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My Favourite Planet > English > Europe > Greece > Dodecanese > Kastellorizo
Kastellorizo, Greece A brief history of Kastellorizo   page 2
Kastellorizo island at dawn

View of the north of Kastellorizo at dawn from the Turkish resort of Kaş.
See our Kastellorizo photo gallery
which has 260 pages of photos and information
about the island's sights, historical and modern.
Kastellorizo's remoteness, diminutive size and rocky landscape forced its inhabitants from it earliest history to seek their living at sea as traders, fishermen and sponge divers. Little is known of the Minoans and later Doric Greeks who lived here or their relations with the Lycians who controlled the southwest corner of the Anatolian mainland, just 2.5 kilometres away, and who had a distinctly different culture and language.

The island's deep, well sheltered bay made it an ideal trading post and stop-off for ships from Greece and beyond carrying out commercial and military expeditions to Asia, Cyprus, the Levant and Egypt. The harbour and its strategic position also made it the target over the centuries for a long succession of forces which have attempted to control the sea routes between the Aegean and the east and west Mediterrranean, a situation that has caused at least as much grief as gain for the island's inhabitants.

Few details are known of Kastellorizo's early history, since the archaeological evidence is thin and it is mentioned only briefly by ancient and Medieval authors and records. The Greek geographer Strabo (64/63 BC - circa 24 AD) referred to the largest island on the Lycian coast as Kisthene (Κισθήνη), "on which is a city of the same name". [1] Although no later authors refer to the island by this name, some modern scholars have suggested that Megiste may have also been known as Kisthene. [2] Aischylos' play Prometheus Bound, written around 430 BC, names Kisthene as the home of the Gorgons and the Graiae. [3]

An ancient Doric inscription beneath a wall of the 3rd century BC Paleokastro (Παλαιόκαστρο, old castle), first reported by Charles Robert Cockerell (1788-1863), confirms its name as Megiste (Μεγίστη) [4], as mentioned by Ptolemy, Pliny the Elder, Livy, Stephanus of Byzantium and Pseudo-Skylax. In his History of Rome, Titus Livius (Livy) noted that the harbour of Megiste was large enough to contain a whole fleet during the Roman-Seleucid War (192-188 BC) [5]. Later, however, Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) reported that the city "no longer exists", perhaps having been destroyed or abandoned during one of the many wars in the area. [6]

During the second millenium BC the Greeks ventured ever further around the Aegean Sea and into the Eastern Mediterranean, and conflicts between Greeks and the various peoples of Anatolia (Asia Minor) during the Bronze Age are thought to have provided ancient authors such as Homer with material for tales of the Trojan War. By around 1000 BC Aeolian and Ionian Greeks were colonizing areas along the west coast of Anatolia (see History of Pergamon and History of Ephesus), and the Dorian Greeks founded cities further south in Caria (see Herodotus and Panyassis of Halicarnassus), either displacing or co-existing with local populations. However, it appears that they were unable to gain a foothold in Lycia, which remained fiercely independent.

The Lydian king Croesus, who conquered Greek cities of western Anatolia in the mid 6th century BC, was also unable to subdue the Lycians. He made the grave error of attacking the Persian Empire, and in return Cyrus II (the Great) of Persia marched into his territories and defeated him in 547-546 BC. After taking the Greek cities, Cyrus' general Harpagos conquered Lycia, despite ferocious resistance, during which the inhabitants of the Lycian capital Xanthos are said to have killed their own women and children and destroyed their valuables before making a suicidal attack on the much larger beseiging army.

Lycia remained part of the Persian Empire, ruled by satraps (local governors), until the arrival of Alexander the Great who conquered the area in 333 BC. After Alexander's death in 323 BC, the control of Lycia was contested by his successors (the Diadochi), finally coming under the rule of the Ptolemies of Egypt, then the Seleucids. In 177 BC the Lycian cities were occupied by Rhodes, but given their freedom by the Romans in 167 BC. Megiste was absorbed into the Roman Empire, the eastern part of which became what is today known as the Byzantine Empire.

