Saaremaa (Estonian pronunciation: [ˈsɑːremɑː]; Danish:
Øsel; English (esp. traditionally): Osel; Finnish: Saarenmaa;
Swedish & German: Ösel) is the largest island in Estonia,
measuring 2,673 km2 (1,032 sq mi). The main island
of Saare County, it is located in the Baltic Sea, south of Hiiumaa
island and west of
Muhu island, and belongs to the West Estonian
Archipelago. The capital of the island is Kuressaare, which has about
15,000 inhabitants; the whole island has over 30,966 inhabitants. It
is believed by some scholars to have been the historic Ultima
3.2 Kaali Meteorite
7 Famous residents
10 See also
12 Further reading
13 External links
The island is called
Saaremaa in Estonian, and in Finnish
Saarenmaa — literally "isle land" or "island land". In old
Saaremaa is called Eysysla and in the Icelandic
Sagas Eysýsla, which means exactly the same as the name of the island
in Estonian: "the district (land) of island". This is the origin of
the island's name in Danish Øsel, German and Swedish, Ösel, Gutnish
Oysl, and in Latin, Osilia. The name Eysysla appears sometimes
together with Adalsysla, "the big land", perhaps 'Suuremaa' or 'Suur
Maa' in Estonian, which refers to mainland Estonia. In Latvian, the
island is called Sāmsala, which means "the island of Saami".
Main article: History of Estonia
See also: Oeselians
Old Coat of arms of Danish
According to archaeological finds, the territory of
Saaremaa has been
inhabited from at least 5,000 years BCE. Pre-Viking age Salme ship
burials have been found in Sõrve Peninsula. Sagas talk about numerous
skirmishes between islanders and Vikings.
Saaremaa was the wealthiest
county of ancient
Estonia and the home of notorious Estonian pirates,
sometimes called the Eastern Vikings. The Chronicle of Henry of
Livonia describes a fleet of sixteen ships and five hundred Osilians
ravaging the area that is now southern Sweden, then belonging to
Denmark. In 1206, King Valdemar II of
Denmark built a fortress on the
island but found no volunteers to man it. The Danes burned it
themselves and left.
Probably around 1000,
Gunnar Hámundarson from Iceland took part in a
Viking raid at Eysýsla (Saaremaa). There he obtained his famous
atgeir, by taking it from a man named Hallgrímur.
Njáls saga tells
Thence they held on south to
Denmark and thence east to Smálönd and
had victory wherever they went. They did not come back in autumn. The
next summer they held on to Rafala (Tallinn) and fell in there with
sea-rovers, and fought at once, and won the fight. After that they
steered east to Eysýsla (Saaremaa) and lay there somewhile under a
ness. There they saw a man coming down from the ness above them;
Gunnar went on shore to meet the man, and they had a talk. Gunnar
asked him his name, and he said it was Tófi. Gunnar asked again what
"Thee I want to see," says the man. "Two warships lie on the other
side under the ness, and I will tell thee who command them: two
brothers are the captains — one's name is Hallgrímur, and the
other's Kolskeggur. I know them to be mighty men of war; and I know
too that they have such good weapons that the like are not to be had.
Hallgrímur has an atgeir which he had made by seething-spells; and
this is what the spells say, that no weapon shall give him his
death-blow save that atgeir. That thing follows it too that it is
known at once when a man is to be slain with that atgeir, for
something sings in it so loudly that it may be heard a long way
off — such a strong nature has that atgeir in it.
Kuressaare Castle (Arensburg)
Saaremaa was conquered by the Livonian Brothers of the Sword
Livonian Crusade but remained a hotbed of Estonian
resistance. The crusaders founded the
Bishopric of Ösel-Wiek
Bishopric of Ösel-Wiek there.
When the Order was defeated by the Lithuanian army in the Battle of
Saule in 1236, the
Saaremaa islanders rebelled. The conflict was ended
by a treaty that was signed by the Osilians and the Master of the
Order. In the following year, the Sword-Brothers were absorbed into
the Teutonic Order. As the crusaders' hold on
Saaremaa got stronger,
Christianity also became more established on the island, and to this
Saaremaa has a unique set of medieval churches in Kaarma, Karja,
Kihelkonna, Muhu, Pöide, Püha and Valjala churches. The crusader's
Kuressaare Castle, known in German as Schloss Arensburg, was
built by the Teutonic Order, beginning in 1380, for the bishops of
Ösel-Wieck (Estonian: Saare-Lääne). It is one of the most
well-preserved medieval castles in
Estonia and bears testimony to the
late Medieval Age.
