The Island of Lemnos

Greece - Scott #1187 (1976)
Greece – Scott #1187 (1976)

Today is another “random stamp” day, the second in a row. There may be a few more of these to come as the next firm date on my ASAD calendar is February 21 (dedication of the Washington Monument) and the next month or so looks fairly sparse as well. I spent much of this morning (finally) cataloguing a large number of Greek stamps that my sister brought back from a visit there a couple of years ago so I was on the lookout for something “interesting” to feature. While I am a big fan of Greek mythology, I knew I didn’t want to pick something from that topic as it would involve much more “work” than I wanted to do on a lazy Sunday afternoon. I liked this stamp as soon as I saw it and decided Lemnos — a relatively laid-back island with a long history — would be the perfect place to focus today’s article.

Lemnos (Λήμνος) is a Greek island in the northern part of the Aegean Sea (Αιγαίο Πέλαγο in Greek or Ege Denizi in Turkish). Administratively the island forms a separate municipality within the Lemnos regional unit, which is part of the North Aegean region. The principal town of the island and seat of the municipality is Myrina (Μύρινα). At 184,306 square miles (477.583 square kilometers), it is the eighth largest island of Greece.

Lemnos is mostly flat (hence its more than 30 sand beaches), but the west, and especially the northwest part, is rough and mountainous. The highest point is Mount Skopia at the altitude of 1,540 feet (470 meters). The chief towns are Myrina, on the western coast, and Moudros (Μούδρος) on the eastern shore of a large bay in the middle of the island. Myrina (also called Kastro, meaning “castle”) possesses a good harbor, which is in the process of being upgraded through construction of a west-facing sea wall. It is the seat of all trade carried on with the mainland.

The hillsides afford pasture for sheep, and Lemnos has a strong husbandry tradition, being famous for its Kalathaki Limnou, a cheese made from sheep and goat milk and melipasto cheese, and for its yogurt. Fruit and vegetables that grow on the island include almonds, figs, melons, watermelons, tomatoes, pumpkins and olives. The main crops are wheat, barley, sesame; in fact Lemnos was Constantinople’s granary during Byzantine times. Lemnos also produces honey (from thyme-fed bees), but, as is the case with most products of a local nature in Greece, the produced quantities are little more than simply sufficient for the local market. Muscat grapes are grown widely, and are used to produce an unusual table wine that is dry yet has a strong Muscat flavor. Since 1985 the variety and quality of Lemnos wines have increased greatly.

The climate in Lemnos is mainly Mediterranean. Winters are generally mild, but there will be occasional snowfall. Strong winds are a feature of the island, especially in August and in winter time, hence its nickname “the wind-ridden one” (in Greek, Ανεμόεσσα). The temperature is typically 2 to 5 degrees Celsius less than in Athens, especially in summertime.

Mythic Lemnos

For ancient Greeks, the island was sacred to Hephaestus, god of metallurgy, who — as he tells himself in Iliad I.590ff — fell on Lemnos when Zeus hurled him headlong out of Olympus. There, he was cared for by the Sinties, according to the Iliad, or by Thetis (Apollodorus, Bibliotheke I:3.5), and there with a Thracian nymph Cabiro (a daughter of Proteus) he fathered a tribe called the Kaberoi. Sacred initiatory rites dedicated to them were performed in the island.

Hephaestus’ forge, which was located on Lemnos, as well as the name Aethaleia, sometimes applied to it, points to its volcanic character. It is said that fire occasionally blazed forth from Mosychlos, one of its mountains. The ancient geographer Pausanias relates that a small island called Chryse, off the Lemnian coast, was swallowed up by the sea. All volcanic action is now extinct.

The earliest inhabitants are said to have been a Thracian tribe, whom the Greeks called Sintians, “robbers”. The name Lemnos is said by Hecataeus to have been applied in the form of a title to Cybele among the Thracians. The worship of Cybele was characteristic of Thrace, where it had spread from Asia Minor at a very early period. Hypsipyle and Myrina are Amazon names, which are always connected with Asiatic Cybele-worship.

