History of Lesvos

by Virginia Cogotti and Ifigenia Georgiadou

Since the Mesolithic Age, “the Aegean islands used to form a single entity in combination with the coastal region of Asia Minor on the opposite side” (1), providing a link between the people of that region, from where they could control the seaways.
Lesvos is part of this entity and built its own characteristic identity through the past centuries, with the contribution, welcomed but often imposed, of the rulers that succeeded one after the other in the domination of the island. Its geographical location, so faraway from the Greek continent and adjacent to the coast of Asia Minor, allowed it to develop a peculiar culture with the strong influence coming from Orient, that rebounded on the choice of political systems, leaning mainly to oligarchy.

Ancient Times: Lesvos between Mythological accounts and Archaeological evidence.

ImageΑrchaeological excavations lead by Winifred Lamb in the 1930, provided evidence of its almost uninterrupted habitation since the Neolithic period and its similarity to the Trojan and Mycenaean civilization.
During the Bronze Age, when the North Aegean civilization reached its peak, the island progressed and prospered considerably. The construction of cities, such as Thermi of Lesvos, is a sure piece of evidence.
Around the midst of the 2nd millennium BC, Pelasgians lead by Xanthus from Argos, settled in Lesvos. They renamed the Island from “Issa” to “Pelasgia”, but several names where given through centuries such as “Imerti” (the name was related to its dissolute mores), “Lassia” (because of its lush vegetation), “Aethiope” or “sunny land”, ruled by the Amazons from Ethiopia and also... “AEOLIS”!!!

As usual, Mythology and ancient traditions try to explain the origins in order to answer and give explanations to human questions and doubts, when History sources and Archaeology evidence cannot give any information about. “We may say that the Pelasgians could be considered for us the population of transition, after Amazons and Eraclids, from mithical times to heroic and historic times”. (2)
The island was also named Makaria when Makaras, after the deluge of Deucalion, came to the island. According to the Mith, he was the son of the Sun, the ancestor who founded the race. The legend tells that, he killed one of his brothers and decided to banish himself to Lesvos, where the population welcomed him as “an enlightened sovereign” (3).
He came from Achaia with other supporters of its community and mainly Ionians. The fairness of his government allowed him even to extend its domain to the neighbouring islands, which gave up without a struggle.
Makaras launched the construction of Mytilini, Issa, Antissa, Mithymna and Avrisi and named them after his five daughters. Eressos took its name after his son, but the name of the island comes from the son of the Lapiths, Lesvos, who came from Thessaly and finally became father-in-law of Makaras, when their two folks became one.
Other accounts tell us that in ancient times there was a town called Lesvos and the island was named after it. This site could correspond to Lisvorios on the bay of Kaloni, where archaeologists also found relevant traces of a settlement dating back to pre-historic times.
As Louis La Croix remarks: “all these names are more often the result of poets’ fantasy then of truthful historical accounts” (4).
The island was under the domination of the Achaeans between 1393-1184.
Homer mentions Lesvos when he describes the fight between Odysseus and King Philomileidis and when Achilles enters in Mithymna with the support of the king’s daughter, but finally chooses and abducts Brysiida.

In 1140, when the Hellenic region is traversed by an intensive flow of migrations, Lesvos is colonized by Aeolians, who blent their language and culture with those of the local population.

Six city states dominated the territory of Lesvos but soon Mytilini and Mthymna stood out.

Between the 8th and the 5th century BC, with a acme in the 7th and 6th century BC, the population spread and the island became an important alive centre where economic, trading, artistic, philosophical activities flourished. Some intellectual features such as the philosofer Pittacus, one of the Seven Sages, and as the poets Sappho and Alcaeus are the most emblematic of this positive period of great achievements. and a great maritime power as well, able to settle cities in Asia Minor. This was even called “Lesbia Chora” and “Mytilenians Aeghialos”, Coast of the Mytilenians, extending its power until the current Dardanelles, and even to some centres in Thrace and Egypt.
In the 7th Century BC city states around the coast were under the control of a King and formed an amphictyony or league, lead by Mytilini. Their fortifications served for defence not only against attacks from the sea, but also from the other city states of the island, because of their constant rivalry. Later the power passed from Monarchy to Oligarchy.