During the 14th–16th centuries, and possibly earlier, local
inhabitants started to expand across the
Baltic Sea into surrounding
areas thus establishing villages at Livonian coast.
Saaremaa was ruled directly by the Bishopric of Ösel-Wiek,
while some parts were enfeoffed to the Livonian Order. In 1559, the
Saaremaa were sold to Denmark, becoming part of Danish
Estonia. From 1570 until 1645 the entire island was under Danish
Saaremaa was ceded from
Sweden by the Treaty of
Brömsebro. In 1721, along with the rest of Livonia,
known by its Swedish name of Ösel) was ceded to the
Russian Empire by
the Treaty of Nystad, becoming a part of the Governorate of Livonia.
In 1840 the first spa opened in
Kuressaare (then known as Arensburg),
and the town experienced renaissance and became a resort for Russians
and Baltic Germans.
In World War I, the Estonian islands were conquered by Imperial German
Army in October 1917 and remained occupied (Operation Albion) until
the end of hostilities.
Estonia became independent after the October
Revolution and the collapse of the Russian Empire. As a result of the
Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the new state was incorporated into the
Soviet Union in June 1940 as the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic.
Most of the
Baltic German population of the island was evacuated to
Germany following the Pact. The island was occupied by Nazi
1941 (Operation Beowulf); German troops remained there until expelled
Red Army in the
Moonzund Landing Operation
Moonzund Landing Operation in October and
November 1944. In 1946,
Saaremaa was declared a restricted zone,
closed to foreigners and to most mainland Estonians. It remained a
restricted area until 1989.
Estonian independence was regained on 20 August 1991, in the
dissolution of the Soviet Union.
The island forms the main barrier between the
Gulf of Riga
Gulf of Riga and the
Baltic Sea. To the south of it is the main passage out of the gulf,
the Irbe Strait, next to Sõrve Peninsula, the southernmost portion of
the island. In Medieval times islanders crossed the strait to form
fishing villages on the Livonian coast, notably Pitrags. In those days
it was easier and quicker to cross the strait towards nearby Kolka,
Saunags or Mazirbe, than travel by horse large distances inland. The
highest point on the island is 54 m above sea level. One particularly
interesting feature found on the island is the Kaali crater. The
island has lots of forested terrain. One of the symbols of the island
is the juniper.
Shore of Saaremaa, by Estonian artist
Konrad Mägi (1913-1914).
More than 10,000 years ago the first parts of
Saaremaa arose from the
Baltic Ice Lake. The uplift of the Earth's crust is continuing even
today, at 2 millimetres (0.079 in) per year. The West Estonian
islands are lowlying plains resting on limestone, their average
elevation being about 15 metres (49 ft) above sea level.
Limestone has become denuded in a great number of places, resulting in
cliffs, limestone pits and quarries at Mustjala, Ninase, Pulli, Üügu
Because of its mild maritime climate and a variety of soils, Saaremaa
has a rich flora, illustrated by the fact that 80% of the plant
species found in
Estonia are represented here. Altogether 1200 species
of vascular plants can be found in Saaremaa. About 120 of the local
plant species are rare ones that have received special protection
status. The most famous endemic species is Rhinanthus osiliensis, a
rare little flower growing mostly in spring fens. Rare and beautiful
flowers are widespread; out of the 36 species found in Estonia, 35 of
them are found on
Saaremaa and neighbouring islands.
Over 40% of
Saaremaa is covered with forests. They are mostly mixed
forests but in some areas one can find broad-leaved (deciduous) trees,
which are relict plant communities of former milder climatic periods.
Wooded meadows were common in
Saaremaa before World War II, but many
of these unique natural complexes have gradually become overgrown and
thus turned into the ordinary forest. The same is true for alvars
(limestone areas covered with thin soil and stunted vegetation). Once
a typical and exclusive landscape element in
Saaremaa alvars are now
in decline. Nature conservation planning for
Saaremaa now includes
protection of the largest and most unusual alvar areas.
