Cyclades: Afloat a sea of centuries

Cyclades: Afloat a sea of centuries

The Cyclades are an island cluster in the Aegean Sea* which comprises 33 islands and innumerable smaller, uninhabited ones on their own or in clusters. The Cyclades derived their name from the Greek word for “cycle” as they form a “circle” around the sacred island of Delos where the goddess Artemis and the god Apollo were born. 

The Cyclades were the cradle of the significant and mighty Cycladic civilization which flourished in the 3rd millennium BC. 

With the exception of the volcanic islands of Milos and Santorini, the rest of the Cycladic islands are the peaks of the submerged mountainous terrain of Aegaeis which sank 5,000 years ago. 

The islands’ geographical position in the middle of the Aegean sea, their climate, the intensity of the winds, ground morphology, the small size of each island, and the limited farmable land all played a decisive part in the shaping of the Cyclades’ cultural identity and were instrumental in the creation of an exceptional civilization known as the Cycladic civilization. 




The early inhabitants of the Cyclades secured their food by raising goats, sheep, oxen, and pigs. 

They cultivated cereals (einkorn and emmer wheat, barley, millet, rye, and oats); 

legumes (lentils, peas, broad beans, fava, and chickpeas); grapes; and olives

They harvested the fruit on their islands such as acorns, pistachios, almonds, figs, cherry plums, cherries, plums, apples, and pears to complement their nutritional needs. 

They fished for tuna, dusky groupers, greater amberjacks, mackerels, sea breams, cod, and a bewildering range of seafood and sea mollusks. They hunted for rabbits, ducks, geese, pigeons, and partridges. 



The extant Cycladic figurines tell us that the Cycladic people daily adorned their bodies with clothing and jewelry and used various tools for beautification, makeup, and tattoos. 



The geographical distance between and among the islands as well as each island’s morphology prevented the exercise of some central authority and the growth of an autonomous economy. Those two factors did, however, propel the islands’ inhabitants towards developing their seafaring skills and their trading practices in an effort to secure communication channels and financial resources in a world outside the Cyclades. 

The inhabitants of the Cyclades were also fully aware of their abounding mineral resources their soil carried, such as obsidian (volcanic glass) and marble which became the basic media for most of their art.



The affinity and bond of the inhabitants of the Cyclades with the sea also determined the profile of the Cycladic civilization that flourished on the islands. 

The restless spirit of the inhabitants who saw the sea around them as a challenge played an instrumental role in the way the Cycladic civilization developed. 

So that they may sail the Aegean Sea whose waters were often troubled they became expert shipbuilders with advanced knowledge of hydrodynamics, aerodynamics, and astronomy. Apart from their trading ships they also built other types of boats destined for use in demonstrating social prominence and meeting the needs of their rituals and ceremonial processions. 

As of the 3rd millennium BC, the Cyclades saw the rise of the art of ceramics, stone masonry, marble sculpting, textiles, leather-making, metallurgy, jewelry craftsmanship, and painting (murals). 

The craftwork of the islanders of the Cycladic civilization exudes their restless and creative spirit, their freedom of thought, and an imagination spurred by the unknown world open to them beyond the narrow geographical confines of each island. That same artwork is also witness to the austerity of life on those small and insular islands. 

Marble sculpting held a prominent position in Cycladic art as corroborated by the various pots and marble figurines which confirm the economic and social particularities of their owners and made the rounds of the the Aegean as objects of “social status”. 

Those marble figurines are also eloquent proof of the anthropocentric character of the Cycladic art. 

Their tranquility, minimalism, and balanced proportions bear striking resemblances to contemporary art standards. 

Cycladic figurines were highly admired and provided inspiration to contemporary artists such as Brancusi, Picasso, and Modigliani mostly because of their minimalist tendencies, their disarming simplicity, and stark while color.