SKIATHOS, Greece - The straits between south Pelion and the island of Skiathos conceal many secrets in their treacherous waters - including one little-known fact known mostly to historians and a handful of locals. Few people are aware that the deadly Lefteris Reef, where many ships have come to grief, was the site of the most ancient lighthouse on record, older even than the Lighthouse of Alexandria.
The straits are a seemingly harmless stretch of water roughly 2.5 miles across but beneath their calm surface hide shallows and reefs that make them some of the most dangerous waters to navigate in the Aegean. The Lefteris Reef is the deadliest of all and the history of its lighthouse stretches back to antiquity and the Greco-Persian wars.
According to experts, the lighthouse is the historic tower built by the Persian Emperor Xerxes, to warn sailors that the strait is virtually impassable, with shallows where even small ships might run aground. According to Herodotus, the Persians lost many ships on the reef as they sailed down the Aegean to conquer ancient Greece. In 480 B.C. Xerxes ordered that a tall tower should be built on the reef and this is considered the most ancient structure to ensure ship safety in the world, built 250 years before the Alexandria Lighthouse.
It was made of dolomite blocks taken from the Sepiada mines in south Pelion, each weighing up to half a tonne, which were piled up to make a stone column. Parts of this structure that later fell into the water were raised by Hellenic Navy divers in 1928 and are now held in the courtyard of the Naval Command building in Piraeus.
Skiathos Mayor Thodoris Tzoumas said the island's authorities were now in contact with the Navy in an effort to highlight the historic significance of the lighthouse and turn it into a "point of reference" for visitors. The site is already a destination for scuba divers, due to two shipwrecks that were claimed by "Lefteris" during the previous century, in spite of the lighthouse's existence.
One is the 60-metre freighter "Vera" that foundered on the reef in 1999 and split into two, sinking to a depth of 17 to 28 metres where it is easily accessible to recreational divers. The second shipwreck, which presents more of a challenge, is the steamship "Volos" that carried out the voyage from Hamburg to Istanbul for many years before it was driven onto the reef during a violent storm, on February 21, 1931.
The ship sank, though the crew were saved and the ship's captain remained on board another three days in an effort to save it. It now lies at a depth of more than 36 metres, while the bow plunges down to 61 metres and more.