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EASTERN CRETE

Discover the unknown Crete. Easter Crete, Book one G&A MAMIDAKIS FOUNDATION

Discover the unknown Crete. Easter Crete, Book one

G&A MAMIDAKIS FOUNDATION

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The G. & A. Mamidakis Foundation, has for two decades

now made ongoing efforts to present to the public major

cultural events, always directly related to Tourism.

Taking as our point of departure our native island of Crete,

a crossroads of cultures from East and West, we have

sought to propose seminal exhibitions of Greek and

international Contemporary Art for art lovers.

Perhaps unique for the 48 sculptures on display in its

gardens, the MINOS BEACH ART HOTEL boasts of a

substantial collection of works by leading Greek and

international artists.

Continuing our cultural activities today, we have

established, illustrated, documented and explored

untrodden paths of Eastern Crete in a tasty 144-page

catalogue titled:

Awake your Senses

Discover the unknown Crete

Eastern Crete - book one

We trust that the publication of these practical catalogues,

which also provide information about other unknown

destinations-monasteries, archaeological sites-will enable

modern-day travellers to experience another side of Crete,

the authentic, unexplored inland regions of the island, just

like the international travellers who discovered and

recorded the charms of our land in the 17th and 18th

centuries.

Gina Mamidakis

President

G. & A. Mamidakis Foundation


JUDITH LANGE MARIA STEFOSSI

awake your senses

DISCOVER THE UNKNOWN CRETE

Eastern Crete - Book One

Publication of this book has been made possible thanks to Gina

Mamidakis, President of the G.& A. Foundation and bluegr Mamidakis

Hotels group, and long-time patron of culture and the arts. The book is

dedicated to those ever-curious travellers who wish to learn more of

the beautiful region of eastern Crete.

© copyright text and photographs by Judith Lange - Maria Stefossi

© copyright edition by the G.& A. Foundation and bluegr Mamidakis hotels group.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without written

permission from the authors.


4


Crete is the island of which Homer sang, "Along the winedark

sea, by water ringed, there lies a land both fair and

fertile", a mysterious and magical land, source of the myths

of the Greek world. Zeus, king of the gods of the ancient

Greeks, was born in a grotto here, and it was here too that

he died and came back to life.

This book tells of the beauty of eastern Crete, of the

Prefecture of Lasithi, with its mountain ranges, vast

plateaus, fertile valleys, arid plains, magnificent beaches

and its ancient memories. To discover the authentic Crete

one must travel slowly, drawn by curiosity not only to the

great archaeological sites and monuments, but also to the

landscape and the sky, the houses and the rocks, because

on Crete everything is myth, legend and history: the

mountains, the grottoes, the gorges, the trees, the stones

and even the scent of the shrubs in bloom.

5


MINOS BEACH art hotel

Escape in style

Experience the wonder of Cretan luxury with aromatic gardens

and distinctive architecture.

Located on the waterfront in the magical area of Ayios Nikolaos,

in the eastern part of Crete, the town centre is a mere ten minute

walk away.

Set within a serene landscape and unique environs thus ensuring

an unforgettable experience in one of the 129 beautifully and

spaciously appointed bungalows. All are equipped with balconies

or private terrace with unique views of the azure sea and

extensive gardens, air-condition, direct dial telephone, mini bar,

TV, in room safe, hairdryer and bathroom. Our Executive and

Presidential suites are spacious and offer a private swimming

pool.

6


MINOS BEACH art hotel

You can awaken your senses at Minos Beach Art hotel, with its

unique artistic environment of 45 works of Greek and foreign

artists. A local and international culinary choice of traditional

Cretan cuisine and unique gourmet tastes for exquisite dining in

our restaurants or enjoy an array of thirst-quenching cocktails in

our two bars.

An abundance of

recreational activities

and leisure facilities will

ensure fun and

entertainment

throughout your stay

in an environment of

tranquillity and luxury.

7


CANDIA PARK VILLAGE

Experience a world of fun

and recreation

Candia Park Village is an ideal place for

families and couples

of all ages. Modelled on a traditional Cretan

village, all 222 apartments are spaciously equipped and offer a

magnificent waterfront location overlooking the turquoise

waters of Mirabello Bay.

Set in the environs of a traditional Cretan Village with extensive

gardens, the clock square, the Greek coffee house, all add to the

charm of this picturesque village of traditional hospitality.

All apartments are spacious of 40 m2 and 60 m2 offering private

balconies or terrace. Each can accommodate from 2 to 6 persons

and are fully equipped with airconditioning, bathroom, direct

dial telephone and a kitchenette to prepare afternoon coffee or

tea or perhaps a light meal.

A variety of restaurants with a wide choice of a la carte items,

sunny bars for thirst-quenching drinks and light snacks provide a

unique ambience with panoramic views of Mirabello bay. A mini

market is available.

8


CANDIA PARK VILLAGE

The Candia Park Village is a complete holiday village making it

the ideal place for relaxation and amusement. Facilities include

sea water and fresh water swimming pools, Jacuzzi, tennis

courts, private beach, water sports and recreational areas for all

tastes and age groups. The highlight is our mini club for our

young friends from 4 to 12 years of age that offers stimulating

activities, competitions and games.

