Local Economy of Agiasos
Local handicrafts used to play a significant part in the economy of Agiasos, and their development had managed to establish Agiasos as one of the most significant centers for commerce and crafts on Lesvos. The migration of a sizable number of people to Agiasos at the beginning of the 18th century was accompanied by the arrival of numerous highly skilled craftsmen and artisans, and the needs of the rapidly expanding community resulted in the creation several workshops that produced quality goods, sold throughout the island and beyond.
It is also possible that due to the large influx of people to Agiasos in the 18th century, the local agricultural production was no longer enough to sustain the population, which according to the estimates of Stratis Kolaxizelis reached 7,000-8,000 from the latter part of the 19th century through the 1950. Furthermore, the lack of any direct access to the sea, as well as the tradition of bartering goods and services that was prevalent in this part of the world until the 1940s, also contributed to the development of crafts in Agiasos.
The most significant local handicrafts involved the processing of the local olive harvest, primarily via the production of olive oil in the mills. Starting 1879, steam powered mills replaced the traditional oil producing technology, and from 1900 through 1940 there were 5 such “machines”, as the locals referred to them, in Agiasos.
Another significant activity that took place in Agiasos was the local production of fabrics. These fabrics were primarily used to create large cloth sheets that were used in the olive mills, and to create runners that covered the bare floors of homes. For the cloth olive sheets, goat hair was brought in from Halkidiki in Macedonia, while for the runners local goat hair and later Indian cannabis fibers were used.
Up until 1940, there were several more small workshops in Agiasos, which produced a variety of products and contributed to the local economy. In a relevant article written by Stratis Anastaselis, from 1900 through 1940, there were at least 16 breech and tack makers (kapistrades-tsirvoulades), 4 producers of rough fabric made from lambs’ wool called “ketses”, 16 blacksmiths (tampakdis), 20 bag makers (imtafdis) that made burlap sacks, rags and runners, 8 saddlemakers, 6 soap producers, 27 tub and ceramic pot makers, 26 shoemakers, 40 petalers (albandis), 12 furriers, 16 western style tailors, 15 lumberjacks (biskitsides), 10 painters, 7 families of builders, 8 families of olive oil producers, 25 woodworkers and 7 stone masons. After WWII, most of these activities went into a rapid decline, due to the development of international trade and industry, the import of cheap building materials, the end of the barter system, and the creation of large urban centres in Greece that many islanders flocked to.
A special mention should be made with regard to the decorative crafts that were produced in Agiasos, based upon the local ceramic and woodworking traditions.
The history of ceramic arts in Agiasos is almost as old as the community itself. Subsequent to the arrival of the icon of the Virgin Mary and other holy relics, and the establishment of the monastery, Agiasos became a pilgrimage site for Christians from throughout the region, especially during the years of Turkish rule. As such, there was an increased demand for ceramic items catering to the needs of the faithful, such as water jugs, plates, etc. In addition to these traditional wares, small carafes were produced so the pilgrims could transport the holy water from the monastery back to their homes, as well as various other votive items made of clay. The first kiln was constructed in the monastery of Agathonas. Agathonas himself had a working knowledge of the ceramic arts prior to his arrival to Agiasos, and together with the monks they produced the area’s first ceramic wares (in the 8th-9th centuries).
The wares produced by the monks consisted primarily of water carriers, such as jugs and vats. Later on, and in the Byzantine tradition, new ceramic forms began to emerge from the local kilns that were established in Agiasos with names like “metridi”, “kakavi”, “koutrouvi”, “tsirokoumaro” and “laginia”. Laginia in particular had a wide variety of uses, which included putting out fires and refilling oil lamps.
There were also two types of ceramic musical instruments made in Agiasos. The first of these was the Dubeleki (a small ceramic drum that had an animal skin drawn tight over the top), which was used in local celebrations and Christmas carolling. The second of these was a ceramic flute, which was brought to the area by refugees from Penthili, when they immigrated to the vicinity of the St. Zion monastery.
Aside from the musical instruments, the ceramic pots used for cooking “giuvetsi” and “krontiri” dishes, as well as the carafes for local wines, were especially appreciated by connoisseurs.
In 1864, the first local craftsman’s trust was established. This has been confirmed via the discovery of a small safe that was found in Niko Kourtzi’s possession, where money was deposited for the needs of the craftsman’s trust. The two large sides of the safe are decorated with artwork, with one side portraying the patron saint of the ceramic craftsmen, St. Charalambos, while the other includes the inscription “Made at the expense of the Ceramic craftsmen’s trust in 1864”.
In the final years of the Turkish occupation (1900-1912), Elias Kourtzis stops producing household ceramic wares and focuses on the creation of decorative items, modeling his work upon classic themes.
In 1922, Anastasis Hadjigiannis arrived in Agiasos from Viga in Cannakale. Hadjigiannis was an experienced ceramics maker, since he had trained for years in his father Simeon’s workshop. The arrival of highly skilled artisans from the Cannakale region of Asia Minor after the Catastrophe of 1922 enriched the local society, and contributed to the production of new ceramic wares and designs that until then had been produced almost exclusively in the Dardanelles region.
Due to the major social and economic changes that took place after the war, rendering household ceramic wares obsolete – especially from 1960 onwards – many of the ceramic workshops of Agiasos were forced out of business. But several workshops were able to adapt to the new circumstances. In Agiasos, as well as Volos, Marousi and elsewhere, ceramic craftsmen focused their creative talents on decorative items, souvenirs, planters, etc. They also began to create effigies of animals, birds, fruit, as well as traditional country scenes depicting fishermen, sailors and farmers, as well as ceramic plates that were meant to be hung on the wall as decorations, and imitations of classical Greek pottery.
The woodworking tradition of Agiasos appears to have begun with the construction of the wooden templon of the Church of the Virgin Mary in 1812, by Greek artisans from Asia Minor, who passed their knowledge on to the local craftsmen.
The “Sentoukades” families acquired this name because many of their members crafted top quality “sentoukia” (chests). Many homes in Agiasos still have their antique furniture, which typically includes highly ornate wooden chests.
Olive and walnut has been the wood of choice used in Agiasos’ woodworking tradition. The techniques employed by local craftsmen have been heavily influenced by the Byzantine traditions of the Hellenism of Asia Minor, making their crafts highly desirable throughout the region. The intricately carved icons and wood furniture from Agiasos are widely appreciated, as they are crafted with particular attention to detail by local craftsmen.
In the years between the two world wars, the last of Agiasos’ woodworkers ceased their production due to the country’s stagnant economy, which all but eradicated demand for their products. From 1949 onwards, Dimitri Kamaros, whose grandfather had been a woodcarver and whose father was a lumberjack, created a small workshop and began anew to handcraft furniture that incorporated traditional decorative aspects while essentially establishing his own original style. His reputation soon exceeded the bounds of the island, as his creations travelled throughout Greece and the world.
Kamaros handed down his techniques to the island’s next generation of woodcarvers, all of which in turn developed their own unique style. But there were several other, self-taught artisans that promoted the art of woodcarving on the island, such as Prokopis Skopelitis, one of the most famous creators of carved icons, as well as several younger woodcarvers that have created their own unique styles.
All of the handmade wood products of Agiasos (chests, desks, tables, chairs, bedroom sets, screens, mirror, icons, etc.) are of exceptional quality and design, and have a devoted following of admirers from around the world, many of which travel to the island simply to place orders for their furniture.
Municipal Unit of Agiasos