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History & Mythology of Lesvos

The history of the island goes back two million years with the recent discovery of prehistoric fauna and fish in the area of Vatera. Tusks and skeletons of giant mastodons have also been found as well as fossilized bones of ancient horses, camels, rhinoceros, and a tortoise the size of a small car. One of the most startling discovery is that of a family of giant apes of the Paradolichopithecus family, the oldest found in Europe.

Mythological Times

The island had many prehistoric names such as: Imerti (longed for), Lassia (densely forested), Aiyeria (The place of the sun-browned people), Aithiope(sun-drenched island), and Makaria, which was the name of the mythical originator of the race, Makaras, son of the Sun, who cme to the island and was received as a prudent and enlightened sovereign. During his reign five towns were built: Mytilini, Issa, Antissa, Mithymna and Avrisi, which took their names from the five daughters of Makaras.Erressos was named after his son. The reign of Makaras and his successors lasted until the flood of Deucalion, when the island was laid desolate.

Lesvos is mentioned in the Homeric epics. During the early years of the Trojan war, Odysseus fought and defeated King Philomileidis. Achilles attacked the island many times. During one of these invasions along the south coast he captured the beautiful Brysiida and went into a rage when Agamemnon took her from him.Homer mentions that the seven women whom Agamemnon offered to Achilles to appease him were from Lesvos and "surpassed in beauty the entire race of women". The poet Parthenios tells us that Achilles managed to breach the powerful fortifications of Mithymna through the treachery of the daughter of King Peisidikis.

According to the historian Myrsilos, there was an important santuary to Apollo at Mt. Lepetymnos. He and Artemis were especially worshipped by the people of Lesvos. Theophrastus mentions that the astroloder Matriketas had his observatory on the peak of Mt Lepetymnos. According to another ancient tradition the tomb of the Homeric hero Palamides, the inventor of letters and numbers, was on the slopes of the same mountain.

The myth of Orpheus is well known. He was so skilled in music that even the animals and the stones were moved by his songs.His music made the men of Thrace leave their wives and stay by his side night and day just to listen to his melodies.The Maenads were so infuriated by this that they killed him and threw his dismembered body into the Evros river which carried it out to sea where the waves brought his head and his lyre to the shores of Lesvos, near Antissa. The inhabitants buried his head with full honors and dedicated his lyre to the temple of Apollo. Acoording to another version, his lyre was taken by the citharist of Lesvos, Terpander. In the area of Antissa is the place known as Orphykia and, it is said, the nightingales there have a sweeter song then anywhere else on earth.

Mythological accounts say that the island took it's name from the brother-in-law of Makaras, Lesvos. Another account says there was a town on the island called Lesvos and the island got the name from there. This town was most probably located in the area of Lisvorios, where important pre-historic ruins have been found on the Kourtir headland on the bay of Kaloni. But the name of the island is also atrributed to it's magnificant natural setting.


Ancient Times: The evidence that archeological excavations have bought to light indicates that Lesvos has been inhabited since at least the Neolithic period. During the Bronze age it had already developed an exceptionally advanced civilization. The excavations that were carried out in the nineteen-thirties by the English archeologist Winifred Lamb in the area around Thermi, exposed settlement structures of small towns. After the discovery the settlement was covered up but visitors can see the portable finds at the Mytilini Museum: clay pots, figurines, tools weapons and so forth. These excavations have revealed that a civilzation developed on the island similar to the Trojan and Mycenean. The geographical location of the island allowed it to be influenced by the neighboring Troy.

In 1507 B.C. the island was colonized by the Pelasgians. In 1393-1184 it was ruled by the Aecheans and from 1100-1000, by the Aeolians who intermingled with the old population and gave the island their language and culture. The people of Lesvs became extremely active on the sea and colonized the coast of Asia Minor which became known as the Coast of the Mytilinians . At Troy they build Achilleio in honor of Achilles and a little further north they built Sigeio. Their command of the sea brought them into conflict with the Athenians.

Historical Times: When the Persians seized the state of Lydia in 456 BC, Lesvos came under their control. In 527 it took part in the campaign of Kamvysis, King of the Medians and the Persians, against Egypt and in 513 it assisted Darius against the Scythians. In 499 it joined in the revolution of the Ionians against the Persa and in 492 was subjected by the Persians. In 479 after the battle of Mykalis, it threw off the Persian yoke and participated in the Attico-Eleian League.

During the Peleponnesian war, with the exception of Mithymna, the island revolted against the Athenians and in 427 the Athenian general Pachis the Epicure conquered the island. The walls were pulled down and the land divided among 3000 Athenians. Thousands of Mytilenians were put to death. I 405 Lesvos seccumbed to the Spartans who were led by Lysander. There followed an exchange of power between the Athenians and the Spartans and in 375 Lesvos took part in the second Athenian league.

Aristotle in Lesvos
After the Athenian philospoher Plato died (347 B.C.) his former student, Aristotle left Athens and moved to Assos (nowadays called Behramkale), in Asia Minor (Turkey). Assos was a city by the sea, 10 km from Lesvos. There, with the help of other philosophers (including Theophrastos and Xenokrates) he founded a philosophy school, under the protection of Hermeias, the ruler of Assos and Atarneos. Aristotle soon married Pythias, who was Hermeias niece, and they moved to Mythilene, in Lesbos, where they lived for two or three years. Most historians of science agree that it was during this period that Aristotle began his intensive study of zoology, which is described in his books "History of animals", "Parts of animals", "Generation of animals" and a few others. In those books Aristotles describes many fishes, birds, insects and land animals that he found in Lesbos, and several specific places of this island are mentioned in those works. In
343 or 342 B.C. Aristotle and Pythias moved to Pella (the ancient capital of Macedon) at the invitation of king Phillip II, to take care of the education of prince Alexander.