The family of Penthelids, (whose name comes from Orestes’ son, Penthilus) ruled in Mytilini.
As they became very proud and arrogant because of their noble birth, conflicts and strikes started, especially between the popular and the aristocratic party. Their power was deposed and several tyrants took the power one after the other until the defeat of the tyrant Melanchrus by Pitthacus, to whom the population accorded the Tyranny, called “aesymnety”, that means that the tyrant had power for a short time and only until the accomplishment of his goals. His aim was pushing back the exiled and set the situation right.

Lesvos’ ability in the control of maritime trade routes in the Aegean Sea and along the coast of Asia Minor, became soon a reason of conflict with the Athenian maritime dominion and clashed with it, especially when Athens claimed the area of Ilion, provoking the battle of Sigeum, that finally fell into its hands.

At a point, the Persian Empire started imposing in those areas. Ionians and Aeolians were forced to pass from Croesus’ hands, King of Lydia, into Emperor of Persia’s hands, Cyrus.
In 546 BC, the cities and the islands adjacent to Asia Minor were already under the rule of the Persians and only 2 years later, in 544 BC, Lesvos was in revolt, but as in the end it became part of the Achaemenid Empire, the island was forced to support his campaigns: Kamvysis sent troops against Egypt (527 BC) and a fleet was sent from Lesvos. When a military campaign against the Scythians was sent by King Darius (513 BC), Mitylenians supported him by joining the expeditionary force and eventually accorded the tyranny to his friend Koes, but Greek poleis only waited that the opportunity arose to remove tyrants from the political scene and get back their independence.
In 499 BC, the revolt of the Ionians exploded and was mainly supported by the Lesbians with their powerful navy, but in 492 BC the Persian army crushed the strikes.

When Xerxes I the Great, Darius’ son, attacked Greece, Lesvos was already part of his empire and was forced to support him during this campaign against Greek city - states.
In 479 BC, the Persians were defeated in the battle of Mykalis. Lesvos allied itself with Athens and became a member of the nautical Ally of Athens or Attico-Deleian League (468 BC) with some prerogatives and privileges: the island was allowed to hold its independence from the Athenian power, its oligarchic government and the exemption from the payment of tributes.
In 456 BC, Lesvos was dominated by the Persians once more, when they moved again to conquer Lydia. The location of these areas in Asia Minor was easily exposed to attacks by the Medians, but the island came soon under the control of Athens in the League until the beginning of the Peloponnesian war (429-404 BC). Still it made an alliance with Sparta as soon as Attica was invaded by Spartan armies, except Mythimna that stayed on Athens’s side.
When Athens was able to take control over the island (427 BC), traitors were harshly punished. The island lost its privileged position in the Athenian Confederacy and its independence: Lesvos island, its domains on the mainland and its navy belonged now to the Athenians. In the aftermath the inhabitants tried to rebel several times, begging help to Sparta, but came every time under the Athenian rule again.
In the following years the island passes scores of times from the Athenian to the Spartan rule. After the Spartan victory at Aegos – Potamos (405 BC), it was seized by the Spartan Lysander and an oligarchic government was established. After the battle of Cnidus in 394, Athens had again the supremacy on Mytilini and soon the other cities too yielded.
With the Peace of Antalcidas, stipulated between the Spartan Antalcidas and Artaxerses, the island is again under Spartan rule, but later, when Sparta and Athens are allied against the Persian King, it will be submitted again by the Athenian supremacy.


At the time of Alexander the Great…

In 338 BC, the Battle of Chaeronea saw the triumph of Philip II of Macedonia over the Greek poleis (city-states) allied against him. This final victory lead to the extension of its rule over Greece, but especially the eastern part of its dominion, the territories in Asia Minor, were still the most vulnerable to the Persian threat. That is why, in 334 BC, after the battle of Granikos, fought between Philip’s son, Alexander, and Persian troops of satraps, Lesvos and other poleis in Asia Minor took part to the anti-Persian Alliance of Alexander. Anyway, some personalities in the island always supported the Persians, especially those from the oligarchic parties.
Nevertheless, Darius III kept on getting Memnon to continue his military campaign and he managed to conquer all the main cities of Lesvos, except for Mytilini. In 333 BC, Alexander’s and Darius’ armies clashed at Issus. The battle marked the victory of Alexander, but the next year he sent another expedition, lead by Hegelochus, to free those territories subdued to the Persian oppressor. He assigned to Laomedon from Lesvos the command of the territories of Syria and his brother Erigyios from Lesvos was charged of the command of the cavalry.
When Alexander died, as all the territories of the Macedonian Empire had been split among Alexander’s successors, Lesvos passed to the Ptolemies of Egypt and knew a quite positive period under the rule of the Diadochus Lysimachus.

