Category Archives: Crete

The legacy of the conquerers

“One by one for thousands of years the great powers of the known world  have all fought in turn to control an island, the possession of which has usually coincided with the zenith of the controlling power and the loss of which has marked that power’s lapse” Dan Davin The Battle of Crete.

A Byzantine dome n a Cretan church.
A Byzantine dome n a Cretan church.

By the first century AD, Crete had already seen the great Minoan, Mycenean, Dorian, Hellenic and Roman civilisations rise and fall.

When Rome fell, in 69 AD, Crete became part of the mighty Byzantine Empire. In 824, the Egyptians took possession of the island, and under Arab Abu Hafs, it became a pirate outpost. In 951 it was taken again by the Byzantines. Then, in 1204 it was sold to the Venetians. Finally, 1645 it became part of the Ottoman Empire. It took Crete almost two hundred years to win independence  and to become, if not their own nation, then at least part of Greece. But, barely a century later, after the terrible battle of May, 1941, it was occupied again, this time by the Nazis.

All these powers have left their mark on Crete, both on the land and on its architecture. The ruins of the Kingdom of Minos lie at Knossos, Phaestos and Archanes in the prefecture of Heraklion. Nearby are the remains of the ancient Roman town of Gortys.

The Byzantine legacy is written into many of Crete’s buildings, particularly its churches.

Fragments of Egyptians temples to the gods Isis and Sarapis stand among the ruins of  Gortys.  A forest of 5000 date palms surrounds the golden beach at Vai, 160 kilometres from Heraklion on the eastern edge of the island. Legend has it that the palms grew from the seeds of dates that Arab pirates tossed away when they camped in the bay.

The beautiful harbour and dockyards at Chania mark the time when the Venetian navy ruled the Mediterranean from Crete.

The ghosts of the forces who battled for Crete in 1941, linger in the graveyards of Maleme and Souda Bay.

The most important legacy of these thousands of years of occupation, however, is stamped on the character and the spirit of the Cretan people, who, throughout, have held fast to their integrity and their pride in their own unique culture.

 

 

Roman Crete

Less than an hour from Heraklion lie the ruins of Gortys. Built in the first century BC, when Crete became part of the mighty Roman Empire, it was, at the time, the island’s capital city, with a population of over 200,000 people.

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It is clear from the Roman  ruins at Gortys, that this was no mere outpost, but a rich and sophisticated city, with a grand praetorium or Governor’s residence,  temples, including a Nymphaeon dedicated solely to the worship of nymphs and , of course, an amphitheatre.

The most important find, here, though is the Code of Gortys. Inscribed on the curved walls of the ancient town’s auditorium and able to be read by all citizens, the Code outlines regulations on family, moral, inheritance and political issues. Of the original 640 lines, 605 are still visible. The Code of Gortys was quoted in Plato’s Laws and is the foundation of modern, western law.

Roman rule on Crete was relatively short lived and not long into the first century AD, Rome fell and Crete with it, leaving the way clear for another power to seize and occupy this lovely land.

Ancient Crete

“Out in the wine dark sea there lies a land called Crete, a rich and lovely land, washed by waves on every side, densely populated and boasting ninety cities”. Homer The Odyssey. Book 19 172-174.

View,  from the Cave of Saint John the Hermit, across the olive plantations to the sea, Crete
View, from the Cave of Saint John the Hermit, across the olive plantations to the sea, Crete

While Homer may have taken poet’s license in his description, Crete was, by all accounts, in ancient times, a rich and lovely land. It was a land blessed with great natural wealth – wood, stone, fertile pastures and sheep. But more important by far than the riches of the Cretan soil or the loveliness of the land, was its position. Situated in the very in the centre of the Eastern Mediterranean, it had access by sea to every corner of the known world.

Somewhere around 3400 BC, King Minos came to power. Son of the god Zeus and Europa, Minos brought great wisdom and vision to his reign and Minoan Crete was peaceful and prosperous. Mighty palace complexes were constructed, at Knossos and Phaestos, for Minos and his brother Radamanthys, respectively. The Minoan Navy reigned supreme in the Aegean and its merchant vessels roamed unchallenged, trading pottery and cloth along the Mediterranean shores.

For over 2000 years Crete was the cradle of Western of Western civilisation. Later, historians  and archaeologists would describe the era of the Minoans as a “golden age”.

It soon became clear, though, that the power that held Crete, held sway over the known world. The tiny island became a much-coveted prize.

In 1375 BC, the Myceneans of mainland Greece invaded Crete and the rich Minoan culture was destroyed. In 1100, the Dorians seized it from the Myceneans and Crete became one of the Greek states. Then  Greece, with the jewel of the Mediterranean in its crown, entered its golden age.

Nikos Kazantzakis, a great man of Crete

Beginning with Zeus, the supreme deity of the Greek Pantheon, and continuing down to the present day, Crete has given birth to a long line of greats. Nikos Kazantzkis, creator of the legendary Zorba the Greek, is one of them.

A village in Crete
A village in Crete

Born in 1884 in Heraklion, Kazantzakis grew up in the years when Turkey held sway in Crete. It was a time marked by intense revolutionary fever against the Ottoman oppressor, as well as fierce pride in all things Cretan.