9


CHAPTER 1

SACRED AND PROFANE

IN THE SHADOW

OF MOUNT DIKTI


AYIOS NIKOLAOS

KRITSA

PANAYIA Y KERA

LATO

KATHARO

LASSITHI

KARPHI


C H A P T E R 1

Ayios Nikolaos

An engraving

representing the

Venetian castle of

Ayios Nikolaos:

today nothing

remains of this

fortress

The excavations of

the ancient town in

the city

It is hard to imagine that a century and

a half ago Ayios Nikolaos - one of Crete's

richest and liveliest cities - was, as an old

document attests, only a tiny village of just

95 souls. Ayios Nikolaos, capital of the

Prefecture of Lasithi, has the appearance of

a relatively new city, but its history is very

ancient, even if the evidence of its turbulent

past is now buried under modern buildings.

Thanks to its splendid position

overlooking the gulf of Mirambelo (or as the

Venetian has it, Mirabello or "beautiful view")

the site was chosen by the ancient Dorians

(ninth to seventh centuries B.C.) for the port

of Lato, an important fortified settlement

between the mountains near Kritsa. The city

was then called Lato pros Kamara and was

famous for its safe harbour. One of the

wonders of the place was considered to be

the small lake of Voulismeni - today linked

to the sea by a narrow canal and surrounded

by restaurants and cafes - a lake of dark and

unfathomable waters, also known as

12


Xepatomeni (bottomless), sacred to Athena

and Artemis who, as the legend goes,

bathed their divine bodies here.

The city declined after the Roman

conquest but acquired new importance

during the Byzantine period, when it

became the seat of the bishopric of Kamara:

of that era there remains the little church of

Ayios Nikolaos of the tenth or eleventh

century, with rare frescoes from the

iconoclast period when the ecclesiastical

authorities forbad the physical

representation of sacred images.

At the beginning of the thirteenth

century the Genoese and Venetians fought

for possession of the coast and initially the

Genoese, led by the gentleman-pirate Enrico

Pescatore, prevailed. Pescatore erected the

castle of Mirambelo, promptly destroyed by

the Venetians to whom the island of Crete

was assigned by the treaty of Adrianoupoli

in 1204.

Hurriedly reconstructed, the castle was

briefly occupied by the Turks in 1645, then

The small church of

Ayios Nikolaos

dating from the

tenth or eleventh

century

Lake Voulismeni

13


C H A P T E R 1

A medieval

archer from the

region of Sfakia:

during the

nineteenth

century many

sfakiotes arrived

in Ayios Nikolaos

taken back by the Venetians who, however,

decided to destroy it once more themselves

for the sake of not leaving it in Turkish

hands: not one stone remains of the

celebrated fort atop the highest

hill of Ayios Nikolaos.

The city was entirely

abandoned when, during the

second half of the nineteenth

century, groups of exiled

sfakiotes arrived from the

mountains of western Crete,

and the place slowly began to

come to life again. From that

moment onwards the reborn

city would be called Ayios

Nikolaos, taking its name from

the little ninth-century

Byzantine church which was the

only surviving testimony to

have resisted all the turbulence

of this history. Every 6th

December there is a great feast

dedicated to St. Nicholas,

patron saint of fishermen.

One must is a visit to the city's

Archaeological Museum which possesses

beautiful finds from the past forty years of

excavations in eastern Crete: ceramics, gold,

idols (among which there are a large number

of votive offerings from the Minoan peak

sanctuaries), sarcophagi and glass.

14


ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM

OF AYIOS NIKOLAOS

Skull with a wreath of gold leaves

from the Roman cemetery at

Potamos, first century A.D. and

Late Minoan clay sarcophagi or

larnakes

Late Minoan

female

worshipper

from the

cemetery at

Myrsini

Pottery dating

from the Late

Minoan period

Clay vessel

from the

fourteenth

century B.C.

found in the

Palace of Malia

and

Daedalic

figurines from

the eighth and

seventh

centuries B.C.


C H A P T E R 1

Kritsa and Panayia y Kera

Kritsa stretches out like a white lizard

above a sea of olive trees at the mouth of a

dark gorge beneath the mountain heights of

the Dikti that surround two high plains, the

immense Lasithi plateau and the more

modest Katharo plateau.

The white village

of Kritsa above a

green valley of

olive trees

Kritsa, with its narrow alleyways, the low

houses jumbled one over another, its very

colourful traditional costumes, its numerous

kafeneion and taverns, seems the archetypal

"Cretan village", even if the definition

"village" seems reductive for this fairly large,

extended country town. It is so very "Cretan"

that in 1957 the American film director Jules

Dassin chose Kritsa and its inhabitants for

the setting of the film He, who must die

based on Nikos Kazantzakis' famous novel

The Greek Passion which told a modern

version of the passion of Christ. Every year

on Good Friday there is a sumptuous

procession through Kritsa during which the

epitaphios, a catafalque covered with

flowers, is carried through the town, amidst

prayers, laments and song.

However, before arriving at Kritsa one

should pay a visit to one of the most

beautiful and important Byzantine churches

on Crete: the Panayia y Kera (the Madon-

16


Among the narrow

alleyways of Kritsa

na of the Creation) dating from the

thirteenth or fourteenth century, with three

naves and an unusual three-pointed facade,

surrounded by tall cypresses.

