Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Treasure maps

(Map of Lesvos from 1597 by Giacomo Franco)

During my daily walks along the sea I’ve stated that since at least several months the sea has been at a very low level. Wasn’t the sea level supposed to rise? Whether it storms or not, the water remains much lower than it was last year. I have never seen it so low. The Aegean doesn’t have strong tides, so could there be another system, unknown to me, that makes the sea lower or higher from one year to another?

I looked for it on the internet, but found nothing, except that it seems that the North Aegean gets colder (although that depends on the winters) and that there are certain gulfs in the North Aegean which are more vulnerable to tsunamis (Lesvos is not one of those regions).
I found a report about the correlation between the rise of the sea level and the warming of the earth (which is already well known, but I don’t see the sea rising). And Wikipedia says that during the last glacial period – some 16.000 years ago - the sea level of the Aegean was about 130 metres lower. That must have been in the times that the island was still part of the Asiatic landmass.

It fascinates me to imagine that between the island and Turkey there used to be a large landscape and that in fact we are living in the mountains. This area off course is still there, although now is part of the underwater world. And now that the sea gives some of it back to the sun, I see rocks appearing that I never saw before. Is it possible that I will soon see the appearance of a wall, the remains of a harbour or a house or a castle?

On the old maps you should be able to see what was where in the past. The oldest maps (in general) – or descriptions of maps – date from before the birth of Christ. The man that is called the father of the cartography, Claudius Ptolemaeus, lived around the first century (ca. 87 – 150). This Greek astronomer, astrologer, geographer, mathematical and music theorist, published a guide about how to make maps: the Cosmographia of Geographia. Based on Ptolemaeus’ findings, in 1482 the German Johannes Armsshein made a map that might be the oldest preserved map of the world.

You will find Lesvos on the map but it is so small that you can’t see more than the fact that it’s an island. In 1584 the Flemish cartographer Abraham Orthelius draw a map of the island Crete with below ten smaller maps of other islands: Kythira, Karpathos, Rhodes, Chios, Naxos, Santorini, Milo, Limnos, Evvia and Lesvos.
Some years later in 1597 it was the Italian Giacomo Franco who made a map specifically of the island of Lesvos, and another preserved antique map of Lesvos was made around 1800 by the Frenchman Choiseul-Gouffier, where he also depicted Lesvos’ biggest attractions of that time: the throne of Potamon (http://smitaki.blogspot.com/2011/04/throne-of-potamon.html), the aqueduct of Moria and a wall sculpture.

When walking over the island or making a tour by car, many a tourist must be cursing when he discovers that his map is inaccurate. There are no accurate maps of the island and there are some maps where you feel that the cartographer just made scribbles to mark the roads. But those antique maps won’t help you out either. Look at the two earliest maps mentioned above: the form of the island is too stretched: the capital Mytilini is placed north east instead of south east).

And where is Mythimna (Molyvos)? And why is it that Petra is in the south? Or should I have turned the map a quarter? But then some places are actually completely wrong. Would the cartographer actually has explored the island or just visited Mytilini where he was helped by locals to draw the map? In those times the rest of the island was pretty wild and it was hard to travel around the island. The easiest way to reach Molyvos for example was by boat. But in those times most people did not go any further than the capital.

What is striking about those old maps are the fairly large rivers and a few islands along the shore. How high would the sea level have been in those times? Mytilini used to be on an island, separated from the mainland by a canal. They filled in the canal and that is now Ermou, the most important shopping street of Mytilini.

And what about the large number of castles depicted in the ancient maps? There even is a Greek ruin designed close to Mytilini. But where is the castle of Molyvos? And anyhow, where have all those castles and the Greek temple gone? The maps are like treasure maps and sometimes I get the same feeling I got when visiting the Valley of the Kings in Luxor (Egypt), where you walked in an area where even today many tombs must be hidden, because they never found the tombs of all the pharoahs.

The maps do prove that, over the centuries, the island has changed a lot: rivers have shrunk and castles and temples disappeared completely. It is difficult to determine from the map how high the sea was. But because of the many small islands and the large river estuaries, my guess is that the sea then was much higher. So maybe one day I will see a ruin rise out of the sea now that the sea gets lower, although on the place where I guess Eftalou is located on the maps, there are no old castles to be seen. But that does not mean that there cannot be one, because I can’t find the castle of Molyvos on those early maps either. Strange, because Mythimna (the ancient name for Molyvos) was an important part of the history of Lesvos and the castle was definitely there in the fifteenth century.

(With thanks to Mary Staples)

@ smitaki 2011

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