According to the epitome of the Bibliotheke traditionally attributed to Apollodorus (Epitome I:9), when Dionysus found Ariadne abandoned on Naxos, he brought her to Lemnos and there fathered Thoas, Staphylus, Oenopion, and Peparethus. Pliny the Elder in his Natural History (xxxvi. 13) speaks of a remarkable labyrinth in Lemnos, which has not been identified in modern times.

According to a Hellenic legend, the women were all deserted by their husbands for Thracian women, and in revenge they murdered every man on the island. From this barbarous act, the expression Lemnian deeds became proverbial among the Hellenes. According to Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica the Argonauts landing soon after found only women in the island, ruled by Hypsipyle, daughter of the old king Thoas. From the Argonauts and the Lemnian women were descended the race called Minyans, whose king Euneus, son of Jason and Hypsipyle, sent wine and provisions to the Achaeans at Troy. According to later Greek historians, the Minyans were expelled by a Pelasgian tribe who came from Attica.

The historical element underlying these traditions is probably that the original Thracian people were gradually brought into communication with the Greeks as navigation began to unite the scattered islands of the Aegean; the Thracian inhabitants were technologically primitive in comparison with the Greek mariners.

Philoctetes in Lemnos. Oil on canvas, 1822
Philoctetes in Lemnos. Oil on canvas, 1822

In another legend, Philoctetes was left on Lemnos by the Greeks on their way to Troy; and there he suffered ten years’ agony from his wounded foot, until Odysseus and Neoptolemus induced him to accompany them to Troy. According to Sophocles, he lived beside Mount Hermaeus, which Aeschylus makes one of the beacon points to flash the news of Troy’s downfall home to Argos.


The ruins of the oldest human settlement in the Aegean Islands found so far have been unearthed in archaeological excavations on Lemnos by a team of Greek, Italian and American archaeologists at the Ouriakos site on the Louri coast of Fyssini in Moudros municipality. The excavation began in early June 2009 and the finds brought to light, consisting mainly of high quality stone tools, are from the Epipaleolithic Period, indicating a settlement of hunters and gatherers and fishermen of the 12th millennium BC.

Building at the hill of Poliochne (Поліохні), dating from the Early Bronze Age. Photo taken on June 17, 2008.
Building at the hill of Poliochne (Поліохні), dating from the Early Bronze Age. Photo taken on June 17, 2008.

A rectangular building with a double row of stepped seats on the long sides, at the southwest side of the hill of Poliochne (Поліохні), dates back to the Early Bronze Age and was possibly used as a kind of Bouleuterion.

In August and September 1926, members of the Italian School of Archaeology at Athens conducted trial excavations on the island. The overall purpose of the excavations was to shed light on the island’s “Etrusco-Pelasgian” civilization. The excavations were conducted on the site of the city of Hephaistia (i.e., Palaiopolis) where the Pelasgians, according to Herodotus, surrendered to Miltiades of Athens. There, a necropolis (ca. 9th–8th centuries BC) was discovered, revealing bronze objects, pots, and over 130 ossuaries. The ossuaries contained distinctly male and female funeral ornaments. Male ossuaries contained knives and axes whereas female ossuaries contained earrings, bronze pins, necklaces, gold-diadems, and bracelets. The decorations on some of the gold objects contained spirals of Mycenaean origin, but had no Geometric forms. According to their ornamentation, the pots discovered at the site were from the Geometric period. However, the pots also preserved spirals indicative of Mycenaean art.

The results of the excavations indicate that the Early Iron Age inhabitants of Lemnos could be a remnant of a Mycenaean population and, in addition, the earliest attested reference to Lemnos is the Mycenaean Greek ra-mi-ni-ja, “Lemnian woman”, written in Linear B syllabic script. Professor Della Seta reports:

The lack of weapons of bronze, the abundance of weapons of iron, and the type of the pots and the pins gives the impression that the necropolis belongs to the ninth or eighth century B.C. That it did not belong to a Greek population, but to a population which, in the eyes of the Hellenes, appeared barbarous, is shown by the weapons. The Greek weapon, dagger or spear, is lacking: the weapons of the barbarians, the axe and the knife, are common. Since, however, this population … preserves so many elements of Mycenaean art, the Tyrrhenians or Pelasgians of Lemnos may be recognized as a remnant of a Mycenaean population.

