1. Position and morphology

Leros lies 175 nautical miles from Piraeus and is located just opposite of the coasts of Asia Minor between Patmos and Kalymnos, from which the island is separated by a narrow channel one mile wide. Leros geologically belongs to the Subpelagonic zone, with the limestone dominating its south and the metamorphic phylites its north part. It has a particular morphology on a great coastal length, two thin isthmuses that tend to divide the island into three parts and seven natural bays. One of them, the Lakki bay with an entrance opening of just 400 meters, is also the bigger natural harbour of the SE Mediterranean. The island’s soil is relatively mountainous with fertile valleys between higher grounds.

2. History

2. 1. Prehistory and antiquity

The first traces of human presence were located in the Neolithic settlements at Partheni. Quantities of unwrought obsidian that were found in Gourna place Leros in the Aegean system of communication of that period. Her first inhabitants were the Karians, the Legetes and the Phoenicians. Later there came the Lycians and the Eteocretans with their leader, according to mythology, Rodamanthys, Mino’s brother.

Traces of cyclopean walls in Palaiokastro and Xirokambos, belong to the island’s Mycenaean era. During the Trojan War, Leros, along with Kalymnos, are listed as participating under the name of “Kalyndai”. After prevailing in the mainland of Greece, the Dorians reach the island, and after them the Ionians. Strabo in his Geographica reports: “the island Ikaros and Leros were colonized by the Milesians”. Leros was the southernmost of the islands, the “Ioanias Akron” (Ionia’s end), that formed the Ionian insular periphery of Miletus. In Leros the historian Ferekydes, who lived during the early 5th century, and the comedian philosopher and poet Dimodokos were born.

After the Peloponnesian War the region will become part of the Spartan sphere of influence and then of the Persian Empire. Coins and tombstones testify the passing of the Macedonians from the island. The presence of the Romans is attested by vaulted buildings and the relics of an aqueduct. In 74 B.C. Julius Caesar will be a hostage in the hands of the pirates on the nearby island of Pharmako (Farmakonisi).

2. 2. Byzantine period and Frankish rule

During the 3rd century A.D. Leros is not yet a fully Christian place, since, according to Ailianus, the inhabitants still worshiped the goddess Artemis. From the end of the 3rd century A.D. and until the early 7th century the island was a part of the prefecture of the Islands as a part of the Eastern Roman Empire, while Leros’ diocese belonged to the Metropolis of Rhodes. Monuments of this period are the numerous Early Christian churches.

In 1087 the Byzantine emperor Alexius I Komnenus with a chrysobull donated to Ioannis Latrenos, later known as Christodoulos, Patmos, Leipsoi and part of Leros. The island’s inhabitants resist and threaten Christodoulos and the monks. Nevertheless, the whole castle will be ceded to the monks and the local inhabitants will eventually be moved to Lepida. They will remain there, according to the historian Manouil Gedeon, until the capture of the island by the Ottomans.

In 1309 the Knights Hospitalers of Rhodes will conquer Leros. The Hospitalers will maintain the control with a Castellan (commander of the garrison) in charge and will enlist locals in their garrisons. The knights erected new fortifications in the castle to adapt it in the fire arm era. On 24 December 1522 the Knights’ Master signed the islands’ surrender to the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. In January 1524 Leros will also be ceded to the Ottomans.

2. 3. Ottoman period

In 1532 the Ottomans conquer the island and sultan Suleyman with a firman decree will grant privileges of a wide self-government to Leros, which is to pay an annual contracted tax (maktu). Leros is governed by local officials, elected by vote on the first week of each year. The Ottoman authority is represented by the local official, the subasi. During the Ottoman period the main bulk of the population will settle around the castle.

From 1821 until 1830 Leros was a part of the Revolutionary Greece. From 1832, according to the treaty of Constantinople and the final regulation of the borders, the Dodecanese and Leros are ceded to the Ottoman Empire. In 1835 the sultan Mahmut II renews with a firman the islands’ privileges, after the suggestion of the representatives of the Tetranesos (Four Islands). The Tetranesos was formed by the islands of Leros, Patmos, Ikaria and Kalymnos.

In 1867 the Ottoman government makes its present stronger. A kaymakam governor of the island is appointed and Muslim employees are settled in the customhouse and the port authorities. In 1886 Leros has 4.000 inhabitants; it is a part of the mutasarrıflık of Chios and forms a separate sub-prefecture (kaymakamlık). The prefecture council was mixed and was formed by Muslims and Christians.

2. 4. Italian rule

On 13 May 1912 the Italians seize the island, where they will remain form 31 years. On 3 June 1912 people from all the islands will meet in Patmos and declare the islands’ autonomy. Despite their struggle, under the Lausanne treaty of 1923, the Dodecanese are granted to Italy.

In May 1923 the planning for the transformation of Lakki in a big air force and navy base will start. The Italian interference to the place will be catalytic. Mountains, military facilities and a great part of the island will be blocked as a military area. The island’s main road is also constructed in the same time, with its eucalyptus trees on its sides. In Lakki a new city, with impressive buildings and infrastructures, will be created, known as Porto Lago.

