of the Amorgos islets, Nikourià with Grambonissi to its south. The terraces, the walls channeling streams, the auxiliary buildings and the threshing-floors are all built in limestone. In relation to the dry stone constructions of Asfontylitis, there are only morphological differences in the threshing-floors due to the slope of the terrain which necessitates the construction of support bases propping up the circular threshing surfaces. In the same area, a narrow paved path winds up the steep side of Mount Profitis Ilias to reach the monastery of Hozoviotissa.

The central section of the island, from Hora to the old town in the location Kastrì, is formed by sandstone schist and limestone. Several settlements can be found in this area due to the fact that the terrain is characterized by shallower slopes, with the collection of rainwater easier. Isolated rural dwellings made in dry stone are scattered across the countryside. In the past, the historian, geographer and writer Antonios Miliarakis considered the large number of these rural dwellings to be a problemviii. In his writings on “Amorgos”, Miliarakis says: “This system, by which inhabitants are scattered in rural dwellings and reside in them over several months or even for the entire year, I criticized in my description of the island of Kea, where I also observed that it prevails. There I mentioned the reasons for which this [practice] should not be encouraged by the municipal authorities; whenever there is no absolute need, it is better to form a full-fledged village. The foremost reason against this system is that in the case of rural dwellings a large number of inhabitants remain over the entire year or for a long period of time far from schools and churches, in an isolated place where the islander and the mainland dweller that finds himself there, become brutalized and wither.” 

A wide range of dry stone constructions can be found in the same area: the usual terraces, walls, small auxiliary buildings, cisterns, threshing-floors and many retaining walls which support the levels on which the various buildings have been built (Fig.8). In the area of Katapolon, where there are cultivated plains, one notices a multitude of fences delimiting ownerships and access. Wherever the terrain slopes steeply, the terraces – several of which are still cultivated – prevail. In contrast, the mountainous massif to the north-west of Hora does not present any interest in terms of dry stone construction as the geo-morphology of the terrain, steeply sloping to the sea, does not favour cultivation or animal grazing.

Fig. 8. Co-existence of various forms of dry-stone constructions and threshing-floors with perimeter delineated by standing slabs. Central section of Amorgos. (1998).

Fig.9. Field wall protecting crops in Exo Merià, the southernmost section of Amorgos. (1998)

The southernmost section, Exo Merià, with its two fertile plains, consists of psammites and limestone. Here there are large areas cultivated with cereals and consequently numerous threshing-floors . The construction of threshing-floors is  particularly plain with paved surfaces and standing slabs around the perimeter, while in many cases their large size is quite impressive. The delineation of the ownership of cereal cultivation is made by means of simple division walls, not very high, with openings that facilitate the transit of animals for ploughing and threshing. The remaining (mainly vine) crops are protected by an impressive grid of, often quite high, walls spreading over a large expanse (Fig.9). 

The rock engravings – The open air museumix

Asfontylitis is the place where a century ago, a crippled boy, Michalis Roussos, started engraving popular artistic scenes of great beauty on to the rocks, . There are more that 300 engravings by Michalis spread all over the place, the houses, the pathways, the well square and on the quoins of the buildings, showing visitors life in this remote village as it used to be some 100 years ago. Working together with the journalist Elias Provopoulos we have managed to publish “An embroidery on the stone, all his life was”x, the first book on history of the rock engravings of Asfontylitis and their creator.

Fig.10. The 19th century rock engravings of Michalis Roussos. (2009).


The most important element in a sustainable approach to the protection and enhancement of the natural and man-made environment of Amorgos is the dense network of paths covering the entire island. The delay in the opening of the main road axis of the island, and its subsequent paving (dating only to the 1980s), contributed to the preservation of old paths which, until that time, were used by the inhabitants of the island. It was quite fortunate that their intrinsic tourism value was understood, with the local community turning its efforts to the development of alternative forms of tourism, such as nature, trekking and mountaineering. As early as the 1980s, the first devoted lovers of the landscape of Amorgos, both Greeks and foreigners, made their appearance: people that systematically choose the island for their holidays, and then made it their summer or permanent residence.

