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Lesvos History in a nutshell ...

According to myth, the first inhabitants of Lesvos were the the Pelasgeans, who gave it its initial name “Pelasgia” . During the Prehistoric era, the island was called “Makaria”, “Lassia”, “Aeolis”, “Ethiope”. but its current name “Lesvos” comes from “Lesvos”, son of the Greek hero Lapithos. Makar is reputed to be the first king whose daughters bequeathed their names to some of the present larger towns. Town names like “Mytilini”, “Kalloni”, “Antissa”, “Eressos”, “Mithymna” have their mythological origin because of this king.

Homer refers to the island as “Makaros edos”, the seat of Makar. Hittite records of the Late Bronze Age name the island Lazpas and must have considered its population significant enough to ”borrow their gods”, presumably idols, to intervene in the cure of their king since the local gods were not forthcoming. It is believed that emigrants from mainland Greece, mainly from Thessaly, entered the island in the Late Bronze Age and bequeathed it with the Aeolic dialect of Greek, whose written form survives in the poems of such writers as Sappho, whose homosexual love poems to other women led to the use of the island's name for the word lesbian, and abundant gray pottery ware and the worship of Cybele, the great mother-goddess of Anatolia, suggest the continuity of the population from Neolithic times.

Archaeological excavations brought to light evidence that Lesvos has been inhabited since the late Neolithic times. There are also several archaic, classical Greek and Roman remains.

Important archaeological sites on the island are the Neolithic cave of Kagiani, probably a refuge for shepherds, the Neolithic settlement of Chalakies, and the extensive habitation of Thermi (3000-1000 BC). The largest habitation is found in Lisvori (2800-1900 BC) part of which is submerged in shallow coastal waters.

From 1393 to 1184 BC it was inhabited by the Aegeans, while at around 1100 BC the Aeolians arrived. The Aeolians assimilated with the Aegeans, the two cultures merged and gradually Lesvos developed into a significant hub of the Eastern Aegean. Mytilini was founded ca 1050 BC by the family Penthilides who arrived from Thessaly in mainland Greece and ruled the city until the popular revolt (590-580 BC) led by Pittacus.

When the Persian king Cyrus defeated Croussos (546 BC) all Anatolia including the Ionic Greek cities and the adjacent islands became Persian subjects and remained such until the Persians were defeated by the Greeks at the naval battle of Salamis (480 BC). The island was governed by an oligarchy in archaic times followed by quasi-democracy in classical times. For a short period it was member of the Athenian confederacy its apostasy from which is described in a stirring chapter of Thucydides’s history of the Peloponnesian War.

Throughout its long history, Lesvos has to show for a plethora of intellectuals. The most famous among the ones who lived and worked on the island are: Terpander (700 B.C.), poet and musician the father of ancient lyrical poetry and invented the seven note musical scale for the lyre, Pittacus (648 B.C.) politician and one of the seven wise men of Ancient Greece, Arion (625 B.C.), a charismatic lyrical poet and mucisian who developed the type of poem called dithyramb, the progenitor of tragedy., Alcaeus (600 B.C.), one of the best known lyrical poets of ancient Greece, and finally Sappho (620 B.C.), the most famous ancient Greek poetesses whose poems, distinguished for their stylistic elegance, passion and depth of feeling, won her the name the “tenth Muse”. Other significant personalities are Theophrastus (372 B.C.) philosopher and botanist - known as the father of botany - and Theophanes (100 B.C.), a significant historian who accompanied Pompey in his Asia Minor expeditions.

The seminal artistic creativity of those times brings to mind the myth of Orpheus to whom Apollo gave a lyre and the Muses taught to play and sing. When Orpheus incurred the wrath of the god Dionysus he was dismembered by the Maenads and of his body parts his head and his lyre found their way to Lesbos where they have remained ever since. In classical times Hellanicus advanced historiography, Theophrastus, the father of botany, succeeded Aristotle as the head of the Lyceum. Aristotle and Epicurus lived there for some time. In early CE times Longus wrote the famous novel Daphnis and Chloe, and much later the historian Doukas wrote the history of the early Ottoman Turks.

In Hellenistic times the island belonged to various Macedonian kingdoms until 79 BC when it passed into Roman hands. After the division of the Roman Empire, Lesvos was incorporated in its Eastern section. During the Archaic period (7th - 6th century BC), the population increased and the island flourished both commercially and culturally. In 52 AD, the Apostle Paul visited Lesvos in order to preach Christianity. The cities of Mytilini and Mithymna are bishoprics since the 5th century.

During the Byzantine period (324-1453), the island was frequently attacked and looted by Saracens, Venetians and Catalans and the island’s intellectual life is relatively stagnant. In 1354 the Genoese Francisco Gateluzi married the sister of the Emperor John V Palaeologos and received the island as a dowry. The Gateluzi family ruled for 107 years.

The rule of the Gatelluzi family ceased rather abrupt when the Ottoman Turks overrun Greece and took over the island in 1462. During the years of the Turkish occupation, the cultural and financial life in the island declines but during the 15th century the Monastery of LIMONOS becomes the centre of the island's intellectual revival. The Lesvians fought to keep their faith, language and national identity. They achieved this through the churches and monasteries keeping secret schools to educate the children in the Greek language and culture.

Very many ancient books were copied for this purpose and they can be seen today in the museum at the Limonos monastery. In the 18th Century significant personalities appear again: Ignatius of Hungary-Wallachia and Benjamin the Lesvian, who is numbered among a group of 18th and 19th century scholars known as the "teachers of the race"

Inadvertently Lesvos became an important centre for the Turkish fleet, due to its strategic location and many battles were fought in the sea around the island. One resistance fighter called Papanikolis used a small boat with oars, full of dynamite to sabotage the great Turkish frigate called "Moving Mountain" in the bay of Eressos in May 1821. The Turks avenged this by slaughtering the islanders, an act so abhorrent it is still referred to today as "to megalo tsoulousi". The statue of Papanikoli erected on the coast of Skala Eressos looks out to the bay, in remembrance.

Lesvos was free from the Turks in 1912. The Greek fleet took over Mytilene and the Turkish flag was removed after the final battle in Klapados. This flag is now exhibited in the Monastery of Limonas.

In the 19th century the brothers Dimitrios and Georgios Vernardakis, Georgios Aristedis and Christophoros Leilios support Greek education in the island and the revival begins.

Later in the 20th century, Argyris Eftaliotis, Stratis Myrivilis (both novelists), the poet and Nobel laureate Odysseas Elytis and many others contributed to the intellectual revival of the island. Certainly this was not limited only to literature and poetry. The folk painter Theophilos Chatzimichalis and the art critic and editor of art books Stratis Eleftheriades - Teriad each make a contribution to art.

During the period 1950 - 1960 financial problems forced many Lesvians to emigrate, mainly to Western Europe and the Americas. The Lesvian communities abroad preserve to this day their cultural identity despite the passage of time and the distance separating them from their motherland.

To this day cultural life on the island is rich and there are many people and societies that continue to contribute to the ongoing intellectual revival of Lesvos.

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