The arrangement of the

paintings that cover each of

the internal walls observes the

rigid hierarchy required in that

period: first God and the

angels, then the life of Jesus

and Mary, followed by

representations of Paradise and the Last

Judgement, biblical stories, saints and,

finally, images of men known for their faith.

The saturated colours (the dark red of ripe

pomegranates, the green of the leaves of

ancient olive trees, the ochre and dark

brown of the earth) and the close-packed

sequence of images, each different, each

powerful and vigorous, immersed in the

semi-darkness, rather dizzy the viewer, and

this was, perhaps, precisely what the artist

intended.

The Byzantine

church of Panayia y

Kera with its

beautiful frescoes

17


C H A P T E R 1

Lato

Lato, once an

important Dorian

city-state, amidst

a beautiful

mountainous

landscape

These small

daedalic figurines

are typical of the

Doric style of

sculpture that

flourished during

the eighth and

seventh centuries

B.C.

As everywhere in Greece, on Crete the

sacred and the profane live side-by-side, and

if on one hand churches and monasteries

record the profound religiousness of the

population, numerous ancient ruins evoke

the foreign powers, wars and conflicts that

have tormented the island over the

centuries. Some kilometres before arriving at

Kritsa a turning off the main road leads to

Lato, one of the island's best-preserved

ancient cities, enclosed between two hills

below Mount Thylakas. The city-state, which

took its name from the goddess Leto,

mother of Apollo and Artemis, was founded

in the eighth century B.C. by Dorians hailing

from the Greek mainland, who invaded

Crete in around 1000 B.C., chasing the native

inhabitants from their lands: they spoke a

dialect similar to Greek and proclaimed

themselves descendents of the offspring of

Hercules. Strengthened by their absolute

authority over the island after the fall of the

Minoan and Mycenaean kingdoms, they

18


made new laws, minted coins with the

effigies of Artemis and Hermes and imposed

a new social order on the population of the

area.

Lato was born as a fortified city

stretching across six terraces with a double

acropolis, a vast agora and a prytaneion,

which functioned as administrative centre

and banqueting hall for the guests of

honour who dined here sitting on the stone

benches of the hestiatorion. A monumental

stairway marks the entrance to the

prytaneion, while another, not far from a

large temple (perhaps dedicated to Apollo)

has been identified as the "theatre space".

The city flourished up until the Hellenistic

period and the ancient writers affirm that

this was the birthplace of Niarchos, valorous

general and friend of Alexander the Great.

A careful observation of the structure and

the materials that form the buildings, the

roads and the doors is worthwhile: the

ancient system of construction has been

handed down through the centuries, and

some of the same architectural details can

still be seen in the old stone-built country

houses dotted among the mountains

around Kritsa.

With its strong

walls and

monumental

buildings, Lato

is the bestpreserved

of the

Cretan cities of

the Doric/ Classical

period

19


C H A P T E R 1

The Katharo Plateau

Less well-known, smaller and more hidden

than Lasithi, the plateau of Katharo is

reached via a road (all curves) that begins at

the crest of the town of Kritsa. Climbing up

amidst silver-grey rocks that glitter in the

sunlight in contrast with the red soil, and

among low tough-leaved shrubs that form

anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures

like little sculptures, one has the sensation of

travelling through an archaic land, fixed and

solid, as though it were petrified. The few

trees have dark hat-shaped crowns that give

shade to the roots and offer relief to sheep

and goats in search of some cool.

A dark grotto on

the way to the

Katharo plateau

Halfway along the route towards the

plateau (where there is a magnificent view

across the gulf of Mirambelo) a small road

sign indicates the existence of a grotto

which is to be found about three-hundred

metres further along the slope, not difficult

to reach. The triangular mouth of the grotto

allows a glimpse of a steep descent through

two galleries into the dark bowels of the

earth amid grey and pink-ochre striped

rocks.

Continuing along the road and looking

attentively towards the hills, one notes the

mitates - now in ruins and camouflaged in

the landscape, but with a very interesting

architectural structure: these are the

20


small stone houses of the shepherds and

peasants who took refuge here during the

months of mountain pasture. Almost always

rectangular in form - but also, at times,

circular like the tholos (beehive) tombs - the

building of the mitates involved choosing

with care the individual stones, evaluating

the shape and dimensions in order to lay

them expertly one on top of another until a

perfect wall was formed through which

there filtered neither sun, nor wind nor rain.

At the centre of the single room a robust

tree trunk with a forked top functions as a

column, holding up the roof of branches and

canes, whilst the entrance is marked by two

vertical pilasters surmounted by a stone slab,

a modest version of the monumental portals

of the ancient cities or of megalithic houses.

Now abandoned and used only

sporadically, the mitates contain small signs

of an austere life: a blackened hearth, the

occasional cooking pot with a hole in it,

frayed ropes for tying up the animals, or

troughs cut into the stone. Observing these

lifeless houses it is natural to wonder how

much longer they will resist sun, wind and

rain before crumbling definitively.

The remains of

old stone houses

or mitates are

part of the

landscape as

much as the

rocky hills and

withered trees

21


C H A P T E R 1

Every season

has its own

colours at the

Kataharo

plateau: green

fields in

springtime,

yellow earth in

summer

Curve after curve, between oaks and

carobs with their tormented outlines that

seem born from the rock, the mountain

suddenly opens out offering a spectacular

view over the entire Katharo plateau,

surrounded by the bare mountains of the

Dikti. Fields cultivated with grain and

vegetables, fruit trees (in particular pears,

apples, figs and pomegranates) and great

stretches of meadows for pasture, few

houses, few men and the odd little white

church form a unified and compact pattern.