In the same time a program of italisation will begin, aiming mainly to the education and the church. In 1936 these measures will become harsher and in February 1937 the self-government decree of the elders of the villages will be abolished. The elected officials will be replaced by the ones appointed by the Italians, the podesta.

After Mussolini’s overthrow and the capitulation of Italy, the English occupy Leros and prepare to face the German attack. On 26 September 1943 in the port of Lakki German airplanes sink the legendary destroyer “Queen Olga”. The Battle of Leros had begun. It will intensify between the 12 and the 16 November 1943. Then, after fierce fighting and an impressive but also risky operation, the Germans occupy Leros.

2. 5. Leros in the Greek nation-state

After the capitulation of Germany, Leros will remain for some time under British control. On 31 December 1947 in an official ceremony in Platanos, the English flag will be replaced by the Greek and on 7 March 1948 the annexation of the island by Greece will be celebrated. In the period 1949-1963 the island will house the Royal Technical Schools and during the dictatorship many political prisoners will be exiled there. Finally, 2.500 mentally ill people will be housed on the island after 1957, their number limited today in 700.

3. Archaeological sites and monuments

The ancient authors report the existence of a temple of the Ioakallis Parthenos (Moonlight beautiful Virgin, probably Artemis) at Partheni. On a nearby hilltop next to the airport one can see large stones belonging to fortifications. At Partheni there are also buildings were the exiled of the dictatorship period lived.

The ancient city of Leros is probably located at the harbour of Aghia Marina, in a triangle formed between Aghia Varvara and Bourtzi. Tombs, pottery sherds and other finds have been found. On the hill over the harbour, the medieval Castle, the island’s most impressive monument dominates the place. Inside it there is also the island’s symbol, the church of Panaghia of the Castle with its homonymous miraculous icon.

The traditional settlement stretches under the Castle between Aghia Marina and Pandeli. In the settlement the numerous neoclassical buildings, most of them built during the late 19th century by the Lerians immigrants in Egypt and Russia, dominate. Opposite Lakki, at the space now occupied by the Sanatorium, one can still see the buildings of the Italian air force and navy base. The Royal Technical Schools used to be housed there and in 1967 political prisoners were housed there also.

In the area of Xirokambos there is Palaiokastro with relics of cyclopean walls and on the mountains around it the establishments of Italian artillery batteries. On the island there are also many Early Christian and Byzantine churches.

(Dimitris Kostopoulos)

4. Leros’ Castle

The castle of Panteli is Leros’ most important fortification complex and dominates the hilltop of Pityki (Apityki), over the village of Platanos, in a particularly strategic site, between the two natural harbours of Aghia Marina and Panteli, formed by the two homonymous bays on the east coast of the island.

4. 1. The Castle’s wall perimeters

4. 1. 1. First perimeter

The Castle still preserves three wall perimeters, five churches and various other buildings scattered around its space. The innermost perimeter occupies the highest part of the hill and can be dated to the middle Byzantine period and, with certainty, before May 1087, as indicated by the construction method of its walls, but also by a reference in the relative documents of the imperial chancellery, still preserved in the monastery of Patmos: the Chrysoboullo (May 1087) and the Pittakion (June 1087) decrees of the emperor Alexius I Comnenus, as well as the Pittakion of his mother Anna Dalassene (15 June 1087). These three documents ratify a great donation of the emperor Alexius I to Saint Christodoulos, the founder of the famous monastery of Saint John at Patmos; Christodoulos had escaped to Constantinople, where he had presented himself to the emperor Alexius I, asking and eventually achieving in obtaining the monastery of Panaghia of Kastrianoi, which Christodoulos had founded in 1080 at Kos, the island of Leipsoi, the great religious land estates (“suburbs”) of Partheni and Temenia in Leros, as well as a part of the castle of Pandeli, that was, until that time, part of the Myrelaion’s secreton, a charitable foundation of Constantinople. From Panteli Castle it is noted that he was offered its uppermost part along with its fortifications, obviously the innermost perimeter that occupies the highest part of the hill. The lowermost part of the hill remained in the hands of Myrelaion’s secreton. In the same donation a church and some monastery cells included inside the wall perimeter are mentioned.

4. 1. 2. Second perimeter

The second inner perimeter of the castle dates probably to the same period as the first one, since Anna Dalassene, some time later, probably in 1088, when her son was absent at the campaign against the Pecheneges, edits a decree with which she orders the general and governor of Samos Eustathios Charsinites to offer to Holy Christodoulos the whole of Panteli Castle. In the record of the delivery of the castle, written in April 1089 under the order of general Charsinites by the notary Ioannis Theologites, amongst others, the buildings of the castle are recorded: six houses, five monastery cells and a cistern. Their small number and bad state of preservation according to the description of the notary Theologites, reveal that the island’s inhabitants would find shelter inside the castle only in cases of emergency and would not live there all the time. Today, part of this chrysoboullon speech of the emperor Alexius I, as well as the record of the delivery of general Charsinites’ donation, are presented in a photographical reproduction in a special photo-slide showcase in Lero’s Archaeological Museum.