Lesvos under the patronage of the Julio – Claudian dynasty:

After the death of Alexander the Great (333 BC) Lesvos history is less rich in events and it’s more difficult to find information about what happened in the centuries that came next. It seems that “during the Roman occupation the island was used as a place of exile for eminent figures who had fallen into disfavour”. (3)
Between the end of the 3rd and the first twenty years of the 2nd Century BC, the Koinon or Confederacy of the Lesbians was established by the four cities Mytilini, Mithymna, Antissa and Eressos. Every city was independent from the others and free to make its own decisions, but when a common and specific issue arose cities were supposed to solve it together, in respect of the general decisions accepted when the treaty was stipulated. The agreement dealt with military and defence questions.
First connections with Rome started from the beginning of the 2nd Century BC. Flaminius granted the independence of the island in 196 BC, only for those cities that were been engaged against Antiochos III in the previous conflict.


Temple of “Mesa” 2nd Century BC

In 167 BC, Antissa is absorbed by the neighbour Mithymna , with the Roman agreement in order to punish the city for having supported Perseus in the previous Macedonian war. The dependence of Mythimna from Rome, more then the other Lesbian cities, started now, when the city became part of the tangled Roman system of clientelism. The Koinon was slowly deprived of its meaning by the Roman supremacy and strong, but subtle influence.
Now the island territory was splat under the power of Mithymna, Mytilini and Eressos. A treaty between Rome and Mithymna was established in 129 BC. Sooner or later all of them came under roman control. Guy Labarre mentions about an “easy adaptation of the Greeks to the Roman system of clientelism: to the Roman concept of patronage corresponds the Greek concept of welfarism”.(5) Even if it could seem a contradiction, that was a way for the Lesbian cities to preserve their autonomy, but of course it was for Rome the opportunity to maintain the control over the territories in the east. The conditions of the treaty weren't egalitarian de facto, but the island realized that there was no possibility to avoid the Roman power and this could be also an opportunity to benefit of some advantages, even from a subdue position.
Nonetheless, soon all the cities of the Aegean Region revolted against Rome and allied with King Mithridates of Pontus, an enemy of the Romans, who easily found agreement of the population in those areas. Almost every city in Lesvos welcomed him, but some - like Mytilini - were more devoted to his cause, some others less and soon abandoned the struggle, fearing Rome’s violent reaction or because of their tight relations of political patronage, as it was the case of Mithymna.
“That was a universal defection to the Roman cause, a break-up of populations, a denial of faith: and for many a race to the rescue against the old oppressors”.(2) Mytilenians decided to propose an alliance to Mithridates and hand over the Roman Proconsul M. Aquillius, who was finally assassinated. The alliance with Mithridates lasted from 88 BC until 84 BC, but even at this point Mytilini refused to surrender and continued his struggle against the Romans lead by Minucius Thermus, resisting until 80 BC, when they finally took again the rule of the island and harshly punished Mytilini by plundering and demolishing it. The aftermath was also that Lesvos was merged to the Province of Asia (founded in 129).
The situation changes when in 62 BC Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus came to Mytilini and finally decide to give back freedom and some privileges to Mytileneans, thanks to his friendship with the historian and philosopher Teophanis of Lesvos. Some poetry contests, based on Pompey's deeds, were organised for this occasion in order to honour him. He enjoyed the performance, admired and commissioned the construction of a similar theatre in Rome following the model of the Mytilenean one, but with bigger dimensions.
When the conflict with Julius Caesar and the civil war started, Mytilini loyally supported Pompey, who leaving for the battle, kept in safe his wife Cornelia and his son in Lesvos, but he was later defeated in the battle of Pharsalus in Alexandria, killed by Tolomeus.
Anyway, Mytilenians became aware that it was necessary now to ally themselves with Caesar in order to keep away retaliations and maintain the privileges gained with Pompey in 62 BC. Some embassies were sent from Mytilini and other Greek cities just before Pompey's defeat and death in 48 BC, to beg Caesar's pardon and honour his triumph.