Ancient theatre in Hephaistia (Ἡφαιστία). Photo taken on June 11, 2007.
Ancient theatre in Hephaistia (Ἡφαιστία). Photo taken on June 11, 2007.
Lemnos in Antiquity

Homer speaks as if there were one town in the island called Lemnos. In Classical times there were two towns, Myrina (also called Kastro) and Hephaistia (Ἡφαιστία) which was the chief town. Coins from Hephaestia are found in considerable number, and various types including the goddess Athena with her owl, native religious symbols, the caps of the Dioscuri, Apollo, etc. Few coins of Myrina are known. They belong to the period of Attic occupation, and bear Athenian types. A few coins are also known which bear the name of the whole island, rather than of either city.

A trace of the Lemnian language is found on a  sixth century inscription on a funerary stele, the Lemnos stele. Lemnos later adopted the Attic dialect of Athens.

Coming down to a better authenticated period, it is reported that Lemnos was conquered by Otanes, a general of Darius Hystaspis. In 510 BC, it was reconquered by Miltiades the Younger, the tyrant of the Thracian Chersonese. Miltiades later returned to Athens and Lemnos was an Athenian possession until the Macedonian empire absorbed it. By 450 BC, Lemnos was an Athenian cleruchy. The Athenian settlers brought with them Athenian drama, dated to at least 348 BC. However, the tradition of theater seems to date back to the fifth century, and recent excavations at the site Hephaisteia suggest that the theater dated to the late 6th to early 5th century.

In 197 BC, the Romans declared it free, but in 166 BC gave it over to Athens which retained nominal possession of it until the whole of Greece was made a province of the Roman Republic in 146 BC. After the division of the Roman Empire in 395, Lemnos passed to the Byzantine Empire.

Myrina castle view from Romeikos Gialos. Photo taken on March 8, 2008.
Myrina castle view from Romeikos Gialos. Photo taken on March 8, 2008.

As a province of the Byzantine Empire, Lemnos belonged to the theme of the Aegean Sea, and was a target of Saracen raids in the 10th century and of Seljuk raids in the 11th century. Following the dissolution and division of the Empire after the Fourth Crusade, Lemnos (known by Westerners as Stalimene) was apportioned to the Latin Empire, and given as a fief to the Navigajoso family under the Venetian (or possibly of mixed Greek and Venetian descent) megadux Filocalo Navigajoso. Filocalo died in 1214, and was succeeded by his son Leonardo and his daughters, who partitioned the island into three fiefs between them. Leonardo retained the title of megadux of the Latin Empire and half the island with the capital, Kastro, while his sisters and their husbands received one quarter each with the fortresses of Moudros and Kotsinos. Leonardo died in 1260 and was succeeded by his son Paolo Navigajoso, who resisted Byzantine attempts at reconquest until his death during a siege of the island by the Byzantine admiral Licario in 1277. Resistance continued by his wife, but in 1278 the Navigajosi were forced to capitulate and cede the island back to Byzantium.

During the last centuries of Byzantium, Lemnos played a prominent role: following the loss of Asia Minor, it was a major source of food, and it played an important role in the recurring civil wars of the 14th century. As the Ottoman threat mounted in the 15th century, possession of Lemnos was demanded by Alfonso V of Aragon in exchange for offering assistance to the beleaguered Byzantines, while the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI Palaiologos, offered it to the Genoese captain Giustiniani Longo, if the Ottoman besiegers were driven off. Dorino I Gattilusio, the ruler of Lesbos, also acquired Lemnos as his fief shortly before the Fall of Constantinople in 1453.

