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Byzantine Kastra in the Dark Ages: the case of Oria Kastro on Kythnos
Author: Christianna Veloudaki. DOI: 10.32028/9781789693775-13.ISBN 9781789693775-13.

During the first three centuries after the founding of the Eastern Empire, the islands of the Cyclades in the Aegean Sea knew a period of relative calm and prosperity, acting as supply stations for vessels following the sea routes to and from Constantinople. Most of them had flourishing maritime market towns that functioned as processing and exporting centres. From the 7th century onwards, however, it can be observed that many of these ancient coastal cities either shrank dramatically in size or were gradually abandoned and the so-called kastra, i.e. fortified settlements built on top of remote hilltops, took their place. Little is known about this transitional period (7th-9th century AD) in the Aegean world as there are barely any written sources and most of the ancient cities and the Byzantine kastra in the Cyclades remain undocumented. Consequently, the beginning of the transition process and the exact causes behind it remain unclear. Pirate raids and the Arab threat after the 640s are the reasons traditionally put forward by Greek and foreign scholars, however, recent studies suggest that the Arab fleets are unlikely to have been a serious threat to the islands before the occupation of Crete by the Andalus Muslims in AD 827.

So, when exactly were these new fortified settlements created and to what purpose? Were they part of an official plan to safeguard the sea trade routes connecting Constantinople to its western territories, imperative for the survival of the capital, or were they an incidental response of the islanders to a seaborne enemy? To complicate things further, the very identification of the Byzantine kastra in the Cyclades is challenging, given that most sites remain unexplored to the present day. As a result, they are often not distinguished from the kastra built during the Latin occupation and are simply classified as medieval.

Using Oria Kastro on Kythnos, in the western Cyclades, as a case study, an attempt is made to address these questions. Combining information from contemporary and later sources with material evidence from recent studies on Kythnos and other islands, this study aims to revisit the traditional narrative and place the site in a wider context.

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