Pardon and privileges were accorded but, as usual, there is no lack of paradoxes: only Roman citizens and the leisured classes had tax immunity, because of their tight relations of clientelism with Rome. Taxes were paid only by the other lower classes or those social categories that supported Pompeius and were before under his patronage.
After Magnus Pompeius, another big personality that left is mark in Lesvos in Roman times is Quintus Marcellus. He was consul and denounced some Julius Caesar's illegal and despotic behaviours and when Caesar finally took the power, Marcellus voluntarily exiled himself to Lesvos and never came back to Rome. Sextus, Pompeius’ son, came also to the island and had a very good welcome as well as is father, when the population gave him shelter after his defeat by Agrippa.
The influnce of the Julio - Claudian dynasty was very strong in the island of Lesvos and more then any other family had before. A new patronage system developed under Caesar, mainly with the intercession of some evergetes. “They were auxiliaries of the local and provincial administration that Rome needed and in the same time the best propagators of the Hellenism to the Romans and in Rome”.(6) That was why they climbed up the social ladder and gained special, privileged positions from were they could de facto keep all the community under control. Potamon is the leading figure in the contacts between Lesvos and Rome at this time.
In 25 BC a new agreement is stipulated between Augustus and Mytilini. Mytilenians wanted to improve their autonomy in the Province of Asia and restrain the active participation of the governor, turning it only to some specific matters. What about the Koinon of Lesbians? Some historians believe that its end was marked when the island became part of the Province of Asia and only common religious questions of the Koinon were maintained; some others uphold that the idea of a Koinon revival is not to be discarded and it was maybe established by the terms of independence of the new treaty with Augustus.
Also Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa moved from Rome and came to Lesvos, when Augustus chose Marcellus as imperial successor in place of him. During his stay, he benefited the city of Mytilini and Mytilenians dedicated him a monument to honor him and be thankful.
Germanicus and Agrippina also passed some time in Lesvos, where we know from sources that their daughter was born in 18 AD.
The Apostle Paul came to the island in 52 AD, in order to encourage Christian conversion. From 70 AD, in the time of the Emperor Vespasian, Lesvos lost its independence and had it back only under Hadrian’s rule. “The island continued to prosper into the first centuries of the Christian era, as witnessed by the 57 early Christian basilicas whose ruins have been unearthed to date.” (7)
The Romans left again their mark in Mytilini with the construction, between the 2nd and the 3rd Century AD, of the huge aqueduct in Moria, some parts of which are still standing with their magnificent arches and columns. It was constructed with the "emplekton" building method: walls filled with soil and debris. Three arches lay upon each other in every opening, supported by pillars and capitals, reaching a height of 27 m. They were built with local marble. Its building characteristics are more classicistic and therefore it is believed that the construction was carried out under Hadrian.


The aqueduct in Moria

Today only 170 m (seventeen arches) of the Aqueduct are visible in Moria, but when it was functional it was able to convey water for 26 km in order supply the city of Mytilini. Its starting point was in Agiassos, located in the heart of the island. The aqueduct was filled with Mount Olympus’ springs and it was being loaded with water from other sources during the journey. According to the experts’ opinion, the aqueduct’s capacity was up to 127.000 m3 per day. Excavations have not been carried out, but the monument was submitted to interventions for the improvement of its stability in 1995.

In 395 AD, after the division of the Roman Empire into East and West, Lesvos was incorporated into the East section, in the Insular Province (Cyclades, Sporades etc..).”Finally, North Aegean islands followed the fate of the entire Helladic region and became a part of the Roman Empire”.(1) From that moment, Lesvos didn’t show signs of its liveliness for some time.

