Lesbos is after Crete and Euboea the largest of the Aegean islands, with a maximum length of 43 ½ m., a width extending to 28 m., and an area of 630 sq. miles. It lies close to Asia Minor, its Northeast coast facing the Gulf of Edremit (Adramyti), and is 187 m. from Athens. To the North is Lemnos and to the South Khios. Oval in shape, Lesbos is deeply indented by two arms of the sea: the Gulf of Kalloni in the South and the Gulf of Year in the Southeast. The interior is mountainous, fertile with dense olive plantations in the East, bare in the West, where much of its former vegetation has been petrified in a remarkable manner. The climate is temperate, with mild winters and cool summers, especially at Molivos, where the temperature tends to drop heavily at night; in Mytilene it is usually warmer and sometimes humid. The island is subject to earthquakes and there are numerous hot springs. The population (117,400 inhabitants), diminished by emigration, is mainly occupied in producing the olives and olive oil for which the island gas long been celebrated; there are over 100 refineries. The vineyards also are productive though less famed than they were in antiquity. The chief manufacture is soap; there are also tanneries and textile mills, and in the West tobacco is cultivated. The roads were built during the Turkish occupation by an English engineer. The island’s fauna include the rare star shrew, called locally ‘blind mice’, and a species of salamander. Notable also are the herds of horses that graze round the Gulf of Kalloni, connected perhaps with the ancient horse-breeding traditions of the Troad. Though there is little of great archaeological importance, the cultural associations, both ancient and modern, and beautiful scenery and beaches of the island are increasingly attracting visitors.
History: Its geographical situation and its many harbors made Lesbos a center for trade and communications from the earliest times and it is only recently that the division between Greece and Turkey has, by severing its connections with Asia Minor, frustrated its natural role as an intermediary between the mainland and the Aegean. Prehistoric remains indicating occupation from c. 3300 B.C. until destruction by fire at the end of the Mycenean period relate closely to those at ancient Troy. According to Homer, Lesbos, siding with Troy, was invaded by both Achilles and Odysseus. The inhabitants were probably Pelasgian, but in the 10th century B.C., the island and the mainland opposite were colonized by Aiolians under the leadership of the Penthelides, the last of whom was murdered in 659 B.C. A struggle developed between Methymna and Mytilene for the leadership of the island, and although Mytilene won and has remained the capital, a tradition of independent resistance was fostered in the West part of the island, which was to recur at critical moments. Lesbos was governed oligarchically with increasing chaos until Pittacus, one of the Seven Sages (589-579), calmed the island and as Aesymnetes (dictator) gave it its period of greatest prosperity and cultural importance. A large fleet and wide mercantile interests (especially in Egypt) were combined with a high standard of education and a comparative freedom for women, two traditions still noticeable today. Terpander, the father of Greek music, and Arion, who invented dithyrambic poetry, had already made Lesbos famous in the 7th century, but it was with Alcaeus and Sappho, both aristocrats and enemies of Pittacus, that the island reached its cultural climax. In 527 Lesbos fell under Persian domination and was not freed until 479, when it joined the Athenian League.
In 428 soon after the Peloponnesian war started, Mytilene tried to break away with Spartan help, but the plan was betrayed by Methymna to Athens. The Mytileneans were severely punished. This was the dramatic occasion when a second galley with a reprieve was sent after the first had left with orders for wholesale massacre, and arrived in time.
In 405 Lesbos fell to the Spartans and thereafter changed hands frequently, being ruled by Persia, Maedonia, and the Ptolemies until Mithridates occupied it (in 88-79 B.C.)
Only to be ousted by the Romans. According to Suetonius, Julius Caesar ‘won his spurs’ during the Roman storming of Mytilene. It was much favored by Pompey. St. Paul on his way back to Jerusalem from Greece (c. A.D. 52), spent a night at Mytilene before passing by Chios and Samos. By the 5th century Lesbos had many fine basilicas.