In the 7th century AD Arab raids devastated many settlements in the area, and those who were not able to escape were killed or enslaved. Later the Byzantine Empire was weakened by attacks on its territories by various forces, including Slavs, Mongols, Mamluks, Seljuk Turks and then the Ottomans. Several western European states, nobles, disparate groups and loose alliances, including popes, orders of crusading knights, England, France, Naples, Aragon, Catalans, Sicilians, Germans, Venetians and Genoese competed and sometimes collaborated to grab eastern Mediterranean Byzantine and later Ottoman territories for political, religious and commercial reasons.

With so many players and so much military and political activity, territories being conquered, reconquered and changing hands several times, the chronology of events becomes confused. The few historical documents from this time which mention the island - reports, decrees, letters, etc - are often vague and sometimes contradict one another. Some of the dates extrapolated by modern historians therefore vary considerably.

In 1306 Foulques de Villaret (died 1327), the 25th Grand Master of the crusading Knights of Saint John (the Knights Hospitaller), with help of the Genoese, captured Megiste as part of his campaign to conquer Rhodes. Having lost their strongholds in the Holy Land and Cyprus, the knights managed to capture Rhodes in 1310 and made it their new centre of operations, with outposts on other islands, including Megiste, as well as Halicarnassus further north. They built the Knights' Castle (the Castle of the Knights of Saint John) of the reddish stone that was to lend the island the name Castellorizo (from Italian, Castelrosso, Red Castle). Villaret and most of the Knights of Saint John were French, so it is unlikely that they referred to the island by this name.

The knights faced several attempts to drive them out of the Mediterranean, and in 1444 a fleet from Egypt sent by the Mamluk sultan Sayf-ad-Din Jaqmaq, also known as Al-Zahir (reigned 1438-1453), devastated Kastellorizo and other settlements in the Dodecanese during his unsuccessful attempt to take Rhodes. Despite this failure, the knights' position was weakened and they lost control of Kastellorizo.

In 1450 it was taken by Alfonso V of Aragon, the king of Naples, and run by a Catalan governor who rebuilt the castle. Over the next century it was successively controlled by Aragon (Spain), Naples, the Ottomans and Venice. The castle was destroyed again during the brief Venetian occupation. By 1686 the Ottomans were in control again, and during the ensuing peace the island was repopulated by Greeks from Anatolia.

Kastellorizians took part in the Greek War of Independence and had a brief taste of freedom between 1828 and 1833, but the island was retaken by the Ottomans. During the Ottoman occupation the islanders built commercial and cultural links with other islands and Greek settlements along the Anatolian coast, and Kastellorizo became a thriving, prosperous port (see below), which by the late 19th century had over 10,000 inhabitants. However, the wars of the 20th century (the Balkan Wars and World War I) and the subsequent Italian take-over of the Dodecanese islands, including Kastellorizo, from 1912 did much to disrupt these important ancient ties.

In 1915, during World War I, allied troops landed on Kastellorizo provoking the Turks to shell the island. From 1915 to 1921 it was occupied by France, but handed back to Italy following the Treaty of Sèvres, signed in 1920, which confirmed the Italian claim to the Dodecanese islands based on their victory in the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-1912.

Towards the end of World War II British forces took control of the island from the Italians and evacuated the inhabitants to Egypt. During their absence German bombing on 17th October 1943 and a catastrophic fire on 6th July 1944 destroyed most the houses in the island's only settlement.

The island officially became part of Greece in 1948, but by that time many Kastellorizans had already decided to emigrate, mostly to Australia, leaving a few hundred to rebuild their lives in the shattered town and carry on the local lifestyle and traditions. Emigration had actually started in the late 19th century when, as in the the rest of the Mediterranean, people left for the Americas and Australia to escape strife, oppression and poverty in search of better opportunities.

Today Kastellorizo is an easy-going island, and the compact harbour village is slowly growing, and even thriving despite the hardships caused by the Greek economic crisis. It has friendly relations with its Turkish neighbours, and welcomes Venetians, Catalans, Arragonians, Genoese ...

National Greek flag at My Favourite Planet
Symbol of Kastellorizo island, Greece


Kastellorizo photo gallery at My Favourite Planet

photo gallery

with 260 pages
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Detailed maps of Kastellorizo island, Greece at My Favourite Planet

maps of

including a large
detailed map
of the island.
Maps of Kastellorizo in the Dodecanese islands at My Favourite Planet

Map showing the position of Kastellorizo
in relation to Rhodes in the Dodecanese
and the Lycian coast of Turkey.

