Leros, as well as Kalymnos, are met in Homer as “Kalydonian Islands” and later as “Kalydonia”. The name Leros is presumed to be originated from the word “leros” which means smooth,because in contrast to the mountainous and rocky Kalymnos, Leros is almost flat, with small heights and mostly fertile ground.
The first inhabitants
The residential history of Leros starts from the 3rd or 4th Millennium B.C. and reaches up today without any kind of interruption. The first traces of habitation (area Drymonas Bay of Gournas) lead us back to the late Neolithic period and the early Bronze Age. The settlement of Kontarida (the southern part of Partheni Bay) is considered to be one of the few human facilities outside the caves of the Neolithic period in the northern Dodecanese. In Palaiokastro (Xirokampos) traces of cyclopean walls have been found, that are chronologically placed in the Mycenaean era. The first inhabitants were Kares (probably from the Peloponnese), Laides, Phoenicians and Minoans Cretans, who according to a tradition came to the island with Rodamanthus, who was brother of king Minos.
The main deity that was worshipped on the island was the Virgin Iokallida, a pre-Hellenic goddess who was probably connected to the germination, that later was identified with Artemis goddess, but the local’s memory retained her name in the nickname “Partheni”(virgin). Her worship was preserved until the 3rd century A.D. when her sanctuary was abandoned with the prevalence of Christianity.Amongst the other Olympian gods and deities, Asclepius was worshipped and many connect his temple in Leros with the Asclepieion temple of Kos as well as the goddess of Health. Last but not least, Apollo the Dimiaios was also worshipped, whose majestic and ancient sanctuary in Asia Minor was a great religious center at the time. According to Homer and his Iliad we learn that Leros actually took part in the Trojan War with 30 ships.
Later on, Leros will be conquered by the Dorians and then colonized by the Ionians of Miletus. Being now a colony and already a municipality from the 4th century B.C., the island will join the sphere of military, political and spiritual ionic influence (traces of fortification works 4th century in Partheni and in the area of the airport), until the Hellenistic period (3rd-1st century B.C.). During the Peloponnesian War, Leros will ally with the Athenians and therefore the end of the war meant the beginning of the island’s sovereignty by the Spartans, which was later conquered by the Persians until the liberation by Alexander the Great (344 B.C.).
Early Christian Times (3rd – 7th C.) – Middle Byzantine times (11th – 13th c.)
Until the 7th century Leros is part of the Roman Empire as a province of the islands and faces a period of peace, stability and development, which is reflected in the intense residential activity. The main residential area is still Agia Marina and new villages are created in by the coast and the fertile parts of the hinterland. Evidence of this thriving era are large building complexes (traces of them are preserved until today) and a multitude of christian temples in all settlements around the island. Christian Leros is organized in a diocese in the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Bishop of Rhodes.
The following centuries (7th – 11th) are characterized by unrest, raids and desolation, due to the Arab and pirate attacks, that forced the inhabitants to withdraw in the core of the island and to build castles. The most important Castles are Bourtzi at the entrance Panteli Bay and “Palaiokastro” at Xirokampos bay.
Already since the beginning of the 12th century foreign travelers visit the island, and later on, during the 13th and 14th century, there is an increase in the construction of churches and their iconography, probably due to the activity of monks of the monastery of Patmos. Visitors have the chance to catch a glimpse of rare byzantine monuments of that period as they are preserved throughout the island.
During the 14th century emperor Andronicus II gives Rhodes as a gift to the Genoese and the largest part of the island has now been occupied by the Turks. In 1306, the Genoese aristocrat admiral Viniolo de Vinioli, sells the island to the Knights of the Order of St. John. In the coming years, the Knights of Saint John will gain ascendancy of the Dodecanese (except Astypalaia, Karpathos and Kasos) and will hold them until their final conquest by the Turks by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1522.
The rise of the Knights (1309 – 1522)
The Knights of St. John, also known as “Knights Hospitalers” prevailed in Leros from 1309 to 1522, a period also known as knightwood. Back then, the island administratively belonged to Kos’s province along with Kalymnos and Nisyros and had its own commander . The most famous castle commander on the island was the Venetian Fantino Quirini (1431-1453). Castellano’s (commander) duties involved the maintenance of the fortresses, the preservation of defensive force against the turkish attacks and the collection of taxes, that were then sent to the Grand Magister.
The imposition of decisions , compulsory labor, the violation of the privileges of self-government that prevailed in the Byzantine years and the democratic tradition of the Dodecanese, resulted in violent reactions and constant protests of the residents against the establishment of the feudal regime that was now attempted by Saint John’s Knights. Furthermore, Knights never managed to assemble and maintain a sufficient number of soldiers to enforce their power on the islands; fact that led them to choose a mild administration, with rights of autonomous management in local communities. This odd form of self-government will then constitute a decisive precedent for the concession by Suleiman the magnificent privileges that will apply throughout the Ottoman domination.