As a Byzantine dominion, the island was used as a place of exile, notably for the Empress Irene in 809. It suffered Saracen invasion in 821, 881, and 1055, which prompted the inhabitants to quit the coast for the mountains. In 1085it fell to Tzachas, the Seljuk conqueror of Izmir, although Alexius Commenus retook the island, which remained under Byzantine control until 1128, when it passed for a time to the Venetians. In 1204 Lesbos became part of the Latin empire, but fell to the Greeks of Nicaea in 1247. At the end of the 13th century it was devastated by Catalan mercenaries and in 1334 Dom. Cataneo made an attempt on it. In 1354 it was given to Francesco Gateluzzi, a Genoese adventurer who had helped John Paleologus regain the Byzantine throne, as a dowry for John’s sister Maria, who married Francesco; the island then enjoyed a century’s untroubled prosperity under the Gateluzzi who established an important trading principality in the North Aegean. Lesbos fell to the Turks in 1462 and, despite attempts to free it by Orsano Giustiniano in 1464, by Pesaro in 1499, and by a Franco-Rhodian fleet in 1501, remained under Turkish domination till 1912, though enjoying considerable privileges and prosperity in the 19th century (despite a revolt in 1821). Large numbers of refugees from Asia Minor were absorbed after 1912. In 1941-1944 the island was occupied by German forces.
The chief town, near the southeast corner of the island, is Mytilene, pronounced Mitilini,
Capital or the nome of Lesbos, which includes the islands of Lemnos and Ayios Evstratios. It is the seat of a metropolitan. The modern town (25,750 inhabitants) is spread over the slopes overlooking the harbor and the isthmus the joins to the mainland the wooded promontory on which the kastro stands. Still retaining much of its Levantine flavor, Mytilene is a bustling entrepot port without particular interest and need not long detain the visitor from an exploration of the island.
In antiquity the castle hill, with the Classical town, was separated from the mainland by a channel joining the North and South ports. Later the city overflowed from the island and the channel was crossed by marble bridges. The new town was built on the Hippodamian plan, a fact Vitruvius deplored since the streets caught the full blast of the North and South winds. Mytilene disputes with Eressos the honor of being the birthplace of Sappho. Alcaeus and Pittacus were both natives, as were also the two renegade Greek brothers,
Horuk Barbarossa and Khair-ed-din Barbarossa, who became Turkish corsairs and terrorized the Mediterranean. A modern worthy is Theophilos, the primitive painter.
The ancient South port has become the main Harbor with the boat agencies and post office distributed along the North and East quay: the hotels, restaurants, cafes, and Dhimarkhion of the West quay with the main shopping street, or Agora, running parallel behind it; and, to the South, a breakwater ending in a ruined Genoese fort. The Gymnasion houses a small museum of local costume, pottery, etc. Ayios Therapon, near by, has a 15th century icon of St. John the Evangelist.
In a villa on the front below the Kastro are housed the Khorafa mosaics and other antiquities, including a rare example of an Aeolian capital, but most of the collection is on store pending the construction of a new museum. Included are an inscribed marble throne from the theatre, mosaics from early-Christian basilicas, and prehistoric finds from Thermi. Beyond this villa by the pinewood below the Kastro there is a small beach with cafes. On the north side underwater may be seen some vestiges of an ancient breakwater.
The Kastro, which affords a fine view over the town and across to Turkey, was constructed by the Gateluzzi in 1373 on the site of a Byzantine castle of which there are remains on the West side. The Turks built a Medresse, or theological college inside the upper bailey and added surrounding walls to the North down the seashore, where can be seen traces of an ancient breakwater.
The main entrance through three gates is on the South side, whence we pass through the upper bailey to the Gateluzzi keep, dominating a steep cliff at the Southeast corner. Near by to the South is a small entrance with a plaque depicting the Palaeologue eagle, the Gateluzzi scales, and the monogram of Maria and Francesco, which are also to be seen on the wall of the keep (together with carvings of armed men and lion fights) and on the middle West gate.
The ancient Theatre lies on the side of a pine-wooded hill opposite the Kastro to the West. Excavations in 1958 revealed the orchestra, the stage, and some seats, not very well preserved. The original plan was altered in Roman times for animal-combats and gladiatorial shows and also served as a model for the Theatre of Pompey in Rome.
To the North of the theatre above Ayia Kyriaki cemetery are remains of the city Walls in polygonal masonry of the 5th century B.C., which ran from the North breakwater of the North port (Maloeis) to the South end of the South port, encompassing all the theatre hill.