Although Aristotle's zoological work is not as well known as his logical and philosophical books, it was a vast encyclopaedia of natural history and was surpassed only in the 18th century. There is a famous saying by Darwin, who was much impressed the first time he read Aristotle's zoological books: "I had not the most remote notion what a wonderful man he was. Linnaeus and Cuvier have been my two gods, though in very different ways, but they were mere schoolboys to old Aristotle."

Aristotle's biological research was a landmark in the history of science; and that all began in Lesbos, "... where burning Sappho loved and sung", as Lord Byron put it.
Roberto de Andrade Martins.
Professor of History of Science at the University of Campinas (Unicamp), Brazil

After the battle of Granikos, the Mytilenians abolished the oligarchy and allied themselves with Alexander the Great. The brothers, Erigyios and Laomedon, from Lesvos were childhood friends of Alexander and he bestowed high ranks on them. After the death of Alexander at the end of the third century BC, Lesvos came under the Ptolemies of Egypt and in 88 BC the Romans conquered the island.

Roman Period: The Romans dominated the island after the defeat of Mithridates, King of the Pontus and an ally of the Mytileneans, by Pompei. The acropolis of Mytilini was compoletely destroyed and the islanders severely punished. The fall of the town was considered a great event and the Roman orator Cicero sang the praises of Mytilini from the floor of the Roman senate, characterizing it as "a town made gorgeous by it's natural surroundings, it's site, the facades of it's buildings and it fertile fields". These praises could be equally appropriate today.

Pompei came to Mytilini in 62. In order to honor him the Mytilenians organized magnificant games that glorified his military exploits. Pompei granted a certain amount of autonomy to the Mytilenians as well as other privileges in order to satisfy the historian Theophanis the Mytilenean, his friend and advisor to whom he gave the rights of a Roman citizen.

The Apostle Paul came to the island in 52 AD.

During the Roman occupation the island was used as a place of exile for eminant figures who had fallen into disfavor.

The Byzantine Period: When the Roman empire was divided into East and West, Lesvos became part of the East, that is, the Byzantine state. The Byzantines neglected the island. The used it as the Roman's had, as a place of exile for undesirables. During this period there were repeated attacks by the Slavs, Saracens, and the Russians and Lesvos was plundered by the Venetians and the Crusaders.

The Hegemony of the Gattelusi : In 1354 Lesvos was ceded as a dowery to the Genoese noble, Francesco Gattelusi, son-in-law of the Emperor John Palaiologos. From the beginning he showed an interest in the well-being of it's inhabitants and supported coomerce, literature and the arts. In 1373 he renovated the fortress of Mytilini as is shown by the incription over the main gate.

In 1401 Mytilini was destroyed by an earthquake and Francesco II was killed when his palace collapsed on him. In 1445 the island was attacked by the Bulgarian renogade Baldaoglou and the town of Kaloni, which had been flourishing economically, was destroyed. In 1459 Domenicos Gattelusi was assassinated by his brothere Nicolo who became the ruler of the island.

In 1462 Lesvos succumbed to the Sultan Mohamet II, the Conqueror, after stiff resistance. The destruction that followed was terrible. All the young men and women were sent to Constantinople and the largest part of the population was exterminated.

The Turkish Period: All economic and cultural life on the island came to a halt. The church struggles from the very first days of the Ottoman Empire to maintain Hellenism in the monasteries. Thus, the spark of faith and the hope for a national renaissance remained unextinguished. The monasteries and the churches became intellectual centers of the island. The secret schools operated there and preparations were made for the coming struggle for liberation.

In 1677 the Voivode Eby Bakir repaired the fortress of Mytilini. In 1757 the Turks built the fortress of Sigri with money fromn the inhabitants of Antissa, Erressos and Ypsilou Monastery through excessive taxation.

Throughout the Turkish occupation there were many attacks on th island. In 1771 the Russian fleet shelled Turkish ships in the harbor of Mytilini and bombarded the fortress. In reprisal the Turks killed Christians.

In 1817 Palaiologos and Yiorgos Lemonas, members of the Philikoi Etaireia appeared on the island. In 1821 Dimitris Papanikolis shelled the Turkish Frigate Moving Mountain, sinking it in the bay of Erressos. In retaliation the Turks again killed Christians which was known in history as The Great Assault . In 1850 a large number of Olive trees were destroyed and many inhabitants were forced to move to Asia Minor. In 1867 the island was struck by an earthquake that left thousands dead and many buildings in ruins.

In 1905 Mytilini was placed under international occupation. The patriotic activity of the Mytilinians grew, it's main centers being Plomari and Mytiliniwhere the Metropolitan Kyrillos played the leading role.

Modern Times: On November 8, 1912, the island was liberated by the Admiral P. Koundouriotis who came with a squadron of the Greek fleet led by the battle ship Averof . In 1922 a large number of refugees from Asia Minor came to Lesvos. In 1923, after the signing ot the treaty of Lausanne, it was definitively ceded to Greece. During World War II the Germans came to Lesvos on May 4 1941 and left on September 10, 1944.

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