Mesolongi (Greek Μεσολόγγι, other transcriptions and subsidiary
forms are: Messolongi, Messolonghi, Missolonghi, Missolunghi,
Mesolongion) is a city in Aetolia-Acarnania with about 13,500
inhabitants and at the same time the seat of the homonymous
municipality (dimos) in the Greek region of western Greece. This
community was last significantly enlarged in 2010 through the
incorporation of the neighboring communities Etoliko and Iniades and
is now divided into three districts and 19 localities.
Mesolongi was believed to be founded in the early 16th century and gained fame during the Greek Revolution in the 1820s. The city is still a symbol of the Greek resistance against the Ottoman Empire. Since 1937 Mesolongi has been allowed to use the honorary title Iera Poli (Ιερα Πόλη, Holy City ‘) according to a decree of the Greek King Georgios II.
Mesolongi is located on the
Gulf of Patras in the plain that has been created by natural
alluvial deposits over the centuries in the estuary of the Acheloos
and Evinos rivers. Originally the town was built on three lagoon
islands, which today have become part of the central Greek mainland
due to siltation. Almost 20 kilometers northwest of the city of
Mesolongi is the small town of Etoliko on an island at the other end
of the 33.5 km² large lagoon of Mesolongi (the ancient Kynia Lake).
Its old town still gives a very clear picture of what the early
modern Mesolongi may have looked like.
The municipality of Mesolongi extends over an area of 674.13 km² in land mass, this encloses the Prokopanistos lagoon in the west, the large, central Mesolongi lagoon in the west, the lagoon of Etoliko, which extends far north in the mainland, and the Klisova lagoon in the southeast of the city. The city of Mesolongi itself is located on a peninsula between the two lagoons. The Klisova lagoon extends from Mesolongi in a south-easterly direction to just before the mouth of the Evinos River, which is the south-eastern boundary of the Mesolongi municipality and borders the Nafpaktia municipality. To the north, the border with Nafpaktia joins the border with the municipality of Agrinio, which is formed by an 819 m high mountain range. The mountain ranges of the Arakynthos extend parallel to this, with 982 m the highest point in the municipality of Mesolongi. The municipality boundary continues in the municipality of Etoliko to the northwest to the Acheloos river, which - flowing south of its main mouth - forms the municipality boundary for a few kilometers to the northwestern municipality of Xiromero. The border with Xiromero then runs to the west-east between the villages of Pandalofo and Valti, to the south of it the municipality of Iniades encompasses the estuary of the Acheloos.
The Mesolongi municipality also includes the islands that delimit the Mesolongi and Klisova lagoon from the Ionian Sea and the Gulf of Patras. To the west is the largest of these islands, Prokopanistos, to the south of the Mesolongi lagoon are the islands of Tholi, Prokopanistos, Schinias and Agios Sostis.
The landscape of the municipality of Mesolongi is characterized by mountains to the northeast. In the south of the municipality, lowland near the coast dominates, which was (partially) recovered from marshland by draining. In the far west of the municipality, a 439 m high mountain rises south of the Acheloos estuary. To the north of the flat area of the Acheloos estuary, the terrain also becomes mountainous.
Mesolongi is located south of Agrinio at a distance of 29 km, to Patras the distance is 30 km, to Corinth in the east-southeast 140 km, to Athens approx. 200 km (all information as the crow flies). Amfilochia and Arta in the north are 56 and 90 km away as the crow flies.
Creation of the settlement
Mesolongi is located on the Gulf of Patras in the plain that has been created by natural alluvial deposits over the centuries in the estuary of the Acheloos and Evinos rivers. Originally the town was built on three lagoon islands, which today have become part of the central Greek mainland due to siltation. Almost 20 kilometers to the north-west lies the small town of Etoliko on an island at the other end of the 33.5 km² lagoon of Mesolongi (the ancient Kynia Lake). Its old town still gives a very clear picture of what the early modern Mesolongi may have looked like.
Prehistory: Byzantine era
Although the Byzantine Empire was a Greek-influenced state through language and culture, the actual Greek heartland within the empire came more and more to the status of a remote province. The depopulation and desolation of even once important cities like Athens and Corinth had already started in antiquity. Predatory invasions of Germanic and Slavic tribes had contributed to the region's decline in late antiquity and the Middle Ages. As a result of the Fourth Crusade, Central Greece and the Peloponnese fell to petty princes from western Europe, the so-called Latins. The de facto power lay mainly in the hands of the Republic of Venice, which massively enforced its own strategic and commercial interests in this peripheral area of the Adriatic. The everyday life of the people was marked by the quarrels of the feudal lords among themselves as well as with the Byzantines and, since about 1300, the Ottomans by constant insecurity. Following the example of the Venetians, many residents of the coastal region of the Gulf of Patras withdrew to the offshore lagoon islands because they offered relative protection and were easy to defend. Most historians believe that the name of the later city of Mesolongi goes back to this location in the middle of the lakes (i.e. the lagoon) - in Italian mezzo laghi.