Lesvos island, a neglected part of the East Empire, the Byzantine State

During the Byzantine period, the Aegean region had only occasional contacts with Constantinople, that almost forgot the island and especially used it to exile important undesirable personalities. Nevertheless Lesvos was always the most active reference point of the Empire’s fleet. In spite of this stalemate and abandonment, intellectual life was not dead and some personalities arose in these times, like the poet and epigrammatist Cristophorus from Mytilini. During this period, peace and security prevails.
“Fortifying island settlements was unnecessary during the first years of the Eastern Roman Empire. Although Alaric’s Goths put mainland Greece into trial in the late 4th century, sea domination remained almost steadfast. Demonstrative is the fact that in Procopius’s De Aedificiis, where the fortresses built by Justinian (527-565 AD) are mentioned, no island fortifications are mentioned.” (8)
The situation changed when the Arabs started attacking Lesvos and after them, even if it belonged to the Byzantine Empire, several other populations occupied and raided the island, as the Slavs (769 AD) and Saracens pirates (821 AD, 881 AD, 1055 AD). Precariousness and danger increased as Crete became the Arab naval base. The population abandoned its posts on the sea coast and was pushed to move to the inland, where many fortifications and fortresses were erected to facilitate defense. In 961 AD, the Byzantines took back the rule over the Aegean and Mithymna of Lesvos - current Molyvos - is an example among others, of fortifications in this period.
After 1204 at the time of the Fourth Crusade, Crusaders invaded Lesvos and caused the twilight of the Byzantine dominion. Constantinople came then under the rule of the Franks and they launched an extensive program of harbors’ fortification. Then the lordship of the island was in Baudouin‘s I hands.
In 1224 Lesvos passed to the Byzantines once more and it was ruled by Ioannis III Doukas-Vatatzis, eventually turning to be a Byzantine Province in 1261, when Genoeses stipulated a treaty that allowed their commercial activities, benefiting of some prerogatives.
Several areas in the Aegean finally fell into the Venetian and Genoese domain. Therefore North Aegean islands developed their maritime disposition, improving commercial activities and benefiting a demographic and financial growth.
In 1355 the island was passed by Ioannis V Palaiologos to Francesco Gattilusio and was part of the Gattilusi’s dominion. During this time the Gattilusi renovated and extended the castle of Mytilini and Molyvos.


Mytilene’s Castle

As Turkish and pirates invasions became more frequent and dangerous, Venice and Genoa - the contending naval forces in the Aegean - were pushed into action to avoid and move away those dangers, choosing good geographical locations to increase defense. “In most cases, the old Byzantine castles underwent radical repairs and additaments. The vast majority of the extant mediaeval castles in the Aegean comprises of the numerous new forts built during the Latin Rule.” (8)
Nevertheless, after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and when the Ottoman Empire was set, the Turks managed to occupy Lesvos and they easily took the place of the Gattilusi family, seizing the island in 1462.


YENI TJAMI (New Mosque)

Lesvos in modern times: from the Turkish domination to Freedom.

From that moment on, Lesvos was under the supremacy and oppression of the Turks. In 1824 it took part to the Greek Revolution, but this rising provoked a strong violent reaction by them. At this point, European countries also intervened on Greece’s behalf.

Lesvos, and the other islands that were close to the Turkish territories, were freed later from the Ottoman Empire than the territories in the continent, because of their geographical location. The island gained its freedom only in 1912 and became officially part of Greece in 1923 with the Treaty of Lausanne.

The Greek-Turkish War that took place from 1919 and 1922, also known as “Asia Minor Catastrophe”, came to an end with the defeat of the Greek army. These fights were the aftermath of the Treaty of Sèvres (1920) that conceded to Greece to take the rule over Adrianoupolis (Edirne today) and Smyrne (Ismir). Greece’s control spread soon in other territories of Thrace and Anatolia. The Campaign was supported by Greece’s allies and mainly Great Britain.
As a consequence of the defeat, Greece lost again all the territories gained after the World War I. This involved the destruction of Smyrne and the exchange of populations, mainly Greek communities of Asia Minor that were suddenly forced to move away.
Eastern Thrace and the Bosporus stood under the control of British, French and Italian allies with the Armistice of Mudanya, which just preceded the Treaty of Lausanne, which ratified the Independent Republic of Turkey.