Saaremaa has a wide variety of rare wildlife species, ranging from
insects to seals. The smallest protected wildlife species include
Cloude Apolle butterflies and Roman snails.
The coastal areas of
Saaremaa are famous seal habitats. The gray seal
that is common here can be found in three large permanent resting
areas on the islets off the coast in the western and southern parts of
Saaremaa. The local population of grey seals is slightly increasing.
Ringed seals can be encountered everywhere in the coastal waters of
Saaremaa but, because of their timidity, it has not been possible to
make an estimation of their number.
The islands lie in the East Atlantic Flyway, a migration path of
waterfowl. This "bird road" connects northeastern Europe with Arctic
regions. Each year hundreds of thousands of migratory birds visit
Saaremaa in spring and autumn. The barnacle goose, mute swan, whooper
swan, eider, shelduck and a great many other bird species have been
given protection status. But on the whole, the islands are somewhat
poorer in wildlife species than the mainland. Neither mole, mink, nor
otter can be found here, the lynx and the brown bear are infrequent
The nearly circular main Kaali meteorite crater
Main article: Kaali crater
Kaali is a small group of nine unique meteorite craters on Saaremaa.
The largest of the craters measures 110 metres (360 ft) in
diameter and contains a small lake, known as Kaali järv ("Lake
Kaali"). The meteor cluster had an impact velocity of 10–20
kilometres per second (6–12 mi/s) and a mass of 20–80 tons.
At the altitude of 5–10 kilometres (3–6 mi) the meteor broke
into pieces. The largest fragment produced the main crater with a
depth of 22 metres (72 ft). Eight smaller craters with diameters
ranging from 12 to 40 metres (39 to 131 ft) and depths varying
from 1 to 4 metres (3 to 13 ft) are all within 1 kilometre
(0.62 mi) of the main crater. The age estimates of the crater
vary, with 4000 ± 1000 BCE being a commonly accepted estimate,
though other estimates suggest the explosion was as recent as 660 ±
85 BCE. The energy of the impact — about 80 TJ (20 kilotons
of TNT), comparable with the Hiroshima bomb) — burned forests
within a radius of 6 kilometres (3.7 mi). There are numerous
legends related to the crater; these are summarized by
Lennart Meri in
his book Hõbevalge.
Dolomite, limestone, curative mud, mineral water, sand and gravel,
ceramic clay are the major local minerals. Of these local resources
the dolomite is perhaps the most famous above all.
Mihkli Farm Museum in Viki village.
The majority of the population is Estonian (97%). The biggest minority
nationality is Russian, comprising 2% of the inhabitants. Compared to
the Republic of
Estonia on the whole, the population of Saare County
and particularly of
Kuressaare town is younger, whereas the number of
the retired people is considerably smaller.
Saaremaa is located in the
centre of the Baltic region with the most rapidly growing market in
Europe containing 70 million consumers. Gates to the West include not
only the newly reconstructed
Kuressaare Airport and Roomassaare Port,
the operation of modern ferries between
Saaremaa and the mainland but
also the rapid development of the telecommunications, highly important
for the island.
Saaremaa is a tourist destination, revisited by 35% of
foreign and 95% of domestic tourists.
Saaremaa has an
entrepreneur-friendly, safe, and strain-free economic environment.
A typical road on Western Saaremaa
Saaremaa is reached by TS Laevad's ferries from
Virtsu on the Estonian
Muhu island, which is itself connected to
Saaremaa by a causeway, the Väinatamm.
Saaremaa can also be reached
by ferry from
Sõru on the island of
Hiiumaa to Triigi. There are also
passenger services from Roomassaare to the smaller island of Abruka.
During many winters it is possible to drive to
Saaremaa by an ice road
between the mainland and
Muhu or between
Saaremaa and the island of
There are regular bus services from Tallinn,
Tartu on the
mainland, which use the ferry from
Virtsu to Muhu.
There is an airport at
Kuressaare with regular flights to Tallinn
operated by Transaviabaltika. In the summer season there are regular
Pärnu operated by Luftverkehr Friesland Harle,
and a twice weekly service to
Stockholm operated by Estonian Air.
Historically there was a Soviet air base at Aste during the Cold War.