On the edge of the Ottoman Empire
In the time before Lepanto
Since the middle of the 14th century, the Ottomans brought almost the entire Balkan Peninsula and thus Greece under their influence. However, the Turkish conquests were mainly due to the strength of the land forces; the Ottomans rarely had a powerful and reliable navy. As a pronounced sea power, the Venetians succeeded in keeping large parts of the former Byzantine territories relevant to them under control, especially the Greek islands and the coastal areas facing the Adriatic. The naval battle of Lepanto (the Greek name of the place not far from Mesolongi is Nafpaktos) in 1571 secured the Venetians their supremacy in the Adriatic. The first mention of Mesolongi can be found in the description given by the Venetian historian and statesman Paolo Paruta (1540–1598) in his Guerra di Cipro of the course of the Lepanto battle. It seems to have been a very young settlement at that time, but with several thousand inhabitants it had a remarkably large population, numerically it is said to have even exceeded that of Athens.
In the centuries that followed, Mesolongi remained a de facto possession or at least a protectorate of Venice, with the dispute over rule over the city and the surrounding area - depending on the balance of power between the Serenissima and the Sublime Porte - the subject of armed conflicts.
Dominance of Venice
In the early centuries, the inhabitants of the city often lived in pile dwellings, so-called pilades, which are still typical of the area today. As the lagoon surrounding the city gradually silted up, more and more houses were built using conventional methods. The economic basis of urban life was initially fishing, salt extraction and tobacco growing, but to a not insignificant extent also piracy. With the growth of the city and the close ties to Venice, Mesolongi gained some importance as a trading center. In the heyday of the Venetian era between 1740 and 1770, the city had 75 ships of various types and was one of the most important trading and war ports in western Greece. Many European states had diplomatic missions here in the 18th century.
The years before the Greek Revolution
The end of the protective power of Venice came in 1797 during the First Coalition War, and the unexpected situation posed new problems for the people of Mesolongi. While the city was forced to fall under the suzerainty of Sultan Selim III. To be recognized at least formally, it remained at the same time a nucleus of the emerging Greek nationalism. In addition, the fall of the Republic of Venice also had a psychologically important consequence for Greek independence: the Ionian Islands, which had previously also been Venetian in the immediate vicinity of Mesolongi, were given the Republic of the Ionian Islands from 1800 to 1807 (Italian Repubblica Settinsolare, Greek Επτάνησος Πολιτεία , Eptánisos politía) limited autonomy under Turkish and Russian suzerainty. In this way, for the first time since the 15th century, an at least partially independent Greek state emerged.
The events of the 1820s
The fact that the Greek freedom fighters were given the name of Klephten, that is, robbers, was not just the polemical language of the Turkish authorities. In fact, the resistance groups were thrown together and their ranks were by no means exclusively freedom-loving idealists. Rather, through increasing oppression and mismanagement of the Ottoman administration in the 18th century, many Greek small farmers were impoverished and, pushed to the margins of society, had withdrawn to the mountains and islands, where they tried to survive by criminal means. The pictorial, threatening-sounding name was soon adopted by politically committed groups of outlaws.
The first siege
Alexandros Mavrokordatos (1791–1865) was the commander of the rebels in western Greece when the fighting broke out in 1821. He chose Messolongi as his headquarters because the city had already been provided with fortifications under Venetian rule: Together with the favorable natural location already mentioned, the fortress, armed with a dozen cannons, gave the Greeks, who were initially far inferior in numbers and equipment, well-protected Base of operations.
However, the Turks also recognized the strategic importance of
the city, especially in view of the tense situation in the
Peloponnese, which was already in danger of being lost to the
rebels. July 20th / August 1st, 1822 a Turkish-Egyptian fleet of
about 80 ships under the command of Hasan Pasha reached the lagoon.
On October 21, the besiegers and several thousand marines began an
assault on the walls of Messolongi, which were occupied by around
850 defenders, but this was unsuccessful. The Greeks used the
subsequent handover negotiations to gain time. In fact, on November
8th, a small relief army managed to break through the Turkish
blockade on seven ships.
