Mytilene: The harbours and Ermou Street
The present lay-out of the city of Mytilene is substantially different from its form in Antiquity. Today ferries arrive in the main harbour, south of the castle, with the city-centre laid out on its west shore. This was formerly the military (or ‘trireme’) harbour of Ancient Mytilene, and was linked by a canal-like channel, referred to simply as the Euripos (the ‘Strait’), which ran north from it for 500m, along the line of today’s Ermou street, to the commercial (or ‘Malleois’) harbour on the north side of the town. This meant that the hill and eastern promontory on which the castle now stands was formerly an island, and was the heart of the ancient city. As the city grew, residential and commercial areas spread over the slopes on the opposite, landward side of the Euripos. By the 5th century bc, the city’s walls extended onto the ‘mainland’ and enclosed an area comparable with those of Athens. Archaeological work has revealed parts of the harbour moles, cemeteries, aqueducts, a theatre, villas of considerable size, and a sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone. The urban area was laid out according to a Hippodamian grid-plan: Vitruvius observed accurately that this left the streets unprotected from the force of the north and south winds. The city was rich and seems to have been splendidly decorated in Hellenistic times; it exported metals, alum, textiles, terracottas, and ‘garum’—a fermented fish paste widely used in cooking for flavouring in lieu of salt.
The western side of the main harbour today is dominated by the silhouette of the church of Aghios Therapon, whose Classical pediments in rust-coloured local stone are surmounted by idiosyncratically elongated cupolas revetted in pale, lead sheeting. From afar the church has a memorable outline; but from closer to, its mixture of Classical, baroque and Byzantine elements is never quite digested into a satisfactory whole: it was designed in the mid-19th century by Argyris Adalis (who also created the more successful neoclassical High School Building of 1888–90, just to its south), but was only completed in 1935. Facing its west front is a small and interesting Byzantine Museum, containing icons, historical documents and religious material from around the island (open daily June–Sept 10–1, except Sun). Amongst the exhibited icons are a number of surprisingly early examples: a beautiful 14th century Pantocrator (from the church of the Taxiarchis at Kato Tritos (see below, p. 64) on the west side of the gulf of Gera), a 13th century icon of St George, and a finely carved and painted segment of a 16th century wooden iconostasis, figuring the Deesis group (Christ, flanked by his Mother and the Baptist).
From below the east end of Aghios Therapon, Ermou Street—the principal artery of the city’s old bazaar area—runs north, eventually following the line of the ancient Euripos canal which linked the north and south harbours. As the city spread to the west, this was spanned in Ancient times by marble bridges: these are mentioned in the 2nd century ad poetic novel, The Pastoral Story of Daphnis and Chloe, by the Greek writer, Longus. This curious and somewhat neglected tale—much admired by Goethe—of the awakening of love and sexual awareness between the two orphaned aristocratic children, is set in Mytilene and contains much historical and topographical material on the island. Archaeologists have since found remains of one such bridge towards the channel’s northern end.
Aghios Therapon, though grand in design, is not the city’s cathedral: this function is performed by the large, late 19th century church half way down Ermou Street on the east side, marked by a stone bell-tower in Gothic style. Formerly the church of Aghios Athanasios, it was later re dedicated in honour of (a latter-day) Aghios Theodoros, who was martyred at the hands of the Turks in 1795 and was chosen as the city’s patron saint. (Relics are preserved inside, to the right). The interior is heavily decorated in early 20th century taste, but a very fine and venerable *icon of St Catherine of Alexandria (to the left on entering) is a rare survival from the church’s predecessor, and probably dates from the 16th century, if not earlier. Outside, and directly behind the cathedral’s east end, excavations have revealed a marble exedra of the Roman period, with well-preserved column bases still in place.
In the immediate area of the cathedral are four other churches which represent the heart of what remained ‘the Christian area’ during Ottoman occupation. The old est of these was the church of the Aghii Theodori (50m north, and set back down an alleyway to the east of Ermou Street), originally a Byzantine foundation which was rebuilt after a fire in the mid-18th century. Its crescent shaped portico is constructed with monolithic antique columns in Proconnesian marble, which support two fragments of ancient entablature at either end, to north and south. The interior has a painted wooden ceiling and a finely carved 18th century iconostasis.
To the north of here was the predominantly Moslem quarter, centred on the early 19th century Yeni Cami (New Mosque) on the corner of Ermou and Adramytiou Streets. This fine, porticoed mosque—now gutted and roofless—was the focus of the market area of the town in Ottoman times; opposite its entrance is an arcaded Ottoman building which once housed a medrese. The recently restored Carsi Hamam (‘Market Baths’), 50m to its west on Mavili Street, is contemporaneous and part of the same complex. To the north of the Yeni Cami, excavation and demolition have radically altered the face of the north harbour-side which was once fronted by a picturesque clutter of buildings from the 1920s known locally as the ‘refugees’ market’. Its removal has revealed the partially flooded foundations of ancient buildings of different periods: visible to both sides of the shoreline road, are substantial remains of harbour walls and bastions in Hellenistic isodomic masonry; inland of them are the foundations and columns bases of the long harbour stoa; on top of its foundations in the middle, some late Roman or Byzantine baths have been superimposed, with small areas of the hypocaust system still visible. Further remains of the walls, and of the atrium of a Roman house can be glimpsed in the block just to the east of the ‘Kastro’ taverna, at the northern end of Ermou Street.
Fifty metres west of the area of the harbour stoa, rise the abandoned and collapsing ruins of the Valide Cami, whose minaret has only in recent years lost its ornate top. The mosque was designed in the early 17th century in honour of the mother (‘valide’) of Sultan Ahmed I. The beautiful shapes of the long, arched lower windows and the oval lights above them, which amply illuminated the single space of the vaulted prayer-hall, make this—in spite of its state of abandonment—a rare and notable example of 17th century Ottoman architecture in the islands. An other mosque, the later Yali Cami (‘Shore Mosque’), is discernible by its blind pointed arcades and dedicatory marble inscription above the front entrance: an agricultural supplies shop (Theodorellis Bros.) now occupies its interior. It stands on the landward side of the shore road, by the junction with Ermou Street, opposite the modern chapel of the Saint Paul, which commemorates the Apostle’s passing through Mytilene in 58 ad (Acts 20, vv. 13– 15). A last curiosity of the Ottoman period can be seen by following the shore-road further north for 500m around the bay as far as the ΔΕΗ— electricity generating plant. Directly opposite it, beside the shore to the right, are the buildings of the Kourtzi Hamam, built as a therapeutic centre in 1883 by one of the island’s richest bankers and industrialists, Panos Kourtzis, on the site of geothermic springs known and used in Roman times. Some of the interior decoration and the twin, domed, steam-rooms (one for men, the other for women)—now dry—are still preserved. One of the fullest views of the castle of Mytilene can be had from here.
Just south of the Kourtzi Hamam was the northern mole of the ‘commercial harbour’ of Ancient Mytilene, projecting from a slight spur of land before the main sweep of the bay. From this point the walls of the ancient city headed west and south. As with the (longer) eastern harbour mole, which ran 150m northeast into the water from where the north bastion of the Castle now stands, the remains are submerged, but they can still be traced breaking the surface when the water is calm.
Lesvos Island is part of the Northern Aegean Island Group, Greece.
Mytilene, the harbours and Ermou Street.