Larger maps of Kastellorizo are on page 9,
including a detailed map of the island.

See also our interactive map of Greece.
A visit to Kastellorizo, April 1840
A sketch of Kastellorizo, April 1840 at My Favourite Planet

A sketch of Kastellorizo made during the visit to the island
by Charles Fellows and George Scharf in April 1840.

The windmill can be seen on the east (right) side of
the hill, below the Castle of the Knights of Saint John.
The British archaeologist Charles Fellows (1799-1860) travelled through southwestern Anatolia in 1838 and again in 1840, 1842 and 1843, discovering and exploring a number of ancient Lycian cities, most notably Xanthos, which he described as "my favourite city", and from where he later took artefacts, including the surviving parts of the famous Nereid Monument, for the British Museum (see Museum boom part 1 at The Cheshire Cat Blog). He mentioned Kastellorizo as an "important island" and its proximity to Antiphellos (Kaş) in the journal of his first journey:

"April 18th. This morning we continued the ascent for two hours, and, after passing some richly wooded ravines, we rapidly descended upon the singularly beautiful but wild and barren neighbourhood of Antiphellus, an active little trading harbour for firewood, containing two or three houses for official persons, and one or two boats to communicate with the important island of Castellorizzo, a few miles from the shore. The ancient town of Antiphellus stood on a finely situated promontory, which still presents a theatre, foundations of temples, and other buildings; but the chief objects of interest in the place are the tombs, which are very numerous, and of the largest kind that I have seen."

Charles Fellows, A journal written during an excursion in Asia Minor, 1838, page 219. John Murray, London, 1839. At the Internet Archive.

On his second journey, made under the auspices of the British Museum, he was accompanied by the artist George Scharf (1820-1895), who later became the director of the National Portrait Gallery, London. In April 1840 they rode to Antiphellos, and on the 24th sailed over to Kastellorizo.

Like many travellers before and since, Fellows, as he admitted himself, carried his prejudices with his luggage, but seems to have enjoyed his short visit to the island, and expressed admiration for the Greeks who lived there, "such an intelligent-looking assemblage of people, both male and female". He described the port itself as a thriving and growing town, while at that time Antiphellos consisted of "only three or four houses and a custom-house".

The fact that Fellows and Scharf had to sail to Kastellorizo to buy supplies underlines its importance to the local economy at the time, and indicates how remote the farming villages of mainland Lycia were, and in some respects still are today, even though Kaş now has much more to offer shoppers than the island. This role reversal has only occurred over the last twenty years, as Kaş has grown from a sleepy village into the area's largest tourist resort.

The sketches above and below, made during their visit to the island, appear in Fellows' journal of his second journey. He kept sketchbooks of his journeys, and wrote that he made the drawings illustrating the text of the first journal. However, he did not make clear whether these particular sketches were drawn by him or were by Scharf, who he had engaged as an artist to record the voyage.

Fellows' journal entry, written in Antiphellos on 25th April 1840, the day after his visit to the island:

"Yesterday we went to the island of Kastelorizo, to lay in stores and to refit ourselves with supplies; the distance may be five or six miles from the shore. The town – for it really deserves the name – consists probably of six or eight hundred houses, all built upon one model, being formed like cubes, with two or three open square windows in the front of each, and a door at the back. These are built up the side of a steep rock, and, viewed together, are more singular-looking than picturesque. An old castle of the middle ages crowns the rock, and gives a character to the city.

On landing in this island, the effect was that of visiting a new country: hundreds of Greeks were crowding about the little quay and coffee-houses; wine was being retailed from the cask in the dirty narrow streets; scarcely a dog was to be seen, and pigs supplied their place. We were told that there were five Turks only in the town, the whole population being Greek. A number of small vessels filled the harbour; boats were building, houses rising rapidly, and the whole population seemed active and enterprising: it is quite delightful to see such an intelligent-looking assemblage of people, both male and female, in this busy scene; but a host of pure and simple feelings pass from the mind, and are succeeded by caution and worldliness, which are seldom sufficient to compete with the cunning of the Greek.

