Places of culture and worship, the islands of the North Aegean have a long history lost in the depths of time. As some of them have been inhabited since prehistoric times, they bear uninterrupted traces of the works of the people who lived there. Settlements,ancient and Byzantine places of worship, Ottoman,Medieval and Genovese castles stand imperious, defying the centuries and awaiting visitors, so that they may take them on a journey back to other times.
The island of Sappho
Lesvos has been a birthplace of culture since ancient times, as it is homeland to many an important person of the arts and letters. Apart from the lyric poet Sappho, the ‘tenth Muse’, as characterized by Plato,who, along with her contemporary Alcaeus, were the founders of melodic poetry, Lesvos is home to many great Greek literary figures (S. Myrivilis, I. Venezis,A. Eftaliotis, Th. Stavrou, A. Panselinos) as well as Greek painters (G. Iakovidis, L. Geralis, V. Ithakisios, G.Vakirtzis, O. Kanellis and, of course, the folk painter Theofilos Chatzimichail). Great Nobel Prize winning poet Odysseas Elytis draws his origins from Lesvos,which he has lauded for its natural beauty more than anyone else.
Castles and archaeological sites
Mytilene castle looms at the top of a pine covered hill near Mytilene harbour, and it is one of the greatest in the Mediterranean region. Its foundations were laid during Justinian’s period on the ruins of an even older fort. Molyvos’ trademark is its imposing Byzantine castle, crowning the entire hill and overlooking the community. It was erected during Byzantine times on the ruins of the extensive ancient walls, and was completed in the year 1373 by Genoan Francisco Gatelucco I. The castle of Sigrio is a small stone castle, built during Ottoman rule, a typical example of the Ottoman technique. It was built in the mid 18th century by the Vice Admiral of the Ottoman fleet, Suleiman Pasha, to protect the commercial harbour of the district against piracy.In Therme one can visit the prehistoric settlement, which is approximately 5,000 years old. During the excavations 5 settlements from the early Bronze Age (2800 – 2400 BC) were discovered, and two more from the late Bronze Age (1600 – 1200 BC) were found, built on top of each other. On the northern side of Mytilene, in a pine covered district, lies the Ancient Theatre, one of the greatest in Greece, with a capacity of 15,000 seats! In Moria you can admire part of the arches supporting the Roman aqueduct. It was 26 kilometers long, carrying water from the springs of Mt. Olympus to the city of Mytilene. Near Agia Paraskevi lies the Ancient Temple of Clopedi and the Ancient Temple of the Mesa.
A visit to the Archaeological Museums (the Old and the New one) of Mytilene, reveals the island’s history. If you want to become acquainted with the works of folk painter Theofilos Chatzimichail,you can visit Varia, just outside Mytilene. Next to the Theofilos Museum is the Stratis Eleftheriadis-Teriade Museum-Library. One of a kind, mainly due to the unique nature of its exhibits, which include copies of the unprecedented “VERVE” Magazine, as well as the ‘Great Books’ with lithographs by Chagall, Matisse, Miró, Picasso, Leger and others. In the district of the old community olive press of Agia Paraskevi lies the Museum of Industrial Olive Oil Production of Lesvos. The Museum presents the development of the machinery, with emphasis on the changes brought about by the introduction of mechanical movement in oil production. Vranas Olive Press – Museum is an industrial monument of unique architectural value located in the village of Papados. It operated without a break until the beginning of the 70s. In 1999, it passed into the ownership of Archipelagos Company, which renovated it and turned it into a museum. Also interesting is the Natural History Museum of Lesvos Petrified Forest in Sigri. Its goal is to study, research, promote, report, preserve and protect Lesvos Petrified Forest, which has been declared a Protected Natural Monument with special environmental, geological and palaeontological value. The Museum is a window into the history and development of the Aegean basin over the last 20,000,000 years. Rareplant fossils from W. Lesvos are on display and geological phenomena and processes related to the creation of the Petrified Forest are presented. If you wish to learn more about the natural history of the island you should visit the Vrisa Natural History Collection. Exhibits include paleontological finds dating back 2 million years. If you find the marriage of technology to art fascinating, pay a visit to the ‘Georgios Iakovidis’ Digital Art Museum in Chidira, the painter’s birthplace.