The commanders of the siege army cleared another attack for December 24, 1822 July / January 5, 1823. because they hoped to surprise the Greeks during the Christmas celebrations. The defenders, however, learned of this through treason, and the plan failed. The siege was on December 31, 1822 July / January 12, 1823. completed.
Between October 1823 and November 1823 the city was besieged again, but the unsuccessful attack was carried out against Etoliko.
The second siege
The setback that the Turks suffered during the first siege gave the battle for Messolongi a high symbolic value on both sides. The Greeks commissioned the Italian engineer Pietro Coccini (Greek Petros Kokkinis, other sources give the first name Michele / Michalis) with the reinforcement and expansion of the fortifications, which have now been equipped with 48 additional cannons. The fortress was commanded by the former Prussian officer Wilhelm Bellier de Launay.
In April 1825, on the orders of Sultan Mahmuth II under Resit Pascha (mostly called Kioutahis by the Greeks), the Turks began another siege, initially only from the land side. Once again it was not possible to break the resistance of the Greeks commanded by Admiral Andreas Miaoulis. A few weeks later, a Turkish-Egyptian fleet under Ibrahim Pasha reached the Gulf of Patras. Despite the overwhelming superiority of the Ottoman forces, Messolongi's defenders rejected all offers to surrender. Miaoulis' ships were now seldom able to break through the enemy blockade in order to provide supplies; epidemics spread in the starving city. The High Commissioner of the Republic of the Ionian Islands, now under British sovereignty, Sir Frederick Adam, tried in vain to broker an armistice.
In the spring of 1826 the situation of the besieged had become hopeless, so that it was decided to break out of the enemy encirclement on the night of April 10 (the eve of Palm Sunday). Using three mobile bridges, the residents tried to cross the moat surrounding the city and later the Turkish lines. Those citizens who were too old, sick or weakened to flee quickly holed up with the remaining ammunition stocks in the city's armory and windmill. However, the plan of the escape was revealed to the Turks, who were thus prepared for the situation and massacred the refugees. Only a few hundred Greeks managed to escape from the siege ring, the citizens remaining in the city blew themselves up after bloody street fighting against the invading conquerors in the morning hours of April 12th.
With the Exodos of the defenders of Messolongis, the basis for a national myth was laid, which is still present in the Greek self-image today. The enormous symbolic importance that was assigned to the events surrounding the sieges has resulted in many facts and figures being distorted or massively exaggerated by the pro-Greek side, while information from the Turkish side has hardly survived and from historical research hardly any are worked up. It can be assumed that around 10,000 people were inside the walls of Messolongi in April 1826, of whom only around 1,000 survived the fighting.
Four Philhellenes and the "Mesolongi Myth"
The Greeks' struggle for freedom moved public opinion in the
countries of Western and Central Europe as well as the USA
extraordinarily. The Philhellenes, however, were in no way a
homogeneous social force; on the contrary, the motives for
professing to be “friends of the Greeks” were extremely diverse.
They ranged from an often completely unrealistic glorification of
everything Greek, owed to the romantic zeitgeist, to the hands-on
political commitment that led hundreds of mostly young men in Greece
to side with the rebels. In Germany, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and
King Ludwig I of Bavaria were prominent Philhellenes, the
Wittelsbacher's second son became King of Greece in 1832 as Otto I.
The composer Louis Spohr wrote the music for a popular tragedy in
three acts, which was written by an anonymous "friend of the heroic
Greeks" under the title The Tempest of Missolunghi.
Johann Jakob Meyer
The Swiss Johann Jakob Meyer is still one of the most popular Philhellenes in Greece today. Born on December 30, 1798 in Zurich as the son of a doctor, he had an unsteady youth, during which he more than once came into conflict with the bourgeois morals of those around him. After completing his apprenticeship as a pharmacist, he began studying medicine in Freiburg im Breisgau, which he had to give up after a short time because he had repeatedly gone into debt. That didn’t stop the young man from registering as “Dr. Johann Jakob Meyer from Zurich, Doctor and Surgeon ”, where he was paid the cost of the trip to Greece without further ado. Once there, Meyer took part in the naval battle of Patras on March 5 and 6, 1822 under the command of Miaoulis. As a result he settled in Mesolongi, where he married a Greek woman and quickly became a respected citizen. From 1824 he published the Ellinika Chronika, the first newspaper in Greek in his adopted home. Much of the accounts of what happened during the second siege go back directly to Meyer and his newspaper. That makes their assessment difficult, as the Swiss, despite his upright advocacy for the Greek cause, repeatedly showed a tendency to imposture. The exact circumstances of Meyer's death are not known, it is said that he was among the first to attempt the eruption on April 10, 1826. A few hours before his end he wrote to a friend:
I am proud to think that the blood of a Swiss man, a grandson of William Tell, should mix with the blood of the heroes of Greece.
