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Aeolian Islands History

The Aeolian Islands have a long history filled with periods of prosperity as well as suffering. The archipelago we refer to today as the Aeolian Islands rose from the sea about 700,000 years ago due to volcanic activity. Among other things, this volcanic activity resulted in lava flows which formed obsidian, black volcanic glass. The earliest known human settlements on the island of Lipari date back to the last few centuries of the 5th millennium B.C. These populations took advantage of the abundance of obsidian in the archipelago and used it to fashion sharp utensils as well as export the resource throughout the Mediterranean, allowing the island of Lipari to become quite rich and populous. With the dawn of the Bronze Age in 2,500 B.C., obsidian lost its significance as a major export, but Lipari remained influential because of its advantageous location between the island of Sicily and the peninsula of Italy.

After this period of flourishing, a rather lengthy period of invasion descended on the archipelago. Lipari was first invaded in the Iron Age by populations originating from the Italian peninsula. The Etruscans struck the archipelago in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C., but were defeated by the Greeks in 580 B.C. who proceeded to colonize the islands. The Greeks were unopposed in the area until 252 B.C. when the islands fell to the Romans. When the Roman Empire fell, the Aeolian Islands also experienced further decline that continued through the period of Byzantine and Arab rule until the 11th century when the Normans took over. A community of Benedictine monks, sent by the Norman King Ruggero, was established in Lipari, resulting in a time of revival for the islands. The monks built a monastery within a castle as well as a cathedral, drawing people to the area, most of which thrived thanks to agriculture.

As the Middle Ages continued, many civilizations dominated the islands including the Angevin and the Aragonese. In 1443, the islands became part of the Kingdom of Naples and received many privileges. However, shortly after this brief period of prosperity, the islands were continuously attacked by the Saracens. Unfortunately, things went from bad to worse when in 1544 a Turkish fleet led by Ariadeno Barbarossa destroyed the city of Lipari and enslaved nearly 8,000 inhabitants. Reconstruction began shortly after, but continued slowly until 1691 when the city of Lipari reached 10,000 inhabitants.

The nineteenth century brought positive change to Lipari as it became an influential port in the region leading to economic prosperity in the Aeolian Islands; the population grew to more than 20,000 inhabitants by the end of the century. However, more destruction followed as phylloxera, a grape-eating pest, decimated vineyards located throughout the islands. This, coupled with a stagnant economy, resulted in the migration of nearly 50% of the population of the Aeolian Islands.

Thankfully, the islands have recovered since then and today agriculture, mining, fishing, and tourism all contribute to a healthy economy in the islands. Important goods produced on the island include capers, pumice, and Malvasia wine. The islands were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 and their beauty is sure to attract thousands of visitors for decades to come.


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