The island of Hephaestus
According to mythology, Goddess Hera was enraged with Zeus one day and when her son Hephaestus supported her, Zeus became so angry that he cast him out of Mt. Olympus. Hephaestus ended up onLimnos, where he started caring for the locals, thus making the islandhis second home.
On Limnos one has the opportunity to admire what is left of the most ancient city in Europe. Poliochni was built at the dawn of the Neolithic Age for the Aegean, i.e., the 4th or 5th millennium BC. It is exactly across the sea from Troy, which, however, was to be built a thousand years later, by which time Poliochni had developed into a nurban settlement with 1,500 residents, rectangular stone dwellings,a defensive wall, squares, drainage, wells, streets, public building sand, possibly, a Parliament. The Parliament of Poliochni, apart from preceding respective ones of the classical era by almost 2000 years,also represents the most ancient such evidence in Europe and the world. The city went through many phases of architectural and cultural development between 5000 BC and 1600 BC and was destroyed dueto geological causes. Near Kontopouli there is the archaeological site of Hephaestia. This was the location of the renowned sanctum to the Great Goddess of Limnos. The city dates back to the Copper Ageand it is considered the second most important city on Limnos, after Myrina. This was the location of the sanctum to the Great Goddess,necropolises, baths, a palace and a Hellenistic Roman theatre. At the recently renovated theatre of Hephaestia ancient tragedies are performed. In Moudros, near the village of Panagia, lies the sanctum of the Cabeiroi. In ancient times this is where the faithful were initiated into the Cabeirian Rites, an annual celebration in honour of the Cabeiroi which was related to the rebirth of nature and the fertility of the land.The flora surrounding the temple inspires awe to this day. The village of Kaminia is well known for the famous Kaminia stele, which is a slab of limestone that was discovered in the previous century, built into a wall in the Chapel of St. Alexander. It depicts a warrior with a spear. Onit, two inscriptions have been carved, using the Greek alphabet, which,however, express a language that remains unknown to this day. The prehistoric settlement of the city of Myrina expands over a wide area,along the western shore of the island, and chronologically it comes after Poliochni; however, according to excavation data, it seems that it reached its peak during the so called Red (2500 to 2300 BC) andYellow (2300 to 2000 BC) periods, while the remains salvaged from the previous and later periods are very few. These are the most ancient samples of human presence, dating to the end of the 4th pre-Christianmillennium, the so called final Neolithic Period. Near the Kotsinos settlement in the Agiochoma (Holy Ground) location, remains are preserved of where Limnian Earth used to be ritualistically excavated.Limnian Earth, known for its therapeutic properties since the time of Theofrastus and Galenus and until the 19th century, was a semi liquid reddish type of clay.
The castle of Moudros was one of the most fortified ones on Limnos, along with the one in Myrina and Kotsinos. Although currently destroyed, it bears witness to the fortification of the city, possibl yby the Venetian Navigajoso, who built extensive defensive works on the island around 1207 – 1214. During the 15th century the fortress of Kotsinos was one of the most powerful ones on the island.During the period when Limnos was under Venetian occupation, the Castle was attacked four times by the Ottomans, who caused very serious damage. Very little is left in the way of fortress ruins near the present day small harbour of Kotsinos. At present there is the Church of Zoodochos Pigi with the subterranean Agiasma (Holy Water) and the statue of Maroula. The castle of Kotsinos is associated with the legendary Maroula, the heroic nobleman’s daughter, who, during a siege by the Ottomans, successfully defended the city with her father’s sword, after he had been killed. The castle of Myrina is one a most famous and well preserved castle. It took on an early form in the early 12th century and its for tications were reinforced in 1185 by emperor Andronicus I, Comnenus. The rock on which the castle is built divides Myrina coast into two parts, namely, the Romeiko (Greek) and the Turkish beaches.
