Travels and Discoveries in the Levant/Volume 1/Letter IV

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Description of Mytilene—Its ancient Features—The Environs—Character of the Inhabitants—Roman Aqueduct at Morea—A Greek Pyrgos—Thermæ—Paphila—Ancient Remains at Achlea—Cape Zeitin, the ancient Malea


Mytilene, May 30, 1852.

I have now been here long enough to be able to give you some account of this place, and of my mode of life in my new home.

Though the name of Lesbos is one so rich in historical associations, and though the island itself is so conspicuous an object to all who sail past it on their way to Smyrna or Constantinople, it has never been much explored, and the accounts given by the travellers who have visited it are exceedingly vague and meagre.18 I shall therefore be minute in my description. The town of Mytilene, which the older travellers call Castro, but which has now resumed its original name, is situated on a peninsula on the E. side of the island (see the Map, Plate 2). This peninsula consists of a rocky promontory connected with the mainland by a low isthmus, on either side of which is a small harbour, one to the north, the other to the south. These ports were formerly connected by a canal, called by the ancients Euripus. The rocky promontory, now a peninsula, is therefore spoken of by Strabo and others as an island,19 and from the strength of its position was originally chosen as the site of the city itself, and afterwards became its Acropolis. As the population increased, and the situation became more secure, the town spread from the island to the shores of the two harbours. A mediaeval castle, once held by the Genoese family Gateluz, now occupies the site of the Acropolis, and most of the lower ground which formed the site of the ancient town is covered with the houses of the Greek and Turkish inhabitants. The Turks live principally in one quarter, near the north harbour. On the land side the to^vu is nearly surrounded by lofty bills, which completely shut in the 'iew to the west. At the foot of these hills rims a low wall, which surrounds the town from harbour to harbour, and served for its defence during the Greek Revolution. It was built by the father of the present Pasha at that time.

The site of Mytilene resembles that of many other Hellenic cities.20 At a very early period, as Thueydides tells us, the Greeks selected such sites for their cities, cutting off the isthmuses. The advantage of such positions was obvious. The headlands were strong and sometimes inaccessible positions; the two ports connected by a canal enabled their vessels to put out to sea either with a north or south wud, and the narrow strip of rich land along the shore served for gardens for the supply of the city.

Of the two harbours, that to the south was anciently used for triremes, and therefore closed with a chain: it could contain fifty vessels. The remains of two moles are still visible at its entrance; two small lighthouses mark the width across which the chain must have been stretched. The depth varies at present from three to one fathom; but, as is constantly the case in Turkish ports, it has been much filled up from the accumulation of ballast discharged from ships.

The northern harbour was protected from the sea by a more massive mole, portions of which yet remain nearly in the centre of the port. It consists of two external walls composed of ashlar-work, within which is a core of rubble cemented with coarse mortar. This harbour is described as deep by Strabo, but it is now nearly filled up with rubble.21

We learn from Aristotle, that this harbour was called Maloeis. The Malea where the Athenians stationed their fleet and held a market in the siege of Mytilene, B.C. 428, must have been somewhere near this port on the north of the town.22

I could discover no trace of Hellenic Avails on the site of the ancient Acropolis, but the Genoese castle is probably built on its foundations, as it occupies the whole of the summit of the rocky peninsula. Within its precincts are numbers of houses inhabited by poor Turks who do not form part of the garrison. The protection afforded by its guns must have been formerly of great value when visits of Greek pirates were more formidable. The family of Gateluz held it till the latter part of the 15th century, when it was taken by Mahomet II. This castle is still kept up as an imperial fortress by the Turks, and though a place of no strength, serves as a depot of arms and to overawe the town of Mytilene. It is not an interesting example of military architecture, and the cypresses planted about its naked white-washed walls give it a funereal look. At the foot of the Acropolis the fields are strewn with fragments of sculpture and painted pottery. To the south of the castle is a platform where stand the Turkish prison and the kiosk of the Pasha. Between this platform and the castle is a hollow, on the sloping sides of which are found many fragments of Greek painted vases of all periods. An ancient cemetery may, therefore, have stood here.

The part of the rocky peninsula nearest the castle has not been encroached upon by modern buildings, which would have interfered with the rans-e of the guns. On the strip of land to the south, lying between a small fort and the harbour, is a little group of houses, the residences of the different Vice-Consuls. This constitutes the Frank quarter.

