Greece counts 6.000 islands and islets scattered in the Aegean and Ionian Seas. And each has its own unique history and traditions. Probably one of the most intriguing stories concerns an island whose inhabitants communicated via fires from towers.
Dating back to ancient times, the islanders of Sifnos, an island part of the Cycladic complex, would transmit information via flame messages, smoke, and mirrors from structures known as Phryctoriae.
The Greek island with its 76 towers and the communication with… tobacco
There is a total of 76 ancient towers (Phryctoriae) recorded on the island, which translates into more than one tower per square kilometre built. Observing them, especially from above, one can see that they are all circular while their diameter on the outside can reach up to 8 metres. From excavations, remnants of the structures, as well as depictions on ancient vases, it is estimated they were constructed between the 6th and 3rd BC. The towers were believed to have two floors.
But how did the construction of these Phryctoriae come about and what was the reason that led the ancient inhabitants to erect them? Sifnos has rich mineral wealth, such as gold, lead, and silver. This led to the building of mines to extract the precious metals, which were in turn surrounded by a network of these towers in order to make communication between them faster and safer. The purpose of their construction was primarily for the protection of mining activities and a way to alert workers of possible raids.
Phryctoriae were built on selected mountaintops so that one tower would be visible to the next tower (usually 20 miles away). The towers were used for the transmission of a specific prearranged message. Flames were lit on one tower and then the next tower in succession also lit flames.
They transmitted the pre-agreed messages with smoke, or more precisely by using mirrors and torches. According to archaeologists, this method of communication is derived from the general of the Trojan War, Palamidis.
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In this way, the news reached the recipient rapidly. Fascinatingly, it is said that the method of Phryctoriae was used to relay news of the fall of Troy to the inhabitants of Mycenae. Aeschylus in the tragedy Agamemnon describes how the message for the fall of Troy arrived at Mycenae with Phryctoriae. The distance a message could cover with the smoke is believed to have been up to 550 kilometres! Gradually the whole island was filled with towers. Some of them were even used as outposts and strongholds for women and children and farmers when they were attacked by pirates.
The towers that have been preserved in better condition today are the White Tower near the settlement of Platys Gialos, the Black Tower in Exabela, and the Tower of Katavati near Vathi.