Last Saturday was doubly festive for the beautiful island of Sikinos. Episkopi, the most important monument of the place and one of the most important in the archipelago, was handed over to the public in an afternoon  ceremony in the presence of the Minister of Culture and Sports, Linas Mendonis, and the regional governor of the South Aegean, George Hatzimarkos. A little later,in situ, the Ministry of Culture and the Hellenic Society for the  Environment and Cultural Heritage – the official representative of Europa Nostra in Greece – awarded the monument’s restoration project by the Cyclades Ephorate of Antiquities with the Europa Nostra Award 2022. The events were honoured  by the presence of the President of the Republic, Katerina Sakellaropoulou.

The study for the monument’s restoration was undertaken by the scientific staff of the Cyclades Ephorate of Antiquities, a project supported by the Hellenic Society for the Environment and Cultural Heritage and by the A.&M Martinou Foundation with the financing of the static and geotechnical study. The overall restoration project was funded by the European Regional Development Fund and the Region of South Aegean. Dimitris Athanasoulis, head of the Cyclades Ephorate of Antiquities, who had the idea for the restoration and who, together with the staff of the Ephorate, carried out a particularly demanding project in a monument that remained closed for decades, spoke to the Athens and  Macedonia News Agency.

“I personally monitor all the restoration works we carry out in the Cyclades Ephorate, but I have been even more closely associated  with Episkopi because,on becoming head of the Ephorate, it was the first proposal I made for the restoration of a work  in the Cyclades. I knew the monument and its importance since the 1990s, so when I became in charge of the Ephorate, even though there were no studies, we decided to propose its restoration. In addition to the historical and archaeological value of a monument that has been standing for 1,800 years, Episkopi has a special significance due to its timeless relationship with the people of Sikinos , as it was the symbol of their community. When its use changed and from being an ancient mausoleum it became a church, the locals constantly took care of its maintenance over the centuries to prevent it from collapsing. This is how this amazing palimpsest was created”,said  the head of  the Cyclades Ephorate.

As D. Athanasoulis explained: “For the last 60 years, the monument has been closed because it was close to collapse, resulting in a great monument not being accessible to the public and the community of Sikinos having lost its point of reference, the symbol of its identity. It is almost 60 years since the festivities of the Fifteenth of August were last held there! For me, the most important thing is that the Cyclades Ephorate managed to give an island off the beaten track a monument of huge symbolic significance for its inhabitants”, he added.

The monument’s restoration was also of particular scientific importance. “On the one hand because the remote location of the monument and its state of disrepair made the restoration work itself a big challenge. On the other hand, because the interventions in Episkopi yielded valuable archaeological information on the monument’s history which is a palimpsest of Greek history from antiquity to the present, of Sikinos and the archipelago in general. It was a complex work, which is why the entire team that worked on the project, now successfully completed ,was overjoyed for winning, justly I believe, the Europa Nostra award”, explained D. Athanasoulis, who monitored and directed the project, constantly commuting to the remote island over the past five years.

The monument of Episkopi on Sikinos, one of the smaller islands of the Cyclades, is a mausoleum from Roman times that was rebuilt in the 3rd century AD. and has been preserved until today almost intact due to its conversion into a Byzantine church with uninterrupted use. The ancient building combines successive modifications from the Middle Ages and modern times, offering a unique palimpsest of historical periods rarely preserved in other examples of ancient monuments.The archaeological research that took place during the restoration of the monument enriched our knowledge of funerary monuments of the Roman period in the Eastern Mediterranean region, as well as of the construction of Byzantine churches in the Cyclades. During the restoration work of Episkopi, valuable evidence of the past was revealed, such as inscriptions and fragments of Roman and Byzantine frescoes, for the preservation of which a microclimate monitoring system was installed. The most important find was the hermetically sealed, undisturbed burial of an aristocratic woman named “Neiko” with findings that revealed superstitions and necrophobic views.

Severely damaged by devastating earthquakes and human interventions over the centuries, the monument was abandoned in the 20th century. In 2016, the Ephorate of Antiquities of Cyclades decided to restore it and have it reopened for the public. As the Jury of the Europa Nostra Award noted “this project combined methodical research with meticulous conservation resulting in a high-quality restoration of the monument. Episkopi is an excellent cultural landmark of which the small island community is particularly proud. During the restoration works on the monument, reuse of original architectural members was aimed at as much as possible, as well as incorporating stones collected from the surroundings. The combination of architectural elements of a Roman-era mausoleum with those of a Byzantine church create a unique monument that is simply breathtaking.”

There will be a permanent guard at the archaeological site of Episkopi, Sikinos. Every fifteenth of August, the great festival in honour of the Panaghia will be revived, and cultural events will be held in collaboration with the Cyclades Ephorate.

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