Archaeological sites of Lemnos Island

Tuesday, August 16, 2016 Sightseeing and Landmarks by Iuliana Marchian

In the summer of 2016, I’ve been travelling around the Aegean Greek Islands for three weeks. From all the islands I have visited Thassos and Samothraki were the most touristic ones. While, Lemnos Island on the contrary – strikingly authentic.  The island is not easily accessible from the mainland, so there are not many tourists there. Its authenticity emerges from simple things such as daily life or countless chapels scattered all over, even at isolated foothills.

Lemnos Island - Christian chapel on the eastern coast

The ancient myths about the island feature the god of fire Hephaestus and the mythological hero Philoctetes. According to the myth, Goddess Hera was enraged with Zeus. When her son Hephaestus tried to protect her, Zeus became angry and cast Hephaestus off Mount Olympus. Hephaestus ended up on Lemnos Island, where he started a new life protecting and caring for the locals.

Lemnos Island

Lemnos, also known as ‘The island of Hephaestus’, is a Greek island situated in the northern part of the Aegean Sea. It is a fertile land located in a geographically and historically central spot, west of the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles straits. Many people throughout the islands history tried to benefit from both: its location and layout.

Lemnos Island - Tigani Bay

Lemnos is rich with places of worship and various fortresses dating back to Byzantine, Ottoman and Medieval times. Although not tainted by mass tourism, the island features fascinating archaeological sites, such as Poliochni (Πολιόχνη) and Hephaestia (Ηφαιστεία). These ancient places of culture and worship are scattered all over the eastern side of the island. As some of them have been inhabited since prehistoric times, they bear an untouched traces of the people who lived here, their culture, and rites.

Kabeiroi Sanctuary

Near the village of Panagia, lies the ancient Sanctuary dedicated to the cult of Cabeiri (Kabiri). Since time immemorial, this was the sacred place for initiation of faithful people through the Cabeirian Rites. The Cabeirian mysteries were religious rites celebrated annually to honour Cabeiri – the cult of deities, worshipped as gods of fertility, wine, and sea. These mysteries were said to secure salvation from hazards at sea and dangerous voyages. The rituals of worship and initiation in the Cabeirian mysteries lasted nine days, and they were related to the rebirth of nature and the fertility of the land. For the duration of this period, all fires on the island were quenched. Meanwhile, a ship was sent to Delos – the birthplace of god Apollo, the island of light, to bring back the new light. The reception of the flame was a spectacular and festive event, with prayers and consecration.

Lemnos Island - the Sanctuary of Kabeiroi

The sanctuary had two terraces and was built throughout three historical periods: the Archaic, the Hellenistic, and the Late Roman. It occupies the slope of a low hill that falls sheer into the sea, forming Cape Chloe. Walls protect the sanctuary from both: land and sea. On the south terrace of the site, the Archaic temple reveals the Telesterion, built in the early seventh century BC. The Hellenistic temple covers the entire north terrace. The third temple built in the Late Roman times was constructed on top of the Archaic temple. The formation of the Late Roman temple indicates that the intention was to reproduce the plan of the Hellenistic building located on the northern terrace, but in smaller dimensions. This was the final period of the sanctuary’s existence and bear evidence of the longevity of the Cabeiri cult on the Lemons Island. Many on-site destructions are a merit of Christian missionaries of the late third – early fourth century AD.

The ancient theatre of Hephaistia

Near the small town of Kontopouli in the eastern part of Lemnos Island, one can find the Ancient Theater of Hephaestia. The last five kilometres to the site are off-road and challenging with a lot of traffic. The earliest theatrical construction had wooden seats. The first theatre was founded on the remains of the previous building such as the sanctum to the Great Goddess, necropolises, baths, a palace, and workshop spaces.

Lemnos Island - the ancient theater of Hephaistia

Construction phases of Hephaestia theatre

The stone theatre dates back to the Late Classical period. During this time the first ten rows of seats constructed from local porous stone, as well as the circular orchestra, the rectangular skene, and the system of porous gutters to drain the rain water away were built. During the second phase starting in the Hellenistic period the amphitheatre and the retaining walls of the paradoi were added to the site. In the third phase, the stone abutment of the perimeter walls was built. In Roman times, significant changes were made to the theatre: the skene building was enlarged at the expense of the orchestra, which was confined to a semicircle. The water drainage was improved by giving the floor of the orchestra a slight slope towards the gutter, which channels water away from the orchestra and the skene. This improvement works to nowadays. Finally, the oblong buildings adjacent to the retaining walls of the paradoi were constructed, contributing to the layout of the theatre as it is today.

Poliochni

The prehistoric site of Poliochni is situated on the southeastern coast of Lemnos island. It is considered to be the most ancient city in Europe. It constitutes a settlement that went through many phases of architectural and cultural development, in an extensive period of time from 5000 BC to 1600 BC. The wealth, collected from processing and trading of metals and the know-how of the city, is reflected in the high-level architecture and urban planning of Poliochni. Back then the city had the world’s most advanced defensive and civic technology (e.g. facing Asian Minor shore, Troy had not yet been established).

Lemnos Island - Poliochni prehistoric site

Inhabited since Paleolithic Age, Poliochni was founded at the end of the late Neolithic Age (5000-4000 BC). It flourished throughout the first and middle Bronze Age (4000-2000 BC). The site was abandoned after 1200 BC. The most ancient establishment, destroyed at least seven times, was a village made of oval huts. Later on, it evolved into a city surrounded by strong fortified walls, with rectangular stone dwellings (megaron), squares, drainage, public and private wells, paved streets, public buildings and, possibly, a parliament. It is the most ancient evidence of parliament establishment in Europe and the world which precedes the ones of the classical era by almost 2000 years.

Construction phases of Poliochni

There were four principal construction phases of Poliochni. In the first phase, the city was fortified with strong walls raised where the natural protection was missing. In the second and third phase, some parts of the fortification walls were partly wrecked perhaps by earthquakes or by sliding ground of Lemnos Island. Later on, a new, wider enceinte was built lower than the previous one in order to provide more space for the growing population. Archaeologists estimate that the settlement covered a surface of 11.000 sq.m., while the population amounted roughly to 1500 inhabitants. In the last phase, some rooms were constructed inside the fortification, which makes scientists believe that the enceinte had lost its defensive character. At the end of this phase, suddenly the city was destructed by unknown events, most likely an earthquakes or enemy attacks, which also led to the destruction of Troy II (ca 2100 BC). Even though Poliochni was strongly influenced by the Asia Minor and other North Aegean culture, it also maintained a strong connection to the centres of the continental Greece and Archipelagos, in particular with Cycladic Islands.  

Lemnos Island - Gomati beach with sand dunes

This is the first part of a series about Lemnos Island which includes the most authentic and representative places from the island.