1. Setting – Surroundings
Limnos is a volcanic island with small hills, rocky trachyte formations and sparse vegetation. Its coasts form diverse coves and beaches. Distinguishing are its two bays, Moudros to the south and Pournias - or Bournias - to the north. Myrina and Moudros are the island’s chief ports, while there are other anchorages too. At the eastern part of the island, near village Kontopouli, there are the lagoons of Alyki and Chortarolimni, both significant wildlife refuges.
Despite its rocky ground, Limnos is quite a fertile island with quality products (e.g. breadstuffs, pulse, wine, figs, raisins, almonds and thyme honey). Its dairy is also known, such as the salamoura cheese and the kalathaki (“little basket”), named after the cane basket called tirvoli inside which it is left to mellow. Its residents occupy themselves with fishing, while they also used to fish sponges.
2. 1. Prehistoric times
Due to its location and geomorphology, Limnos played a significant part in the Aegean history, already since the Early Bronze Age (around 3200-2000 BC). Limnos was involved in the prehistoric trading network, as indicated by a Homeric citation (Iliad H 467-475), according to which the Achaeans who besieged Troy provided Limnian king Euneus with minerals from the Asia Minor hinterland in exchange for Limnian wine. The island’s connection with metalwork is illustrated in its mythological tradition, according to which god of metalwork Hephaestus’s workshops were on Limnos; they were manned with the Cabiri, the god’s mythical descendants, who were connected to one of the oldest Limnian cults. Besides, it is not accidental that the Argonauts stopped in Limnos for replenishment during their mythical quest (which demonstrates the prehistoric Aegean people’s interest in trade with Anatolia and the Black Sea).
Already since the 4th-3rd millennium BC, Limnos had a remarkable network of settlements demonstrating its connection to other Northern Aegean regions, since some of them faced the Troad, some the northern part of Greece and the islands at these coasts (Samothrace, Thasos), and others faced west and south. These settlements are close to the island’s fertile areas, while most of them have safe anchorages. Limnos’ two chief proto-urban centers, with successive residential phases, were Poliochni on the eastern coast of the island, and a location near Richa Nera at the northern exit of modern capital Myrina, only recently uncovered. Particularly Poliochni, near modern village Kaminia, shows traces of urbanization (e.g. buildings and places probably of public use). It is one of the most significant Early Bronze Age centers in the Aegean.
2. 2. Antiquity – Mediaeval Times
Information provided on Limnos and its residents during early historical times (1200-600 BC) by written historical sources is nothing but inexplicit. It is clear though that several different tribes, pro-Hellenic, Greek, or non-Greek, had either come to the island or had established close contact with its residents. Homer (Iliad A 593-594) mentions the Sintians, Herodotus (6. 136) the Pelasgians, while the Carians and the Minyans are also mentioned. One of the few concrete attestations demonstrating such contacts is the "Kaminia stele" (National Archaeological Museum of Athens), probably a funerary stele for a soldier depicted in bas-relief, accompanied by a lengthy inscription in the dead now Tyrrhenian language (6th cent. BC).
The Athenians occupied the island in 515 BC and established colonists around 450 BC to maintain their dominance over the island. The Athenians and Macedonian king Philip (360-336 BC) fought against each other for Limnos, as did Alexander’s successors later on (336-166 BC) because of the island's strategic geographical location. From 166 BC on, it came under Roman dominance and in the Byzantine Times it was integrated into the Theme of Greece and later into that of the Aegean Sea. Limnos was a very significant naval base and a place for ship buliding; from the 7th century AD up to the 11th, all of the battle ships of the Aegean Sea Theme were built there. The dockyards kept blooming up to the Frankish Rule, while in the 13th century the island became a naval base once again.
As attested by ancient writers and confirmed by archaeological research, the island’s chief cities during the historic times were Myrina on the western coast and Hephaestia (Ifaistia) on the northern one. They prospered since the 8th-7th century BC and minted their own coins since the mid-4th century BC. Research also shows that classical Limnos was densely populated and scattered with villages and cottages, especially in its more fertile areas.
