The Roman Aqueduct and Thermi area

Three and a half kilometres to the north along the east coast from Mytilene, a left turn leads off to the village of Mori­a. On the left (south), as the road turns to the west, are the visible remains of ancient quarries in the escarpment above. This was the source for the island’s grey limestone; a number of unfinished blocks (monolithic columns) and the evidence of extensive cutting with picks and wedges can be seen in the rock face, dating from the period of the quarries’ exploitation by the Romans. Stone from here was used for the construction of the magnificent aqueduct of the 2nd century ad, visible in the gorge to the southeast of the village of Mori­a. (At the narrowest point at the centre of the village of Mori­a, bear left for the road that skirts the village to the south side; the aqueduct comes into view after 300m.) The aqueduct brought water over a distance of more than 24km into the city of Mytilene, by a circuitous route from springs below the area of Megali Limni in the foothills of Mount Olympos, northwest of Aghiasos; another impressive bridge along its route traverses a steep gorge in the vicinity of Lambou Myli. The expenditure made on such an enterprise would indicate a substantial growth in population in the city during the prosperous period of Roman dominion.

The aqueduct at Mori­a is 170m in length and over 27m in height: only three of the arcades still stand almost to their full height. It presents a number of interesting characteristics: the dressing of the structure in a carefully drafted and rusticated facing of marble, with projecting cornice ledges, suggests that it was to be viewed not just as a functional structure, but also as a creation with aesthetic and architectural appeal. This appeal is further enhanced by a ‘streamlined’ lightness of design by comparison with many similar constructions, imparted by the slimness of its buttressing arches at the middle level and its elegantly tapering piers. The aqueduct functions as part of a syphon system in which the water, after its descent down to the bridge, was driven by natural pressure in sealed pipes uphill again to a level slightly lower than that from which it started, from which point it continued its slowly descending trajectory towards the city. The structure’s survival in perfect, plumb-line verticality throughout centuries of seismic movement is a testimony to the technical expertise with which it was constructed.

Returning to the coast road, and proceeding through the village of Pamphylla to Pyrgi Thermis (10km from Mytilene centre), you come to the remains of prehistoric Thermi­—the most important Bronze Age site on the is land—which lie a short distance east of the road by the shore. (After entering Pyrgi Thermis, a road signed to the ‘New Lesbos Inn’ leads northeast to the shore: the excavations are 100m along the shore, to the north of the hotel.) The site was first located and explored by the English archaeologist, Winifred Lamb, between 1929 and 1933. The discoveries here should be thought of in relation to two other prominent, coastal, Early Bronze Age sites—Poliochni on Lemnos and Troy on the Asian mainland—both of which lie at no great distance to the north of here. Even to the non-specialist eye, it is clear that the foundations revealed here by the excavations delineate dwellings that were spacious for their time. The contiguous houses, dis posed in a seemingly well-organised plan, had pebble floors and flat roofs; they were long and narrow, with a main room, sometimes closed by a porch at the front.

Significant habitation here goes back to as early as 3000 bc (‘Thermi I’) in the form of an initially unfortified urban tis sue organised in roughly radiating fashion around a central block. What the visitor now sees, however, are principally the remains of two successive, slightly later periods of construction of the Early Bronze Age, defined as Thermi IV and V, dating from c. 2700-2400 bc (northeastern area of site). In these, the ‘building-plan’ has changed and adopted an ‘orthogonal’ form, i.e. roughly rectangular blocks divided by wide parallel arteries, and surrounded by defensive walls and gates (visible to the south side). Around 2400 bc the site was abandoned and apparently not reinhabited again until the early 2nd millennium bc (southwestern portion of site). From this later period date the first, neatly constructed cist graves, and a well-conserved pottery-kiln. The finding also of imported pottery of the later Bronze Age indicates contacts with the growing influence of the Mycenaean world. The site was finally abandoned around 1300 bc after a conflagration.           
   Artefacts found here (especially the black pottery which strongly resembles that of Troy I) show that Thermi belonged predominantly to the cultural sphere of Troy, even though Cycladic influences appear later on. As at Poliochni on Lemnos, metal-working (evidenced by the finding of crucibles, moulds and bellows) appears to have been an important element of the community’s economy from the very earliest times. As often with prehistoric settlements, the choice of site appears not to be determined by special features of geographical relief. The coast of Asia Minor is close and visible across a stretch of mostly calm, protected water, and would have presented no great difficulty to early traders. The proximity of the geothermic waters, however, may have been important for the settlers.

