Castle Blues

(The Turkish fort in Sigri)

Old maps of the island can be pretty amusing. Some date from the 15th century. Lots of map makers  however were not so good at geography: place names danced freely over the maps. It often looked as if Petra and Molyvos changed location every century: sometimes next to Mytilini, at other times where Eressos is now. Kalloni and Arisvi also seemed to have no permanent location. The map makers only agreed about one thing: the island was full with towers and castles, as well as a handful of Greek ruins.

The only static places seemed to be Mytilini (recognized as a peninsula full of buildings) and, surprise, surprise, Sigri (always placed in the right corner, opposite the island of Nissiopi). Sigri has never been a large city, but was obviously important enough that the map makers had memorized its location. Sigri is one of the three places of Lesvos, along with Mytilini and Molyvos, where you still can wander through an old fortress.

There are no new castles to be built, only roads, bridges and harbours. Sigri has all of those: a new road going to the village, a new harbour for ferries and they are now building a new bridge over the Tapsa river at Faneromeni. Until now the construction looks so high that they might need a new road to climb up the bridge.

This sweet, white village embracing the Turkish fortress, built in 1757, is surrounded by the most beautiful beaches of Lesvos and it houses the great Natural Museum of the Petrified Forest. But last summer tourists forgot about all that. They probably didn’t know that Sigri once was overlooked by an even older castle: the paliokastro. The traveling monk Buondelmonti mentioned this castle as long ago as in 1422 as being one of the seven castles of Lesvos then still functioning. The island is full of remains of castles: near Skala Eresos, Agiasos, Mesagros, Vrissa, Arisvi, Vasiliko, Korakas and Argenos, just to name a few, the list is not complete. It’s no wonder that most of the land maps are full of castle-like symbols. 

Sigri is not satisfied having only the rubble of castles, so it is decided that the Turkish castle with its crumbling walls and magnificent entrance doors is to be renovated. The castle was built by Suleihman Pasha to accommodate the firing squad of the Turkish army. Some of the walls, that were protected by 200 canons, were destroyed during a heavy earthquake in 1889. But the fort continued to house the army of the Ottoman Empire until Lesvos freed itself from the Turks.

Another fortress, completely forgotten, even though it was the largest after the castles of Mytilini and Molyvos, is Ovriokastro or the Castle of Agiai Theodori in Ancient Andissa. Andissa used to be one of the city states of Lesvos. Its castle was also on the list of the seven castles by Buondelmonti. However that stronghold was destroyed by the Turks when they conquered the island (1462)  

In 1930 the English archeologist Winifred Lamb proved that the region around Ovriokastro had been inhabited as early as the late bronze period; after that no further digs took place and the hill, with its partially destroyed entrance, deteriorated even further. Inside the walls nature took hold and created a snakes’ paradise. 

Some years ago archeologists again started to excavate, giving the entire akrotiri (cape) an impressive metamorphosis. The hill was striped of all its vegetation and a brown field with stones, walls and rooms appeared. The place where once the Ovriokastro proudly stood, now provides lots of surprises. The biggest one is a piece of marble with an image of the old castle: the first image ever found of the castle of Agiai Theodori (of course not counting the drawings on the maps, those were symbolic drawings).

After the byzantine emperor Paleologus gave Lesvos as a wedding present to the Gateluzzi family, they ruled over Lesvos for nearly a century (c. 1376 to 1456). Afraid of the Turks who constantly threatened the island, they restored and renewed most of the Lesvorian castles, like the Ovrikastro. So there is nothing new under the sun. There is no longer a point in renovating the castles, not even the Turkish fortress at Sigri, because they won’t stop the Turks invading the island, should the crazy Sultan wants to imitate Putin.