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Culture History Eastern Macedonia and Thrace Prefecture of Xanthi

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Prefecture of Xanthi

Aikaterinh Balla
Source: C.E.T.I.
© Region of Eastern Macedonia and Thrace
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The archaeological finds revealed at the boundaries of the modern Prefecture of Xanthi bear witness to the habitation of the region since the Neolithic Age. To date, 70 archaeological sites have been found in this prefecture covering various periods from the Neolithic Age to the late Byzantine times.
Mythological tradition has it that the region of Xanthi was the base of god Ares as well as this of Boreas. Thracian tribes began to settle up in the area from the 11th century BC.
Abdera, now belonging to the Prefecture of Xanthi, was one of the most powerful city-states in Thrace. It was built in the area between the estuary of Nestos river and Porto Lagos in the mid- 7th century BC. Greek mythology attributes the foundation of the city to Hercules who built it to honour his companion Abderus, after the latter was devoured by the man-eating horses of Diomides, king of the Thracian tribe of Bistonians. During the Persian wars, the presence of Persians in the area, already accountable by 512 BC, was intense and decisive for the city’s future. After the Persian wars, Abdera enjoyed a long period of peace and great economical and cultural prosperity. According to the excavation finds, Abdera developed in an important commercial and cultural centre in the area.

After the collapse of the “city-state”, the ancient Thracian cities gradually began to decay and by the end of late antiquity (4th-5th centuries AD) this decline is more profound.

Subsequently, Phillip II expanded his dominance over many coastal Thracian cities. After Alexander the Great died, the kingdom was divided and as a result, the city experienced the successive domination of Macedonians, Seleucids and Ptolemies.

The presence of the Macedonians in the area is confirmed by the illustrious Macedonian tomb found northwest of Stavroupolis and close to Komnina that dates to the Hellenistic times (200-150 BC) as well as the castle of Kaliva, erected by king Philip II of Macedon around 340 BC. In the late 3rd and the early 2nd centuries the Romans prevailed over the Macedonians thus establishing their reign throughout Macedonia and Thrace in 167 BC.

The city of Topeiros, founded by Trajan in the 1st century AD, flourished during Roman times. After the construction of the Via Egnatia, which passed near to the city, Topeiros developed into a rich station with its own coins (2nd century AD); the city was famous throughout the Roman and early Byzantine times as one of the most important cities in SW Thrace.

During the Byzantine times, the ancient city of Abdera dwindled to the walled acropolis, which was renamed Polystylon, while the surrounding area was converted into a cemetery. The substitution of the name Abdera with Polystylon must have taken place in the early years of the Macedonian Dynasty, in the framework of a reformation of the cities, when many of them became bishopric seats. The new name is probably associated with the many pillars (stylos in Greek) lying at the site of the ancient city.

The city of Xantheia was another important station to the route of Via Egnatia in Byzantine times. In the second half of the 13th century it turned into a fortified city of great strategic importance, as it controlled the natural routes of communication with the hinterland of the Balkan peninsula. The city played key role in the region’s defence, at least until the early centuries of the Turkish occupation, when signs of decay gradually appeared.

The modern history of the Prefecture of Xanthi is inextricably linked with the history of Thrace. In the years 1385-86 the Ottoman Turks occupied Xanthi. The 15th century is characterised by the massive islamization, the extensive kidnapping of children, the destruction of cultural monuments and the abandonment of cities.

Xanthi was the area’s seat of the Christian church centre while Genisea the administrative centre. The latter was destroyed by a fire in 1870 and Xanthi became the administrative centre although it had already experienced two disastrous earthquakes in 1829. In 1912 it was occupied by the Bulgarians and in the next year it was liberated by the Greeks but only for a short period until it was returned to the Bulgarians by our allies. It was finally united with Greece in 1920 and so it happened with the rest of Thrace.

In the 17th and the 18th centuries, the region of Xanthi as well as the whole Thrace was enhanced with Christian population from other Greek cities. The cultivation and trade of tobacco converted Xanthi into a great civil centre. Genisea was the administrative centre of the region until it was destroyed by fire in 1870; by that time Xanthi became the administrative centre replacing the previous one.

The Greek army liberated Xanthi from the Turks in 1913 but soon, both Xanthi and the rest of Western Thrace (Nestos – Evros) were assigned to Bulgarian with the Treaty of Bucharest (28-07-1913), while Eastern Thrace remained to Turkey.
The Treaty of Sevres in 1920 ceded the territories of Eastern and Western Thrace to Greece; yet, in 1923, the Treaty of Lausanne stipulated the evacuation of Greek population from Eastern Thrace. This provoked a population shift in the area as Greek refugees from the Eastern Thrace, Asia Minor, Caucasus and Armenia settled in the region of Xanthi and in the rest of Western Thrace.
During the 2nd World War (1941-44), the largest part of Thrace came under Bulgarian occupation. The region of Xanthi was assigned anew to Greece after the war was over.