2. 3. Latin Rule and Modern Times
In 1207, the island came under Venetian dominance and was reoccupied by the Byzantines in 1279, to come finally under Ottoman rule in 1456. Save some brief moments of Venetian rule (e.g. 1464-1478), it remained a part of the Ottoman Empire up to 1912, the year it was integrated into Greece. Written sources, mostly travellers’ accounts, that provide information about life on the island from 15th century on, are somewhat confusing regarding the island’s involvement in the 1821 Greek War of Independence and previous revolts against the Ottomans. It seems, however, that Limnos’s involvement was unofficial and unorganized because the island was too close to the Asia Minor coast; there was also an Ottoman garrison on the island. Several texts mention Limnian captains and other inabitants participating in the War, on their own though. The establishment of 30,000 conscripts of the English-French army during the Gallipoli operation in 1915 was very important. Since there were so many soldiers on the island, even for a short while, a few rudimentary infrastructure works were conducted at the Moudros port and the hinterland road network.
3. Settlements and population
Historical sources, ecclesiastical documents, as well as travellers' and geographers’ accounts provide significant information on the development of Limnos' settlements and the inhabitants' life from the 13th up to the 20th century. What we conclude is that Limnos flourished in the 16th century, when it had seventy-five settlements and was densely populated. Later on, its population decreased, as demonstrated in the 1920 census, when its settlements were thirty-nine. Myrina (aka Myrinoupoli, Limnos, Stalimeni, Kastro, Palaiokastro) was still the chief city with its double port, while its Byzantine walls were built in the early 12th century. In the late 14th century, Hephaestia was finally deserted, and the nearby village of Kokkinos (aka Koginos, Kogios, Kogis; modern Kotsinas) took its place as a port and trade center. The population declined and increased following historical changes: the chronicler Giacomo Rizzardo stated that Limnos had a population of barely 6,000, but after the demographical explosion of the 16th century , it increased and stood at 30,000 up to the Venetian-ottoma war (1645-1669). After the Russo-ottoma clashes of 1770 (Limnos was aloof, but suffered by the Ottoman retaliation and the slump that hit the Aegean in general) it declined to 10,000. There was an increase in the early 19th century and, just before the Balkan Wars, the population reached its zenith (27,000). Finally, in 1923, with the Treaty of Lausanne, 1,600 Muslims of Limnos were forced to leave the island during the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey, so that approximately 5,000 Greek-Orthodox refugees from Asia Minor could take their place. The refugees settled mostly in villages of their own (e.g. Nea Koutali, built in 1926 to shelter refugees from Koutali of Propontis).
4. Economic Activities
Limnos’s economy was considerably based on local agricultural production: land-cultivation and stock farming have been, and still are, the locals’ main activities. In the 16th century, Austrian Rheinhold von Lubenau remarked that there was no trade on Limnos, since its residents confined themselves to consuming their own products. This sense of economic self-sufficiency was preserved up to the 19th century. Some kind of rudimentary export trade was gradually organized, mostly based on breadstuffs, stock farming products and wine. There has also been a report of a trade association operating on Limnos from 1763 to 1783 and also having connections with Italy. Even though Limnos’s dockyards (mostly for battle ships) flourished during the Byzantine and Ottoman period, its naval activities were notable only during the 19th century. However, Limnian seafaring was led in decay since sailing vessels were substituted for steam vessels, but mostly because of the great waves of migration that led Greeks abroad.
Migration marked Limnos’s society and economy during the 19th century and for the greatest part of the 20th century. Leaving their homeland, the children of poor farmers and stockbreeders settled first in Egypt and other African countries, and later in North America, Australia and (after 1950) in Germany. Limnos’ economy apparently improved thanks to money orders from abroad, to the construction of luxurious urban houses that gradually appeared in Myrina and the villages, and thanks to generous donations for the construction of churches and schools. Migration led to the decline of the local social and economic life, just like in the rest of Greece, since manpower was reduced to the minimum, making Limnos an old peoples’ place or –following the legend of Philoctetes who was abandoned there by the Greeks on their way to Troy– a place of outcasts and exiles. Despite its strategic significance for controlling the Dardanelles, Limnos of modern times was not included in the established trade routes, which usually followed the Asia Minor coastline down to the southern Aegean. The isolation of the island explains the low living standards of its residents and its choice as a place of exile: Voltaire called it so in his Candide, and it was thus introduced to the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos in 1948, who had been exiled for a year in village Kontopouli, where he wrote his long poem Kapnismeno Tsoukali.