In the footsteps of great Greeks
The history of the island starts in the Mycenaean period and has culturally and historically followed the fortune of the islands of the Northern Aegean. Archaeological findings from the Poliochne era have been discovered. The island has had various names over time: ‘Nea’ during the prehistoric period, ‘Alonissos’ during the classical period, ‘Nissos ton Neon’ during the Byzantine era and ‘Agios Efstratios’ since the 15th century.However, Agios Efstratios became widely known through being associated with a rough chapter of Greek modern history, since it became a place of exile. This beautiful island served as the home of not only exiled politicians, but also leading intellectuals and artists, such as poets Yiannis Ritsos, Tassos Leivaditis and Titos Patrikios, authors Menelaos Loudemis,Tassos Vournas, actors Manos Katrakis, Tzavalas Karoussos, paintersChristos Daglis, Giorgos Farsakidis and other political exiles.The old hamlet of Agios Efstratios was situated above the port, on top o fa hill, and was destroyed after the 1968 earthquake. Subsequently, the military dictatorship (junta) decided to have it demolished. Almost all houses were torn down, along with 8 of the island’s 11 churches. Many,such as the Church of the ‘Five Martyrs’, had been constructed with materials from ancient Greek temples and contained important icons of the 6th – 7th century AD.Houses were made of stone and featured two or three stories with wooden supports and traditional architectural styles. The beautiful Porfyreios& Marasleios School building survived the earthquake and subsequent demolition. Porfyreios & Marasleios School was erected from 1906 to1909 with funds of the community of Agiostratites in Egypt and donated by National Benefactor Grigoris Maraslis; it had housed the island’sgrade school until then (1909-1968). Presently, following its renovation, it aspires to house the ‘Green Energy’ Academy within the framework of the implementation of the ‘Ai Stratis – Green Island’ Programme.The renovated building of the ‘Old School’ houses the Museum of Democracy, featuring exhibits, photographs, authentic items, handwritten newspapers and video shows from the life of exiles on the island and other places of exile.Remains of an ancient settlement have been found on the Agios MinasHill and its chapel, along with the remains of a prehistoric settlement in Alonitsi location and the remains of an ancient necropolis in Evraiki(Jewish) location.Also worthy of note are the Churches of Christ, St. Nicholas and St. Basil,the latter having been built in 1727. The island also features numerous chapels (45 before the earthquake) and 3 glebes of Mt. Athos monasteries.On the NE side of the island, near Alonitsi beach, there is a cave in the rockwhere St. Efstratius hid when being persecuted by the iconoclasts (8thcentury AD). It is believed that the contemporary name of the island is due to him.
On Chios visitors can be transported to yester times, as the island boasts one of the best preserved Medieval defence networks in the Mediterranean, with castles, towers, watchtowers and fortified settlements that stand witness to the need for defence against pirates, raiders and conquerors. Fortified medieval settlements are found in Mastichochoria (Mastic villages) (namely, Pyrgi, Mesta,Olympoi, Kalamoti, Armolia, Vessa). Easily accessible castles to visit are the castles of the city of Chios, Volissos Castle, as well as castles offering tours along countryside footpaths, such as ApolichnonCastle (Armolia), Grias (Old Lady’s) Castle (Kardamyla), Orias (Beauty’s) Castle (Kampia), the Tower of Dotia (Pyrgi), ‘Ta Markou’ Tower (Pispilounta). Watchtowers that can be visited are PacheWatchtower (Sidirounta), Mesta Watchtower and Tracheliou Watchtower (Lithi).