Though the natural features of the ground are so strongly marked, no traces remain of the ancient city, and the whole aspect of the site is so changed by modern occupation that it is difficult to imagine that here once stood one of the most beautiful cities of the Hellenic would, which Horace thought worthy to be named in the same stanza in which he celebrates Rhodes, Ephesus, and Corinth. From the few notices of Mytilene in ancient authors, we know that the canal called Euripus by the Greeks was crossed by bridges of white marble, and that here was a theatre the plan of which excited the admiration of Pompey, and which he wished to imitate at Rome.23 Vitruvius, admitting the magnificence of the architecture, points out how badly the plan of the city was arranged in reference to the prevailing wands. It was so exposed, he says, to the north, and south that the sirocco made the inhabitants ill, the north-west wind gave them coughs, and the north, though a healthier wind, was so cold that no one could stand in the open streets.24

The modern town of Mytilene is a straggling, dirty village, the houses, like those of Constantinople, constructed of wood, either entirely, or on a lower story of stone. This is a frail mode of structure, but is thought to be the safest in case of earth- quake. The timber is supplied from the opposite coast of Asia Minor. The roofs are of red tile, which gives the town a mean appearance. The street which forms the present Turkish Bazaar is supposed to mark the line of the ancient Euripus or canal between the two ports. The shops are of the poorest description; the market for all provisions brought in from the country is held in the main street. A few open drains supply the place of sewers, and the exhalation which an eastern sun extracts from them, if not poisonous enough to produce a constant epidemic, is at any rate very disagreeable to the European nose. All the traffic with the interior is carried on by mules, strings of which, laden with panniers or with skins full of oil, jostle the passenger at every turn in the street. It is hardly necessaiy to add that wheeled carriages are unknown. All goods, however heavy, are embarked or disembarked on the backs of porters. It is difficult in walking- through these squalid, noisy, crowded streets, to feel inspired by the proper admonitus loci.

Mytilene is indifferently supplied with water, though it has an aqueduct. Many of the public fountains have had their supply of water intercepted for the use of private individuals. In the Turkish quarter, and along the shore of the southern harbour outside the town, are large gardens, which are all irrigated from a well by means of a water-wheel turned all day by a donkey. The sight of the donkey going his home circuit, and the creaking sound of the wheel, combined with the pleasant shade of the trees, seem always to invite a siesta. The soil of these town gardens is rich, friable, and black with the cultivation of many centuries. I often explore them in quest of inscriptions, and, sometimes finding a door open, walk into the garden of some rich Turk, and find his apples of the Hesperides guarded Ijy a black eunuch, who warns me off with great indignation.

The country round Mytilene is still what Cicero described it nearly 2,000 years ago, pleasant and fertile.25 Beyond the town to the south, the land bends in, forming a bay, bounded by a lofty mountain-ridge. Between this ridge and the sea the coast slopes gradually to the foot of the mountain, and is covered with luxuriant verdure, in which the foliage of the olive predominates, blending its silvery masses most happily with the tender green of the pomegranate, the myrtle, the fig-tree, and the bay. These slopes are studded with country houses and villages, as high up the mountain as cultivation is possible; above, on the steep rocky sides, flourish the cistus and other mountain plants and shrubs, scattering their aroma through the pure and delicate atmosphere.

In the deep ravines with which the face of the mountain is channelled, the course of the winter torrents is marked by a rich red fringe of oleanders, now in full bloom. A paved road winding along the course of the ravines, leads to a pass formed by a notch in the steep mountain-ridge.

On ascending to this pass a most striking view presents itself: on one side is seen the town of Mytilene, and the indented outline of the shore, for ever varied with headlands and bays, with a sea so calm and blue that the island looks as if it were inlaid in lapis lazuli; on the other side is Port Olivieri, a vast natural harbour, shut in by wooded lulls all round, without a sail, and with hardly a breeze to disturb the even repose of its surface. It takes its name from the olives which stretch along its fertile shores and up the steep sides of the surrounding mountains far as the eye can reach, investing all the land in the silver mantle of its verdure, which would be monotonous were it not relieved by the contrast of the deep blue water below.

Turning from the scenery of Mytilene to its present inhabitants, I experienced a painful shock. Nothing can be less in harmony than Nature and man in this favoured island. A faint tradition of European civilization is preserved in the few Smyrniote families who have settled here for the sake of consular appointments or trade, and whose half-dozen houses form the Frank quarter; but even in this society the interest in subjects such as we talk of in Europe is but small. The most congenial companion whom I have met with here is a Dr. Perotti, an old Piedmontese refugee, who, though a man of considerable acquirements, has been content to dwell in obscurity for many years at Mytilene, amusing himself with collecting the coins and antiquities of the island. The fine series of silver coins of Lesbos now in the Bibhotheque at Paris was acquired through Dr. Perotti.

Among the Greeks are no very rich merchants, but a bourgeois class, most of whom are land proprietors, and trade in the oil produced by their olives. Not the least respectable among them, if report speak true, are several elderly gentlemen, who, in the troublous times of the Greek revolution, enriched themselves by the issue of forged money, or followed the profession of pirate—time-honoured in the Archipelago.