This is a metropolis of trade for the whole of the south-western coast: all provisions, and even coins and treasures of every kind discovered by the peasants, find a ready market here. I have obtained several coins, just brought from the valley of the Xanthus, and also saw some singular gems, but the devices were probably more illustrative of the whims of their former owners than of history.

The island of Kastelorizo, which was the ancient Megiste, is perfectly barren of natural supplies; even the water for the use of the town is collected in large tanks, about a mile up the mountain, whence it is carried by the women, who are continually passing and repassing in most classic groups, with pitchers slung over their shoulders.
A Kastellorizian woman wearing traditional costume and jewellery at My Favourite Planet

A drawing of a Kastellorizian woman wearing her
traditional costume and jewellery, from Fellows' journal.

See photos of local costumes on gallery pages 169-173.
The jewelry of these people is particularly interesting, being precisely the same as that seen upon the statues of the ancients. I wished much to purchase a bracelet or armlet, but could not obtain any; they are handed down as heir-looms, and, should an additional one be required, it is made expressly from these models, but they are never kept for sale: by this mode the pattern is perpetuated, and I feel certain that we here see the models of the ornaments of the ancient Greeks: several of these are often seen worn on the same arm, serving as the quartering in an heraldic shield, to register the families centered in the living heiress.

The jewels, or rather gold ornaments, are often thus accumulated to a great value; some of the people we saw with their savings'-bank, if I may use the expression, around their necks, in twenty or forty piastre-pieces of modern Turkish gold – some chains containing the current value of above a hundred pounds. But the characteristic ornament of the peasantry of this island is a row of large fibulae or broaches, of chased silver, three inches in diameter, placed one below the other, from the throat to the waist, which is very low; the rest of the dress is, as I have before described, purely classic in all its forms.

Leaving the path which leads to the fountains, we ascended the heights above the town, to seek the ruins of the city of the early inhabitants of Megiste: some fine Cyclopean walls scattered about the top point out the site, but no further remains are to be traced.

A brisk gale carried us back in less than an hour to our abode at Antiphellus, or, as the little Scala is now called by the Turks, Andiffelo. It consists of only three or four houses and a custom-house."

Charles Fellows, An Account of Discoveries in Lycia, being a Journal kept during a Second Excursion in Asia Minor, pages 187-190. John Murray, London, 1841. At the Internet Archive.
Notes, references and links

1. Strabo on Kastellorizo

Strabo (Στράβων, Strabon; 64/63 BC – circa 24 AD), Greek geographer, philosopher and historian from Amaseia in Pontus (today Amasya, Turkey).

"Next is Myra, at the distance of 20 stadia from the sea, situated upon a lofty hill; then the mouth of the river Limyrus, and on ascending from it by land 20 stadia, we come to the small town Limyra. In the intervening distance along the coast above mentioned are many small islands and harbours. The most considerable of the islands is Cisthene, on which is a city of the same name. In the interior are the strongholds Phellus, Antiphellus and Chimaera, which I mentioned above."

H. C. Hamilton and W. F. Falconer (translators), The Geography of Strabo, Volume III (of 3), Book 14, chapter 3, section 7. George Bell & Sons, London, 1903. At Perseus Digital Library.

The passage has been translated by others in different ways, including: "Among others is Megiste an island, and a city of the same name, and Cisthene". In all the original Greek manuscripts it appears:

"ὧν καὶ μεγίστη νῆσος καὶ παὶ πόλις ὁμώνυμος, ἡ κισθήνη."

2. Leake on Kisthene

The suggestion that Megiste may have been known in earlier times as Kisthene was first made by the British antiquarian and topographer William Martin Leake (1777-1860).


William Martin Leake, Journal of a tour in Asia Minor, pages 183-184. John Murray, London, 1824. At the Internet Archive.

John Anthony Cramer, A geographical and historical description of Asia Minor, Volume 2, page 251. Oxford University Press, 1832.

3. Aischylos on Kisthene

Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, lines 780-818, translated by Herbert Weir Smyth. Harvard University Press. 1926. At Perseus Digital Library.