An inspiring and ecologically-minded project of planting has been undertaken on the site together with a non intrusive presentation for the visitor. A wide and imaginative variety of Aegean herbs and aromatics have been used to consolidate the earth around the excavations, and climbers to give shade: the outlying areas have been planted with trees such as pomegranate (which has a rich, divine symbolism in the Asian/Aegean area), juniper, and olive—for whose presence there is archaeological evidence at Bronze Age Thermi. Control of weeds on the site, furthermore, is effected using strictly non-chemical means, such as by sprinkling with a solution of sea-water and simple cooking soda. As the planting matures it will give the site a pleasing and attractive aspect, and it is to be hoped these ideas might be adopted on other Aegean sites.
   A kilometre north along the main road, a (signed) street to the west leads a short distance to the Panaghia Troulotis, one of the oldest functioning churches of the island—a handsome 14th century, stone building surmounted by a cylindrical cupola (‘troulos’), from which its name derives. The present structure is said to replace an older one of the 9th century. From outside it can be seen that the original building was square with an in scribed cross plan and three apses; to this a narthex of large dimensions was added in the 16th century. In the exterior south wall of the narthex are two curious, ancient marble reliefs—one figuring a bear and a stag, the other (inexplicable for its fragmentary nature) apparently a hunting scene, in which a sprawling man clinging to a pole prepares to dispatch a (?)wolf while a companion flees to the side. Given the subject matter, it is possible that these carved scenes came from the nearby sanctuary of the divine huntress, Artemis. Other ancient fragments are incorporated in the structure, especially at the corners. The once painted interior has been plastered and redesigned; only damaged vestiges of the original murals survive on the piers and lower areas of the walls.
   Across the cobbled street, stands a very beautiful example of a Lesbian pyrgos, flanked by monumental pine and cypress trees—a two-floor stone tower, with protruding, wooden-framed living rooms above, whose projection sits elegantly on a moulded covering over the sup ports. The clean rectangular plaster and wood structures above create a satisfying contrast with the stone walls and rounded window frames below.
   A short distance further north, the hot springs of Thermi­ and the remains of the sanctuary of Artemis Thermia are marked today by the imposing buildings of the Sarlitza Palace Hotel, which from its foundation in 1909 until its decommissioning in 1984 was one of the grand spa hotels of the Aegean. Its long yellow, orientalising façade, offset by the solitary palm and pine trees in front, was designed by French architects: it is now in a state of ruinous decay. The interior has mostly been gutted, but the marble steps of the main staircase are still in place, and furniture in some of the bedrooms still poignantly remains. The Greek name ‘Sarlitza’ is a Hellenisation of the Turkish ‘sarica’ (‘yellow’ or ‘golden coloured’), describing the colour of the highly chalybeate waters. The hotel was founded and operated by two brothers who were high-ranking officials in the last years of Ottoman dominion. It survived the subsequent political upheavals of Turkish withdrawal in 1912 and the crisis of 1923 in Asia Minor, after which it was operated for a period by a Greek-owned Mutual Society. In its heyday, it received visits from distinguished politicians, royalty and literary luminaries. An irreversible decline set in during the 1950s, and after a period as an hotel-school it finally closed its doors in 1984.

The site has known many transformations through its long history: first as a focus of the sanctuary of Artemis, where the festival of the Thermaia was celebrated with athletic, musical and theatrical contests, culminating in a sacrificial banquet. The Romans with their predilection for bathing in natural hot waters and their gift for organisation created a proper thermal station here: the foundations of a small area of it, with bathing chambers, can be seen between the Sarlitza Palace Hotel and the shore. A church of SS Constantine and Helen appears to have replaced the temple of Artemis in Early Christian times, and the festivities of its saints’ day incorporated a number of features from the pagan Thermaia. The hot springs themselves, which rise behind and a little to the south of the hotel building, may later have been enclosed in a Byzantine building; but the curious spring-house which survives today is mostly an Ottoman structure of the late 18th century. The low arches of the roof are supported by a central pier, surmounted by a damaged Ionic capital from the pagan sanctuary; the water in which it stands is opaque and ferrous in colour. It was here that the English visitor, Mary Walker, describes seeing in 1897, a group of women, submerged up to their necks, forming a chain with their hands around the central pier, and singing together. The entrance-door is a heterogeneous assemblage of ancient fragments, fluted columns and dedicatory plinths: one, opposite the entrance, possesses an eroded votive inscription which opens encouragingly ‘Agatha Tycha…’ (‘Through good fortune…’). The saline water, rich in iron, whose properties were praised by Galen, rises at 47Β°C. The municipal baths (next to the ruined hotel) are open from June to October for 15 minute immersions in individual cubicles.

A further 50m along the road inland towards Loutropoli Thermi­s is a small modern church (right), to the east of which has been collected together a variety of ancient pieces and fragments from the surrounding area of the sanctuary of Artemis; these include a number of fluted and plain column fragments (one of which has been re used as a mile-post, written in both Latin and Osmanli script), plinths, pedestals and a sarcophagus in the magenta-coloured, trachytic stone of western Lesbos.

Lesvos Island is part of the Northern Aegean Island Group, Greece.
Mytilene, the Roman Aqueduct and the Thermi area.

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The Gattilusi Castle
Mytilene Harbour
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