Samothráki (Σαμοθράκη), or Samothrace, is an island of lingering magic, of cliffs, nightingales, plane forests and waterfalls, sweeping around the Mountain of the Moon (Mount Fengári, 1,664m), the highest in the Aegean; Poseidon sat on its summit to watch the Trojan War. Often wind-whipped, and lacking a natural harbour, Samothráki was nevertheless one of the most-visited islands of antiquity, thanks to its sanctuary of the Cabeiri, the Great Gods of the Underworld. Today its natural beauty and ‘mystical energy’ attract a fair number of New Age types (not least because you can camp for free). Be aware that most hotels and restaurants close between October and Easter; and bring cash – the island’s banks can run out, and few places accept cards.
HISTORY Once densely populated, Samothráki owes its importance to its position near the Dardanelles – the strait named after the legendary Samothracian Dardanos,
founder of Troy; its oldest shrine (the rock altar beneath the Arsinoëion) goes back, according to Herodotus, to the pre-Indo-European Pelasgians – a period seemingly confirmed (Herodotus is usually right!) by recent excavations at Mikró Vouní on the island’s southwest coast. In the 8th century bc Aeolians from Lésbos colonised Samothráki and mingled peaceably with the earlier settlers, worshipping the
Cabeiri, the Underworld Gods of the Thracians, whose yet-undeciphered language survived in religious rituals into the 1st century BC.
By the mid 5th century bc, Samothráki’s sanctuary was the religious centre of the North Aegean, attracting a steady stream of initiates, including Hellenistic and Roman rulers (notably the Ptolemys of Egypt) who also used Samothráki as a naval base, relying on its sacred soil for protection. St Paul stopped by in ad49, but failed to impress the locals, who kept their sanctuary running until the ad390s, when Emperor Theodosius ordered the closing of temples. But their fascination lingered: the Cabeiri make an appearance in Goethe’s Faust, and excavations of the sanctuary were funded by the Bollingen Foundation, set up in honour of Carl Jung.