The sanctuary of Mesa

Five and a half kilometres north of Pyrrha, the road re joins the main Mytilene to Kalloni­ road. Less than a kilo metre east of this junction, a track north leads 400m to the ancient ‘Pan-Lesbian’ sanctuary of Mesa (open daily except Mon 8.30–3). The name ‘Mesa’ is from the Ancient Greek ‘mesos’ (‘middle’, ‘mid-way’ or ‘neutral’): the sanctuary uncovered here was, by position and intention, in the middle of the territories of the main cities which constituted the ‘Koinon Lesbion’, or ‘Commonwealth of Lesbos’—Mytilene, Methymna, Eresos and Antissa—and it lay just outside the territory of Pyrrha. It is referred to in inscriptions relating to common decisions taken by the cities and is probably the ‘sanctuary of all the Lesbians, visible from afar’ to which the 7th century bc poet, Alcaeus, refers. So as not to favour any one city over the others, the temple here—long considered to be a sanctuary of Aphrodite—appears to have been dedicated not to one divinity alone, but to the triad of Zeus, Hera and Dionysos. It was a place for common festivities, games and cult for all the cities of the island; for the discussion of matters which related to them all; and for arbitration in disputes—as when judges from Miletus were called to resolve a dispute between Methymna and Eresos in the 2nd century bc.

   Only the temple and its immediate area have so far been systematically excavated. The remains visible today date from the late 4th century bc—the period after the liberation of Lesbos from Persian thrall by Alexander the Great in 331 bc—although the sanctuary and cult existed already as far back as the 7th century bc, in the time of Sappho and Alcaeus. The Ionic temple was large and unusually broad, with eight frontal columns by 14 along the sides, and a considerable distance separating the peristyle and the naos. The stylobate is of a friable liparite stone, surmounted by fluted columns of a markedly whiter colour. The few architectural details of the building, preserved in an exhibition-stand at the edge of the site, are of exceptional fineness—in particular the fragment of an *entablature frieze of lilies and palmettes. Clustered around the western end of the crepidoma are the remains of four improvised circular lime-kilns, in which the marble elements of the temple were broken and burnt to make mortar in the late 4th century ad, at the time when the Early Christian basilica (whose semicircular apse can be seen to the east) was built over the temple. This in turn was destroyed and replaced much later by a humbler mediaeval chapel of the Taxiarches, whose ruined irregular walls occupy the centre of the temple’s platform today. The unattractive blanket of protective plaster which has been poured over the complex, together with the wooden walk ways which keep the visitor rigorously corralled, are perhaps commendable measures of conservation; but they substantially compromise the visitor’s appreciation of the site.

Lesvos Island is part of the Northern Aegean Island Group, Greece.
The sanctuary of Mesa.


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