This native aristocracy, now dominant in the city where Pittacus once ruled, have that sleek, contented air which we associate with the idea of Flemish burgomasters, to whom their picturesque dress still further assimilates them. They generally possess, besides their house in Mytilene, a country house, with a pleasant garden where they smoke and doze life away in the summer heat.

They ride on sturdy mules, and as they wind along the mountain tracks remind me of the fio'ures in the old pictures of the Flight into Egypt. Their accoutrements are of the rudest kinda—great clumsy pack-saddle, over which is thrown a rug, rope stirrups, and a chain attached to a headstall, for the mules are too strong and obstinate for any ordinary bridle; The men generally sit sideways on these pack-saddles, and the women astride. The first time that a lady was seen in Mytilene on a European side-saddle, all the people came to see what seemed to them so unfemininc a mode of riding.

The women in the town of Mytilene are handsome, but very few of them have good teeth. Like the Greek women of old, they wear rouge, and till lately dyed their teeth with henna. They have well-cut features, but there is something mean in the whole character of the face, and I found more to remind me of the old classical type in the massive grandeur of features of the Roman contadina. The ladies of Lesbos are jealously guarded by their husbands. Since I have been here, I have seldom seen one in the streets. Occasionally they come out of their cage to take a walk of a summer's evening, when they gather together on the sea-shore, and strut about in Smyrna finery, redolent of musk, vain as peacocks, and even shriller in their cackling.

It is to be feared the rigid incarceration of so many Danaes has an unfavourable effect on domestic life. It is said that the ladies find means to avenge themselves on their tyrants, and that the morals of this beautiful little island have not improved since Sappho's time as much as could be desired.

The Turks in Mytilene are a decaying and decreasing population. With the exception of the Pasha himself, who possesses very large landed property in the island, and his son, there are no very rich Turkish proprietors. They live, as usual, in the seclusion of their own quarter, and are not very friendly to Franks. No Jews have ever been able to exist at Mytilene. A sententious old Turk told us that some years ago some unhappy Hebrews came here to settle as merchants. The first morning after their arrival they took a walk in the bazaar, where they saw the Mytileniotes weighing the eggs they bought, to see if they were worth the paras they gave for them. "This is no place for us," said the Jews, "these Greeks would be too knowing for us;" and so away they went from Mytilene, where no Jew, said my old Turk, has ever attempted since to settle. The entii'e population of the town of Mytilene is reckoned at about 8,500, of whom from 200 to 300 are foreigners, protected by their several consulates. These are mostly Hellenic or Ionian subjects. The number of Mussulmans probably does not exceed 2,000.

I have been employing my time lately in exploring the country in the immediate vicinity of Mytilene itself. The first place which I visited was the Roman aqueduct at Morea, a 'illage distant about an hour to the N.W. of Mytilene. The road to Morea, issuing from the north gate of Mytilene, passes through an Hellenic cemetery, where sarcophagi and tombs are occasionally found. The remains of the aqueduct at Morea extend across a small valley. It consists of three rows of arches, of which the uppermost is of brick. The lower part is built of squared massive blocks. It is beautifully proportioned, and, from the style, may be ascribed to the Augustan period (Plate 3). On a stone in one of the pillars I noticed the letters D M 0, probably a mason's mark. Remains of this aqueduct are to be met with at St. Demetri,

two hours and a half from Ayasso, on the road to
Travels & discoveries in the Levant (1865) Vol 1-Plate 3.jpg


Vasilika; also at a place called Larissou Lamarousia, one hour distant from Morea.

The village of Morea is one of the most flourishing in the neighbourhood of Mytilene, and has a large school-house. The richer Greeks of Mytilene have country houses here, in which they pass their villegiatura in the summer. These country houses still retain the ancient name of Pyrgi, or towers. They are usually tall square houses, with a ground-floor which is only used for housing cattle and farming implements, and an upper story generally consisting of a single room. Above this again is sometimes a third story. The entrance to the upper part of the house is sometimes by means of a flight of stone steps outside, sometimes by a wooden ladder inside the ground-floor. Some of the older pyrgi along the coast of Mytilene are strongly built with squared blocks. This kind of dwelling-house must have been originally adopted for defence against sudden attacks of pirates.26 The reception-room in the pyrgos of a rich Greek is a model of neatness and cleanliness. The floors are washed like the deck of a man-of-war, the napkins snow-white, with a little gold embroidery and a kind of lace at the edges; the divan or sofa covered with white dimity. The lady of the house is always very smart: her duty is to wait on her guests; but she never sits down or takes any part in the conversation; that is her husband's business and privilege. I have had to make a great many visits lately in the course of my rambles, and am nearly choked with quinces, marmalade, sugar-plums, cups of coffee, chibouks, narguillas, and various other offerings, which to accept is often painful to the guest, but to refuse is a certain affront to the host.

