Saaremaa 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 in January 2018 had 13,276 inhabitants. The whole island had a recorded population in January 2020 of 31,435.

Remnants of Valjala Stronghold
The 1241 Treaty between Livonian Order, Bishopric of Ösel–Wiek and Oeselians at National Archives of Sweden

According to archaeological finds, the territory of Saaremaa has been inhabited from at least 5000 BCE.[1] Nordic Iron Age ship burials, dated to AD 700–750, have been found in Sõrve Peninsula. Sagas talk about numerous skirmishes between islanders and Vikings. Saaremaa was the wealthiest county of ancient Estonia[citation needed] and the home of notorious 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.

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 the following:

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 he wanted. "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.

The Chronicle of Henry of Livonia describes a fleet of sixteen ships and five hundred pirates from Saaremaa ravaging the area that is now southern Sweden, then belonging to Denmark. The XIVth book of Gesta Danorum, Saxo Grammaticus describes a subsequent battle on Öland in 1170 in which the Danish king Valdemar I mobilized his entire fleet to curb the incursions of pirates from "Couronia" (Courland) and Saaremaa.

Perhaps the most renowned raid by the inhabitants of Saaremaa occurred in 1187, with the attack on the Swedish town of Sigtuna (other candidates as raiders are Karelians and Curonians). Among the casualties of this raid was the Swedish archbishop Johannes. Archaeological excavations have not verified the traditions of destruction of the town. Normal life in Sigtuna continued until town started to slowly lose its importance during 13th century due to navigability problems caused by post-glacial rebound.[2]

In 1227, Saaremaa was conquered by the Livonian Brothers of the Sword during the Livonian Crusade but the resistance of the local inhabitants remained strong. The crusaders founded the 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 day Saaremaa has a unique set of medieval churches in Kaarma, Karja, Kihelkonna, Muhu, Pöide, Püha and Valjala churches. The crusader's fortress Kuressaare Castle, known in German as Schloss Arensburg, was built by the Teutonic Order for the bishops of Ösel–Wiek (Estonian: Saare-Lääne). Construction began in 1380 and 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 on the Livonian coast.

Most of Saaremaa was ruled directly by the Bishopric of Ösel–Wiek, while some parts were enfeoffed to the Livonian Order. In 1559, the bishopric and Saaremaa were sold to Denmark, becoming part of Danish Estonia. From 1570 until 1645 the entire island was under Danish possession.

In 1645, Saaremaa was ceded from Denmark to Sweden by the Treaty of Brömsebro. In 1721, along with the rest of Livonia, Saaremaa (then 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 (Operation Albion) and remained occupied by Germans until the end of hostilities in November 1918. Thereafter Saaremaa became part of the newly independent Republic of Estonia. Most of the local Baltic German population of the island was resettled to Germany following the August 1939 Nazi–Soviet Pact. During World War II, the island was first occupied by the Soviet Red Army in June 1940 and, along with the rest of Estonian territory, formally annexed into the Stalinist USSR in August 1940. The island was then invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany in 1941 (Operation Beowulf). German troops were expelled and the island was reoccupied by the Soviet Red Army in the Moonzund Landing Operation in October and November 1944. In 1946, the Soviet military authorities declared Saaremaa a restricted zone closed to all non-local civilians, i.e., mainland Estonians and foreigners. It remained a restricted area until 1989. Estonia regained independence in August 1991.

^ "Saaremaa esimesed asukad |". ^ Enn Tarvel (2007). [1] Archived 2017-10-11 at the Wayback Machine Sigtuna hukkumine. Haridus, 2007 (7-8), p 38–41
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