Unique to Greece and one of the most beautiful areas on Chios is Campos, a historical and cultural complex that harmoniously combines an exceptional natural habitat with unique local architectural features. Campos has been declared a listed “historical and traditional settlement”. The area flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Genovese chose it to build their mansions in the 14th century, as did local aristocrats in later years. However, the Chios massacre of 1822 and the lethal earthquake of 1881 destroyed many noteworthy buildings. Some of the oldest are still standing but in bad condition (Mansions of the Rallides, the Petrokokkinoi, the Skylitsides, the Chrysolorades). Better preserved mansions rebuilt after the earthquake, combining local architecture withmany neoclassical features include the “Argentiko”, which is now a luxurious hotel, and the mansions of Kalvokoresis, Mavrokordatos, Zygomalas, Kaloutas and Casanovas. The high walls made of Thymiana rock (a brownish-red rock) protect each property against the winds and the cold. When the courtyard doors open they reveal cobbled or pebbled courtyards, comfortable open air spaces for everyday life and work, with large, cool-shade casting trees, such as pines, walnut trees, linden trees and flowers, wells, cisterns, ledges all the way to the garden itself. Intricate cisterns, decorated with marble relief motifs and spouts, take a prominent position in the courtyard. Shaded paths, flower gardens and creeping jasmine bushes create a unique environment. Genoan elements are combined with local architectural tradition, creating a unique architectural profile. Two to three storey houses rise majestically above tree lines, providing a panoramic view, combined with supervision of the estate. At present, Campos retains its main characteristics and liveliness. Wander along its quiet narrow streets, see the majestic mansions, hear the sound of the water irrigating the vegetable gardens and breathe in, especially in the spring, the intoxicating aromas of blossoming citrus trees. You will then agree that Campos, after all these centuries, is still a refuge of peace and tranquillity.
‘The Man from Chios’
Many areas claim the great philosopher was born on their soil. The view thatHomer came from Chios, however, was so well known in the 6th century BC,that when the lyric poet Symonides spoke of the great poet, he referred to him as ‘Chios Aner’ (A Man from Chios), without even mentioning his name.It should be noted that the Pasha Vrysi or Daskalopetra location, is considered to have been Homer’s Rock, a site where the great teacher used to teach.
The Seafaring Island
The Oinousses, a cluster of nine islands and islets NE of Chios and west of Erythraia, has been inhabited since antiquity. Historians such as Hecataeus (6th century BC), Herodotus and Thucydides note the strategic location of the Oinousses.St. Paul visited the islands during his second missionary journey“across the sea from Chios” on his way to Ephesus.As early as the 18th century AD, stock breeders and farmers from Chios transported their herds there in search of pasture, which the barren island did not feature. Thus, they began transporting goods from their land to Chios, Smyrna and other ports using their boats. Their activities expanded to using larger vessels and, later on, steamboats. Most of them became sailors and shipowners, establishing enterprises on Chios, Syros and abroad. The islands are considered to be the birthplace of seamanship.The center of the main town is dominated by the Cathedral of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of the islands and protector of seafarers. Beautiful and magnificent, with artful icons and numerous votive offerings by sailors from their voyages, the Church was completed in its current form in 1929. It features apart of the holy relics of the Saint, transported with splendor from Sicily in 2001.At the central square of Naftossini (Seafaring capacity), one can find the Monument to the Unknown Sailor bearing the names of hundreds of sailors from the Oinousses lost at sea.The Maritime Museum, a jewel of the islands, presents the splendor of Oinoussian shipping in the clearest way. The Maritime Lyceum, the first model school for Sailors in Greece,founded in 1954, and the Merchant Marine Academy continue the island’s long maritime history.The western shore is dominated by the Holy Convent of Evangelismos. A jewel of monastic architecture, it was erected in1962 and welcomes numerous pilgrims every year. It is renowned not only for its architecture, but also for its rich icons, works by Fotis Kontoglou, and other heirlooms and items of worship.
