Lesbos (also known as Lesvos), in the North Aegean, is the third largest Greek island facing the Turkish coast from the north and east. The island covers an area of 1.632 km2 and is the eighth largest in the Mediterranean Sea with a population of 84,000 people. Mytilene is the island’s capital, and also the administrative centre of the North Aegean Region.
According to Classical Greek mythology, Lesbos was the patron god of the island. The name is from the Ancient Greek word Λέσβος Lésbos “forested” or “woody”, possibly a Hittite borrowing, as the original Hittite name for the island was Lazpa. An older name for the island that was maintained in Aeolic Greek was Ἴσσα Íssa. The love poems of ancient Greek poet Sappho inspired the term lesbian and turned the island into a mecca for gay women from around the world. In 2008, a Greek court considered a request by three residents of the island to ban the use of the word ‘lesbian’ as a term to describe gay women. They said it insulted the identity of the island, however they lost their case.
In the ancient times, Lesbos was known as a place of culture. The most famous figures associated with Lesbos in antiquity were Sappho and Alcaeus, two poets who were born and lived on the island in the sixth century BC. They had a great reputation and both would later hold a special place in the canon of nine poets most esteemed for their works in lyric poetry, a form of emotional poetry meant to be recited or sung, often to the accompaniment of an instrument (in which case it was also known as melic poetry). Even in modern times, the few surviving fragments of Sappho’s poetry, written in the ancient Aeolian dialect, have influenced and inspired poets of the likes of Alfred Lord Tennyson and Ezra Pound. Plato referred to Sappho as the “tenth muse”.
Lesbos, namely the town of Mythimna, is also mentioned by Herodotus as the birthplace of Arion, a lyric poet and kitharode of semi-mythical status credited with inventing the dithyramb. But the island was not only a land of poets; Pittacus of Mytilene, a contemporary of Sappho and Alcaeus, was a military general reckoned among the Seven Sages of Greece.
READ MORE: Melbourne lifesaver heads to Lesbos
The island was also home to a number of ancient philosophers, the most notable of which was Theophrastus (4th c. BC), a Peripatetic philosopher who was Aristotle’s close colleague and successor at the Lyceum. It was Aristotle himself who gave Theophrastus his name for “the godlike manner of his speech”; it is in fact believed that he followed him back to Lesbos for two years, where they both conducted their research into natural science. Other philosophers from Lesbos include Phaenias, another distinguished disciple of Aristotle, who followed Theophrastus’s steps; Praxiphanes, also a Peripatetic philosopher and disciple of Theophrastus; Hermarchus (3rd BC), a disciple of Epicurus and successor as head of his school; and Cratippus, a leading Peripatetic philosopher of the 1st century BC.A large number of artefacts displayed at the Archaeological Museum of Mytilene testify as to the island’s millenia-old history.
During the Middle Ages, the Byzantine Empress Irene was exiled to Lesbos and died there. It served as a gathering base for the fleet of the rebel Thomas the Slav in the early 820s. The city of Mytilene is overlooked by a large fortress – one of the largest in the Mediterranean. It dates back to the Byzantine era and is believed to have been built during the reign of Emperor Justinian I, possibly erected on top of an ancient acropolis.
After the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) the island passed to the Latin Empire, was reconquered by the Empire of Nicaea after 1224 and was granted as a fief to the Genoese Francesco I Gattilusio in 1354. His family ruled Lesbos until the Ottoman Turks conquered it in 1462. It remained under Turkish rule until 1912 when Greek forces reclaimed it in the First Balkan War.
5. Natural beauty
Known for its olive groves (there are about 12 million olive trees on the island, covering 40 per cent of the area) and its production of olive of the highest quality. It also has hot springs, pine forests, large and diverse fauna and is famed for its world-renowned ‘petrified forest’, created due to volcanic activity on the island 20 million years ago.
A verdant island, it is also named ‘Emerald Island’ for its nature and forests of Mediterranean pines, chestnut trees and oaks.
The entire area of Lesbos is “Lesbos Geopark”, which is a member of the European Geoparks Network (since 2000) and Global Geoparks Network (since 2004) on account of its outstanding geological heritage, educational programs and projects, and promotion of geotourism.
7. Volcanic origins
The volcanic origins of the island mean tere are several hot springs in the area which were well-known even in antiquity. The natural springs are believed to offer therapeutic properties, and have been a popular health destination through the ages appreciated by Greeks, Romans and the Ottomans, who all built baths and other facilities around them. You can still enjoy the relaxing experience of the baths at Polichnitos, Eftalou, Gera Villages or Thermi.
8. Cities of interest
The towns of Plomari, Kalloni, Agiassas, Eresos and Molyvos are of particular interest to travellers visiting the island. Agiassos, a quaint little town with traditional-styled houses, is perched at an altitude of 475 meters and is primarily known for its numerous artisan shops selling traditional craftwork. Molyvos was known as Mythimnia in antiquity and is known for its old Genoese fortress on the hill in the middle of the town, built as protection against pirates.
The island’s economy does not rely exclusively on tourism but is instead – as in ancient times – is largely based on agriculture. The high-quality olive oil has always been one of the most famous products of the island. Lesbos is also known for several local types of cheese (the most renowned being the PDO cheese Ladotyri Mytilinis) as well as its many local brands of high-quality ouzo. Other agricultural products include pomegranates, figs, almonds, quinces and oranges.
Lesbos was also home to renowned painter Georgios Jakobides (1853-1932), first curator of the National Gallery of Greece and first director of the Athens School of Fine Arts, as well as Theophilos (1870-1934), who posthumously became Greece’s most famous naïve artist. Writer Stratis Myrivilis (1890-1969), a notable member of the “Generation of the ’30s”, was also a native of the North Aegean island, where he spent a great part of his life. Both parents of iconic Greek poet Odysseus Elytis (1910-1981) also hailed from Lesbos, although his family had relocated to Crete long before he was born; the 1979 Literature Nobel Laureate often evoked Sappho and her influence in his works, as in the poem “Of the Moon of Mytilene”.