Samos Island

Samos Coast

Samos Coast

Lying in the eastern Aegean Sea and off the coast of Turkey is an unassuming Greek island called Samos. It could be easily dismissed as just another beautiful Greek island, abundant with lush olive groves and secluded bays, but Samos has a surprising history and a legacy that every British GCSE student can appreciate.

With such a strategically important position Samos’ history has been somewhat turbulent, but loyally Greek. The island has been ruled by a number of different empires, and after the fall of the Byzantine Empire and a number of earthquakes the island was left virtually empty by the start of the sixteenth century. Samos was slowly re-inhabited which resulted in many towns adopting names related to its populations’ place of origin. However the island’s national identity developed into aligning itself with Greece. This meant that the condition of the London Treaty of 1830, that brought an end to the Greek War of Independence but gave Samos over to the Ottoman Empire, was strongly opposed in Samos. A revolutionary movement reached its peak in 1912 and Samos was officially united with Greece in 1913.

With such an unsettled history it’s surprising that so many features from Samos’ ancient past still survive. These include the ruins of the temple of Hera at Ireon and the tunnel of Eupalinos near the town of Pythagoreion, both declared UNESCO world heritage sites in 1992. Samos is said to be the birthplace of the Greek goddess Hera, and the site of her ancient temple dates back to the eighth century BC and was later also the site of a Christian basilica. Most of the sites artefacts are in the Archaeological Museum in Samos’ modern capital, Vathy, though other artefacts are also housed in Pythagorio’s Archaeological Museum.

The Eupalinos tunnel was rediscovered in the nineteenth century and is a popular tourist attraction today. It dates back to the sixth century BC and is an astounding piece of Ancient engineering. Acting as an underground aqueduct, it was designed to transport fresh water from an inland spring to the ancient coastal capital, today called Pythagorio. What is notable about this tunnel, apart from its ancient origins, is that is one of only two that are known to have been dug out from both ends to meet in the middle, and was the first to do so with a geometric approach. Commissioned by Samos’ tyrant leader, Polycrates, the tunnel was designed by Eupalino from Megara, and took ten years to build. Its achievement was even acknowledged by the ancient historian Herotodus.

Pythagoras Monument in Pythagorio

Pythagoras Monument in Pythagorio

Though these ancient echoes invite interested modern visitors, Samos is most famous for one of its Ancient Greek sons, Pythagoras. Pythagoras was born in Samos in 580 BC and was a philosopher and Mathematician. His triangle theorem, regarding right-angled triangles, is still an important part of GCSE maths courses in Britain. Pythagoras didn’t stay in Samos but his link is greatly celebrated, the town of Pythagorio is named after him and has a commemorative monument. Furthermore the ‘Just Cup’, reported to be a design by Pythagoras as he got fed up with the inaccuracy of measurements, are on sale throughout the island.

Like most of the Greek islands, tourism is important to their economy, and Samos’ legacy to the history of science is at the heart of its offer to tourists today. I’ve only covered a small part, and among the numerous small towns there are a number of museums dedicated to all sorts of topics. These include the Natural History Museum, the Folklore Museum and the Museum of Wine. With such a glorious climate and such friendly and generous inhabitants I would heartily recommend a visit.

View from Pythagorio with Greek flag

View from Pythagorio with Greek flag

Island of Samos, Northern Aegean

This article has been superseded by a more up-to-date article by Kathleen McIlvenna at

Island of Samos

Island of Samos by hofman01. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

This is the island of philosopher/mathematician Pythagoras and of Aristarchus, who lived 300 years later, when Samos was under control of first the Egyptians and later the Syrians; he is famous for being the first proponent of a heliocentric system of planets and stars. The island is physically attractive, with a backbone of mountains reaching to nearly 5,000 feet (1,500 m) above sea level. There are wooded pine forests on the mountain slopes, vineyards below, and sandy coves for bathing at the seashore. The island has been less spoiled by tourism than many others. We can still see islanders tending herds of goats or carting their produce to market on the backs of donkeys.

The ancient capital of Samos, formerly Tigani, was renamed Pythagorio in 1955, in honor of the island’s famous native son. There is a tiny museum in the town hall, space shared with the mayor’s offices, but nothing within is about Pythagoras-all we have is his bust on a pedestal outside. An adjacent street is named for Aristarchus, but there are no plaques to proclaim his espousal of heliocentricity or to explain how he came to the idea. All we can do is to wander around the island, imagining the astronomer doing likewise, dreaming up new geometrical methods for measuring distances and sizes of the objects he saw in skies. Strangely enough, our imagination gets some help, for on a hill above Pythagorio is the Tunnel of Eupalinus, 3,385 feet (1,026 m) in length and tall enough for a man to stand within it. It was built during the reign of the island’s most ambitious ruler, polycrates, not long after the time of Pythagoras. It used to have pipes on the floor to carry water to the town from springs on the other side of the hill. The digging was done by two teams of workers, one from each side, and they met properly in the middle. Pretty good geometry for 525 B.C.!

