Route 1: Sailing the Mystery Islands
“They’ve vanished in a moment!
To Samothrace they’re bent,
Gone, with a favourable breeze.
What is it they think they’ll see,
In the realm of the noble Cabeiri?
They’re gods! But wondrously strange,
Always causing their forms to change,
Never knowing what they might be.
Stay at your clear height,
Sweet Luna, graceful light,
So we’ll remain nocturnal,
Not chased by the diurnal!”
Goethe, Faust, Act II, Scene V, 1832
In this nautical route, we follow the breeze of Meltemi and we sail to the Mystery Islands of the Northeastern Aegean. These four islands –Samothraki (Greece), Gökçeada/Imbros (Turkey), Bozcaada/Tenedos (Turkey) and Lemnos (Greece) - formed the religious core of the most obscure mysteries of antiquity, the Cabeirian Mysteries.
The Cabeiri were cryptic ancient gods of pre-Greek origin who were associated with chthonic mysteries and considered protectors of the navigators. They were being venerated in Lemnos, Samothraki, Imbros and maybe also Tenedos. These are the Mystery Islands of the northeastern Aegean that we are going to explore in our three-day cruise. Ancient ruins, mystical cults, natural landscapes of unparalleled beauty and of course water sports, constitute some of the major characteristics of this nautical route. We will be departing from Surf Club Keros in the island of Lemnos and sail to our first stop, the mysterious Samothraki.
Seafarers since antiquity were always guided by the gigantic size of the tallest mountain of the Aegean. Mount Fengari –which means moon in Greek- dominates the northeastern Aegean with its 1611 meters and provides shelter to many wild animals, birds and ancient cults. While approaching the island, we are having the same feeling with the mystics who gathered to this eerie place, in order to be initiated to the most strange mysteries of the ancient world, the Cabeirian mysteries. After anchoring in the safe port of Kamariotissa or Therma, we will be visiting (bus or taxi needed) the archaeological site of Paleopolis with its amazing ancient temple, which is dedicated to the Great Gods or Cabeiri. The Sanctuary of the Great Gods is located in a wooded ravine on the foothills of Mount Fengari. Even though we do not know many details about the initiation ceremonies and the nature of these bizarre gods, we can tell that they were protectors of the sailors and navigators, related also with the earth and metallurgy, comprising a paradox mixture of pre-hellenic and Greek doctrines. The mysteries, second only in importance after those of Eleusis, were, strangely enough for ancient standards, open to everybody. Free men, women, slaves –even kids- were traveling on the wild sea to stand in front of these still standing ancient columns and wait for their initiation ritual. The priests were putting out all the lights of the islands, chanting and sacrificing to the lords of the sea, the Great Gods. It is said that the pilgrims were tying a purple scarf in their waist before the initiation. What was being revealed to them? No one can tell, because they were taking an oath of silence and there was a severe punishment in store if they violated it. Some sources mention that all the unanswered questions were being unveiled in front of the eyes of the pilgrims. The way of man, our purpose in life, the meaning of our destiny, birth and death were explained symbolically by the ancient priests. So, in any case, bring your purple scarf with you and maybe the Great Gods will show you the way; after all, we are modern seafarers and they are the protectors of people like us!
It was the 15th of April of the year 1865, when the archaeological mission of the French consul of Edirne and amateur archaeologist, Charles Champoiseau, heard one of his Greek workers shouting at him:
-Monsieur, we have just found a woman….
Champoiseau ran to the south part of the Sanctuary of the Great Gods, just above the ruins of the ancient theater, and remained speechless because at that moment he was beholding a statue that would become one of the most famous masterpieces of art in the whole world. The Nike of Samothraki had just been discovered (see ).
This statue of a winged Victory(Nike) who is coming from the sky and landing on the prow of an ancient trireme is dated in the 2nd century BC and is considered by many scholars and archaeologists as the greatest masterpiece of Hellenistic sculpture. Today, together with the Venus of Milo and Mona Lisa, they are Louvre’s most popular exhibits. But it was found here, in this remote island of the northeastern Aegean next to the temple of the mysterious Cabiri.
A visit to Samothraki holds many surprises for the visitor. Dozens of waterfalls with their crystal clear –and also frozen- water are springing from the dark mass of the Fengari Mountain. The most famous is the waterfall in the gorge of Fonias -Greek word for murderer- a place of unparalleled beauty but as its name suggests, visitors must be very careful when hiking. Swim at Kipos beach, lie on the dark pebbles and admire the view of Gökçeada/Imbros, which is our next stop to our trip to the Mystery Islands, as you face south.
Now there is a certain huge cavern in the depths of the sea midway between and rocky Imbros;
“here Poseidon lord of the earthquake stayed his horses, unyoked them, and set before them their ambrosial forage.
He hobbled their feet with hobbles of gold which none could either unloose or break, so that they might stay there in that place until their lord should return.
This done he went his way to the host of the Achaeans.”
Homer, Iliad, XIII, 8th century BC
Gökçeada or Imbros (as the island is still called in Greek) is the largest island of Turkey and simultaneously the westernmost point of the country. In Turkish, the meaning of the word Gökçeada is the “celestial island”! Together with its neighboring Bozcaada/Tenedos, they were the only islands to be conceded to Turkey after the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne that ended the Greek-Turkish war of the early 1920s. The Greek Orthodox inhabitants of these two islands were exempted from the exchange of populations that followed the armed conflict between the two countries. The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople was born in the village Zeytinli/Hagios Theodoros in 1940.
The ancient geographer Strabo mentions that the Great Gods were also honored in Imbros, while other authors who are supporting this view inform us that the island was regarded as sacred for the cult of the Cabiri and Hermes/Mercury. During its long-lasting history, Imbros changed many rulers, from ancient Greeks to the Romans, Byzantines to Genoese and Venetians to Ottomans. It played also an important role during the Great War because of its proximity to the Dardanelles and its strategic position in the passage to the Sea of Marmara. It became known to a broader English speaking audience when Patrick Shaw Stewart, a young British soldier and author that we are going to meet also in our route “Remembering the Ghosts of the Great War”, wrote his famous poem Achilles in the Trench, while he was at Imbros during World War I.
Most of the villages are located on the hills of the island including the old Greek settlements of the 19th and 20th centuries. We will be approaching the island from the north and we are resting in the nice port of Kalekӧy/Kastro that was constructed by engineers of the French Navy during the occupation of Gökçeada in the course of WWI. Climbing up the hill we can wander around the ruins of the island’s former cathedral of Hagia Marina and the medieval castle that stands over the settlement, a melancholic reminder of a lost era. The enormous sandy beach of Aydincik/Kefalos located in the south part of the island is the ideal place for water sports and maritime activities before sailing for our next destination, the idyllic little island of Bozcaada/Tenedos.