Perched high on the dramatic steep cliffs of the caldera, stand the remaining ruins of the Venetian Agios Nikolaos Castle. Once used as a fortress, today, the legendary Oia Castle lures flocks of visitors to witness the sun’s colorful descent into the shimmering waters.
Overlooking the vast cobalt Aegean Sea, the Oia Castle was built on a strategic point, which allowed the residents of the settlement to watch out for intruders. In the late 15th century when the castle was built, one of the greatest threats to the inhabitants of the Mediterranean region was piracy. Pirates regularly attacked and ravaged coastal cities. Interestingly, pirates were not always the “outsiders” sailing under their own flag but were frequently employed by governments and were encouraged in their piracy by the extremely lucrative slave trade which continued throughout the Middle Ages.
Back in the day, slavery was still very much present among medieval Europeans who used slaves for agricultural and artisanal labor as well as domestic, sexual, and military services. The crew of the vessel was often made up of coastal fishermen who felt that they did not make a sufficient living from the sea or whose land was not conducive to farming. As a result, they resorted to kidnapping citizens, especially the youths, from coastal towns and selling them as slaves.
This background information well explains the distinctive architectural features of the Oia Castle and its surroundings. Inhabitants built their homes in very close vicinity to each other, in hard-to-reach places in a way that the doors and windows would look inward while the outer sides of the buildings would form a defensive wall. This “ring” of houses surrounded and protected the Oia Castle with a couple of added observation towers. In times of danger, residents would flee to the castle and hide their valuable assets in the pits dug underneath the buildings. The fortress served as an excellent viewpoint for the medieval people to observe the surrounding waters for impending threats.
The first written record of the legendary Oia Castle dates back to 1480. According to ancient manuscripts, it was built by the Venetian Dargent family along with the four other castles on the island; the Pyrgos Castle, Akrotiri Castle, Emporeio Castle, and the Skaros Castle at Imerovigli. The Venetian rulers were descendants of Romanos Argyros, a Byzantine emperor. Even though the once robust fortress appeared difficult to conquer, it was eventually captured by the Turks in 1577. The Dargent family attempted to escape to Syria but in the end, they faced the same tragic faith as the castle.
The Oia Castle with its noble residences and neighboring residential houses was once the most impressive attraction on the island; however, the 1956 earthquake made irreversible damage to the buildings, causing a major part of the castle to collapse into the sea. After the earthquake, only the towel remained along with fragments of the residential area and the walls of the castle. However, neither the invading Turkish army nor a devastating natural disaster could rob the castle of the breathtaking view it offers to its visitors. Visitors can marvel at the entire caldera and the surrounding archipelago. Today, the Oia Castle serves as the island’s most scenic vantage point to watch the fleeting beauty of the descending sun.