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The Castle of Mytilene
Once a separate islet and site of the acropolis of Ancient Mytilene, the low, rocky outcrop is girt today by the re mains of the Castle or*Kastro of Mytilene (open daily 8–3, except Mon). There are two entrances—from the south at a higher level, or from the west by an entrance (the ‘Orta Kapi) 150m north of the New Archaeological Museum; the description below begins at the latter.
The impressive quantity of decorative and structural elements from pagan buildings incorporated in the massive enceinte of walls gives an idea of the extent of the destruction of the ancient town on this site when the castle was first built: much material appears also to have been brought here from the ancient theatre and other sites, in order to create the foundations and the lower courses of the castle’s earliest structures, and to construct the main keep in the southeast corner. The first post-Antique fortress here is said to have been erected in the 6th century ad, under the Emperor Justinian: the innermost of the three successive gates on the west side is Byzantine, and it marks the northwestern limit of the Byzantine castle which followed the line of a ridge-like outcrop of rock on the hillside. It did not stretch, as now, down to the shore. The enceinte was strengthened and further fortified to the south and west by the (Genoese) Gattilusi overlords between their coming into possession of the castle in 1355 and a catastrophic earthquake in 1384 which wrought considerable damage to the structure and killed all of the ruling family except for one surviving son, Francesco (II). What was rebuilt was considerably damaged again by the Turkish assault of 1462 by the forces of the Grand Vizier of Mehmet the Conqueror. After this the is land became an Ottoman possession. In 1501, under Sultan Beyazit II, the ‘Lower Castle’, protected by a circular bastion at the northernmost point, was added stretching down to the waterside so as to protect the north harbour. Another outer wall on the south and west sides, with towers for artillery, separated by a dry moat, was later built by the Turks in 1644.
The interior was densely inhabited in Ottoman times; many of the ruined buildings still visible inside—a mosque, medrese, tekke, fountain, hamam, magazines, prison and barracks etc.—date from the 16th to 19th centuries. A military presence was still kept in the castle, even after the Turkish departure in 1912. Excavations in the upper southern area since 1985 have revealed remains of a thesmophorion (sanctuary of Demeter), including votive figurines, altars and elements of a curious Archaic temple of mixed Doric and Ionic style.
Escutcheons and armorial bearings
Several heraldic features are combined and repeated in marble plaques at many points on the buildings. The Gattilusi came into possession of Lesbos when, in 1354, Francesco Gattilusi married Maria, sister of the Emperor of Byzantium, John V Palaeologus. For this reason the display of coats of arms feature: double-headed eagles (symbol of the Byzantine Empire); the single-headed crowned (Doria family) eagle of Genoa; an angular and seemingly abstract design, which is a composite monogram of the Greek letters spelling the Imperial family name, ‘Palaeologus’; a square field with rows of overlaid shields, creating a ‘fish-scale’ motif (the Gattilusi arms); and four stylised Bs used by the Emperors of Byzantium since the time of Constantine the Great, arranged in cross formation, standing for the business-like assertion: ‘Βασιλεύς Βασιλέων Βασιλεύων Βασιλεύσιν’ meaning ‘King of Kings, ruling over Kings’. The sentence seems later to have been adapted to the more modest: ‘Βασιλέυς Βασιλέων Βασιλέα Βοήθει’ ‘King of Kings (the Almighty), help the King (the Emperor).
Around the Orta Kapi and the lower castle
You enter the castle through a succession of three gates of different periods and constructions. The Ottoman ‘Orta Kapi’ (‘Middle Gate’) is part of the Turkish fortifications which were added in 1644. The gate is virtually invisible from the outside, and protected by a circular bastion to the left as you approach; it leads into a passage, and thence through a second (Mediaeval) Gate, built in the late 14th century by Francesco Gattilusio, into an enclosed area between the Ottoman and the original Byzantine/Gattilusi walls, which incorporate many ancient column fragments, triglyphs, and pieces of cornice. From here a third gate of the Byzantine period, with a massive ancient marble block as its lintel, leads into the wide open space of the interior, scattered with ancient spolia on all sides.