The plateau, which in springtime is full of

flowers and green grasses, in summer is

coloured yellow with stubble and the

ploughed soil that becomes as fine and

dusty as face-powder. Katharo is the summer

reserve of the people of Kritsa and at given

periods all the flocks of sheep in the zone

converge here for shearing: imagine the

sound produced by the bleating of

thousands of animals echoing through

the mountains!

22


From Katharo a stony trail (to follow

only in a robust car or on foot) climbs back

down towards the coast in the direction of

Kroustas, initially crossing through desolate

landscapes with strange cumuli of dark

green stones that glitter in the sunlight like

shards of glass. The road follows the course

of an underground river, dry on the surface,

which creates little oases of green amidst the

stones. Along the highest pass there opens

up extraordinary scenery: the simultaneous

vista of the northern coast of Crete looking

towards Europe and of the southern coast

that looks towards Africa at the point at

which the island is narrowest, on one side

the gulf of Mirambelo and on the other the

Libyan Sea. A panorama from which one

understands the wonders of Cretan

geography.

From this point one can continue east

along a road that is asphalted only in parts

towards Kroustas and Kritsa or to Istron on

the coast. Near Kritsa we encounter the

church of Ayios Ioannis Theologos with

three apses and very beautiful iconostasis

while near Kroustas one can visit the small

white church of Ayios Ioannis, decorated

with rare paintings dating from 1347, with

images of severe saints and fathers of the

church.

Ayios Ioannis

and Ayios

Ioannis

Theologos: two

churches with

interesting

frescoes and old

icons

23


C H A P T E R 1

The Lasithi Plateau

"Situated above the mountain summits,

flat and very beautiful, and an almost

miraculous work of nature," this is how

a Venetian document of 1600 describes the

Lasithi plateau. The plain appears like an

immense shell, not unlike a spent crater,

amid the mountain crags of the Dikti, at

a height of around 850 metres: patterned

with the rigid and regular geometries of the

fields, its divisions recall the city plan of

ancient Miletus. Here there grow fruit trees

of every kind, vegetables, potatoes, grain

and walnuts, and in the spring millions of

poppies blossom creating a red carpet that

stretches out between the mountains.

Isolated houses, small villages and the

monasteries of Vidianis and Kroustalenias

crown the plateau which, although

remaining essentially agricultural, has given

over to an intense tourism.

Monastery Vidianis

and Monastery

Kroustalenia:

places of worship

26


Not many years ago,

when the place was

still only accessible

on mule-back,

around 10,000

windmills ornate

with white canvas

sails pumped up the

water that served for

the crops, but now

very few remain.

27


C H A P T E R 1

The grotto of

Trapeza was a

site of cult

activity up to

the Early

Minoan period

Once an inaccessible region, the

plateau has been inhabited since the

Neolithic period, around 7,000 years ago,

as testified by the bone fragments and tools

discovered in the grotto of Trapeza, which

remained sacred for the Minoans, as a

dwelling place of the gods of the

underworld. Because of its protected

position amid the mountains, Lasithi

became a place of refuge for the native

populations from the period of the Dorian

invasions to the Venetian and Turkish

occupations, and even during the Second

World War. For fear of the rebel groups, in

1263 the Venetians deported all the

inhabitants of the plateau down towards the

valley, prohibiting any form of cultivation

for 200 years. Without its fruits, this fertile

land suffered terrible famine and in the mid

1400 s it was decided to repopulate the

plain, which in the meantime had become a

swampland requiring large-scale

reclamation. During the Turkish dominion

too, Lasithi was continuously besieged, but

never completely taken.

There are numerous grottos and

caverns in the rocky walls around the plain,

ideal hiding places from the most ancient

of times. The most famous cave is Psychro

or Diktaion Antron which contends with

another grotto (that on Mount Ida in

28


The Diktaion

Antron of

Psychro is

believed to have

been the

birthplace of

Zeus

western Crete) the honour of being the

birthplace of the Greeks on supreme god,

Zeus. In Hesiod's Theogony we read that

Cronus, king of the Titans and husband of his

own sister Rhea, devoured his children

(among whom Demeter, Hades, Poseidon,

Hestia and Hera) because a prophecy had

foretold that one of them would dethrone

him. At the birth of Zeus, Rhea tricked

Cronus, having him swallow a rock wrapped

in swaddling bands in the place of the child,

and immediately afterwards she escaped

with the newborn into the grotto of Psychro.

Fed on the honey of the bees and the milk of

the goat Amalthea and defended by the

warlike Kouretes who beat their shields hard

to cover the sound of the infant's cries, Zeus

was saved. Once grown, he killed his cruel

father (not before having forced him to

vomit up his siblings), taking on the role of

chief divinity in the Greek pantheon.

In 1900, to explore the immense cavern,

as dark and humid as maternal placenta,

filled with stalactites and stalagmites of the

most varied forms and colours, the English

archaeologist David Hogarth even had to

use dynamite to make a route for himself

through the narrow underground

passageways: there he found idols, ceramics,

cult objects, gold and ivory, seals and jewels,

altars for sacrifices and a niche that was

identified as the "crib of Zeus".

