The island is called Saaremaa in Estonian, and in Finnish Saarenmaa — literally "isle's land". In old Scandinavian sagas, Saarema is called Eysysla, 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 German and Swedish, Ösel, Danish, Øsel, 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.
According to archaeological finds, the territory of Saaremaa has been inhabited for at least five thousand years. 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, the King Valdemar II of Denmark built a fortress on the island but they found no volunteers to man it. They burned it themselves and left.
In 1227, Saaremaa was conquered by the Livonian Brothers of the Sword during the Livonian Crusade, but remained a hotbed of Estonian resistance. 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.
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 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 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.
In 1946 Saaremaa was declared a restricted zone, closed to foreigners and to most mainland Estonians. It remained a restricted area until 1989.
The island forms the main barrier between the 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. 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.
More than 10,000 years ago the first parts of Saaremaa arose from the Baltic Ice Dam Lake. The uplift of the earth's crust is continuing even today - 2mm per year. The West - Estonian islands are lowlying plains resting on limestone, their average elevation being about 15 meters above sea level. Limestone has become denuded in a great number of places, resulting in cliffs, limestone pits and quarries at Mustjala, Ninase, Pulli, Uugu and Kaugatuma. 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 which 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 also find broad - leaved (deciduous), which are relict plant communities of former milder climatic periods. Wooded meadows were still 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 which 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 seal is slightly increasing Ringed seals can also 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 within the East - Atlantic flyway, which is the migration path of waterfowl. This "bird - road" connects northeastern Europe with Arctic regions and 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 but infrequent guests.
Kaali is a small group of nine unique meteorite craters on Saaremaa. The largest of the craters measures 110 meters in diameter and contains a small lake (known as Kaali järv (Lake Kaali)). The meteor cluster had an impact velocity of 10-20 km/s and a mass of 20-80 tons. At the altitude of 5-10 km the meteor broke into pieces. The largest fragment produced the main crater with a depth of 22 m. Eight smaller craters with diameters ranging from 12 to 40 m and depths varying from 1 to 4 m are all within 1 kilometer of the main crater. The explosion that caused the craters is estimated to have happened 660 ± 85 B.C. (Holocene). The energy of the impact (about 80 TJ (20 kilotons of TNT), comparable with the Hiroshima bomb) burned forests within a radius of 6 km.
The majority of the population is Estonian (97%). The biggest minority nationality is Russian, equaling 2% of the inhabitants. Compared to the Republic of Estonia on the whole, the population of Saaremaa 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.
Saaremaa is reached by ferry from Virtsu on the Estonian mainland to 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. In summer it is also possible to reach Saaremaa by ferry from Ventspils in Latvia. This service started in 2005 and is run by SSC Ferries
In winter it is possible to drive to Saaremaa by an ice road between the mainland and Muhu.
There are regular bus services from Tallinn, Pärnu and Tartu on the mainland, which use the ferry from Virtsu to Muhu. There is an airport at Kuressaare. It is possible to fly from Kuressaare to Tallinn by Estonian Air, and there are also seasonal flights to Pärnu and Stockholm. The Latvian airline AirBaltic (part of SAS Group), as well as Finnair subsidiary Aero Airlines , operate seasonal flights to Riga and Helsinki respectively during the summer season. There was an air base at Aste during the Cold War.
Saaremaa competes in the biannual Island Games.