In the Heroes' Park of Mesolongi, two monuments commemorate Meyer, but he is largely unknown in his Swiss homeland.
George Gordon Byron, one of the most important poets of English Romanticism - especially Black Romanticism, first visited Mesolongi in 1811. As one of the most famous Philhellenes, he was offered supreme command of the Greek armed forces in Pisa in 1823, where he had lived for some time. Although without any military knowledge, Byron accepted and immediately financed the equipping of new Greek naval units. The planned capture of the fortress of Nafpaktos held by the Turks failed, and so Byron turned with his troops to Mesolongi, where he was welcomed on January 5, 1824 by an enthusiastic crowd. Byron's health deteriorated rapidly in the coming weeks - among other things, it is suspected that he became infected with malaria in the unhealthy climate of the lagoon. The phlebotomy prescribed by the doctors further weakened the poet's body, and he finally died on April 19, 1824, without ever having participated in large-scale fighting. Byron wrote one of his last poems on his 36th birthday, it ends with the words:
[...] Seek out — less often sought than found—
A soldier’s grave, for thee the best;
Then look around, and choose your ground,
And take thy rest.
(At Missolonghi, January 22, 1824)
Johann Jakob Meyer later claimed that his friend Byron died in
his arms, a story that is confirmed by at least two contemporaries.
Nevertheless, it cannot be said with certainty whether the Swiss
man's statement corresponds to historical truth or is just an
anecdote that arises from wishful thinking.
As high as the symbolic value of Byron's arrival in Greece was for the population, the insurgents reacted in shock when they learned of the sudden death of one of their most famous and most eloquent sympathizers. While Byron's body was being transferred to England, the poet had decreed that his heart should be buried in Mesolongi.
The painter Eugène Delacroix represents a different type of Philhellenic. He did not leave his French homeland during the dramatic events surrounding the uprising in Greece. Delacroix was an avid reader of Byron's work, and this reading is probably the main reason for the young artist's turn to philhellenism. Although Delacroix never came to Greece, he created two paintings with the massacre of Chios (1824) and the illustrated work The dying Greece on the ruins of Messolongi, which were already symbolic of the "freedom struggle of the Hellenes" at the time of their creation.
The central figure of the painting is the young woman in Greek costume with her arms outstretched helplessly for the defeated Greek people. At their feet protrudes from the ruins, the hand of a freedom fighter who was shattered by the ruins of the falling wall, an allusion to the circumstances under which the inhabitants who remained in the city died. In the background we see the triumphant figure of a “Moorish” mercenary who embodies the victorious Ottoman troops.
Dying Greece combines several features that are characteristic of Delacroix's work. The advocacy of the cause of the defeated, as it is also thematized in the massacre of Chios, finds its painterly expression here in the allegorical figure of the young woman, who is iconographically the most important "forerunner" of the most famous picture by the painter's hand, namely Die Freedom leads the people (“La Liberté guidant le peuple”, 1830, Louvre, Paris). Enthusiasm for everything “oriental” should also accompany the French throughout his life. What is rather unusual in the young Delacroix's oeuvre, on the other hand, is the comparatively calm, restrained depiction of the scene, which stands in marked contrast to the moving drama of many of his other pictures from around 1830.
Wilhelm Müller (born October 7, 1794 in Dessau, † October 1, 1827 there) was a philhellenic who was well known in his time and who achieved far-reaching political effects as a poet in the German-speaking world. With his "Greeks songs" he not only stood at the side of the Greeks fighting for their freedom, but also referred in particular to the besieged Mesolonghi; he paid tribute to the late Lord Byron. Although never in Greece themselves, the Greek people did not forget their unconditional commitment to their freedom, but donated the marble that was used for their memorial in Dessau. Incidentally, Müller has remained well known in Germany as the author of the song cycles "Die Schöne Müllerin" and "Die Winterreise", set to music by Franz Schubert, and folk songs such as "Am Brunnen vor dem Tore" and "Das Wander ist des Müllerers Lust".
After Greek independence
The intervention of the major European powers, for example in the Battle of Navarino in 1827, ultimately led to the establishment of a sovereign Greek state with the London Protocol of 1830. The Turks were able to hold out in Mesolongi until 1829. With the proclamation (1833) of the autocephalous Church of Greece and its recognition by the Patriarch of Constantinople (1850), the city became the seat of an Orthodox metropolitan.