“According to Turkish sources 20,826 Greek prisoners were taken. Of those about 10,000 arrived in Greece during the prisoner exchange in 1923. The rest presumably died in captivity and are listed among the "missing".”(9)

Statue of the “Asia Minor Mother” or “Mikrasiatisa mana”, representing the refugee mother forced to move by the oppressor, commemorate this dramatic event of Lesvos history and the victims who fell under the Turkish cruelty.
It represents also the Asia Minor Mother rescuing herself and its family, while finding shelter in the new country.
This immigration of communities from Asia Minor worsened the poor conditions in the island, which already suffered having lost its economic connection with Asia Minor and as a result, many refugees were forced to move again.

The World War II brought Lesvos to her last domination by the Germans and the island definitively gained its so yearningly pursued freedom in 1944.

In spite of some past historic events, that saw often the island forced to submit and suffer several oppressors, Lesvos always tried to benefit of those situations and never forgot to fight for its independence. As a consequence, the mark of all the populations that passed in the island during its eventful history is now very evident in Lesvos rich, colourful and multifaceted culture and traditions.


The Statue of the Asia Minor Mother


  1. www.northaegean.gr/english/MS_70.html
    Culture – History
  2. Lauria, Giuseppe Aurelio.“Creta--Rodi--Lesbo/ Studj per Giuseppe Aurelio Lauria”, Napoli, Tipi di R. Avallone, 1873.
  3. www.lesvos.com/history.html
  4. Lacroix Louis, “L'Univers. Histoire et description de tous les peuples. Iles de la Grèce/ par M. Louis Lacroix”, Paris, Firmin Didot Frères, 1978.
  5. Labarre, Guy. “Les cités de Lesbos aux époques hellénistique et impériale”, Institut d'Archéologie et d'Histoire de l'Antiquité: Université Lumière Lyon, 1996; p. 83, III Chapter: L' indépendence et les premiers contacts avec Rome”.
  6. Labarre, Guy. “Les cités de Lesbos aux époques hellénistique et impériale”, Institut d'Archéologie et d'Histoire de l'Antiquité: Université Lumière Lyon, 1996; p. 115, II Chapter: “Lesbos sous les Julio - Claudians”.
  7. www.greeknet.com/history1.htm
  8. www2.egeonet.gr/aigaio/FORMS/fLemmaBodyExtended.aspx?lemmaid=10516&boithimata_State=true&kefalaia_State=true#chapter_1
  9. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greco-Turkish_War_%281919%E2%80%931922%29


  • Labarre, Guy. Les cités de Lesbos aux époques hellénistique et impériale, Institut d'Archéologie et d'Histoire de l'Antiquité: Université Lumière Lyon, 1996.
  • Lacroix Louis, “L'Univers. Histoire et description de tous les peuples. Iles de la Grèce/ par M. Louis Lacroix”, Paris, Firmin Didot Frères, 1978.
  • Lauria, Giuseppe Aurelio.“Creta--Rodi--Lesbo/ Studj per Giuseppe Aurelio Lauria”, Napoli, Tipi di R. Avallone, 1873.
  • Lesbos: Tourist guide – Useful information – Map / text Eleni Palaska - Papastathi , Athens, Adam, 1994.
  • “The Municipality of Mytilene. Touring routes, archaeological sites, monuments and museums.” Texts by Stratis Anagnostou.
  • “The Municipality of Mytilene. The city and the municipal districts.” Texts by Stratis Anagnostou.
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greco-Turkish_War_%281919%E2%80%931922%29
  • www2.egeonet.gr/aigaio/FORMS/fLemmaBodyExtended.aspx?lemmaid=10516&boithimata_State=true&kefalaia_State=true#chapter_1
  • www.greeka.com/eastern_aegean/lesvos/lesvos-history.htm
  • www.greeknet.com/history1.htm
  • www.lesvos.com/history.html
  • www.lesvos.co.uk/history.htm
  • http://www.magiceuropeanshores.com/?p=7402
  • www.northaegean.gr/english/MS_70.html
  • Culture – History
  • http://www.travel-to-lesvos.com/place.php?id=19


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