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Lesvos Travel Guide

Lesbos (Modern Greek: Lesvos, Turkish: Midilli), is a Greek island located in the northeastern Aegean Sea. Lesbos is part of the Lesbos Prefecture, the third largest Greek island and the eighth largest in the Mediterranean Sea. It has an area of 1,630 km² (630 square miles) with 320 kilometres (almost 200 miles) of coastline. Its population is approximately 90,000, a third of which lives in its capital, Mytilene, in the southeastern part of the island. The remaining population is distributed in small towns and villages. The largest towns are Kalloni, Gera Villages, Plomari, Agiasos, Eresos and Molyvos, the ancient Mythymna. Mytilene was founded in the 11th century BC by the family Penthilidae, who arrived from Thessaly, and ruled until the popular revolt (590–580 BC) led by Pittacus of Mytilene.

The word "lesbian" is derived from the poems of Sappho, which contain powerful emotional content directed toward other women and have frequently been interpreted as expressing homosexual love. Because of this association, Lesbos and especially the town of Eresos, birthplace of Sappho, are visited frequently by lesbian tourists.


The island is mountainous with two large peaks, "Lepetymnos" (967 metres or 3176 feet) and "Olympus", of similar height, dominating its northern and central sections. The island’s volcanic origin is manifested in several hot springs.

The island is verdant, aptly named "Emerald Island", with a variety of flora that belies its size. Eleven million olive trees cover 40% of the island together with other fruit trees. Forests of pine and some oaks occupy 20%, and the remainder is scrub, grassland or urban.

In the western part of the island is the world’s second largest petrified forest of Sequoia.

Its economy is essentially agricultural. Olive oil is the main source of income. Tourism in Mytilene, encouraged by its international airport and the coastal towns of Petra, Plomari, Molyvos and Eresos, contribute substantially to the economy of the island. Fishing and the manufacture of soap and ouzo, the Greek national liqueur, are the remaining sources of income.


The climate is mild Mediterranean. The mean annual temperature is 18°C (64°F), and the mean annual rainfall is 750 mm (29 in). Its exceptional sunshine makes it one of the sunniest islands in the Aegean Sea. Snow and very low temperatures are rare.


According to Classical Greek mythology, Lesbos was the patron god of the island. Macar is reputed as being the first king whose many "daughters" bequeathed their names to some of the present larger towns. In Classical myth his "sister", Canace, was killed to have him made king. The place names with female origins are likely to be much earlier settlements named after local goddesses, who were replaced by gods. Homer refers to the island as "Macaros edos", the seat of Macar. Hittite records from the Late Bronze Age name the island Lazpas and must have considered its population significant enough to allow the residents to "borrow their gods" (presumably idols) to cure of their king when 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 the Greek language, whose written form survives in the poems of Sappho, amongst others.

The abundant gray pottery ware found on the island and the worship of Cybele, the great mother-goddess of Anatolia, suggest the cultural continuity of the population from Neolithic times. When the Persian king Cyrus defeated Croesus (546 BC) the Ionic Greek cities of Anatolia and the adjacent islands became Persian subjects and remained such until the Persians were defeated by the Greeks at the 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. In Hellenistic times, the island belonged to various Macedonian kingdoms until 79 BC when it passed into Roman hands.

During the middle ages it belonged to the Byzantine Empire. In 803, the Byzantine Empress Irene was exiled to Lesbos, forced to spin to support herself and died there. In 1335, it was granted to the Genoese Gateluzi for economic and political reasons. The island was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1462 and remained in their possession until 1912 when it became part of modern Greece. The cities of Mytilene and Mythymna have been bishoprics since the 5th century.

Later on, most of its residential houses and buidings were rebuilt after World War II and the Greek Civil War. Its economy expanded but some residents left Greece for North America and Europe.

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. There are also several archaic, classical Greek and Roman remains. Vitruvius called the ancient city of Mytilene "magnificent and of good taste". Remnants of its medieval history are three impressive castles.

On Wednesday July 11, 2007, a forest fire (see also 2007 Greek forest fires) burnt its forests near Mytilene and damaged thousands of hectares of forests around the area. Several firefighting trucks, helicopters and planes sprayed out the fire. The fire lasted several days and was mostly contained.

Lesbos is the birthplace of several famous persons. In archaic times, Arion developed the type of poem called dithyramb, the progenitor of tragedy, Terpander invented the seven note musical scale for the lyre, followed by the lyric poet Alcaeus, and the most famous poetess Sappho. Phanias wrote history. 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. Pittacus was one of the Seven Sages of Greece. 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, and it is there that Aristotle began systematic zoological investigations. In later times lived Theophanes, the historian of Pompey's campaigns, Longus wrote the famous novel Daphnis and Chloe, and much later the historian Doukas wrote the history of the early Ottoman Turks. In modern times the poet Odysseus Elytis, descendant of an old family of Lesbos received the Nobel Prize.

Petrified Forest of Lesvos

Lesbos contains one of the few known Petrified Forests and has been declared a Protected Natural Monument. Fossilized plants have been found in many localities on the western part of the island. The fossilised forest formed during the Late Oligocene to Lower - Middle Miocene, by the intense volcanic activity in the area. Neogene volcanic rocks dominate the central and western part of the island, comprising andesites, dacites and rhyolites, ingnibrite, pyroclastics, tuffs and volcanic ash. The products of the volcanic activity covered the vegetation of the area and the fossilisation process took place during favourable conditions. The fossilized plants are silicified remnants of a sub-tropical forest that existed on the north-west part of the island 20-15 million years ago.

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