During the last decades of the 20th century, Limnos gradually turned into a resort, without having (as the rest of the Aegean too) a balanced and strategically planned tourism programme. Intense building development (disturbing the island’s landscape and traditional character) gave job opportunities to the inhabitants and held back migration. However, save the development of such activities, as well as demand in the service and tourism branches, etc., its residents stick to the typical land cultivation and stock farming activities.
(Transl. Onoufrios Dovletis)
5. Archaeological Sites
5. 1. Poliochni
Poliochni, situated halfway down the eastern coast of Limnos, literary sea-drenched and exactly opposite Troy, is considered perhaps the most important early urban centre of the Early Bronze Period (3rd millennium BC). It is definitely the most thoroughly excavated, and as such Poliochni presents itself as not only the earliest city in Aegean archaeology but also one of the oldest towns in Europe.
Built on a low hill, it presents a complex building network arranged in blocks, a main road along which two exquisitely crafted, stone-lined wells had been opened, and a sturdy wall with a wisely designed gate to the west. The Italian archaeologists, who located and began excavating the settlement during the 1930s, discovered several successive building phases, similar to those in Troy which, L. Bernabò Brea, for the sake of greater clarity, categorized using different colours. So, beginning from the deepest (re: oldest) phases, we have the following succession: Poliochni Black, Blue, Green, Red, Yellow, Brown and, finally, Violet. Of these, the two last cover the Middle and incipient Late Bronze Period, from the 19th to the 15th c. BC.
While during the first phase (the Black) Poliochni was no more than a village with rounded huts, during the next phase (Blue), through complex socio-economic processes, it gained an premature urban character: the settlement is walled for the first time, two impressive for the era communal works are established (the “Granary” and the “Parliament”), and mansion-like buildings, earlier than those in Troy, appear. Abundant evidence suggesting the extensive practice of metalwork, which presupposes collective work and technical expertise, further emphasizes the early urban character of the settlement from this phase forth.
Imported crafts from the Aegean area but also from more distant places, found during various building phases, bear witness to the involvement of Poliochni in the trading network of the period. The prosperity of her inhabitants was further testified by a “treasure” consisting of ornate gold jewelry dating from the Yellow phase, which had been stored in a plain clay vessel, before the great earthquake which destroyed the settlement and led to its decline. From a chronological as well as a typological viewpoint, these gold jewels are closely connected with the so-called Treasure of Priamos from nearby Troy.
As a port settlement, Poliochni owes its flourishing during the 3rd millennium BC to its vitally important position close to the Asia Minor coast and the entrance to the Hellespont. Myths (see mainly the Argonaut and Trojan cycle), seen as a concentration and recording of age-long collective experiences and important events, clearly echo the vital importance of Limnos, thus of Poliochni as well, for sea transportations in the northern and north eastern Aegean. The favourable sea currents which reached the island, combined with its shores which offered deep and safe anchorages at all four points of the horizon, presented excellent assistance to shipping. Thus, at the same time as Poliochni, a number of mainly coastal settlements were founded on Limnos, of which only two are being thoroughly excavated: Myrina (location Riha Nera) and Koukonisi, located at the mouth of the bay of Moudros.
The generally fertile inland valleys ensured for its inhabitants not only abundance in supplies of primary production but also the necessary surplus for the conduct of exchange trade with places outside Limnos. On this issue, the information – although latter - we gain from the Iliad (H 467-475) is indicative: the king of Limnos Euneos, did business with the Achaioi besiegers of Troy, supplying them with wine in exchange, amongst others, for metal.
Similar trading practices, with metal as their main objective, we must also accept for the 3rd millennium BC, during which Poliochni it seems, was amongst the earliest and most innovative metalwork centres with a decisive role in its importation and spread throughout the Aegean. Could it be an accident that mythical tradition wants the godly metalworker Hephaestus choosing Limnos to set up his workshops (Odyssey I, 284-285).
(Transl. Klio Panourgia)
5. 2. Hephaestia
A city of historical times on the north coast of Limnos (near modern Kotsinas). It was a vital center for life on Limnos (along with Myrina, the modern capital), with significant temples of local and panhellenic deities, public buildings and a theatre. It was finally deserted in the 13th-14th century.
