Leros feels like, and is, a compact island, and its short distances can be covered easily on foot. Its Ancient and Early Christian remains, whose effect depends more on setting than on content, are largely undramatic, while monuments from an unexpectedly different quarter can sometimes speak more eloquently: the unique murals by political exiles of Greece's Military Junta in the late sixties in the remote chapel of Aghia Kiourá, are a good example.
In early historic times Leros was an Ionian island whereas Kalymnos, and its southern neighbours as far as Rhodes, were Dorian. Leros and Kalymnos almost touch and are even referred to by the same general name—the ‘Calydnian Islands'—by Homer in the Iliad; but their histories and cultures are separate. Leros was influenced by, fortified by, written about by, and settled by people from Miletus, one of the greatest of the Ionian cities in the 6th century BC. Phokylides of Miletus, a poet of this period, refers to the island somewhat derisorily in an epigram; and Herodotus, in talking about the Ionian revolt of 498 BC (Hist. V. 125), mentions that Leros was suggested to Aristagoras, Tyrant of Miletus, as a safe refuge which it was worth his fortifying well, against the possibility of his being forced to flee from Miletus. Athenian tribute lists of 454/453 BC also refer to Milesians ‘from Leros'. By the 4th century BC, Leros appears as a deme of Miletus. The 6th century BC philosopher, Demodikos, and the later Hellenistic historian, Pherekydes, were both from Leros: the latter's history of the island is lost, depriving us of valuable information on the subject. The main settlement on the island in Antiquity—continuously inhabited from Geometric through to Roman and Early Christian times—was at the southeast corner of Alinda Bay; the principal religious centre was the sanctuary of Artemis, or Parthenos Iokallis, in Parthéni Bay. Early Christian basilicas were built at both of these sites as well as at several other places on the island attesting to a large and well-established Christian community.
A bishop of Leros is first mentioned as present at the Fifth Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 553 AD. Against opposition from the islanders, the fertile lands at Teménia (east of Lakkí) and around Parthéni, and a portion of the fortress of Pandéli, were all given by the Byzantine Emperor, Alexius I Comnenus, in 1088 to Hosios Christódoulos to be a revenue for the monastery of St John on Patmos. Together with Rhodes and Kos, Leros was acquired by the Knights of St John in 1309, who strengthened and considerably enlarged the existing Byzantine castle in the course of the next century. In 1523 it became a Turkish possession after the defeat of the Knights of Rhodes by the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent. It was taken briefly by the Venetian Admiral, Leonardo Foscolo, in 1648 during hostilities between Turkey and Venice.
Leros generally enjoyed a measure of independence under Ottoman rule; this gave it the possibility to participate actively in the War of Independence in 1821; in 1830 it briefly had a local Greek Governor as part of the new Greek State, but returned under Ottoman rule again through the terms of the London Protocol of the same year. In the following decades of the 19th century, there was an important and rich community of intellectuals and businessmen who had emigrated to Egypt from Leros, and who were to become important benefactors of the island's architecture, art collections, schools and institutions. During the Italian Occupation of the Dodecanese (1912–43) Leros was transformed by the avant-garde building projects of the new ‘Porto Lago' (Lakkí) area. The island was the scene of fierce fighting in the Second World War, culminating in the Battle of Leros in November 1943, when it was taken by German forces. It joined the Greek State in 1948 together with all the Dodecanese Islands.
The substantial legacy of military buildings on Leros was used for confining political prisoners during the period of the Colonels' Junta (1967–74), and thereafter others were used as a National Mental Institution. Between 1989 and 1995 this was the object of a European Union inquest into maladministration of funds and maltreatment of patients. Substantial improvements in conditions and the opening of a large nursing school in 1999 have helped to put the worst period behind.
The impressively-sited castle of Pandéli (open Wed, Sat & Sun 8–1, 3–7), which was substantially repaired after damage incurred during the Second World War, is the principal mediaeval monument on Leros, occupying the island's most panoramic site which was once the acropolis of the ancient settlement of Leros from which a few vestigial pieces of masonry have been incorporated into the fortifications. It is a massive complex consisting of three successive enclosures: the inner two, originally of 10th or 11th century Byzantine construction, were later strengthened in the 14th century; the third, much larger, outer enclosure was built in the early 14th century by the Knights of St John. This was the northernmost stronghold of their territory. When Cristoforo Buondelmonti, the Florentine traveller and antiquarian, came to Leros in c. 1417, he observed that the population of the area retired within the castle's walls at night for protection. The Knights' presence here was by no means always welcome; in 1319 their garrison was killed by the islanders, who wished to return under the protection of Byzantium: it was forcibly re-taken by the Knights the same year. Although mentioned in late 11th century deeds of donation from the Emperor in Constantinople to Hosios Christódoulos, the founder of the monastery of St John on Patmos, the castle's structures today are mostly those of the 14th century, and contemporary with Péra Kástro on Kalymnos.
Entrance of the enclosure is by a small gate protected by the massive projecting southwest bastion. The path leads up to the church of the Panaghia tou Kastrou, whose plain design derives from the fact that it was originally an armoury, adapted in the 17th century into a church (by the addition of an apse and a loggia on two sides), so as to house a miraculous icon. Some Byzantine fragments of templon screen and of an ambo are incorporated into its fabric: the interior is dominated by the fine carved iconostasis and the unusual pulpit. Attached to the church is a small and well-displayed Ecclesiastical Museum, containing liturgical vestments and items, and a number of 18th and 19th century icons of quality.
To the south is the gateway into the inner fortifications, leading through a tunnel with finely constructed barrel-vaulting overhead and the original paving under foot; rooms, some vaulted, one of which was formerly used as a chapel, lead off to the side. The passage emerges into a confined space between the two oldest enceintes which constituted what was the entirety of the original Byzantine fortress. A number of modifications were made to this by the Knights, such as the unusual projecting corridor from the northeast corner, added to protect the north side of their new, outer enclosure-walls, and the postern-gate low down in its northeast corner.
Info: McGilchrist's Greek Islands
(From McGilchrist’s Greek Islands, © Nigel McGilchrist 2010, excerpted with his gracious permission. Click for the books)