To the right is an Ottoman fountain; to the left, a deep and well-preserved cistern, whose design is both elegant and functional. The original paved road that traverses the enclosed area from SE to NW, had stone channels to either side (more visible in the upper stretches) which brought water down the slope into subsidiary tanks along the way, and finally into this principal cistern. The road follows the line of the eastern, outer wall of the ancient city. Opposite are the remains of a square Ottoman house of the 17th century which possesses its own cistern, wellhead and latrine. To the north, and visible from stairs which give access to the top of the intermediate wall to the left, lies the Lower Castle, added by the Turks in 1501, which extended the fortifications as far as the northern shore and the harbour. It was protected by a circular bastion at its northern extremity and enclosed a large area with a great many houses, a hamam, a fountain, a Turkish oracle-shrine, and the Christian cave-church and sacred spring of the Panaghia Galatousa, all of which can be reached from the road which circles the castle on the seaward side and breaches the lower walls in the north.
The middle and upper castle
The paved path leads uphill to the south from the Byzantine gateway, passing the many-domed block of the Ottoman medrese (theological school) above, and imaret (soup-kitchen) below. The well-preserved and recently consolidated 17th century structure is faced elegantly with the local magenta-coloured stone, contrasting with the wide, pointed arches of its interior courtyard constructed in thin brick-tiles. The building has satisfying proportions and its uniformity is nicely broken by the balconied and higher-domed tower over the prayer-hall in the east corner. The surviving building may be a replacement of the original 16th century medrese on this spot which was founded by the Ottoman Admiral, Khairredin or Hayreddin ‘Barbarossa’, who was a native of Lesbos. Immediately beyond the medrese was the hamam, and to the left of the path is a small domed tekke, or living quarters for dervishes, with its fireplace still intact. The three buildings together formed a complete religious unit.
Further up and in close proximity to the spiritual buildings are the more rectilinear military buildings: a massively built and roofed gunpowder magazine to the right of the path, and a large 17th century barracks and prison, arranged around a courtyard, to the left, designed by the Ottoman architect, Musa Baba. Steps up to the top of the walls in the southwestern corner provide excellent views of the sharper lines of the final 17th century Ottoman additions—the outermost walls and bastions, designed with emplacements for artillery. Below this area is an extensive undercroft of vaulted subterranean spaces, endowed with a wellhead and sanitary facilities; these were used for protecting and housing the populace during times of siege.
Visible beside the path which returns towards the keep in the east, stands the massive broken stone sarcophagus, carved with the heraldic ‘fish-scale’ motif of the Gattilusi family and the four Bs of Byzantium (see pp. 33-34). It is known that Francesco (I) Gattilusio built a church of St John the Baptist, in which he was later buried. This lies just to the north and east where there are substantial re mains of superimposed religious buildings: these represent the remnants of a mosque oriented to south, on top of the remains of a church oriented to east. The mihrab niche is still visible; so also are the bases of marble columns for the prayer hall, steps to a gallery, and the semicircular marble steps leading to the loggia in front of the mosque: the area is scattered with marble fragments of both Christian and Islamic origin. The sarcophagus would therefore appear to be the tomb of Francesco Gattilusio, which originally stood in a funerary chapel in the crypt of the church below the mosque.
The area to the north of these remains was occupied in Antiquity by a 5th century bc thesmophorion, or sanctuary to Demeter and Persephone. The sanctuary will have lain just outside the eastern walls of the ancient city as was common for a place of worship of the deities of the Under world. The excavations (carried out by the Canadian Archaeological Institute in Athens) have been partly covered over again and are not especially revealing as seen today; but the wealth of votive objects which were found on the site can be seen in the Old Archaeological Museum (Room X).
In the southeast corner is the fortress-keep and residence of the Gattilusi. The forbidding exterior faces are punctuated with their heraldic arms and interspersed with fragmentary Hellenistic and Roman reliefs of military duels, hunting scenes and gladiatorial matches, intended to broadcast the idea of the raw and martial nature of the power embodied here. The ensemble is built—using a lot of material taken from the ancient theatre—around an open courtyard, and is fortified by five towers. It was the roofs and floors of these buildings that must have collapsed in the earthquake of 1384, killing most of Francesco’s family. In this corner of the enceinte is the south entrance of the castle which leads out from the 14th century walls into a fortified space enclosed by the outer 17th century Ottoman walls whose design is altogether grander and more sophisticated. Once again there are frequent coats of arms at strategic points, this time with the addition of elegant Ottoman inscriptions.
Lesvos Island is part of the Northern Aegean Island Group, Greece.
The Castle of Mytilene.