4. 1. 3. Third perimeter

The third and bigger outermost perimeter is part of the construction program of the time of the Knights (early 14th century-1522) and more specifically of the end of the 15th and the early 16th century, when the preexisting Byzantine fort (the two inner perimeters) was strengthened to face more efficiently the fire arms, whose use was widely diffused during the second half of the 15th century. The coats of arms of the great masters scattered all around the place are a testimony of the Knights Hospitalers’ concern to reinforce the castle facing the danger of the raids of the pirates and the Ottomans. Extended innovations of the castle are attested, for example, in the year 1492 by the knight Fra Filippo di Guidone or after the constant attacks of the Ottoman Kemal Reis and the pirate Nihi in the early 16th century (1502, 1506 and 1508) by the Great Master Aimerie d’ Amboise (1503-1512). The castle’s appearance today with its strong bastions (the one on the west part of the outermost perimeter that protects the central gate is best preserved), the gun ports, the machicolations and the rest of its morphologic attributes, follows the progress in fortification technology forced by the establishment of fire arms in the second half of the 15th century.

4. 2. The Castle’s churches

Out of the five churches still preserved in the castle of Pandeli, the most important is the Panaghia of the Castle on the northwest part of the third, outermost, perimeter, that was built at the end of the 17th century at the site of an older Byzantine church of the 13th century, renown for the legendary icon of the Holy Mother (Panaghia) that was housed there. In its inside a later wood carved iconostasis is preserved (1745), which is decorated by three outstanding icons of the 16th century. In Panaghia of the Castle a school had functioned from 1726 until he middle of the 18th century, founded by the local monk Damaskenos and had a rich library with manuscripts and printed books. Parts of this school were the two long buildings that were recently excavated at the east of the church and were rebuilt, today housing the temple’s rich vestry. The rest of the churches are dated to the period of the Knights, except the one-room, decorated with 15th century frescoes, church of Aghia Triada, that is a building of the middle Byzantine period. From the other buildings, scattered in the site, one should mention the two-storey building on the northeast part of the first inner perimeter, that bears the coat of arms of the commander of Kos during 1430 Fantino Querini (1436-1453).

During the last years works of conservation and promotion of the castle have started and have been completed in 2005 by the Direction for the Documentation and Conservation of the Archaeological Funds and Expropriation Trust, with the program “Castrorum Circumnavigatio” under the funding of the 3rd European Community Support Network.

(Ioannis Vaktsevanis)

5. Museum

The island’s most important museum is the Archaeological Museum, housed in the renovated neoclassical building of the old City School. The museum’s first unit is dedicated to Prehistory. The second is dedicated to the historic times and the relations of the island with Miletus. The third unit belongs to the Early Christian period and the forth to the Middle Ages. Finally there is a unit dedicated to the pilgrimage travellers and a unit with finds from Pharmakonisi.

The Folk Art and Historic Museum “Manolis Isichos” is housed in Bellenis’ Tower, built in 1926. It comprises also a wing dedicated to the exiled painter Kyriakos Tsakiris.

The Ecclesiastic Museum is housed today in the Panaghia of the Castle church. It contains Byzantine icons, sacerdotal vestments and utensils and other precious artefacts. Finally, in the Leros branch of the General State Archives, located in Platanos, there is valuable archival material concerning the island’s history.

6. Architecture

Leros presents a particular architectural interest since next to the traditional insular architecture architectural idioms of neoclassicism and Italian rationalism appear. Leros’ traditional architecture has the unique characteristic of the mauve roof with pateliá, an argil waterproof material. A distinctive form of farmhouse, dispersed in the whole island is the katoikiá, a small one-storey elongated plan that forms an L with an addition. During the late 19th century a great number of neoclassical buildings are erected by the Lerian immigrants from Egypt and Russia. These neoclassical houses can be found mainly in Aghia Marina and Platanos. Square, with high ceilings, most of them painted in ochre colour, they stand as a praise to the absolute symmetry of their inside as well as their outside.

The presence of the Italians will add a new city, Lakki and the modern Italian architecture of the Mediterranean rationalism.

7. Lakki

In May 1923 works for the creation of the great air force and naval base at the bay of Lakki begin. But the increasing housing needs and the fascist politic of the creation of “new cities” will lead to the decision for the creation of a new city. The urban planning of the new city, which the Italians will name Porto Lago, is a work of the architect Rodolfo Petracco. He, along with Armando Bernabiti, will design all its buildings. The cinema-theatre, the hotel, the school, the fascism building, the hospital, the church, the palacini (houses) and above all the circular market with the clock tower that will impress so much in the exhibition of the Italian Rationalism in the 1976 Venice Biennale, comprise a unique total of Mediterranean rationalism. The cubes of the insular architecture meet the cubes of the rationalism and modern architecture probably for the first time acquires pure Mediterranean characteristics.

(Dimitris Kostopoulos)