For many centuries

the grotto of

Psychro was a place

of worship, from

the Middle Minoan

period to Roman

times, and rich

votive offerings

have been found by

the archaeologists

29


C H A P T E R 1

The Diktaion Antron was also a sacred site

for King Minos of Knossos, who every nine

years descended into the cavern to receive

laws directly from Zeus.

All around the plateau, amid low

vegetation and scented bushes of broom

and thyme there are to be found small

villages, some inhabited, others abandoned,

lying beneath the slope of the mountains

like birds' nests. An excursion on the Dikti,

starting from the village of Katofigi, leaves

one breathless: lunar landscapes of silver

rocks, isolated trees with majestic crowns

and rough, stony outcrops alternate with

steppe-like terrain and low

vegetation from which

sheepfolds spring up. At times

one's way is barred by fencing

and gates tied shut with knotted

ropes to keep in the livestock:

they can be opened on the

condition that one is scrupulous

in closing them again to prevent

the animals from wandering.

30


Karphi

One particular attraction is an enormous

rocky mass that rises above Lasithi to an

altitude of 1,100 metres, visible from far off.

The place came to be called Karphi (nail) for

its strange cylindrical shape. Below the

ragged peaks of the mountain there is

hidden a Late Minoan settlement completely

camouflaged amid the stone and inhabited

from 1150 to 1000 B.C. by the last groups of

Minoans - also known as Eteocretans (true

Cretans) - in flight from the Dorian invaders.

The city, which could hold up to 3500

inhabitants, was regular in plan like Gournia,

with the houses built one up against another

Because of its

particular shape,

this mountain is

called karphi,

meaning nail

and with steep streets and flights of steps

among the rocky terracing. Explored

between 1937 and 1939 by the

archaeologist J. D. S. Pendlebury, the site has

yielded numerous cult objects (female idols

with raised arms, bull horns, bird heads,

rhytons) which testify to the survival of

Minoan culture and religion even after the

fall of the palace kingdoms.

The Eteocretan city

was built on the

slope of the giant

"nail"

31


CHAPTER 2

THE AUSTERITY OF STONE

AND THE SPLENDOURS OF MALIA


OLOUS

SPINALONGA

DREROS

KARYDI

FOURNI

MONI ARETIOU

MILATOS

MALIA

NEAPOLI


C H A P T E R 2

The austerity of stone and

the splendours of Malia

On Crete there are apparently-forgotten

lands, ignored by the normal tourist guides,

but which nevertheless possess a particular

beauty, "quieter" and hard to define. One of

these is the silent and almost uninhabited

hinterland above Ayios Nikolaos, Neapoli

and Malia, in complete contrast with the

overcrowded beaches that stretch out in

front of Spinalonga. Following this itinerary,

it is a good idea to travel without a precise

destination, losing oneself in the hilly

landscape, among small, partly-abandoned

villages, mills and tumble-down houses,

monasteries and white churches. The very

stones of this place recall dramatic and

painful stories, stories of sieges and of

conquests, of the battle against hunger and

illnesses of a population in continual revolt

against foreign invaders - Dorians, Romans,

Saracens, Venetians and Turks.

36


37


C H A P T E R 2

Spinalonga

Linked to the mainland by a narrow

isthmus, the Spinalonga peninsula

extends as far as a small rocky islet, it too

called Spinalonga. A natural harbour suitable

for small boats, Spinalonga has been known

since the time of the Minoans, and legend

has it that Daedalus, the brilliant architect of

Knossos, created for the inhabitants a very

beautiful statue of Britomartis (the Cretan

Artemis - protectress of hunters and

fishermen). Documents from the fourth

century B.C. attest to the existence of a city,

Olous was a citystate

in Classical

Greek times and

later became an

important Christian

cult centre. Of the

Basilica there

remains only the

floor with its black

and white mosaic

decoration

Olous, which controlled the maritime traffic

of ships coming from Rhodes and Cyprus

and which honoured herself in the fight

against the pirates who infested that stretch

of coast. In the ninth century Olous was

occupied by the Saracens, but not long

afterwards the entire city crumbled thanks

to a terrible earthquake which was followed

by the sinking of the isthmus. There are few

traces of Olous still visible on the surface:

most of the city was swallowed by the

waters. On the partly-swampy terrain the

foundations of an early Christian basilica of

the seventh century with precious mosaic

paving, with floral and geometric motifs,

dolphins and inscriptions in Greek have

been discovered.

38


The history of the island of Spinalonga

is equally dramatic, famous for the imposing

Venetian fort which was erected in 1579 and

considered unassailable because equipped

with one of the most powerful batteries of

cannon in all

Crete. Not even

the Turks could

succeed in taking

it. Only during the

first half of the

eighteenth

century, by which

time Venice had

lost all authority over Crete, did the Turks

take possession of the little island which

then became a smugglers' haunt. In 1903,

after Greece's liberation from foreign

dominion, Spinalonga was transformed into

a leper colony, and the bastions, the

storerooms and the military barracks were

occupied by hundreds of sufferers and their

families until 1953 when the sanatorium was

closed and the island with its imposing walls

and towers became a tourist attraction.