Kazanzakis left Heraklion to study in Athens and then in Paris. As a student he developed an interest in philosophy, classical literature, religion and politics.  Later, the works of  Nietsche and Bergson  would profoundly influence his writing.  Christ, Buddha, Ulysses and Lenin were also great sources of inspiration in his work.

When he  finished his studies Kazantzakis  travelled widely and began to write. He  was a prolific writer and his works included poetry, plays, travel impressions and translations of Goethe, Dante and Homer.  It was his novels, however, that were to bring him world fame.

The most celebrated of Kazantzakis’ novels is Zorba the Greek. Zorba depicts life in Crete as it was in the early 20th century and through its title character, it shows the indomitable spirit, passion for life and grass-roots wisdom of the Cretan people of that time. A 1960s film, starring Anthony Quin, brought Zorba to the world, along with beautiful Greek music and a sane, simple message for a world growing rapidly crazier and more complex

Other novels by Nikos Kazantzakis include; The Last Temptation of Christ, El Greco, Captain Michaelis and The Greek Passion

A taste of Cretan Raki

No traveller to Crete can claim to have fully experienced the country without sampling a convivial shot of the national drink, tsipouro or tsikoudia, otherwise known as raki. Dubbed Cretan fire-water because of its swift, sometimes even dramatic effects, this potent liquor is distilled from wine-must, or the dregs of grapes which remain after the wine is made.

A Rakizio, or, Raki still,  on a farm near Vouves in Crete
A Rakizio, or, Raki still, on a farm near Vouves in Crete

Greek raki originated in a monastery in Macedonia in the fourteenth century. Gradually, the secrets of production and the delightful effects of the drink spread throughout Greece and across the Aegean Sea into Crete.

Many small villages in Crete still have their Rakizio, or distilleries, and the process of producing raki remains pretty the same as it was when the Macedonian monks passed it on. First of all, after the  grapes are harvested and processed, the must is collected in large tank and left in the full sun for four weeks. At the end of the month it is brought in to the Rakizio to be distilled. Distillation takes about three hours and the end product is a strong-flavoured clear liquid with an alcohol content of 40% or more.

Back home on the farm, the vintage is celebrated with a family feast. Needless to say, a great deal of new raki goes down in the celebration.

The very best of Cretan raki comes out of the village distilleries and it is said that good pure raki is hangover-free. However, novice drinkers are warned to take it slowly as the risk of throwing up or falling down is high. Furthermore, as it is impolite to refuse the offer of a re-fill, it is wise not to empty your glass too often!

The Vouves Olive Tree

Hidden away among the olive plantations in western Crete is the little village of Vouves. There isn’t  a great deal in Vouves, just a Kafenion, and a cluster of houses drawn in around a central square.  In the middle of that square, however, is one of the world’s oldest olive trees.

The Vouves Olive Tree
The Vouves Olive Tree

Opinion varies on the actual age of the Vouves olive tree. Scientists from the University of Crete estimate that it is 4000 years old, while arborists, using ring bark analysis, put it at 2000.

Whatever its years, age has not wearied or diminished the Vouves olive. It stands firm, strong and proud at the heart of the village. Its gnarled trunk measures a massive 12.5 metres and its leaves are thick and lush.  Most incredibly, though, it still produces olives.

The Cave of St John, the Hermit

From a rugged hillside in Western Crete, the Cave of St John the hermit looks out over endless olive plantations to the sea.

Even without its icons, its altar, its lingering perfume of incense and beeswax candles and the saintly presence of the old priest in his sandals and coarse brown robe, it has the unmistakable feel of a holy place. There’s something about it that compels the visitor to hush and be still.  Even when the famous “Little fun Train” chugs in and unloads a rowdy troop of tourists, a sense of peace prevails.

The Cave of St John the hermit
The Cave of St John the hermit

 

The cave has always been a place of prayer and refuge, where the ancient gods were worshipped and where pilgrims were sheltered and restored.

After they were converted to Christianity, the faithful of the region gathered in the cave for mass. In the 16th century, a hermit named John  and his followers, known as the 98 Fathers of Crete, moved into the cave. They built a church and a monastery which offered a place of prayer, refuge and healing. It was Saint John who uncovered the miraculous spring which trickles from a rock near the cave and which, over the centuries has effected countless cures.

Every year, holy water from the spring is distributed to thousands of Christians on the Festival of Saint John the Hermit in October and on Christmas Eve.

Daily masses are held in the small church of Saint Spyridon, in the north eastern corner of the cave. Special celebrations take place on  the Feast of Saint Spyridon in July  and at Christmas.

Today, at the Cave of Saint John the Hermit, a reconstructed monastery offers spiritual sanctuary to modern pilgrims, welcoming “free of charge any goodwilling man … who would want to pray, confess, meditate, rest and re-baptise to the teachings of Orthodox Christianity” (Brochure of the Holy Metropolis of Kisamou and Selimou)

There are daily masses in the small church of Saint Spyridon, in the north eastern corner of the cave. Special celebrations take place on  the Feast of Saint Spyridon in July  and at Christmas.

