How did Naxos host one of the largest medieval castles in Greece, and what was its role and importance?

Naxos is a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, famous for its natural beauty, rich history and culture. One of the most impressive landmarks of Naxos is its medieval castle, also known as Kastro, which stands on a hill overlooking the main town of Chora. The castle was built by the Venetians in the 13th century, after they conquered the island and established the Duchy of Naxos, a feudal state that ruled over most of the Cyclades islands for more than three centuries. The castle was not only a defensive structure, but also a political, religious and cultural center of the duchy, hosting many important buildings and monuments that reflect the fusion of Byzantine, Latin and local traditions. In this blog post, we will explore the history, architecture and significance of the Naxos castle, and why it is worth visiting today.

The history of the Naxos castle

The Naxos castle was founded by Marco Sanudo, a Venetian nobleman and adventurer who led a fleet of crusaders to the Aegean Sea in 1207, following the Fourth Crusade that sacked Constantinople and divided the Byzantine Empire. Sanudo and his companions seized 17 islands, including Naxos, which he chose as his capital and residence. He declared himself Duke of Naxos and established a feudal system that granted lands and privileges to his followers, who became known as the Archons. The Archons were mostly Venetians or other Latin Catholics, who intermarried with the local Greek Orthodox population and adopted some of their customs and language. The duchy was nominally under the suzerainty of the Latin Empire of Constantinople, but in practice it enjoyed a high degree of autonomy and maintained friendly relations with both the Byzantines and the Ottomans.

The castle was built on a natural hill that had been previously fortified by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Sanudo used materials from the nearby ruins of the ancient temple of Apollo (Portara) and other ancient buildings to construct his fortress, which had a pentagonal shape and three gates. The main gate, called Trani Porta (Great Gate), was located on the eastern side and had a drawbridge and a coat of arms of Sanudo. The other two gates were on the western and northern sides, respectively. The castle was surrounded by a wall with 12 towers, of which only one survives today: the Glezos Tower, also known as Crispi Tower, after the family that owned it for centuries. The tower is currently undergoing restoration works by the Archaeological Service, which plans to turn it into a Byzantine Museum.

Inside the castle walls, there were many buildings that served various functions for the ducal administration and society. The most prominent ones were:

  • The Catholic Cathedral of San Marco, built in 1210 by Sanudo as his personal chapel and burial place. The cathedral was later enlarged and renovated by his successors, who added Gothic elements and frescoes. The cathedral was also decorated with sculptures, paintings and relics from other churches in the duchy. Today, the cathedral is still active and hosts occasional concerts and exhibitions.
  • The Archaeological Museum of Naxos, housed in an old Jesuit school that dates back to 1627. The museum displays a rich collection of artifacts from various periods of Naxos history, from prehistoric times to modern times. Some of the highlights include Cycladic figurines, marble statues, pottery, coins, jewelry, weapons and tools.
  • The Venetian Museum of Naxos, located in the Della Rocca-Barozzi Tower, one of the oldest buildings in the castle. The museum showcases the life and culture of the Venetian nobility in Naxos through furniture, costumes, paintings, documents and objects from their daily life.
  • The Ursulines School, founded in 1739 by French nuns who came to educate the girls of Naxos. The school operated until 1986 and was one of the first female schools in Greece. It also hosted famous personalities such as Nikos Kazantzakis and Nikos Gatsos. Today, the school is used as a cultural center that hosts events and workshops.
  • The Capuchin Monastery, built in 1628 by Franciscan monks who came to spread Catholicism in Naxos. The monastery has a church dedicated to Saint Anthony of Padua, which has a wooden iconostasis carved by local craftsmen. The monastery also has a library with rare books and manuscripts.

The Naxos castle was the seat of the dukes until 1566, when the last duke, Giacomo IV Crispo, was deposed by the Ottoman admiral Piyale Pasha, who annexed the duchy to the Ottoman Empire. The castle remained under Ottoman rule until 1821, when Naxos joined the Greek War of Independence. During the Ottoman period, the castle suffered from attacks, earthquakes and fires, but it also witnessed some cultural developments, such as the emergence of a local school of painting and literature. The castle also hosted several Greek revolutionaries and heroes, such as Theodoros Kolokotronis and Nikitaras.

The architecture of the Naxos castle

The Naxos castle is a remarkable example of medieval fortification and urban planning, as well as a testimony of the cultural diversity and exchange that characterized the Aegean Sea in the Middle Ages. The castle reflects the influence of Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman styles, as well as some local elements. Some of the architectural features of the castle are:

  • The pentagonal shape of the castle, which follows the natural contours of the hill and provides better defense and visibility.
  • The three gates of the castle, which have different designs and decorations. The main gate, Trani Porta, has a pointed arch and a coat of arms of Sanudo. The western gate, Paraporti, has a round arch and a coat of arms of Crispo. The northern gate, Agios Georgios, has a semicircular arch and a relief of Saint George.
  • The Glezos Tower, which is the only surviving tower of the original 12 that surrounded the castle wall. The tower has four levels and a round shape. It was used as a watchtower, a prison and a residence by various families.
  • The Catholic Cathedral of San Marco, which has a basilica plan with three naves and a transept. The cathedral has Gothic elements such as pointed arches, ribbed vaults and rose windows. It also has Byzantine elements such as domes, mosaics and frescoes.
  • The Archaeological Museum of Naxos, which has a rectangular plan with two floors and a courtyard. The museum has Baroque elements such as pilasters, cornices and pediments. It also has neoclassical elements such as columns, architraves and tympana.
  • The Venetian Museum of Naxos, which has a square plan with four floors and a tower. The museum has Venetian elements such as arched windows, balconies and coats of arms. It also has local elements such as stone walls, wooden ceilings and fireplaces.
  • The Ursulines School, which has an L-shaped plan with two floors and a chapel. The school has neoclassical elements such as symmetrical facades, triangular pediments and rectangular windows. It also has local elements such as whitewashed walls, blue doors and shutters.
  • The Capuchin Monastery, which has a U-shaped plan with two floors and a cloister. The monastery has Romanesque elements such as round arches, blind arcades and corbels. It also has local elements such as stone walls, tiled roofs and wooden beams.

The significance of the Naxos castle

The Naxos castle is not only an impressive historical monument, but also a living part of Naxos culture and identity. The castle preserves the memory and heritage of the Venetian period, which shaped the island’s history for more than three centuries. The castle also hosts many cultural events and activities that attract visitors and locals alike. Some of the reasons why the Naxos castle is significant are:

  • It is one of the largest and best-preserved medieval castles in Greece, with many buildings and monuments that date back to the 13th century.
  • It is a unique example of cultural synthesis and diversity, combining Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman influences in its architecture, art and society.
  • It is a witness of Naxos history and politics, from the establishment of the Duchy of Naxos to the Greek War of Independence.
  • It is a center of education and culture, housing museums, schools, libraries and churches that offer valuable information and experiences to visitors.
  • It is a venue for festivals and events, such as the Naxos Festival, which showcases music, theater, dance and art from Greece and abroad.


The Naxos castle is one of the most fascinating attractions in Naxos island, offering a journey through time and space to discover the rich history and culture of the Ae