(Transl. Onoufrios Dovletis)
5. 3. Kabirion
The Kabeirio on Limnos, excavated by the Italian Archaeological School, is among the oldest and longest surviving sanctuaries in the Aegean island world. Founded towards the end of the 8th century BC in the north of the island, literally on the sea (gulf of Pournias), it continued to function as a vital centre for mystical worship until the Late Roman years.
The Kabeiroi, deities of fire and metalwork, fertility and navigation, were, according to local Limnos tradition, children of Kabeiro and Hephaestus who, as is well known, was closely connected to Limnos. Their worship, enigmatic and multifaceted, also spread to neighbouring Samothrace, and Thebes (in Beatia), where differences regarding their genealogy, number and connected worship practices have been recorded.
According to literary sources and information from recent excavations, the Kabeirio on Limnos is the most ancient known to date. The first Telestirion, destroyed by fire (perhaps during the Persian invasion of the island in 512 BC), was a rectangular room (dimensions: 6,40x13,50 m), with built-in desks down its long sides for the initiates, with possibly a rectangular altar and a raised circular floor surrounded by steps. Around 200 BC and in connection, possibly, to a visit by Philip V, the impressive Telestirion (33x46,10 m), was built, with twelve columns along its façade, similar to the Philon Arcade at the Telestirion at Eleusis, while its central trunk, destined for use by the initiates for their meetings, was divided into three aisles by two rows of Ionic columns. After the fire and destruction of this Hellenistic Telestirion, a new, smaller and more humbly constructed Telestirion was built in the 3rd century AD, on the Sanctuary’s southern plateau.
The great importance gained by the worship of the Kabeiroi on Limnos and the brilliance of the sanctuary throughout the northern, mainly, Aegean world for over a millennium, is testified by literary and epigraphic sources, but also by findings from the sanctuary itself. It is no accident that Aeschylus, on completing his trilogy on the Argonauts’ stay on Limnos in around 466 BC, entitled one of his tragedies Kabeiroi.
(Transl. Klio Panourgia)
5. 4. The castle of Myrina
It is located at the southwestern part of the modern settlement and dominates on a steep peninsula. The view from the castle is breathtaking. The city of Myrina with its picturesque port and two shores ("Romeikos", meaning Greek, and "Tourkikos", meaning Turkish) lies to the east. To the north lies the hill of Agios Athanasios with the chapel of the same name and to the south the island of Agios Efstratios is faintly visible. Mount Athos emerges to the northwest, mostly at dusk.
In Byzantine times, around 1186, emperor Andronikos I Komnenos founded the castle upon the Archaic and Hellenistic times fortification remnants. During Venetian rule, it was repaired and expanded, while it owes its current form mostly to the times of the Venetian lord of Limnos Philocalo Navigaioso, who fortified Myrina in 1207. Later on, under the Ottomans, additaments and refits were made mostly in its interior.
The castle has a polygonal floor plan, implemented by ground morphology. It extends in 35,58 acres and its highest extant top is approximately 120 m high. Its massive walls were built thus so that they could stand powder-gun attacks. Therefore, they have an acute angle of slope, which made them hard to hit with war ship canons. At the northern part of the castle, that angle is noticeably reduced, which made the triple wall fortification necessary. Francesco Dorino Gateluzzo contributed to that by adding the third enceinte.
Fourteen rectangular or irregular-shaped towers at the circumference of the fortress contribute to its optimum fortification. In 1992-1993, the Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities restored two of these towers. Gun-loops, arrow-loops and platforms specially formed for canons amongst machicolations also made defense more adequate. The loops were created at first in the gaps between machicolations, as well as in other vulnerable places at the castle’s circumference. These were stone apertures through which soldiers poured hot water, oil, molten lead or burning resin to besiegers.
Outside the eastern walls, to the port, Classical rock-hewn figures and paintings on rocks, mostly of ships, are still extant . Up to 1982, there was a built-in Gateluzzi coat of arms opposite the main entrance, as well as a built-in marble relief with a lion, the symbol of Venetian power, now in the Myrina Archaeological Museum.