Mesolongi no longer played an important role in the new state. However, the city was rebuilt and modernized. Modern Mesolongi is still deeply marked by memories of the events of the years of the uprising. Several museums and memorials address various aspects of the myth that surrounds the city in Greece. In remembrance of the tragedy of 1826, Palm Sunday is far more of a national than a religious holiday in Mesolongi. In 1996, on the 100th anniversary of the first Olympic Games in 1896, the Heroes Park was expanded with the support of the National Olympic Committee of Greece, in which numerous memorials to the freedom fighters have been erected, including those for Byron, Meyer and the American Philhellenes.
Mesolongi is a sports-loving city that has regularly sent
athletes to the Olympic Games and other international competitions
since 1896 and has its own stadium. In addition to general education
schools, the city is also home to some technical schools (for
example for agriculture, agricultural engineering and management, as
well as three music schools). Three daily and two weekly newspapers
appear in Mesolongi, but Ellinika Chronika is no longer among them.
The cultural offerings are particularly rich in the fields of music
and dance, especially their traditional Greek forms.
In contrast to many other regions of Greece, tourism still plays a subordinate role as an economic factor. The Mesolongi Lagoon is a nature reserve under the Fauna-Flora-Habitat Directive of the European Union.
The port of Mesolongi has been modernized since Greek independence. A navigable canal along the west coast of the Klisova lagoon connects the port of Mesolongi with the Gulf of Patras and thus with the Ionian Sea. To the north, this navigable canal continues as the Etoliko Canal to the lagoon and village of Etoliko. The port of Mesolongi is in the southwest of the city at the tip of the peninsula. The tip of the Mesolongi Peninsula is also cut by a small branch channel, which separates the port and the city park from the city. In relation to the port of Patras, however, the port of Mesolongi has a very small transport importance.
Road traffic is dominant, as in the rest of Greece. The main traffic axis in the western Greek mainland, the national road 5, runs through Mesolongi. Coming from Andirrio on the Gulf of Patras via Evinochori from the southeast and leaves Mesolongi to the north-northwest towards Agrinio, Amfilochia, Arta and Ioannina. It leads along the Mesolongi and Etoliko lagoon, passes the Klissoura Pass and the south side of Lake Lysimachia. The national road 5 initially ran right through the city; In the course of time, a bypass road was completed which passes the city to the east. In the Mesolongi municipality, national road 5 is also European route 55, which, coming from Etoliko, meets national road 5 in the village of Kefalovrysos. North of Kefalovrysos is the national road 5, the European route 853. Via the European route 55, the west coast of mainland Greece with the intermediate stations Astakos, Aktio, Preveza, Parga can be driven to Igoumenitsa in Epirus via Etoliko. Until 2004, all road traffic from the Peloponnese was transported by ferry across the Straits of Rio and Andirio; After the opening of the Rio-Andirrio Bridge, there is a fixed road connection to the Peloponnese from Mesolongi via Andirrio, albeit a toll one. This connection is therefore also suitable for road traffic from Athens, Piraeus and Corinth, which to date has either reached Andirio and then to Mesolongi via the winding national road 48 along the north coast of the Gulf via Amfissa, Itea, Nafpaktos. The increasing road traffic was taken into account by the construction of the new Autobahn 5 ("Ionia Odos"), which runs from Rio over the Rio-Andirrio Bridge east of Mesolongi to the north via Amfilochia, Arta and Filippiada to Ioannina. In addition to relieving the inner-city traffic in Mesolongi itself, this motorway would lead to a continuous motorway connection from Mesolongi to Athens (via motorway 8) and also to Thessaloniki (via motorway 2). The Autobahn 5 was completed in 2017.
Mesolongi does not have an airport, but to the east of the city is the private Mesolongi airport (LG01). The asphalt runway with an alignment of 07/25 is 800 m long and 30 m wide. The airfield is at a height of 1.5 m (5 ft) above sea level.
The nearest national airport is Preveza or Aktio airport after the Agrinio airport closes. The nearest international airport is Patras Airport (Araxos Airport).
From 1890 to 1970 Mesolongi was the operating center of the narrow-gauge Greek Northwest Railway. It led over 61 km from the port of Kryoneri on the Gulf of Corinth - from where a ferry to Patras ran - to Agrinio. Large parts of the existing city wall were demolished for the construction of the line and the train station, but the so-called Exodus Gate has been preserved. In 1970 the line was shut down and the abandoned station building was converted into a cultural center.
From 1996 the line was restored in whole or in sections, but work that was discontinued in 2004 without the resumption of operations. At times there were plans to upgrade the line to standard gauge as part of the Trans-European Networks and to extend it to Ioannina.