Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The Setting: Northern Aegean

The Setting: Northern Aegean

The romantic stereotyped idea of Greece is of beaches lapped by warm seas, with brightly coloured umbrellas and lounges on the sand, and nearby tavernas staffed with friendly waiters. Is Lemnos like this? When I first came I decided to do a bit of research and I found that whereas some Greek islands offer busy tourist spots, Lemnos, positioned in the northern Aegean, is one of the quieter Aegean islands.

In the waters around mainland of Greece there are over a thousand small and large islands, with about 150 of them inhabited. On the whole the soil on these islands is poor, rocky and waterless, and so probably in each only about twenty per cent can be cultivated. It is where there are valleys with better soil that farmers grow olives and vines and keep sheep, pigs and goats.


However these islands are not all the same. Nigel McGilchrist has written a 20-part series of guidebooks on just the Aegean islands and in these books he is at pains to show how each of the 70 Aegean islands is very different. He writes that that they have been separated by fate and history as well as by the sea. Also, some are flat while others are mountainous, one may be filled with olive trees while others have only thyme bushes on rolling hills, and that even the native flora and fauna varies from island to island.

Highlighting this he writes,

The islands are so different in character... Some, like poor Mykonos, have their own airports and tourists in the tens of thousands. But others are totally unspoilt, with primitive roads and very few inhabitants.
Consequently, as McGilchrist points out, while national and religious holidays may be kept in a similar manner on each island recipes and local rituals will differ widely.

Two Northern Aegean Islands
Lemnos and Lesvos have a special connection many of the islanders in one are related to islanders in the other.  And, they are both basically farming islands. These two Aegean islands are known for their agricultural products and it is the production of wheat, olive oil, cheese and honey that provides most of the income for the islanders. There are The rounded hills of Lemnos and hotels in both islands, but if the tourists stopped coming the local farmers would still be producing their crops.

Because of this these islands, from September to June when the tourists leave, can still sustain themselves. Their people eat well from seasonal produce, plus from crops that have been dried or preserved in salt or sugar. It is this ability to sustain themselves that has acts as a buffer even in the current situation of economic restraint.

                                                The Rounded Hills of Lemnos

A Sense of Place – Lemnos
The island of Lemnos was constructed during a period of intense volcanic activity many thousands of years ago. In some rocks you can find fossilized sea creatures, and in some places on the island you can find fossilized semi-tropical trees like cedars, palms and cinnamon trees. As an old volcanic island it is indented with a great number of large bays. In the centre there are wide valleys and some modest hills. Amongst the hills and around the coast are a number of villages and some archaeological sites.

Lemnos has an area of 477 square kilometres. There are two towns, Myrina and Moudros, and 33 villages, with each village having an approximate population of 300.

The population of Lemnos today is about 18,000

There are about 15,000 Lemians living in Australia today

The main town of Myrina has about 4,350 inhabitants.


                                    The Main Town of Myrina


 A Sense of History - Lemnos
The island has always been known for its cultivation of wheat in its wide open valleys, which are a unique geographical feature. On the tops of many hills are the ruins of the old windmills used to grind the wheat. Wheat was once produced and exported to the city of Athens during its golden era, and later to the great city of Constantinople (Istanbul today).

                                            A Valley in Lemnos

Lemnos may have got its name from an ancient word meaning white due to the light colour the island seen from a distance, though it may also come from the Greek word ‘Liion’, meaning a field ready for reaping, or from the words  ‘liis’ and ‘milon’, meaning a herd of sheep. However, yet another idea, it may be that Lemnos was the name of the Great Goddess worshipped by the first peoples who came to the island.

Some have said the island looks like a butterfly. In the past some thought the island was shaped like an ox, but I think it looks like a small fish with a large tail, swimming at the top of the Aegean Sea – like that cartoon fish in the film Searching for Nemo.

Another old name for Lemnos was Dipolis, meaning ‘having two cities’, and sometimes Lemnos was called the island of Hephaestus after its resident god, though today I’ve sometimes heard it called The Windy Island.
Because of its position, guarding the waters leading to the straits of the Bosporus, in the past many different peoples have conquered Lemnos. Mainly this was in order to use the island as a guard post and port for ships travelling into the Black Sea. Spartans, Macedonians, Persians, Athenians, Venetians, Turks, and many others have past this way. Nowadays the newcomers tend to be summer holidaymakers, tourists and returnees like ourselves.

There have been good times on the island when the resident became rich from their trade in wheat, or when providing a safe haven for passing ships. But, there are also stories of bad times, of invasion, pirates, plunder and famine. Famines were been the reason island women have learnt to scavenge for wild food and weeds, and to preserve and carefully use the island’s crops. So most of the older housewives can preserve olives, make tragana – a type of pasta made from local wheat – and find wild greens for horta. And the local farmers produce the island’s notable products, Lemian Yea, a white wine from the local grapes and  Kalathaki, a local cheese made from sheep and goat’s milk.

                                           Lemnians watching a parade

More about Houdini the Mouse


We did manage to catch the mouse the next night. We had put out a trap with cheese inside and he had entered and could not get out. However it was late at night and Takis put the trap plus mouse in a plastic bag and carried it downstairs only to find that it had found a way to get out and chew a hole in the plastic bag. It had escaped again and was now somewhere in the kitchen! I might add we never found it, and hope that it got out when the door was left open.

And more books

1.     About The Northern Aegean

Mark Mazower’s book, Salonica: City of Ghosts (Harper Perennial, 2005), gives a detailed  history of the city of Thessaloniki between 1450, and the arrival of the Safaric Jews, and 1950, and the aftermath of the World War 2. I found it to be one of the most informative books I’ve read about recent Greek history.

Victoria Hislop, The Thread (Headline Publishing Group, 2011). This novel tells the story of a family living in Thessolinki. It is based largely on Mark Mazower’s book, however the novel involves a family with multi-racial connections telling their story, and that of Saloniki, from 1917 to 2007.

Betty Roland, Lesbos; The Pagan Island (F. W. Cheshire Pty Ltd.,1963). In 1961 Roland spent a year on the island of Lesbos. This Australian author spent an interesting time on this island, one of the closest islands to Lemnos. Lesbos houses the municipality of the Northern Aegean, and so is more politically important than Lemnos however there are close ties between these two island, and many Lemians marry folk from Lesbos.

2.     About Lemnos

Christos A. Kazolis, Lemnos; view to the North Aegean (Terra Lemnia, 2009). A forward is written by Christos Boulotis, a Lemnian and now an Archaeologist at the Academy of Athens. Boulotis states that everyone who comes to the island will have their own images but those gathered in this book, in the three sections, shown us much about the Lemnos we know and love.    

Theodoros Dimitriadis, Lemnos (self published, 1995) includes many interesting historical facts not mentioned in other guide books. Theodoros lived on the island for a number of years and he details the stories he heard about the island’s history.

Maria Lampadaridou Pothou, Byzantiuum: The Fall, an epic novel, translated by Theony Condos (Terzo Books, 2001). This is a novel that tells, almost minute by minute, of the involvement of a Lemnian who was present at the fall of Constantinople. 


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