Plans to connect
Saaremaa to the mainland either by the Saaremaa
Saaremaa Tunnel are being studied.
Kuressaare competes in the first tier of Estonian football, the
Saaremaa competes in the biannual
There are three main international traditional sport events in
Saaremaa Rally takes place every year in October and attracts
thousands of rally fans. The first rally was an amateur competition
and it took place in 1974. The first professional competition took
place in 1975 and from 1993 the rally has been international.
Saaremaa Velotuur is a group race of road cyclists that is oldest in
the Nordic countries (held since 1957) and the only international one
in the Baltic states.
Saaremaa 3-day running marathon takes place on the roads around
Kuressaare town and Sõrve peninsula. Main race consist of three
different runs, which are held on three sequential days
(10+16,195+16=42,195 km). The first marathon was held in
Louis Kahn, one of the most influential architects of the mid-20th
century, spent his childhood in Saaremaa
Hannibal Sehested (1609–1666), Danish diplomat.
Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen
Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen (1778–1852) lead of the second
expedition to successfully cross the
Antarctic Circle and likely first
to see continent of Antarctica.
Louis Isadore Kahn
Louis Isadore Kahn (1901–1974) was born on
Saaremaa to Leopold and
Bertha Kahn. One of the most influential architects of the mid-20th
Paul Friidrih Saagpakk (1910-1996) was born in Mustjala. He wrote the
largest Estonian-English dictionary published in 1982.
Saaremaa has more spas than anywhere else in Estonia.
The cliffs near the village of Panga on the north coast of Saaremaa
Women in traditional
Saaremaa dress performing a folk dance
Monument to the mythological giant
Suur Tõll and his wife Piret in
Kuressaare Castle in winter
World War II
World War II memorial, Tehumardi, Saaremaa
Historic buildings near the center of Kuressaare
Farmhouse in Järveküla
Tagalaht Bay panorama
Kihelkonna St. Michael's Church
Karja Church in the village of Linnaka
Angla windmills in Leisi Parish
Kiipsaare leaning lighthouse
Lighthouse at Sõrve Peninsula
Kaarma ring fort
Red deer in winter in Leisi Parish
List of islands of Estonia
List of islands in the Baltic Sea
Extreme points of Europe
Œsel (Œselia), ancient Estonian independent eldership
in the present territory of Saare County
4163 Saaremaa, asteroid
^ Rand McNally and Company's Enlarged Business Atlas and Shippers
Guide. Rand McNally and Company. 1893.
^ Official Web page of Saaremaa
^ a b Toomse, Liine. "10 Estonian Islands You Should Visit."
Retrieved 8 March 2016.
Saaremaa County – nature
^ "Kaalijärv". Earth Impact Database. University of New Brunswick.
^ a b Veski, Siim; Heinsalu, Atko; Kirsimäe, Kalle; Poska, Anneli;
Saarse, Leili (2001). "Ecological catastrophe in connection with the
impact of the Kaali meteorite about 800–400 B.C. on the island of
Saaremaa, Estonia" (PDF). Meteoritics & Planetary Science. 36 (3):
Saaremaa County – resources
Saaremaa County – population
Saaremaa Rally homepage http://www.saaremaarally.eu
Saaremaa Velotuur homepage http://www.saaremaavelotuur.ee/
Saaremaa 3-day running marathon homepage
Taylor, N. with Karin T (2008). Saaremaa: a History and Travel Guide.
Tallinn: OÜ Greif. ISBN 978-9985-3-1606-1
Geotourism highlights of the
Hiiumaa islands (2009) (23
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Saaremaa.
Wikivoyage has a travel guide for Saaremaa.
Saaremaa at Curlie (based on DMOZ)
Saaremaa for tourists. Photos and stories.
Saaremaa - Official Tourism page of Saaremaa
Neomobile provide local bus services across the island
Estonian Air fly between
Tallinn and Kuressaare
Saaremaa online via webcam
Islands of Estonia
Gulf of Finland
Pakri Islands (Suur-Pakri, Väike-Pakri)
West Estonian archipelago
Gulf of Riga
Lakes and rivers
Bold marks populated islands.
Inhabited islands in the Baltic Sea
Archipelago Sea Islands (Åland Islands)