Behind the castle walls, there are ruins of outbuildings used by several castle overlords (storerooms, cisterns, a powder magazine, a government house, a mosque, a barrack). However, the guardians of the castle nowadays are the offspring of a couple transferred from Rhodes in 1970: 150 beautiful deer.
(Anna - Magdalini Argyri)
The Archaeological Museum of Limnos was housed in 1961 in a three-storey neo-classical building (the Ottoman Government House) at Romeikos Gialos. The museum houses findings from Poliochni, Hephaestia, Cabirion and other sites of the island. Many of these were uncovered during rescuing excavations or by accident. There are also exhibits from the prehistoric up to the late Roman period.
7. Traditional and Modern Architecture
The oldest Limnian cottage house type known to us is the simple narrow-façade type with a single room and an axata (a roofed balcony at the front of the elevated entrance). It was a modest building with a tile roof, adapted to rural life, since it allowed access to rooms where farmers kept the harvest (store rooms, cellars) and homebred animals. Such houses are extant at the most secluded villages (Sardes, Fisini, Agia Sofia, etc). Most of the urban houses still extant were built at the time between the early 19th century and the population exchange (1923). There are two urban-house types: the “Macedonian” type –spacious two-storey houses with a tile roof, more fit for the mainland, influenced also by Ottoman presence on Limnos– and the posterior neo-classical type. Neo-classical houses of Myrina (especially those along the Romeikos Gialos), as well as others at villages that flourished during the 19th century (e.g. Kornos, Kaspakas, Kontopouli, etc) manifest their owners’ ostentatious eclecticism (they were mostly migrants to Egypt). At the same time, many schools were built, all of them in the neo-classical style, making Limnos an island with twenty-three schools in 1889.
From the mid-19th century on, donations coming from Limnian migrants helped the building or restoration of majestic parish churches at Myrina and the villages. These grand churches were built according to the typical for the northern Aegean type of the three-nave basilica with no cupola, with wood-carven or stone-built screens, a luxurious inside and outside decoration, stone peristyles and bell towers. Even now, they shape the appearance and life of some villages (e.g. Kornos, Portianou, Romanou or Moudros).
8. Folk culture – Folk art
Even though travellers mostly underlined the significance of terra lemnia and described the annual rite for its extraction, some folk rites, myths and traditions have endured up to this day. Many of these have come from the pre-Christian period, while others indicate the residents’ interaction with populations from the Asia Minor hinterland. Most of them can also be found at other northeastern Aegean areas and mainland Greece, and are pertinent to land fertility and combating diseases. Some of them are still carried out: offering the first crops of the harvest to the church so that the congregation consumes them after mass in a festive atmosphere, or visiting local feasts, pilgrimage places and agiasmata
(holy springs), as in Profitis Ilias, Agios Sozos, Agios Charalambos, etc). The visit is usually accompanied by staying for the night in additional rooms (chagiatia) by the churches, in remembrance of the ancient tradition of spending the night at a sacred place (enkoimesis). Characteristic are also the St. George’s horse races that take place in Kalliopi on the day dedicated to the saint.
There are also relatively recent traditions regarding saints’ relics and icons, as well as gallant deeds against the Ottoman or pirate intruders. The most popular one is that of Maroula (a historical figure that lived at the time Limnos became a part of the Ottoman Empire after the 1st Venetian-Ottoman war was over in 1478).
Limnos’ folk art is expressed mostly through stone craft, works of which were produced even after the mid-20th century. Using Limnos’ red-brownish stone, or –more usually– its characteristic grayish volcanic rock, the works it produced were mostly decorative architectural parts (pilasters, corbels, capitals and imposts), enriched with depictions of lion heads, plant patterns and figures drawn from the post-Byzantine, folk and Graeco-Roman tradition. Specimens of sculpture in stone can be found at the stone houses of Myrina and the villages, at churches (some of which also have carved-in-stone screens) and cemeteries, where 19th and early 20th century tombs were marked with sculptures.
Textiles and knittings seem to have had an age-old tradition on Limnos, as indicated by the survival of such handicraft activities up to this day. The simple and practical local garments of Limnian men and women have been depicted on 18th century engravings, before they were substituted during he 19th century for the “kechagia” garments with the white breeches and long shirt, the black woolen waistband and the white headband.