Lower down was the site of a late-Roman Villa, where were found the Khorafa mosaics (4th century), depicting scenes from the comedies of Menander.
To the South of Mytilene a road runs along the coastal plain through Vareia, where museum has been opened in the house of Theophilos, to (3 ¾ m.) Neapolis. Just to the south are remains of the early-Christian basilica of Argala. Beyond the airport and (6 ¼ m.) Kratogos the road, no longer asphalted, continues round Cape Argilios at the Southeast corner of the island. At 12 ½ m. a lane branches left to Cape Ermouyenis (3/4 m.) at the entrance to the gulf of Year (chapel, café, and beach); keeping right, we reach (13 ½ m.) the site of the early-Christian basilica of Loutra with a mosaic. 15 ¼ m. Loutra is an old thermal station. Hence an asphalt road returns to Mytilene (5 ¼ m.) over a saddle of Mt. Amali, affording superb views both East and West, or (if we keep left) another descends to Skala Loutron and Koundouroudhia on an inlet of the gulf of Year, across which a regular ferry plies to Perama.
To Year and Plomari, 25 ½ m., asphalt to Skopelos. The island’s main road runs West from Mytilene, crosses a low ridge, and skirts the Northeast shore of the Gulf of Yera under high Cliffs, with beautiful views of the olive plantations and good bathing places.
5 ½ m. Thermai Yeras are hot springs. About 1 m. farther on Pelashic walls can be seen on a steep hill. At 7 ½ m. we turn off to the left through a region thickly populated in antiquity. Just before the big olive refinery at (8 ¾ m.) Dipi are some remains of an ancient harbor (partly submerged). Near (9 ½ m.) Kato Tritos are ruins of ancient houses. Our road climbs to (14 ¼ m.) Palaiokipos, with an underground church (Taxiarkhon).
From (15 ½ m.) Papadhos a road leads to Mesagro and the remains of the medieval Castle of Year. 16 ½ m. Skopelos (2760 inhabitants), the largest of a group of villages, has catacombs (Lagoumia tis Ayias Magdalinis) and a Turkish fountain. Hence a road descends to Perama (3 m.), where a tannery and olive refineries stand on the Gulf of Yera near the site of ancient Hiera, said by Pliny to have been destroyed by earthquake. 25 ½ m. Plomari, a center (5450 inhabitants) created in the 19th century when the inland villagers returned to the South coast, is now the second town in size of the island, famed for its ouzo, with a small port. Hence a poor road leads North to Megalokhori (5 ½ m.) and through chestnut forests round the slapes of Olympos to Ayiassos.
To Ayiassos and Polikhnitos, 28 m. We follow the main road but take the second turning left at 8 m. 9 ¼ m. Keramia (ruins of ancient houses at Ippeion, near by).
16 ¾ m. Ayiassos, a shaded and well-watered hill-town of 4930 inhabitants, stands on a by-road under Mt. Olympos (3170 ft.). It is noted for weaving and pottery. The monastery of the Koimiseos tis Theotokou, of Byzantine foundation, has a good collection of ikons and a big festival on August 14-15th. On Kastelli, a pine-clad hill to the Northwest is strong walls of a medieval castle. The remains of Penthile, 2 ½ m. South on the Plomari road, now ploughed out, are fabled to date from the Aeolic migration. The major road continues west through beautiful pinewoods with views of Mt. Olympos to (24 ¾ m.) Vasilika, supposed place of exile of the Empress Irene.
26 ¾ m. Lisvroion gas thermal springs. 28 m. Polikgnitou, a little town (5130 inhabitants) with hot saline springs. A road goes through the town West to Skala Polikhnitou and the salt flats on the Gulf of Kalloni; another road goes south to Vrisa (3 m.), with a Genoese tower near by, and down to Vatera (5 m.), a long beach with cafes ending to the West in Cape Phokas, site of a Temple of Dionysos and probably of the ancient city of Brisa, earlier known as Lyrnessos.
