The next stage of my research on the islands of Greece (parts one and two here) brings me to the coast of Turkey. I’m moving down a set of islands that are so close to the Turkish mainland that I’ve been able to see across to Ayvalık and Çeşme — and I can almost taste the çay. What’s more, walking too close to the port-side, my phone buzzes to tell me ‘Welcome to Turkey! Welcome to ridiculous roaming charges!’ In this instalment, I’m going to look over the archaeological fancies one can visit on the islands of Lesbos and Chios, and at their rich and surprising landscapes.
Lesbos is probably most well-known to Classical scholars as the home of Alcaeus and Sappho, two of the lyric poets. Their island is majestically verdant, over half of which is covered by various shrubs, principally the olive tree. Mt Lepetymnos and My Olympus dominate respectively the centre and south of the island, but the landscape in its entirity undulates with peaks and valleys. Lesbos may be one of the largest of the Greek islands, but it is certainly not the most densely populated.
The ‘new’ archaeological museum in the city-centre of Mytilene contains many exquisite Hellenistic and Roman treasures, for the most part mosaics and marbles. There’s also a very well constructed temporary exhibition on food and dining, definitely not one to visit on an empty stomach. The ‘old’ museum harks back to the Neolithic — but, unfortunately, it is not as reliably open…The ‘kastro’ (castle) of Mytilene is another blend of newer and older. The castle itself has been rebuilt in various phases since the 14th century A.D., but occupation on the ‘acropolis’ of Mytilene goes back to at least the seventh/sixth century B.C. and the temple of Demeter and Kore. The whole site was carpeted in wild flowers when I visited, which made for the rather pleasing aesthetic of crypts, store-houses, and cisterns popping up all throughout a rolling meadow. Round the corner from the ‘kastro’ is the equally impressive and equally overgrown Hellenistic theatre — still used by the city for summer festivals and performances.
If you’re still left wondering what the Romans ever did for Lesbos, the Roman aqueduct nestled in the valley a short walk north of Mytilene might help. This remarkable monument was once part of a dense network of island aqueducts, which would have stretched right from Mt Olympus in the south up to Mytilene on the east coast. Be careful if you approach from the south, as I did. The ‘Danger! Do not go closer! Monument likely to fall at any time!’ signage only points to the other road of approach…You can, however, get up close and personal with the remains of the prehistoric village of Thermi, a beachside archaeological site further north of the town. Five main phases of occupation here make the site dense, but it is well sign-posted and a fantastic introductory video at the welcome centre orientates you adequately. A bit further north still, the sanctuary of Artemis Thermia is housed within the local hot springs — not really required if the weather is as it was the day I visited…A little less accessible* across the rest of the island, sanctuaries at Mesa and Klopedi are also well worth the visit.
Just like its neighbour further north, Chios has a stunningly beautiful natural landscape. This alternates between forests of mastic trees to the south (try the local mastic spirit!), and more stark rocky outcrops concentrated towards the north. A stone’s throw away from Turkey and the Ionia region, Chios in antiquity was one of the twelve city states of Ionia, and one of those who revolted against Persian occupation in 499 B.C. It was also reportedly the home of the blind poet Homer, the legendary bard who composed the ‘Iliad’ and the ‘Odyssey’ — and who cast Brad Pitt in the Hollywood blockbuster classic ‘Troy’.
The museum of Chios in the town centre (also called ‘Chios’…) does not get much footfall; but it is a delight! No photographs are permitted inside, but you’ll be too busy anyway. Your eyes will be glued to marble statues, Wild Goat pottery fragments, sphinx-coins, prehistoric pottery galore, and the so-called Hellenistic ‘head of Homer’. Homer is omnipresent on the island, and just a few kilometres north of Chios at Vrontados is the ‘daskalopetra’, the ‘teacher rock’. According to local myth, this was the place where the poet imparted wisdom to his students. Archaeological remains, on the other hand, confirm this place as a sanctuary to Cybele, a goddess of fertility whose worship came to ancient Greece from further east. Even if poets or goddesses aren’t your thing, the rock is sat between the sea and the base of Mt Aipos. The view up is rather something.
Other sites of archaeological interest on the island are concentrated further on the south coast. You’ll either need to know people on the island who you can bribe with the promise of drinks to get a lift there; or alternatively there’s also a regular KTEL bus service to the village of Pyrgi, from which sites are a short walk away. (Pro tip! On the bus, sit next to a friendly yiayia, speak about your life in broken Greek to her, and she might just give you spanakopita…) Kato Phana is the site of an ancient temple of Apollo, whose remains are now few and mostly housed inside the (locked) church of Agios Theodoros. You can, however, enjoy a more or less private beach down at Phana…The rocky slopes of Emporeio and its acropolis offer much more for the visitor to see. At the peak, a small temple of Athena and ‘megaron’ (‘the place where the most important people lived’, in the site attendant’s words); and all down the slope a scattering of very well-preserved and well-signposted domestic structures from the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. There’s not much shade at the site, so bring a hat. And the path is covered in cobwebs, so be prepared to become well acquainted with your local friendly maquis spiders…
Coming soon: Samos and Rhodes…
* I say ‘accessible’. I hiked 40km in the midday heat to get up to the Thermi area and back…perhaps consider the excellent local bus service?