Climbing up the hills behind Elounda one

has a magnificent view across the red roofs

of the villages of Epano Elounda and Pines,

across the olive trees and the low stone

walls, as far as the bay with its peninsula and

the little rock of Spinalonga.

The island of

Spinalonga was

fortified by the

Venetians in 1579

and was handed

over to the

Ottomans only in

1715 - the last of

Venice's territories

on Crete

39


C H A P T E R 2

Stone as art

Far from the

beaches a

completely

different world

appears with stony

fields and old

abandoned houses.

After the seaside resort of Plaka

we can abandon the beautiful

beaches to search out the quiet of

the hills, the villages and the great

empty spaces where nature has reappropriated

the land. Many people

have abandoned living here, be it

for poverty and hunger, be it for

lack of natural resources or lack of

work. Where once there grew

immense fields of corn and where

olive trees were cultivated with

their small green fruit, to be

savoured with a few drops of lemon

juice and raki, now there often remain only

stony outcrops and the outlines of

windmills that have fallen in on themselves:

they seem spectres, from the past, of a hard

and laborious life, pierced by the lances of

an invisible Cretan Don Quixote doing battle

with time and nature. Great halo-like marks

appear alongside the windmills, like magical

circles from an archaic ritual; these are level

circles of stone raised slightly higher than

the surrounding terrain that served for the

threshing of the grain with mules or oxen.

Between Kato and Epano Loumas the

mills are made of an ochre-coloured stone,

with the remains of steps that follow the

curve of the roofless circular buildings:

40


the sail-arms are broken, the giant wheels

are mute and the cogs rusty. Apart from the

windmills there also survives the occasional

old olive-mill, its huge rooms crowned with

arches and the remains of antique

machinery. Those restorations that have

taken place regard only a few mills close to

the areas frequented by tourists, while the

others are all destined for slow destruction.

In serried ranks like soldiers in arms,

atop a hill there appear the mills of

Marnelides near Lakonia, with traces of

plaster and well-bolted doors because they

are still used by the farmers as storerooms.

Along the road between Petros and Dreros,

two stone giants

protrude among spiny

thistles: they are

monumental mills, fairly

well-preserved, each

with an external

staircase, a doorway

framed with white

blocks of stone and a

small window. The

facade is convex, the

stones are perfectly smooth and the overall

aspect is one of robustness, but peering

inside one notes only a pile of stones, iron

and burnt wooden beams.

Giant windmills are

the silent guardians

of this wild and

archaic landscape

41


C H A P T E R 2

Statues from the

Roman era, when

Dreros was still a

living city, are

conserved in the

Museum of Neapoli

Similarly, ancient Dreros, a Dorian city

of the eighth century B.C. that survived into

the Roman era, is nothing but a mass

of stones and low walls dotted amidst thick

vegetation. One arrives at the site of Dreros

via a path between two hills in an

atmospheric landscape, but it takes a lot

of imagination to believe that here there

once rose up an important archaic city with

grand buildings, a vast agora and an

important seventh-century B.C. temple

dedicated to Apollo Delphinios, of whom

a bronze effigy has been discovered

together with two statues representing

Artemis and Leto.

Stone walls

crossing the hills

and small, fertile

plains: signs of

the farmers' toil

Wandering

among

streets and

paths traced

out by grey

stone walls

that snake

up and

down the

hills, one

encounters

numerous

villages: the

white

Fourni full

of flowers

that seem to

42


grow out of the very mortar of the houses,

or Dories, also white, with its beautiful

church of Ayios Konstatinos, and also

Karydi which has the charm of an authentic

rural village with beautiful stone walling to

protect the vegetable gardens and the sown

fields from the herds of livestock.

The villages are

white and full of

flowers

43


C H A P T E R 2

Not far from the main square of Karydi,

climbing in the direction of the windmills,

we find the ruins of the monastery of

Chardemutsa, constructed like a fort in a

perfect mixture of Venetian and traditional

Cretan styles, with a great paved courtyard,

a vestibule with pointed arches and large

rooms containing old liturgical objects.

The ruins of

monasteries like

Chardemutsa or

Perambela testify

to the religious

devotion of the

population, and

the noble

architecture

continues to

remind us of the

richness of

monastic life

44


Many villages have

been completely

abandoned, like, for

example, Hondrovolaki,

which overlooks

a gorge not far from

Valtos: roofless houses,

black doorways that

look like toothless

mouths, empty window

casements like blind eyes and streets

through which stray dogs run, are all that

remains of a village which survives only in

the memory of inhabitants who will never

return. Just as no one will ever again inhabit

the beautiful compound of a rural villa close

by the village of Ayios Georgios: built of wellcut

dry stone, with various rooms on several

floors with arches, stone steps, oven and

fireplaces and with a spectacular view of

the coast, the house must have belonged

to a fairly well-off family. The large grounds

were terraced almost right down to the sea

and almonds and olive trees still grow there

from which no one gathers the fruit. From

above one sees the ragged coastline with

few isolated houses, the monastery of Ayios

Andreas and the cave church of Ayios

Antonios: it is a strange scenery of ochre,

pink and black rocks, corroded by the wind

and by the tides which render difficult both

landing and embarkation.