Within this framework was carried out the first recording of the paths resulting in the publication of “Travels in Amorgos” with its five accompanying maps, which refers to six Itinerariesxi of Cultural Interest of the island. The publication was carried out within the framework of the project “Alternative forms of tourism and tracing of itineraries of Cultural Interest – the island of Amorgos”. The project was included in the ROP South Aegean 1994-1999 and was financed by the European Union, the Ministry of the Interior, Public Administration and Decentralization (YP.ES.D.A.A.) and the Municipality of Amorgos. The implementation of the entire project saw the participation of the Region of Southern Aegean, the Prefecture of the Cyclades, the Municipality of Amorgos and the Cyclades Development Company S.A. Once the island’s paths were recorded, it became imperative to preserve them so as to turn them into a focus for visitors.

Within the framework of the valorisation [to give or assign a value to – Ed] of the island’s paths and given its beautiful natural landscape, local administration agencies turned to projects for the preservation of the constructions found along the identified ‘cultural itineraries`, in cooperation with other agencies. As already mentioned, in the island’s hinterland there are numerous, varied dry stone constructions that characterise the landscape. The Hellenic Society for the Protection of the Environment and Cultural Heritage in 2008 completed a survey recording approximately 2,500 monuments of Amorgos’s rural inheritance. Most of these structures are built in dry stone. Among these monuments, water management structures constitute a subcategory of the utmost importance in terms of a sustainable approach to the cultural inheritance of every area (Fig.11).

Fig.11. A complex of dry stone cisterns along an“Itineraryxi of Cultural Interest” in the area of Aegiali. (2010)

The most recent action carried out on the island in this direction was the implementation of the program “Water itinerariesix in Amorgos: traditional management of water resources and their sustainable prospects”, which was part of the program “Sustainable Aegean” of the Hellenic Society for the Protection of the Environment and Cultural Heritage, completed in cooperation with the Local Amorgos Committee of the Society, and the Municipality of Amorgos, with the support of the Prefecture of the Cyclades, and the generous sponsorship of the A.G. Leventis Foundation.

The objectives of the program were :

  • (1) The restoration of historic water features in risk of collapse due to the aging construction and lack of maintenance.
  • (2) The information and awareness-building of the local community in relation to water management issues.

Fig.12. Five of the eight cisterns which were restored at Asfontylitis along the most important cultural itinerary of the island, the “Palià Strata”. (2010)

Within the framework of the program, a Cultural Itineraryxii on “The waters of Amorgos” was organized in Amorgos on 21 November 2009 and a day-conference on “Amorgos – Water itineraries: traditional management of water resources and their sustainable prospects” was held on 22 November 2009. The day-conference was held within the framework of the MEDITERRANEAN ACTION DAY 2009 campaign of MIO-ECSDE, in combination with the program GEWAMED (Mainstreaming Gender Dimension Into Water Resources Development and and Management in the
Mediterranean Region). The Cultural Itinerary tour included a visit to the historic water features of Asfontylitis and Aegiali. The projects implemented in Asfontylitis pertain to the restoration of a complex of eight cisterns, belonging to two different typologies, located along the most important cultural itinerary of the island, the “Palià Strata” (Fig.12). During the visit at Asfontylitis, it was ascertained that a road had recently been opened over the route of the old path which led from the main Aegialì – Hora road, to the small church of Ai Nikolas. For the time being, it is only a dirt road but the imminent paving to facilitate access to the area might create aesthetic problems as well as environmental pollution.


In conclusion, the settlement of Asfontylitis constitutes an integral part of the rocky terrain of Amorgos and of the local tradition of dry stone construction. It is the continuation of the ancient dry stone constructions of Amorgos for the creation of the oktiaxiii. The oktia or ktià in everyday speech are cultivated strips of land, “the very “step fields” whose initial layouts date back to at least the 5th century BC. They are architectural monuments, preserved to a large extent, showing advanced notions of topography and of techniques for the valorization of the natural landscape, configuration of sloped terrains into cultivated terraces, suitable use of stones for construction purposes and control of hydrological data”.xiv

Fig.13. View of the central section of Asfontylitis, dominated by prickly-pear trees. In the foreground a semi-ruined auxiliary building. (1998).