The tower of the medieval fortress in Skala village on Lemnos. Photo taken on May 14, 2007.
The tower of the medieval fortress in Skala village on Lemnos. Photo taken on May 14, 2007.
Lemnos during the Ottoman Period

Following the Fall of Constantinople, and thanks to the intercession of Michael Critobulus, the Dorino I Gattilusio’s possession of Lemnos (and Thasos) was recognized by Sultan Mehmed II, in exchange for an annual tribute of 2,325 gold coins. When Dorino died in 1455, his son and successor Domenico was only granted for Lemnos, however. In 1456, Mehmed II attacked and captured the Gattilusi domains in Thrace (Ainos and the islands of Samothrace and Imbros). During the subsequent negotiations with Domenico Gattilusio, the Greek populace of Lemnos rose up against Domenico’s younger brother Niccolò Gattilusio, and submitted themselves to the Sultan, who appointed a certain Hamza Bey as governor under the Bey of Gallipoli, Isma’il. Mehmed granted a special legal charter to Lemnos, Imbros, and Thasos, at this time, later revised by Selim I in 1519. In 1457, the island was captured by a Papal fleet under Cardinal Ludovico Scarampi Mezzarota. Pope Callixtus III hoped to establish a new military order on the island, which controlled the exit of the Dardanelles, but nothing came of it as Isma’il Bey soon recovered Lemnos for the Sultan.

In 1464, during the First Ottoman–Venetian War, Lemnos and other former Gattilusi possessions were seized by the Venetians, but were returned to the Ottomans by the 1479 Treaty of Constantinople. In the aftermath, the Kapudan Pasha, Gedik Ahmed, repaired the island’s fortifications and brought in settlers from Anatolia. At this time, the administration of the island was also reformed and brought in line with Ottoman practice, with a governor (voevoda), judge (kadi), and elders (kodjabashis) heading the local Greek inhabitants. In the late 16th century, Lemnos is recorded, along with Chios, as “the only prosperous island of the Archipelago”. It had 74 villages, of which three were inhabited by Turkish Muslims.

In July 1656, during the Fifth Ottoman–Venetian War, the Venetians captured the island again following a major victory over the Ottoman fleet. The Ottomans under Topal Mehmed Pasha recovered it barely a year later, on November 15, 1657, after besieging the capital of Kastro for 63 days. In 1770, Kastro was besieged again for 60 days by Count Orlov during the Russo-Turkish War of 1768–1774. The fortress had just surrendered when an attack by the Ottoman fleet on the Russian vessels in Mudros Bay forced the Russians to withdraw on October 24, 1770. The famous Sufi poet Niyazi Misri was exiled here for several years during the late 17th century.

Under Ottoman rule, Lemnos initially belonged to the sanjaks of Gallipoli or Mytilene under the Eyalet of the Archipelago, but was constituted as a separate sanjak in the reforms of the mid-19th century, at the latest by 1846. Abolished in 1867, it was re-formed in 1879 and existed until the island’s capture by the Greeks in 1912. It comprised the islands of Lemnos (Limni in Turkish), Agios Efstratios (Bozbada), Imbros (Imroz) and Tenedos (Bozcaada). The French scholar Vital Cuinet, in his 1896 work La Turquie d’Asie, recorded a population of 27,079, of which 2,450 were Muslims and the rest Greek Orthodox.

View of Moudros during the Dardanelles Campaign, better known as the Gallipoli Campaign that took place between February 17, 1915, and January 9 1916 , with a French military wine store in the foreground and a hospital in the background
View of Moudros during the Dardanelles Campaign, better known as the Gallipoli Campaign that took place between February 17, 1915, and January 9 1916 , with a French military wine store in the foreground and a hospital in the background.

Greece’s borders were greatly expanded by the Balkan Wars of 1912–1913 as it occupied Macedonia including the city of Thessaloniki, parts of Epirus and Thrace and various Aegean islands, as well as formally annexing Crete. On October 8, 1912, during the First Balkan War, Lemnos became part of Greece. The Greek navy under Rear Admiral Pavlos Kountouriotis took it over without any casualties from the occupying Turkish Ottoman garrison, who were returned to Anatolia. Peter Charanis, born on the island in 1908 and later a professor of Byzantine history at Rutgers University recounts when the island was occupied and Greek soldiers were sent to the villages and stationed themselves in the public squares. Some of the children ran to see what Greek soldiers looked like. ‘‘What are you looking at?’’ one of them asked. ‘‘At Hellenes,’’ the children replied. ‘‘Are you not Hellenes yourselves?’’ a soldier retorted. ‘‘No, we are Romans.” “Romioi”, literally Romans, where named by the Ottoman authorities the Greek Orthodox population of the empire.