 

 

The people you meet in Crete; Dimitrios

Commonwealth war graves at Souda Bay, Crete
Commonwealth war graves at Souda Bay, Crete

Just beyond the gate to the Commonwealth War Cemetery, at Souda Bay, sheltered behind a hedge, is a makeshift cafe. There’s a little fat squat, round shouldered caravan and in the shade of a tree, a couple of plastic picnic tables. A man leans on from the open window in the side of the caravan.

“Come in! Come in!” he shouts cheerfully. “Beer! Coca! Come on! Come on!”

We turn in through hedge. It would be churlish to decline. The man settles us quickly at a table,  then joins us with a round of Mythos.

This is Dimitrios. He’s thin, rangy, with sparse grey hair, small sharp eyes, a smile that never fades andand endless fund of stories. Born and raised around Chania, he was a boy when war broke out. He remembers the days when the Allied forces gathered on the island and the morning when the sky filled with German paratroopers. He lives in the house up the hill now. It was his wife’s family’s house. During the war it was requisitioned by the German Commander. When the Commander was kidnapped and smuggled off the island, by the Cretan Resistance, his pistols were left behind and they remain, to this day, Dimitrios tells us with a laugh, under his bed!

As a young man, Dimitrios was a seaman. He travelled the world, even to New Zealand! He sees many New Zealanders here. They come to visit the graves. They all come to his cafe too.

“Ah Maleme!” says Dimitrios, as a tiny white goat trots out from behind the caravan,   “Some New  Zealand girls gave her that name. They came to see their Uncle over there!” and he gestures away over the hedge towards the graves that lie in neat ranks beside the sea.

The War Graves of Crete, the villages

In villages all over the island, lie the graves of the Cretans who gave their lives in the brief but bitter Battle for Crete and in the long, dark, dreadful years that followed it.

A village church, Crete
A village church, Crete

When the Nazi paratroopers dropped down on Crete in May, 1941, most of the able bodied men of the island were away fighting on mainland Greece. Undeterred by the impossible odds they faced, every remaining man, including old men and youths, armed themselves with whatever weapon they could find – ancient rifles, hunting knives, spades and sticks – and sprang to the defence of their villages.

At strategic Kastelli Hill this band of citizen warriors, with their makeshift weapons, held the invaders at bay. When the Allies were defeated and the order to retreat was given, a small force of young Cretans, Gendarmes and cadets drove the pursuing Nazis back and safeguarded their escape. Their bravery and heroism led  Winston Churchill to remark  “Hence we shall not say that Greeks fight like heroes but that heroes fight like Greeks”

So determined was the resistance of the Cretan citizens, that when Crete finally fell, on May 29,  4,000 paratroopers had lost their lives and it had taken the Nazis longer to conquer this small island than it had to occupy the whole of France.

For the people of Crete the war against the Nazis did not end with the Allied evacuation.  They refused to accept the conquest, and a fierce resistance movement arose in the villages and  mountains. The Nazis responded brutally; there were mass executions and villages were burnt to the ground but the Cretan people never gave in.  At one point there were 75,000 Nazi toops on Crete, but they never quelled the resistance. .

Over 8,500 Cretan men women and children had lost their lives before the Nazis were driven from their land.

 

The War graves of Crete, Souda Bay

Out on the edge of the sea beyond Chania, set between the outstretched arms of two rocky cliffs, is Souda Bay Cemetary, the resting place of the 1500 allied soldiers, sailors and airmen who lost their lives in battles to defend Hill 101, Maleme Airfield and Galatos. Among them lie those who were left behind to perish in prisoner of war camps or who fought with the Cretan Resistance and were executed alongside them .

The Commonwealth Cemetery at Souda Bay
The Commonwealth Cemetery at Souda Bay

Ranks of white gravestones stand to perpetual attention, on a parade ground of perfect green lawn. They look out beyond the trees, to where yachts blow across the impossibly blue water.   At the foot of each grave red roses and rosemary bloom. Carved on each headstone is a fragment of a story, a name, a rank, a serial number, a regiment, a religious symbol or the simple, poignant phrase,  “known only unto God”

Outside Souda Bay cemetery, in a small gatehouse, is a type of tabernacle, with a book, listing the names of all who are buried here. I recognise many – famous names, whose stories of bravery and heroism I know. I recognise family names  from home in Aotearoa, New Zealand.

Outside this graveyard too, display boards tell the story of the  Battle for Crete – this time from the Allies side. Days before the German invasion, Allied intelligence had cracked the German enigma code and uncovered the operation they called Mercury, so they were prepared for the invasion. It should have been an easy victory, but it was not.  Broken supply and communication routes in the first crucial days saw the loss of Hill 101 and the Airfield at Maleme. After that, troops, already battle weary from their disastrous campaign in Greece, and depleted of ammunition could not hold back the onslaught.

As well as the story of the Allies, the boards tell of the bravery of the Cretan and the Greek people, who fought relentlessly for years to defend and free their land. The story ends with Winston Churchill’s tribute “From this day forward let it be said not that Greeks fight like heroes but that heroes fight like Greeks”