There was another city named Kisthene on the coast of Mysia, northwest of Pergamon. See:

Strabo, Geography, Book 13, chapter 1. At Perseus Digital Library.

See the quote from the play and discussion on the home of the Gorgons
on the Gorgon Medusa page of the MFP People section.

4. Cockerell on Megiste

The inscription discovered by Cockerell was published by Leake in Journal of a tour in Asia Minor, pages 183-184 [see note 2 above].


The inscription can still be seen on a natural rock outcrop below the Castle of the Knights of Saint John. It has not been dated, but is thought to be from the 4th-3rd century BC, when Megisti was part of the Rhodian Peraia.

According to Leake's rendering it is a dedication to Hermas Propylaios at a tower on Megisti by Sosikles Nikatora of Samos. A later interpretation gives the dedicator as Sosikles Nikagoras of Amos (Σωσικλῆς Νικαγόρα{ς} Ἄμιος), epistates in Kastabos and Megista. Amos (Ἄμος) was a coastal settlement of the Rhodian Peraia in Caria (near the modern town of Turunç, Turkey).

Σωσικλῆς Νικαγόρα{ς}
Ἄμιος ἐπιστατήσας
ἔν τε Καστάβ<ω>ι καὶ
ἐπὶ τοῦ πύργου τοῦ ἐν Με-
γίσται, Ἑρμᾶι προπυ-
λαίωι χαριστήριον

See: Rhodian Peraia 58. At (The Packard Humanities Institute), which provides the following references: CIG 4301; LW 1268; Holleaux, BCH 18, 1894, 390-395; van Gelder, Mnemosyne 24, 1896, 249, no. 29; *SGDI 4332; van Gelder, Geschichte 446, no. 32a.

Cockerell's own brief account of his visit to Kastellorizo appears in:

Travels in Southern Europe and the Levant, 1810-1817: the Journal of C. R. Cockerell, R. A., edited by his son Samuel Pepys Cockerell, pages 164-165. Longmans, Green and Co., London, 1903. At the Internet Archive.

5. Livy on Megiste

Titus Livius (64 or 59 BC - 17 AD), in Book 37 of his The History of Rome (Ab Urbe Condita Libri, Books from the Foundation of the City, written 27-9 BC), describes events of the the Roman-Seleucid War (192-188 BC) between Rome allied with Eumenes II of Pergamon against Antiochus III the Great, ruler of the Seleucid Empire. Various manoeuvres on land and sea eventually led to the defeat of Antiochus at the Battle of Magnesia, fought near Magnesia ad Sipylum (today Manisa, Turkey) in 190 BC.

"It was then resolved that Eumenes should return home, and make every necessary preparation for the passage of the consul and his army over the Hellespont; and that the Roman and Rhodian fleets should sail back to Samos, and remain stationed there, that Polyxenidas might not make any movement from Ephesus. The king returned to Elaea, the Romans and Rhodians to Samos.

There, Marcus Aemilius, brother of the praetor, died. After his obsequies were performed, the Rhodians sailed, with thirteen of their own ships, one Coan, and one Cnidian quinquereme, to Rhodes, in order that they might take up a position there, against a fleet which was reported to be coming from Syria.

Two days before the arrival of Eudamus and the fleet from Samos, another fleet of thirteen ships, under the command of Pamphilidas, had been sent out against the same Syrian fleet; and taking with them four ships, which had been left to protect Caria, they relieved from blockade Daedala, and several other fortresses of Peraea, which the king's troops were besieging.

It was determined that Eudamus should put to sea directly, and an addition of six undecked ships was made to his fleet. He accordingly set sail; and using all possible expedition, overtook the first squadron at a port called Megiste, from whence they proceeded in one body to Phaselis, resolving to wait there for the enemy."

William A. McDevitte (translator), Titus Livius, The history of Rome, Book 37, chapter 22. Henry G. Bohn, London, 1850. At Perseus Digital Library.

6. Pliny on Megiste

"Further on we find Leucolla with its town, the Pactyae, Lasia, Nymphais, Macris, and Megista, the city on which last no longer exists. After these there are many that are not worthy of notice."

Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Book 5, chapter 35. At Perseus Digital Library.
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