From Mytilene to Mandamadhos (and Molivos), 23 m. Coast road asphalted to Makriyialou Bay, then unsurfaced inland. The road runs northwest. At (2 ½ m.) Kourtzes the hot baths (Thermakias) date from Roman times. About ¾ m. farther on a road branches to Moria, a small village, West of which stand several impressive arches of a Roman aqueduct that brought water to Mytilene. 5 m. Pamfilla. 6 ¼ m. Pirgoi Thermis, an impressive tower with Turkish balconies, just beyond which a track leads to the Panayia Tourloti, a Byzantine church of the 15th century of earlier. 7 ¾ m. Loutra Thermis. The therapeutic qualities of the hot saline and chalybeate springs were recommended by Claudius Galen. By the modern springs are the site of an ancient temple to Artemis and an adjoining complex of baths.
The prehistoric site of Thermi, to the East of the road, was excavated in 1929-1933 by the British School under Miss Winifred Lamb. It was the first occupied at the beginning of the Bronze Age (c. 2750 B.C.) evidently by colonists from the Troad since there is a close resemblance between the black pottery found here and that of Troy I. Cycladic influences then began to outweigh those from Asia Minor and c. 2000 B.C. the city was depopulated, despite the construction of considerable fortifications. The site was reoccupied c. 1400 until its destruction by fire some two hundred years later (by Greek armies in the Trojan War).
Beyond (10 ¼ m.) Mistegna, where are traces of ancient Aigeiros, a by-road ascends to Neai Kidoniai with a ruined medieval castle. 15 ½ m. Vatika (cafes) has a good beach.
20 m. Aspropotamos lies to the right of the road, on the Bay of Makriyialos. We turn inland to (23 m.) Mandamddhos, a large village (2490 inhabitants) set amid low hills, where the church of the Taxearhhon, ½ m. North, possesses a remarkable black icon of St. Michael, carved on wood and smelling of spring flowers. At a festival soon after Easter bulls are sacrificed and eaten, a rite suggestive of a pagan origin.
The dirt road continues to Kapi, where it divides to pass either side of Mt. Lepedimnos (3180 ft.). To the South a passable road leads via Ipsolomelopo, where an early-Christian basilica of c. 550 with columns, mosaic, and tombs was excavated in 1925, to (34 ½ m.)
Stipso and then joins the main Kalloni-Petra road. On the North road is Kleiou, whence a track leads down to the Gulf of Tsonia; a wooded hill in this area bears remains of a fort, perhaps the historic castle of Ayios Theodoros, where Giustimiano encountered the Turks in 1464. A very difficult road continues West of Kleiou to Sikamia, the beautiful little port of which is known locally as ‘Little Egypt’ because of its warmth in winter.
From Mytilene to Kalloni and Molivos, 38 ½ m. Keeping to the right we reach (10 ½ m.)
Miloi Lambou with water mills and good retrospective views, the cross pine-wooded hills. Kakadelli Bridge, ½ m. North of which, at a locality called Mesa, are remains of an Ionic pseudo-dipteral temple of Aphrodite. We reach the Gulf of Kalloni at (20 ½ m.)
The turning for ancient Pyrra, or Pyrrha, set in a little valley. The remains of an earlier Pyrra (destroyed by earthquake c. 231 B.C.) are believed to have been located some 5 m. Southwest beneath the gulf. Near the first site has been excavated the early-Christian basilica of ‘Akhladeris’. The by-road continues to Vasilika on the Ayiassos-Polikhnitos road. The main Kalloni road now skirts salt-flats. 22 ½ m. Turning to Ayia Paraskevi.
About ½ m. up this turning some vestiges of ancient Gerna are marked by a chapel.
2 m. Ayia Paraskevi, a large village (3750 inhabitants) is noted for its festival of St. Charalambos soon after Easter. A bull sacrifice is followed vu an equestrian parade and races, often won by women riding cross-saddle.
There are many attractive excursions in the district.
About 45 min. East is the early-Christian basilica of Khalinados, built in the
6th century on the Syriac plan; columns and capitals have been
restored to place and other columns have been observed in a chapel on the hill
of Tsiknia overlooking the Kalloni-Molivos road. About the same distance
Northwest on the road to Stipsi is the Bridge of Kremasti, built by the
Gateluzzi, with a fine arch across the two affluents of the Tsiknias; 3 m.
West of Ayia Paraskevi on a track which leads to the main Kalloni-Petra road,
near Klopedi, ruins of two archaic temples, one to Apolle Napaios, yielded
numerous Aeolian capitals of the 6th century B.C. now in the
Archaeological museum at Mytilene.
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