Also relevant to our story is a short drive or taxi ride east from the town of Samos, to the Strait of Mykali, for here we see the Turkish mainland not much over a mile (2 km) away, almost within swimming distance. And at this point we are but 33 miles (50 km) from Miletus, the earliest of all sources of Greek scientific philosophy. Samos may be formally an island in the geographic sense, but at the time of Pythagoras it was far from insular in its intellectual life, being always in close communication with the mainland coastal cities. Today we have Greeks on one side of the Strait and Turks on the other, and not much love between them, but back then it was all Greek-the center of Greek civilization, in fact, for the age of Pericles in Athens was still some decades away.

Stagira, Greece

Small waves on a boat ride around Ammouliani

Small waves on a boat ride around Ammouliani by Horia Varlan. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

The Halkadiki Peninsula lies in Macedonia, the northeastern portion of Greece and one of the most attractive parts of the country. The peninsula is studded with small fishing villages along the coast, and inland are thickly wooded hills, high mountain passes, and magnificent views. Three long narrow fingers jut out into the Aegean Sea and on one of them stands Mount Athos, 6,500 feet (2,000 m) high, the center of an incredible medieval relic, a monastic community utterly cut off from the world. Women, children, and eunuchs are  forbidden; no roads enter. Male tourists are admitted, gaining access by boat from Ouranoupolis; a beard as proof of maleness is desirable, but no longer the absolute requirement that it used to be.

If you venture to this remote part of Greece, you will find yourself close to Stagira (or Stayira), the place where, in 384 B.C., the great Aristotle was born. The present town of that name, on the road from the coast inland to Arnea, has named a large park and picnic area after Aristotle, with a prominent (modern) White stone statue of the philosopher himself. However, the actual birthplace is not the present town but ancient Stagira, which was perched on high bluffs at the edge of the open sea, about 10 miles (15 km) away, just south of the present vi age of Olimbiada. There are signposts everywhere, beginning on the main coastal highway from Stavros toward Mount Athos, so that the site and the excavati cannot be missed.

It is, of course, a long way to come and the ruins per se are less rewarding he many other archaeological sites. But can we really pass it by? Can we fail to moved at least a little by being on the very piece of land that nurtured the man whose thoughts and writings dominated Western academic institutions for so many centuries after he was dead?

In England the association of man with place has always been strong. Aristotle was no exception, as we can see from the following lines of John Dryden-poet and dramatist, but elected to the company of scientists, the fledgling Royal Society, in 1663:

The longest Tyrrany that ever sway’d
Was that wherein our Ancestors betray’d
Their free-born Reason to the Stagirite
And made his Torch their Universal Night.

The exultation he felt over what he saw as the then emerging downfall of Aristotelian dogma comes through loud and clear.

The Island of Kos, Greece

The Castle of Kos (Neratzia)

The Castle of Kos (Neratzia) by bazylek100. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

The island of Kos was the home of the famous physician, Hippocrates. It is a popular area  because of its mild climate and sandy beaches, but has been badly scarred by intemperate eagerness to cater to mass tourism. Roads, hotels, and discos spring up without much regard for how they affect their environment.

 After the death of Hippocrates (around 360 B.C.), a temple/sanitarium was built on Kos, dedicated to the god of healing, Asklepios. People came from all over the Mediterranean to seek help by prayer or to be treated by Hippocratic doctors. They continued to come for nearly a thousand years, until a terrible earthquake and subsequent ravages by the Saracens all but destroyed the place. The remains have been excavated and some columns have been re-erected, to create an impressive memorial from which we can get a good picture of what it must have been like in its heyday.

 The Asklepieion, as the temple is called, lies in open country on a limestone fold of a hill and is remarkable for its spacious design-three terraces, one above the other, joined by broad stone staircases. Patients were presumably treated by physicians on the lowest level, in “shops” lining a large, open rectangular space. They then went on to pray to their gods on the middle and topmost levels. The remains there reflect the continuity of use. The most prominent group of columns, for example, seven in number on the middle level dates from Roman times, outlining a temple dedicated to Apollo; two thicker Ionic columns on the same level are much earlier. We know from the writer Strabo (who lived in the age of Augustus) that all the temples were filled With artistic treasures, many brought as offerings by the patients themselves. And it is interesting that tributes to Hippocrates continue to this day. The ceremony of the Hippocratic oath is sometimes held here. An International Hippocratic Foundation is housed in modern buildings adjacent to the archaeological area. It serves as a center for professional congresses.

The city of Kos itself has an archaeological museum with a statue of Hippocrates and a mosaic from the second or third century A.D. depicting the physician welcoming the god Asklepios. There is also the so-called Plane Tree of Hippocrates standing next to the medieval fortress overlooking the city’s harbor. According to legend, the physician taught and wrote in the shade of this tree, whose outer shell is now more than 30 feet in diameter. Lawrence Durrell once visited this place: “I slept under the tree for two nights,” he wrote, “hoping that the spirit of the old god-physician might confer some of his healing powers upon me, but it was winter and all I achieved was a touch of rheumatism.”