On the opposite side of the oktia one finds Asfontylitis, built on a plateau on the mountain crest rather than on sloped terrain, with a wide range of dry stone buildings, which represent the continuation and the modern version of the same technique of dry-stone construction (Fig.13).

Given that the agencies of the local administration of Amorgos have made evident and substantial efforts to save the island’s cultural and natural wealth, there is hope for the settlement of Asfontylitis. All that is left to do is to try to integrate the settlement into one of the numerous financing programs of the European Union aiming at saving and enhancing dry stone constructions and their construction heritage in the European countries. Given the range of programmes I have seen outlined at international conferences, I remain optimistic. What is now necessary is to mobilize the local administration agencies of the island so that they submit proposals and find partner agencies in other European countries, and organizations such as SPS -International Scientific Society for the Study of dry stone.

I This place-name is found on the sign placed on the spot to inform walkers and travellers. The same place-name is used in modern bibliography and in tourist maps.

ii Amorgianà, Periodic Publication of the Association of Amorgos Natives, History – Literature – Arts, Year I, vol.1ο (May 1995), Athens, pp. 42-43.

iii On the maps of the Hellenic Military Geographical Service.

iv Amorgianà, ibid. Year IV, vol.5ο (May 1998), Athens, p. 80.

v Bent James Theodore, Aegean Islands. (1885), The Cyclades, or Life among the Insular Greeks, New and Enlarged Edition including an introduction to Cycladic Archaeology and Folklore, Bibliography, Appendices and Index by Al. N.
Oikonomides, Argonaut, INC., Publishers, Chicago, MCMLXVI.
See also (Compare) Amorgianà, ibid. Year VI, vol.7ο, (May 2000), Athens, p. 309.
Anastasiou, T. And Nokas-Zografos, I. (2001), A journey to Amorgos, Cultural Travel guide, Syros, p. 45 where the same excerpt is cited in Greek translation.

vi Marangou, L. (1994), New testimonies on the Cycladic civilization in Amorgos, Ioannina, pt. 41. Marangou, L. (1990), Cycladic idol from Minoas, Amorgos, Archaeological Review, vol. 129, pt. 86.

vii Amorgianà, ibid., Year II, vol.3ο , (May 1996), Athens, p. 47.

viii Amorgianà, ibid., Year I, vol.1ο , (March 1995), Athens. This volume is dedicated to the literary work of Antonios Miliarakis “Amorgos”, first published in the Bulletin of the Historical and Ethnological Society, volume Α΄ (1883), Athens, pp. 569-656. Two other publications followed in Athens (1884) and Chicago, USA (1928). Pages 42-43 refer to the rural dwellings of Amorgos. See also footnote ii.

ix This paragraph is from Asfondilitis: A dreamy drystone settlement on Amorgos Island. Vivianna A Metallinou. Architect, Historian of Environment, Thessaloniki Greece. From paper to 2012 SPS Congress, Sardinia. Fig.13. View of the central section of Asfontylitis, dominated by prickly-pear trees. In the foreground a semi-ruined auxiliary building. (1998).13

x Elias Provopoulos, 2010, “Asfontylitis: An embroidery on the stone all his life was” The life and the work of Michalis Roussos. Little Countries Edition, Amorgos 2010

xi “Itinerary” here means the suggested path or road, to visit an area, from one point to another..

xii [Ed… Cultural Itinerary seems to be some sort of ‘ethnographical speak’. As far as I can work out a cultural itinerary is an ethnographical route or interaction involving different cultures or communities and heritages. So interactions along the old ‘silk road’ would be (or could form part of) cultural itineraries, as would the development of villages or even individual structures along a local path. But I could be wrong!

xiii Amorgianà, ibid., Year III, vol.4ο , (April 1997), Athens, p. 82.

xiv Anastasiou, Τ. (1995), Amorgos-– Historical memory – Touring, Travel Guide, Ermoupolis, p. 46.

Our thanks to Ioulia (Julia) Papaeftychiou K. PhD. Architect. N.T.U.A. (National Technical University of Athens) for giving us permission to republish the article which was published in Issue No.29 of Stonechat (Summer 2013).

This article was first published in Stonechat 29, Summer 2013