The island of Lesbus, so often mentioned by the Greek historians,
is now called Mytilene, from the old name of its capital city,
which it still retains. (..) I was told that there is a stone coffin in a mosque, which, they say, is the,
tomb of Sappho. (..)
The women have no better
character for their chastity, nor the men for their sobriety, than in former
Richard Pococke - A Description of the East and Some Other Countries - 1745
The exquisite poems of Sappho, her hymn to Venus, and that of sixteen lines to Erinna, were rescued from oblivion by Longinus and Dionysius of Halicarnassus.
James Dallaway - Constantinople Ancient and Modern with Excursions to the Shores of the Islands of the Archipelago and to the Troas - 1797
The island of Lesbos is usually associated with the poetess Sappho, who is thought to have lived in Mytilini, the island's main town, in the VIIth century BC. We know very little of her poems, but in antiquity she was regarded as a symbol of homosexual love. This may be due to the fact that a strong matriarchal society had existed on the island and on nearby Limnos until the Greek culture prevailed.
(left) 1607 Venetian map; (right) 1900 Times Atlas: 1) The town of Metelino/Mytilene/Mytilini; 2) Metimno (Molyvos); 3) Aivali/Cunda; 4) Samothrace; 5) Thassos;
the numbers in green indicate other Genoese settlements covered in a separate section: 6) Candarli; 7) Fochies; 8) Scio; 9) Cismes
situated on the spot of the present city of that name, which is called also
Castro; it is on the north side of the island towards the east end. (..) The city was formerly very large. Pococke
We searched in vain for vestiges of the ancient city, but neither column nor marble could we discover. Dallaway
The town of Metelino was initially built on an islet very close to the coast: the town knew a great expansion during the Roman rule: the narrow which separated the islet from the mainland was reduced by engineering works to a canal crossed by bridges and the town occupied also the hill opposite the islet, where a theatre was built. Recent excavations have found evidence of several Roman villas: their floor mosaics (similar to those at Antioch) are on display in the local Archaeological Museum. The Romans built an aqueduct to provide the town with an ample supply of water.
The castle is on the top of the high rocky
peninsula, and is near three quarters of a mile in compass, consisting
of the old and new castle which are contiguous, but have their distinct
governors and bodies of militia; they are inhabited only by Turks,
and Franks are not permitted to go into them. Pococke
The castle on the promontory is both more perfect and extensive than any work of the lower Greeks, or Venetians, which we had inspected. It has two divisions of lofty embattled walls, with towers open on the inside. Dallaway
The old acropolis of the ancient town is today entirely occupied by a very large fortress which was built in various steps. During the Byzantine period the population of Metelino shrunk and the island was subject to Arab raids: the remaining inhabitants fortified the acropolis and in doing so they dismantled the ancient buildings to reuse their stones to build walls and towers.
Old part built on bedrock
As to the branches of trade, it (..) consists in a very great export of oil of olives to France, and to many parts of the Levant, which latter is carried on by small vessels or boats. Pococke
The island had always had a very developed agriculture: in particular its wines were celebrated by many Roman poets: but wine became a luxury commodity during the Byzantine period and many fields were turned into olive groves. Olive oil was a commodity which could be traded easily and was used also for illumination.
Coats of arms of the Byzantine Emperor and of the Gattilusio together with ancient Roman reliefs portraying fights with beasts: the Gattilusio coat of arms is thought to represent a section of a mail, a military armour made of metal rings joined together: it is shown next to an imperial eagle; between the two, there are four B(asileus), i.e. emperor: they mean "Emperor of Emperors who rules over Emperors" and two of them are inverted because the Byzantine emperor reigned both in the West and in the East (you can see them also in the image used as background for this page)
If this castle was built by the Greek emperors, it is
probable that it was much improved by the Genoese when they were in
possession of the island. I was told that there are in the
castle the arms, and cypher or name of one of the emperors Palaeologi. As well as I could be informed the island was
at that time the property of a family of the name of Catanisi (Gattilusio), who were
lords of Lesbus; and it is said when the city was besieged by sultan Amurath (Murad II), a lady of one of these Catanisi, sallied out at the head of the citizens, and raised the siege. Pococke
In the XIVth century Genoa and Venice were competing for supremacy in the Levant: Venice had hegemony over the Aegean Sea, Genoa had the monopoly of trade in the Black Sea. Genoa had better relations than Venice with the Byzantine Empire and in 1355 Byzantine Emperor John V in recognition of the help received by the Gattilusio (a Genoese family) in his fight against John Kantacouzenos who had usurped the throne during his minority, granted them the right to rule over Lesbo. In addition Francesco Gattilusio married the Emperor's sister. The Gattilusio became the lords of the island, although as formal vassals of the Byzantine emperors. In 1415 they were assigned also the islands of Samothrace and Thassos. They possessed also the islet of Cunda, very near the mainland. The Gattilusio decorated the fortress of Metelino by placing some ancient reliefs next to their coat of arms.
Coats of arms and Ottoman inscription at the main gate
One sees in all parts of it many fine pieces of grey marble, which are remains of
the antient buildings, and several imperfect inscriptions. Pococke
In 1453 Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II conquered Constantinople and put an end to the Byzantine Empire. He was convinced (and not without some merit) that he should have been regarded as the new emperor. In 1458 Domenico Gattilusio, Lord of Lesbos, was killed by his brother Niccolò who claimed the throne for himself. Sultan Mehmet regarded the change of power as having occurred without his consent and in 1462 he landed on the island. Niccolò Gattilusio refused to surrender, but Ottoman cannon had no difficulties in opening breeches in the walls of the fortress of Metelino. The Ottomans did not erase the symbols of the previous lords of the fortress, they just added some celebratory inscriptions.
The Ottomans had little interest in this island and notwithstanding a Venetian raid in the year 1500, they did not do a lot to strengthen the fortress of Metelino. They changed their minds during the War of Candia (1645-1669) when the Venetians managed to block the Dardanelles and even made an attempt to reach Constantinople. After that event the fortresses of the islands near the entrance of the straits (Tenedo, Imbro and Lesbos) were all upgraded. In 1695 the Venetians seized the nearby island of Scio and the Ottomans were glad they had a strong fortress at Metelino where their fleet could be safe.
Maritime walls and pieces of ancient buildings
The strengthening of the fortress was completed by a series of towers and walls right on the sea shore. At many points of these walls one can see parts of ancient buildings.
The whole area of the castle is covered
with houses, mosques, and cypresses, which relieve the view, and
give it a very picturesque air. Dallaway
In 1912 the island was occupied by Greek forces and in 1923 the agreements which put an end to the war between Greece and the newly born Republic of Turkey confirmed the assignment of Lesbos to Greece. These agreements established also a massive exchange of population; the Turks lived in the fortress and its immediate whereabouts; the Greeks around the main commercial harbour. The fortress continued to be used for military purposes. All the buildings which were not consistent with the military use of the fortress were left to rot. In recent years the trend has been reversed and archaeologists are trying to preserve the remaining Ottoman buildings. See some ruined mosques in the town.
The fortress seen from the northern harbour
From the opposite hill the castle appears to particular advantage, crowning both the harbours, and the modern town. Dallaway