From the mid-15th century to the early 16th century the Knights resisted effectively the numerous and fierce pirate attacks of the Ottoman fleet. They reinforced the byzantine castle with repairs, expanded it and customized it to the needs of the new form of war with new fortifications and buildings. After the surrender of Rhodes Island by the Saint John’s Knights to the Turks, it was turn of Leros to fall into the hands of the Ottomans in 1523.
Ottoman Domination (1523 – 1912).
After the siege of the island in January 1523, Leros was surrendered to the Turks. Sultan Suleiman had promised that he would show clemency to those who would surrender peacefully. Thus, the inhabitants of Leros declared allegiance. In the same year Suleiman issued a ukase (Firmani) in which he essentially granted full self-government privileges and autonomy. A representative of the Sultan (Subasis) is now appointed, but he had no involving power that mattered local issues. The residents had the opportunity to elect during the first week of each year their local rulers who administrate and are responsible for the order, the allocation, the collection and the payment of taxes that the Turkish government imposed.
At the end of the last Venetian-Turkish War (15th – 18th century), Leros faces a bloom: The population is now growing as well as shipping and trading, that lead to both economic and artistic growth. Leros took part in the liberation struggle of 1821 and was occasionally the base of the Greek fleet for operations against the Turks. For example, on August 29, 1824 “Battle of Old Man” took place on the other side of the island and the Turkish-Egyptian fleet, which constituted 200 warships, was defeated by the Greek fleet with the commands of Admiral Miaoulis.
During -18231830, Leros is part of the Greek state. Greek Governor Ioannis Kapodistrias appointed a Greek prefect and the local mayor ,Markos Reisis, officially raised the Greek flag. From now on, the documents were edited “in the name of the Greek state and the Governor”. But later on, according to the London’s Protocol (1830) the Allied forces (France, England and Russia) granted the Dodecanese and Samos to the Turks in exchange for Evia island. Thus, Leros passes again under the Turkish empire.
After a turbulent period with Turkey, it was in the spring of 1912, when Leros was occupied by the Italians. Towards the end of the Italian-Turkish War in 1912 the Italians disembarked on the island, captured few Turks that remained and raised the Italian flag to the castle. It’s the beginning of the Italian occupation that lasted for thirty one years.
The Italian occupation (May 1912 – September 1943)
On May 13, 1912 the Italians disembarked at Panteli with warships, at the Port of Agia Marina with an army, the vines are now transported to the mainland near Brouzi and old-fashioned cannons that arrived from Libya are placed to Partheni. Also from the Partheni port began the operation of the Dardanelles on 18 July 1912 in order to strike the Turkish fleet.
A few days later, the Congress of Patmos (03-06-1912) proclaimed the firm decision of the islanders for union with main Greece and detachment of the Turkish empire. The full autonomy of the islands called “the State of the Aegean” is declared until the national restoration of the Dodecanese. The new symbol of the State is defined and rises for the first time on 4 June 1912 at Patmos.
The resolution was immediately forwarded to all European governments, but it was not accepted by Italy, which, with secret agreements with Turkey, holds the islands under its authority. Thus, at the time of the Balkan Wars (September 1912) Dodecanese from diplomatic point of view is a Turkish province, but essentially they are in the possession of Italy, which holds them “provisionally”, until all the terms of the Treaty of Lausanne are executed (18 October 1912), resulting in the delay that explains why the Greek fleet that liberated Mytilene, Chios and Samos was prevented from doing the same for the Dodecanese.Shortly after the Treaty of Lausanne, the Dodecanese belong to Italy where Mussolini has climbed to power. The Italians hit the trade, the economy, the education, abolish the institution of the Elders and face the resistance of the residents.
On 25 July 1943 Mussolini unfrocked, arrested and executed. On 8 September, Commander Badoglio announces the capitulation of Italy. Italy becomes an ally of the English and rival of the Germans. Leros as an extremely important military base becomes the apple of discord between the English, the Italians, the Germans and the Dodecanese.
German occupation (September 1943 – May 1945).
After the “Battle of Leros” (26 September 1943 – 12 November 1943), which is the last victory of the German forces, the island passes into their occupation. After the capitulation of the Italian forces in 1943, British soldiers invaded (9 May 1945), who held the island under their occupation for two years. In March 1948, Leros is fnally incorporated with the rest of the Dodecanese Islands in Greece.