9. Mantres, fountains and chapels in the countryside
9. 1. Mantres
Limnos’ mantres are small roofed buildings in the countryside (usually in a field or a slope of pastoral land) and differ from other similar buildings in Greece, since the Limnian ones usually include rooms for sleeping, sojourning and working. They were at first single-room buildings with tiled roofs, made of stone, wood and canes with no binder or lime-cast. They gradually turned into organized stock farms with a house and stables for sheep and homebred animals, to which a barn, a thresh or a kiln were usually added. These austere and plain buildings are impressive for their convenience, the imaginativeness in the room organization and the way they fit with the scenery. In the Limnian oral tradition, the narratives and the folk songs, the mantra is always the “kingdom” of the kechagias, e.g. the stock farmer owning a certain number of sheep and goats and associated with a pastoral landowner, being in charge of agricultural activities regarding the flock and the farm.
9. 2. Fountains
Limnos’ villages and countryside are scattered with stone-built fountains, which were once the centre of everyday life, since houses did not have drinking water. Most of them have nowadays been either neglected or “renovated” to fit the frequently irrelevant aesthetics of those in charge. Limnian fountains are elaborate and monumental, conspicuous or with a canopy, ornamented with pediments, arches and reliefs, being the only remembrance of the Ottoman influence on the island’s public architecture, along with the mosque at the Myrina port and the health resort at Therma.
9. 3. Chapels
In 1987, only 350 short, single-room chapels, with gabled tiled roofs and a pediment crowning their façade, had survived of the 500 ones counted in Limnos’s countryside in 1912. They usually have benches at the left and right of the entrance, as well as a rudimentary front yard, which is sometimes roofed. They still are a part of the social and religious life of Limnos and its tourists. However, they often are victims of the ardor of the people in charge for renovation and “embellishment”.
(Transl. Onoufrios Dovletis)
10. Terra lemnia
Term of the ancient Greek literature (in ancient Greek: lemnia ge) referring to a kind of red argillaceous soil with healing properties, which was extracted exclusively in Limnos. According to Theophrastos (4th century BC), Pliny (1st century AD), Galen (2nd-3rd century AD) and other Greek and Latin writers, Terra Lemnia was a medication suitable for the cure of many illnesses, but mainly of lumps, bleeding, inflammations, as well as dog and reptile bites.
The extraction site of Terra Lemnia is identified as the location presently known as Agiochoma, approximately 1 km southwest of the Pournias bay. In ancient times, the area was under the supervision of Hephaistia, the most important city of the island, on the bay’s eastern exit. Agiochoma is located at the foot of Mosychlos (presently known as “Despotis”), the mountain where, according to Greek mythology, Hephaistos fell after he was banished from Mount Olympos. The mythological correlations coupled with the volcanic rock characterizing the area constributed in the bestowal to Terra Lemnia of miraculous qualities. Moreover, according to Lemnian Philostratos (3rd century AD), it even helped cure the mythical hero Philoctetes. The extraction of terra was conducted under the supervision of the local clergy that sealed the soil, which was put up in a set, in order for its transportation to be controlled and its authenticity to be certified. For that reason, the sealed healing tablets were also known as “Lemnia Sphragis” or “Terra Sigillata".
After a long period during which the practice of extraction and transportation of Terra Lemnia had declined, the healing preparation stirred the general interest following 1479, when Limnos came under Ottoman rule. At that time the ancient extraction ceremony was revived, taking place on the 6th of August (during the Christian feast of the Transfiguration of the Saviour), in the presence of local authorities, both Greek and Ottoman. According to detailed descriptions of western European travellers, like Pierre Belon (1546), André Thévet (1549) and others that followed, terra was always collected with great care and was sealed according to the ancient model, although at that stage they used the Ottoman inscription tin-i mahtum ("sealed clay”). The use and distribution of the healing substance remained the exclusive privilege of the Ottoman ruling class and of the sultan himself. During the Ottoman Period, Terra Lemnia was considered a medication suitable for the cure of the typhoid fever and the plague. The prescription of Greek pharmacologist Dioskorides (1st century AD), according to which Terra Lemnia was an effective antidote for lethal poisons, inspired the use of the precious soil for the construction of clay vessels, which were believed to protect their owner from drinking suspicious liquids.
(Transl. Eirini Papadaki)