Continuing along the shore in a N.W. direction, at the distance of two hours from Mytilene is Thermæ, a place so called from the hot mineral baths which still exist there. Here is a small harbour marked in the Admiralty Chart as Ancient Mole. The village of Thermae is at the distance of about half an hour inland. It is marked in the Chart by its Turkish name Sarelek, "yellow." This name is given from the colour of the water in the hot springs, which are feiTuginous. The baths are small vaulted buildings of a recent period. In the walls are a number of interesting inscriptions originally copied by Pococke, from which we learn that there was at Thermæ a Panegyris Thermiaea, and that Artemis was worshipped here under the title of Artemis Thermia Euakoos, "the Propitious."27 The connection between the worship of Artemis and these ferruginous baths is very obvious, as the use of such tonic waters would be prescribed in connection with the bracing exercise of the chase. The senate and people mentioned in these inscriptions are, it is to be presumed, those of the town of Thermae. In the fields all round the baths, marbles used in buildings are found in the soil, but I could not hear of the discovery of any sculpture or architectural ornaments.

Pococke saw here great ruins of buildings, particularly of a colonnade leading to the baths from the south, the pedestals of which remained in his time. Along the shore a little to the east of Thermæ are the remains of a sea-wall built of rubble and concrete. The ashlar-work facing has been removed. About ten minutes' distance from Thermos on the road to Mytilene, and about the same distance from the sea, is a ruined church called St. Eustratios, with some ancient fragments. At the back of the apse is a carved stone with part of two lines of an inscription, in which the word ΔΑΜΟ occurs.

Returning from Thermas I visited a small church called St. Nicolas, at a place called Torre di Firme. Here in the wall on the left side of the doorway is an inscription to the emperor Hadrian as Saviour and Founder of Mytilene. The church is surrounded by a wall with a doorway, on the right side of which is a gladiator in relief, holding his sword in an attitude of defence: above are the remains of an inscription. On the opposite side of the doorway is a bas-relief in similar style, representing a gladiator kneeling and awaiting the attack of an Indian bull, who is rushing at him: above has been an inscription. These reliefs are in a very late style.

Between Thermae and Morea is Paphila, which is incorrectly written Baftah in the Admiralty Chart. Near this place is a small eminence called Karadipi, with a farm-house or chiflik. In excavations here were found recently fragments of two statues of white marble. Of one, a male figure, the feet only remain. The other fragment consisted of the legs of a female draped figure. The style was not very good. At Paphila I saw a terminal pillar surmounted by a much-mutilated bust, perhaps of some philosopher.

On the side of the road near Karadipi is a cippus inscribed "The great Artemis of Thermæ." This seems to have been the base of a statue. It is lying by the side of the road, jiartially overgrown with shrubs.

Returning to Mytilene by Morea, I noticed at the distance of about ten minutes from that village a place by the roadside called Achlea. Here is a warm spring with a bath vaulted over. On the opposite side of the road the face of the rock is scarped, and on it, in very large letters, now nearly effaced, may be read the words ΤѠΝ ΓΝΑΦΕѠΝ, τῶν γναϕέων,—"of the fullers,"—which is evidently part of a dedication by a company of fulllers, who made use of the water of this warm spring.28 Immediately opposite to this inscription on the other side of the road, are the foundations of a small square building made with mortar, placed at the side of a pool of warm water. In the wall of a field between the road and the sea is a sepulchral stelé with three figures in relief, probably representing a wife taking a last farewell of her husband and son. In a vineyard between this spot and the sea are two large blocks, which appear to be in situ. It is probable that a small temple dedicated to the nymph of the fountain stood here.

To the S. of Mytilene the coast terminates in a promontory, called Zeitin, the ancient Malea. It was here that, immediately before the battle of Arginusæ, the Spartan fleet of 120 vessels, commanded by Kallikratidas, dined on the same day that the Athenian fleet dined on the island of Arginusæ opposite them.29 This place must not be confounded with the Malea to the north of the town, where, as has been already stated, the Athenian fleet were stationed in their attack on Mytilene. It is uncertain where the temple of Apollo Maloeis was situated; Ave only know of it that it was outside the city. The fertile shore lying between Cape Malea and Mytilene would afford many places suitable for the holding of a Panegyris such as Thucydides describes30 to have been held at this temple. On the other hand, if the North Harbour was called Maloeis, it seems probable that the temple was somewhere in its vicinity. I could discover at Cape Malea no traces of ancient remains except the capital of a richly-sculptured Ionic column in a little chapel called Panagia Mali, a little to the W. of the Cape. Near this chapel is an ancient cistern used as a well. On the shore between Mytilene and Malea is the village of Pligoni, where are columns and some small remains of ancient foundations.