Some farm houses

were very big and

inhabited by large

family clans. This

kind of rural

complex was

entirely selfsufficient

and could

provide food,

water, tools and

clothes for

everybody

45


46

C H A P T E R 2


Aretiou Monastery

The religious heart of this little-frequented

territory is the sixteenth-century Aretiou

Monastery (or Monastery of the Holy

Trinity) articulated in various buildings

around an ample courtyard with the

katholikon, the monks' church, which still

contains some precious seventeenthcentury

icons. The founder, Marcos

Papadopoulos, gathered around him many

of the famous artists and intellectuals of the

period, and on his death in 1603 he left

generous donations to the monastery asking

that they be used to continue his charitable

work for the poor, but also to support those

artists of holy images who were worthy and

talented, as was Kosmas Vartzagis, known as

"the Master of Areti". Surrounded by high

walls, the monastery defended itself well

against the continual attacks by the

Ottomans, and survived. Nowadays Aretiou

Monastery is the most important monastic

complex on the Gulf of Mirambelo and is the

destination for many pilgrims and travellers

in search of tranquillity and reflection.

Aretiou

Monastery

is a fortified

monastery and

survived the

Turkish occupation

with no

great damage

47


C H A P T E R 2

The Cave of Milatos

The grotto of

Milatos is formed

of a series of

caverns and

corridors stretching

several miles

Next page:

Turning one's

gaze towards the

mountains, one

notes a low hill

with the white

church of Ayios

Elias: this was the

peak sanctuary

of Malia, in which

the votive

offerings to the

gods were

deposited

Journeying towards the coast one arrives

at the village of Milatos built not far from the

ruins of the ancient Militos (or Miletus),

already inhabited in the Late Minoan period

and mentioned by Homer, Strabo and

Pausanias. Myth tells that the local ruler,

Pindareos, stole Zeus's favourite dog and

gave it to Tantalus. For this impudence

Pindareos and his wife were cruelly

punished by the gods and condemned to

death, while their daughters became slaves

of the Furies. In the third century B.C. Miletus

was destroyed by the inhabitants of

Lyttos: only a few stones and some

tombs carved out of the rock remain

visible.

Even more terrible is the story

of the cave of Milatos, site of a

ferocious massacre at the hands of

the Ottomans. In the February of

1823 around 3600 inhabitants of

the area, men, women and children,

rebels, priests and ordinary citizens, took

refuge in the deep cavern of Milatos to

escape the cruelties of General Hassan

Pasha. Betrayed by a Turkish townsman, the

cave was besieged for a long period and

many died of hunger and thirst. Deceived by

the Turks' false promise that in the case of

surrender they would spare women and

children, the men left the cavern, but to the

cry of "death to the infidels" the massacre of

the fugitives began. Every last one of them

was killed. In a large space inside the grotto

a catafalque has been laid out with

commemorative stones and a small cave

church dedicated to St. Thomas where each

year the martyrs of Milatos are

commemorated.

48


49


C H A P T E R 2

Malia

Golden bee

pendant from

the Chryssolakos

cemetery at Malia

Right on the border between the

Prefectures of Lasithi and Heraklion the vast

archaeological area of Malia stretches out,

with its grand Minoan palace, second only

to Knossos and Phaestos. Tradition has it

that Malia was the residence of Sarpedon,

the younger brother of Minos and

Rhadamanthus, all born of the union of Zeus

and Europa.

Stone kernos for

ritual offerings at

the Palace of Malia

The most ancient part of the palace

dates back to the Middle Minoan period

(circa 2000 B.C.) but of that era there remain

few traces because the site was destroyed by

a violent earthquake and completely rebuilt

in around 1650 B.C.. Smaller than Knossos

and Phaestos, but for this no less interesting

in its structure and functions - religious,

political and economic - the palace complex

ceased to "live" in 1450 B.C. after a

devastating fire. The site was discovered

in 1915 by the Greek archaeologist Joseph

Hadjidakis, while from the 1950s onwards

the excavations have continued with the

French Archaeological School of Athens

under the direction of Henri van Effenterre.

Opening off the great Central Court,

with an altar set into the paving, there are

a series of rooms essential to court life

50


of the Minoans: the Throne Room with stairs

that lead to the upper floor, the banqueting

chamber and the crypt, a monumental

stairway with beside it a kernos (a circular

table with a central hollow and with 34

smaller bowls along the edge for the ritual

offering of the first fruits), the archive and

a vast portico held up by columns alternated

with pilasters which gave access to the great

palace storerooms.

Other courtyards and numerous

corridors lead to the wing reserved for

habitation, to the guest apartments and

to the

artisans'

workshops.

Almost all of

the spaces are

paved with

the typical

local stone, a

bluish

limestone,

and a

sandstone

known as

ammouda.

The necropolis, also known as

Chryssolakos ("the gold mine") for the great

quantity of gold objects discovered in the

tombs, is to be found down by the sea and

is laid out like the palace of the living with

rooms and porticos. The excavations at Malia

have rendered up a vast quantity of splendid

objects, jewels and ceramics dating from

the First Palace period to the Second Palace

period, among which are a sceptre in the

form of a leopard, some very fine jewellery

such as the pendant with two bees and

a gold pommel from a sword-hilt embossed

with the figure of a vaulting acrobat,

preserved in the museums of Heraklion and

Ayios Nikolaos.