A blessed place
“Go to Psara as a pilgrim, ready to lose your heart and win it back again”, said Nikos Gialouris, the painter from Chios, once, referring to the sea-beaten rock in the northeast Aegean.Psara has been inhabited since the Mycenaean period, as pointed out by the significant 13th century finds from the Mycenaean cemetery excavated in Archontiki Gulf, on the western coast of the island. Today, the region features an archaeological park, while the finds are on display at Chios Archaeological Museum.In the district of Paleokastro community, a geometric Classical and Hellenistic era settlement was discovered, while parts of the Classical period walls are still visible.The Holy Church of Agios Nikolaos was built in 1793 in honour of the patron Saint of seafarers. The height of the church is 24 metres and in order to visit it one has to climb up 60 steps. During the destruction of Psara in 1824, holy relics and vessels kept in the church were looted; however, the holy gospel was saved. In its time, the church was the largest in the Archipelago and had justly been characterised as the Aegean Metropolis.The Monastery of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary was built around 1780 and it is situated 11 kilometres north of Psara community. In the Monastery there are rare manuscripts and religious books preserved, which were printed in Moscow and Venice. During the historic destruction of Psara, the only thing to survive was the icon of Virgin Mary crafted by Domenikos Theotokopoulos (El Greco),which was smuggled out to the island of Syros, where it remains to this day. In 1830, the new icon of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary was created and is carried on August 1 of each year from the monastery to the Church of the Transfiguration. After the icon visits all the houses of the village to bless them, it is returned to the monastery on August 6. Believers stay in monastery cells until August15 so that they can help with the preparations for the major church feast.The most important page of the island history during the Greek Liberation Revolution was written on Mavri Rachi (Black-sloped) Hill, on the southern tip of the peninsula where the ruins of the fortification walls remain to this day. Here one can find a rock in the place where the gunpowder warehouse stood and a monument for the souls of the island defenders who blew themselves up so as not to fall captive to the Ottomans.
The Pythagorean Island
In antiquity Samos was quite a large naval power and one of the most important centres of commerce in the Aegean – known for its wine and ceramics – trading both within Greece as well as with the peoples of the Mediterranean. It is the birthplace of many major figures of antiquity, namely, the philosopher, mathematician and music theorist Pythagoras, the philosopher Epicurus, the astronomer and mathematician Aristarchus, the tyrant Polycrates, during whose tyranny Samos reached the pinnacle of its cultural growth and fame.The greatest works on the island are dated to his reign.
The Temple of Hera
According to Greek mythology, the goddess Hera was born on Samos. Ruins of her temple have been preserved to this day near the southern coast of the island. The Heraion was established as a holy place in the geometric period and remained in use until Roman times.The temple was an Ionic dipterous edifice with 115 gigantic columns,of which a single column stands at about half its original height. At the time of Polycrates the temple took on its final and most majestic form, with rich wall décor and a frieze featuring sphinxes and various animals. Herodotus considered the Temple of Hera ‘the greatest and most imposing temple in Greece’. UNESCO included the temple and the broader archaeological site of Pythagoreion among the world’s cultural heritage monuments.The Sanctum was connected politically and administratively with the ancient city of Samos (present-day Pythagoreion). The city was connected to the Sanctum via Iera Odos (the Holy Road), segments of which survive to this day. Great votive items have been found along the Iera Odos and are now housed at Samos Archaeological Museum,the most important being the Geneleos’ Statue Complex, and the colossal Kouros. This unique work of archaic plastic art was found during the excavation search of the Iera Odos Area to the east of the Heraion. It was one of 5 – 6 colossal kouros statues that adorned the northern side of the Road.
The Tunnel of Eupalinos
The Tunnel of Eupalinos is one of the greatest technical achievement sof the 6th century BC and it is considered by many to be the 8th wonder of antiquity. The precision of the construct is tangible proof of the high architectural achievement of Greek engineers of the time. The “double-edged trench”, as it was called by ancient historian Herodotus, was constructed during the tyranny of Polycrates in order to supply the ancient capital of Samos with water. The work was constructed by the architect Eupalinos around 550 BC and was used until the Late Roman period.
Polycrates walls, 6430 metres long, protected the ancient city of Samos and enclosed an area of 1.2 km2. Very few segments have been preserved, which are still impressive to visitors.
The Ancient Quarries of Agiades
To the south of the village of Mytilinioi, on Koutsodontis Hill, at a distance of 1000-1500m, a system of 45 tunnels was developed, which were entrances to the Ancient Quarries -Mines. They lie at an altitude of 141m and are supported by pillars, carved by hand, testimony to the accurate study, array and careful construction of each one,so as to soundly support the mountainous mass above them. One of these tunnels leads to the interior of the hill,where speleologists have recorded 8 mining levels, with the total depth of the quarry reaching 70m. This is where materials were mined from to be used for the erection of the great temple of Hera and other buildings of the ancient city of Samos.
