The Aegean Sea extends from Crete northward to the shores of Macedonia and Thrace, connecting with the Black Sea to its northeast through the Dardanelles Strait, the Bosporus Strait, and the Sea of Marmara, which lies between the two straits. This configuration means that the Aegean Sea is the only route from the ports of Russia and Ukraine into the Mediterranean and to the rest of the world. The term Aegean Islands technically includes Crete and all the islands in the Aegean Sea between Greece and Turkey. Turkey possesses only two small islands at the northeastern end of the sea. Rights to the seabed and the continental shelf adjoining the islands and the Turkish mainland became a major issue between the two countries in the 1980s.
The islands are geological extensions of the mountains of the Greek mainland, forming regional clusters in the Aegean Sea. (They once formed a land bridge from the mainland to Asia Minor.) The Northern Sporades, off the east coast of the Greek mainland, are administratively part of Thessaly. The Cyclades (Kiklades) are a larger, denser group of twenty-four islands southeast of the Peloponnesus and directly north of Crete. Most of the islands in this archipelago are dry, rocky, and infertile, but two--Naxos (the largest) and Siros (location of the provincial capital, Ermoupolis)--have enough fertile land to grow fruit and vegetables. Naxos has fertile and well-watered valleys as well as the highest elevation among the island group, 1,007 meters. The mostly uninhabited island of Delos (Dilos) around which the Cyclades rotate according to legend, is the mythological birthplace of the god Apollo; it has become an important archeological site and tourist attraction.
East of the Cyclades and closest to the Turkish coast are the Dodecanese (Dodekanisos) Islands, an archipelago including fourteen inhabited and eighteen uninhabited islands that were held by Italy until 1947. (The composition of the group has varied over time, as indicated by the name, which means "the twelve islands"--referring to the inhabited portion of the group.) Except for the two largest islands, Rhodes (Rodos) and Cos (Kos), the islands are deforested and have poor drainage.
Rhodes, the largest and easternmost of the island group, has an area of 540 square kilometers. Lines of hills run parallel from northwest to southeast, perpendicular to a ridge that follows the entire northwest coast, reaching an elevation of 1,200 meters. The inland valleys and coastal plains offer rich land for pasturage and grain cultivation.
A part of the ancient Minoan civilization, Rhodes was an important commercial center under Dorian tribes from the mainland around 1,000 B.C., then again in classical times. A bronze statue of the sun god Helios, often called the Colossus of Rhodes, stood at the harbor entrance of the capital city, Rodos, and was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. An earthquake toppled it in the third century A.D. In the classical period, Rhodes was independent, shifting its loyalty among Athens, Sparta, and Persia. Its most notable role in subsequent history was as an island fortress of the Christian Knights Hospitallers against the Turks between the early fourteenth and early sixteenth centuries. In the twentieth century, tourist trade has made Rhodes prosperous. The island produces mainly wine, grain, and fruit.
Cos has a limestone ridge along its southern coast and a fertile lowland, watered by springs farther inland, along the northern coast. The central lowland also produces fruits, vegetables, olives, and tobacco. The coast provides one usable harbor.
The islands of Samos and Ikaria are located just north of the Dodecanese group; together with a small island group, the Fournoi, between them, they form a single province. Samos is unique among the Greek islands because it is covered with trees; its fertile farmland produces olives and grapes. Ikaria and the Fournoi lack fertile land. The island of Chios (Khios), midway up the Turkish coast, is mostly mountainous, but fertile plains in the south and east allow cultivation of fruit and grapes. Lesbos (Lesvos), Lemnos (Limnos), and Agios Efstratios are the three northernmost Aegean islands. Lesbos, third largest of the Greek islands, has rugged inland terrain with well-irrigated coastal lowlands and foothills where olives are the chief crop. Lemnos, equidistant between the easternmost spur of the Chalkidiki Peninsula and the Turkish mainland, has comparatively flat terrain, but water is scarce and the island is best suited to raising sheep and goats rather than agriculture.