History of Lesvos

Pelasgia, Issa, Mytonis, Aigeira, Imerti, Lasia, Makaria are some of the names given to the island of Lesvos during times past. Ιt is said that its contemporary name comes from Lesvos, the son of Lapithos from Thessalia, who sailed to the island and married king Makaras’ daughter, Mithymna.

Of the Greek tribes of antiquity, Pelasgians were the first inhabitants of the island but the Aeolians left their strongest mark on it. After being permanently settled on the island, probably in the 12th c. BC, they assimilated with the local population, spreading their language and civilization, as the Aeolic capitals and the typical grey wares from Lesvos, exhibited in the archaeological museums of the island, prove. The Aeolian civilization was not limited to Lesvos, but it was expanded to the opposite coast of Asia Minor attributing to these two regions natural, political, financial and cultural consistency. Moreover, the entrance of the Gulf of Adramiti in the Asia Minor’s coast, just opposite to Lesvos, had been colonized to great extent by the inhabitants of Mytilini. That’s why, according to Herodotus, it was called “coast of Mytilinians”.

In antiquity, the island’s economy was principally farming, but due to its geographical location – near the mouth of Dardanelles and close to the trade routes of that time – it also developed commercial activity. The ruins of the Lesvos’ settlements of that time, as well as the remnants of monumental constructions that survived, indicate a thriving economy, which in times of peace was also based on its significant export trade. So, reports about cargoes of the renounced then wine from Lesvos as well as olive oil exported to Egypt during the Hellenistic years are found in Egyptian papyri.

The saved buildings from Hellenistic and Roman times prove that during that period the island experienced great prosperity. Some of the most significant works are the ancient theatre of Mytilini with an acoustic equivalent to that of the theatre of Epidaurus, and the Roman aqueduct of Moria, which provided water to Mytilini from a distance of about 30 km. This prosperity continued during the Early Byzantine era. The imposition of Christianity on the island, perhaps during 2nd c. A.D., would be accompanied by the erection of magnificent old Christian basilicas, mainly in locations of ancient temples the building materials of which were used anew. Their impressive relics are saved in Eresos, Agia Paraskevi, Ypsilometopo as well as in the region of Agios Fokas next to the homonymous chapel, in the west of Vatera. However, the constant raids by pirates and Arabs caused the economic decline of Lesvos. So, gradually, it would become a place of exile for politicians, among them the empress Irene of Athens and the emperor Constantine Monomachos. During the Byzantine era, the ascetic life and the monastic phenomenon would take great dimensions in the area, resulting to the establishment of many monasteries and asketeria. In 1355, the island was offered by Ioannis V Palaiologos to the house of Gateluzzi, and specifically to Fransisco Gateluzzo from Genova. During Gateluzzi’s rule, who recognized the suzerainty of the Byzantine emperor, Lesvos would become a centre of transit trade for northeast Aegean and economically flourish. The monogram of Palaiologi and the Byzantine emblems would coexist with the coat of arms of Gateluzzi, on the dedicatory inscription at the castle of Mytilini as well as on their coins, signifying a common thrive for Lesvians and Genoans that lasted about 100 years.

However, in 1462, Lesvos would be found under the Ottoman rule, after its occupation by Mehmed II the Conqueror. Legal and fiscal inequality between local Christians and Muslims, Christians’ Islamization, fiscal bleeding, suppression of free thinking and restrictions in the exports of Lesvos’ products abroad, composed the difficult living conditions especially of the Christian population until the end of 18th c., when a gradual recovery to Lesvos’ commercial activity started to show up. Despite the efforts for revolutionary movements during the War of Independence of 1821, the island remained perhaps the most important naval base of Turkish fleet in the Aegean, due to its geographic position. However, the trade liberalization and the free circulation of goods within the framework of Ottoman Empire’s reformations during 19th c., resulted to the island’s economic and commercial rebirth, which generated the creation of a powerful urban class. Impressive buildings and mansions of wealthy families, magnificent temples, schools, as well as industrial buildings all over the island are the evidence of that prosperity.

During the First Balkan War (1912-1913) and in particular on 8th November 1912, the Greek fleet liberated the city of Mytilini. The protocol of surrender of the entire island to the Greek authorities was signed on 8th December 1912 at the hill of Petsofas, in the broader region of Kalloni, after the battle of Klapados. During World War I units of the British-French fleet were settled on the island and after the catastrophe of Asia Minor in 1922, Lesvos received about 24.000 refugees for permanent residence. The refugees provided cheap labour, but also their special know-how in all sectors of economic activity, resulting to the great economic boom of that time. However, in 1923 under the Treaty of Lausanne, population exchange took place between Greece and Turkey with the departure of the entire Muslim population from the island and the interruption of all economic activity with the opposite coasts. In 1941 during World War II, German troops occupied the island and departed after 3 years of suffering. In the years after the civil war, the political persecutions and the difficult socioeconomic conditions drove to the great flow of internal and external migration.



– Η Λέσβος στο πέρασμα του Χρόνου, Στρατής Ι. Αναγνώστου Ιστορικός, Σχολικός Σύμβουλος Φιλολόγων Ν. Λέσβου, http://www.olsa.gr/?q=node/18


– «Ιστορία της Λέσβου», έκδοση του Συνδέσμου Φιλολόγων Λέσβου (Ζ΄ έκδοση), Μυτιλήνη 2006