The Archaeological Site of Thermes
To the west of Pythagoreion and within the area of ancient Samos’ sport facilities, lie the ruins of Thermes, also known as the Roman Baths, which were built in the second half of the 2nd century AD. In this area, there were the changing rooms for bathers, the areas for cold baths, the octagonal pool and the chambers for warm baths, as well as a domedroom used as a sauna. In the 5th century, this room was used as a baptistery and incorporated into the three-aisledPalaeo-Christian basilica, in the northern part of Thermes.Thermes were a single, well-organised location, which included the athletic facilities of the ancient city, namely, a gymnasium, a stadium and a palaestra (wrestling ring). The stadium was 190-200m long and 40-50m wide and was one of the largest stadiums in ancient Greece.
The Land of Icarus
Ikaria, the glorious island of the Northern Aegean, is connected to the myth of Icarus, the first man to fly, wearing wings of wax. Excited by this new experience,he flew too close to the sun, which resulted in his wings melting and his drow ningin the sea, near the shores of the island named after him. Currently, one can visit archaeological sites, Byzantine and more recent monuments, churches and monasteries, thus enriching their journey to the island.
On the banks of the River Chalaris lies the archaeological site of Tavroplio (Nas),where Goddess Artemis was worshipped from Classical to Roman times. This is the area’s main monument. To this day, the quay and floor of the Sanctum are preserved at the site of the ancient port. According to mythology, Naiads lived in Tavropolio. Oenoe or Dionysiad was the ancient capital of the island. Ruins of the wall that surrounded the city and the crumbling building of the Byzantine era can be seen in present-day Campos region. The ancient city of Drakano is considered to be the homeland of Dionysus and lies in the Fanari location, on the eastern most part of the island. There, one can admire the Tower of Drakano, a circular construct of the Alexandrian era, 4th century BC, amongst the ruins of the ancient castle. Present day Therma took their name from the ancient city of Ikaria,Thermai, which was known for its radium-containing therapeutic hot springs.A short distance to the east of the present-day bath town in ‘Chalasmena Therma’(Broken Therma), lie the ruins of the ancient city. Near the village of Kosoikia,on the northern part of the island, you will find the Castle of Koskinas. It is aByzantine era fortress of the 10th century, within which the church of St. Georgios of Dorgana stands hidden.
Fournoi is a small island with a long history, but very little recorded historical data. One of the few things we know is that Fournoi supplied ancient Miletus with marble. Furthermore, it is speculated that its first inhabitants were Ionians. Although our knowledge of the island is limited, when you visit Fournoi you will come across interesting finds from different time periods.From the hill of Agios Georgios, above the village,one can observe a cyclopean wall from a prehistoric fortification on the foundations of which a classical era castle was built, which, in turn, served as the acropolis of Fournoi. At the top of the hill there was a temple anda sanctum. In unmovable rocks within the walls there are inscriptions that speak of the gods of Samothrace,the founder of the acropolis and the god Hermes.In the piazza of the present-day community of Fournoistands an Alexandrian style Roman sarcophagus,decorated with schematic relief motifs of wreaths and circles. The sarcophagus stands on rectangular supports and it is speculated that in the surrounding area there, still, lies buried the old Roman cemetery.On the Western side of the island is Kamari. Here, an ancient settlement has been identified, with building ruins extending from the foot of the low hill all the way into the sea.At Agia Trias site of Chrysomilia location there liethe ruins of the foundations of an ancient temple dedicated to Poseidon.At many points on the hill of Petrokopio there are traces of ancient quarrying, while the entire slope on the side of the quarry, all the way to the sea,was covered with breccia and large marble pieces;it is speculated that ancient Miletus was built withs uch materials. Another great quarry is located at‘Tsigganario’ location.