Until the so-called “New Territories” were formally incorporated into Greece, they were not permitted to use regular Greek stamps. In order to cover postal needs on Lemnos, the Greek government overprinted a series of Greek definitives with ΛΗΜΝΟΣ (Lemnos) and are included with other Greek occupied issues in the Scott catalogue (Scott #N16-N52). These overprints, in three different colors (black, red and carmine), were applied to the 1911 “Engraved” definitives, the 20 lepta Flying Mercury stamp, the 1902 postage due stamps and some of the 1913 “Lithographic” definitives. This issue went through several printings, initially by Aspiotis Bros. and later by the Aquarone printing house of Thessaloniki. One stamp was issued in 1913 with the additional overprint ΕΛΛΗΝΙΚΗ ΔΙΟIΚΗΣΙΣ (Hellenic Administration), which was the same overprint used in the New Territories (Scott #N52A).  The stamps were used in 1912 and 1913, until regular Greek issues were authorized for use.

Moudros Bay became a forward anchorage for the Greek fleet, which enabled it to keep watch on the Dardanelles and prevent a foray by the Ottoman Navy into the Aegean. The Ottomans’ two attempts to achieve this were beaten back in the battles of Elli and Lemnos. Thus the Ottomans were prevented from supplying and reinforcing their land forces in Macedonia by sea, a critical factor in the success of the Balkan League in the war.

During World War I, the Allies in early 1915 used the island to try to capture the Dardanelles Straits, some 31 miles (50 kilometers) away. This was done chiefly by the British and largely through the enthusiasm of Winston Churchill. The harbor at Moudros was put under the control of British Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss, who was ordered to prepare the then largely unused harbor for operations against the Dardanelles.

The harbor was broad enough for British and French warships, but lacked suitable military facilities, which was recognized early on. Troops intended for Gallipoli had to train in Egypt; and the port found it difficult to cope with casualties of the ill-starred Gallipoli campaign. The campaign was called off in evident failure at the close of 1915. Moudros’ importance receded, although it remained the Allied base for the blockade of the Dardanelles during the war.

The town of Lemnos, Victoria, Australia, established in 1927 as a soldier settlement zone for returning First World War soldiers, was named after the island. There are three Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cemeteries on the island, the first one for the 352 Allied soldiers in Portianou, the second one for the 148 Australian and 76 New Zealander soldiers in the town of Moudros and the third one for the Ottoman soldiers (170 Egyptian and 56 Turkish soldiers).

In late October 1918, the armistice between the Ottoman Empire and the Allies was signed at Moudros.

After the Red Army victory in the Russian Civil War, many Kuban Cossacks fled the country to avoid persecution from the Bolsheviks. A notable evacuation point was the Greek island of Lemnos where 18,000 Kuban Cossacks landed, though many later died of starvation and disease. Most left the island after a year.

Lemnos Fort. Photo taken on April 26, 2012.
View from Myrina’s port. Photo taken on April 26, 2012.

Today the island of Lemnos (Limnos) has about 30 villages and settlements. The province includes the island of Agios Efstratios to the southwest which has some exceptional beaches and one of the two deserts in Europe (the other being Błędów Desert in Poland).

On July 26, 1976, the Greek postal authorities released a set of four lithographic stamps promoting Greek islands in the Aegean Sea (Scott #1187-1190). The 30-drachma stamp portraying the port of Myrina on Lemnos is the only vertically-oriented design in this issue and is perforated 13½x14. The other three stamps — 50 drachmas Lesbos, 75 drachmas Chios and 100 drachmas Samos — are oriented horizontally and perforated 14×13½. I think a nice touch in the design is the addition of a small map of each island.

Flag of GreeceCoat of arms of Greece


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