Directly beyond

the entrance one

can make out the

huge circular

storerooms,

called kouloures,

which held the

reserves of grain

for the

population that

inhabited the

various quarters

around the Palace

51


C H A P T E R 2

Tales of Neapoli

and surroundings

The small Museum

of Neapoli contains

an important

collection of statues

from Classical and

Roman times

The fountain in

Houmeriakos was

built during the

long Turkish

occupation of

Crete

Travelling back towards Ayios Nikolaos

and passing through a deep gorge crowned

by the Monastery of Ayios Georgios Selinari,

one arrives at Neapoli, a lively agricultural

town beneath the mountain of Mavro Dasos

which has a beautiful little museum with

finds from the excavations of Dreros and

statues from the Roman era. In 1340 at Kares,

the oldest part of Neapoli, a certain Petros

Philargi was born, a young man of great

intelligence who was sent to study in Paris

and in Oxford in order to follow a career in

the priesthood. He became archbishop of

Milan and then cardinal, and finally, at the

time of the schism in the Western Church

(which saw the curia of Rome in opposition

to that of Avignon) Petrus Philatri was made

Pope, taking the name of Alexander V: he

held the position for only a year, from 1409

to 1410 and died poisoned by his

adversaries.

A few kilometres from Neapoli, in the

little village of Houmeriakos there remain

some traces of Venetian influence, among

which a little villa with

an attractive ashlarwork

doorway, which

the Cretans call a

Roman door. The town

chronicles recount

that in this house there

once lived a Turk

called Hussein who

having fallen for the

daughter of the local

priest, kidnapped her with the intention of

making her his lover. But at nightfall the

maiden strangled the pasha, let herself

down from the window disguised as a

52


man, joined the

rebels and fled to

the plain of Lasithi.

Her true identity

was revealed when

the swipe of a

sword slashed

open her clothes,

but she continued

to fight until her

death. The

monument

commemorating

this Cretan "Joan

of Arc" is to be found at the entrance to the

town of Kritsa.

The so-called

"Roman door"

and white steps

at Houmeriakos

Again travelling on from Neapoli,

climbing up in the direction of the Lasithi

plateau, one can visit Kremaston

Monastery, sited on a rocky ridge (hence its

name which means "suspended"), which is

inhabited by a community of monks.

Founded in 1593 and built like a small fort,

the monastery has been rebuilt several

times, and in the twentieth century opened

a school for children and ceded its

agricultural lands to the Agricultural

Commission which turned them into a

model farm.

The monastery

of Kremaston was

recently restored

53


CHAPTER 3

FROM COAST TO COAST

THROUGH THE MOUNTAINS


IERAPETRA

GOURNIA

VASILIKI

EPISKOPI

KAVOUSI

CHAMEZI

ACHLADIA

MOCHLOS

PSIRA


C H A P T E R 3

Where nature is king

Near Istron the

waters of the gulf

of Mirambelo are

a deep turquoise

in contrast with

the grey rocks,

the evergreen

trees and the

rock-plants in

bloom

Between Istron and Ierapetra the island

of Crete narrows like a bottleneck and

stretches a mere 16 kilometres between

the gulf of Mirambelo and the Libyan sea.

The trip will take us through the villages of

the Thryptis and Orno mountains as far as

the gates of Sitia. Here nature reigns, barely

grazed by the hand of man: centuries-old

olive trees, wild figs, shady plane trees,

flower-filled fields, arid open spaces, deep

gorges, small torrents and multicoloured

rocks.

58


59


C H A P T E R 3

From Gournia to Ierapetra

Orthodox

monasteries

are always

hidden

away in silent

places far from

the crowds

A short deviation from the main coastal

road leads us towards the Monastery of

Faneromeni, clinging to the mountain top.

The road meanders amid bushes of thyme

and sage as far as the little cave church of

the monastery which houses a precious icon

of the "Death of the Virgin", believed to have

miraculous powers. Legend tells of a

shepherd who had lost his way during the

night, but was drawn to a light in the

darkness: it came from the holy icon and, in

thanks to the Virgin who had helped him

find his way once more, the first church of

Faneromeni was erected on the site.

Gournia, the

"Minoan Pompei"

Back on the main road, the ancient city

of Gournia appears, luminous, on a low hill,

like a map open to the skies: one can clearly

see the walls of the houses, the streets and

the courtyards, so much so that it is known

as the "Minoan Pompei". Already inhabited

in the Early- and Middle-Minoan era, the

ruins that we see today belong largely to the

Late Minoan era (circa 1600 B.C.) and to the

period of the arrival of the Mycenaeans who

erected a sanctuary here. The inhabitants of

Gournia were artisans, merchants and

fishermen, but they too wanted to erect a

palace and a theatre space of their own

modelled on Knossos, naturally much

inferior in scale.

60


In the Middle

Minoan period

Gournia had its own

local governor who

resided in a palace

high on the hill

The several-floored houses and the

shops, which face onto the lanes, the steps

and around the marketplace, form a

compact urban weave where the walls back

one onto the other and often share roofs.

The excavations between 1901 and 1904 by

the American archaeologist

Harriet Boyd-Hawes, have

yielded up many brightlycoloured

ceramics with

marine motifs and various

everyday objects like mortars,

millstones and jars for oil and

for wine. Continuing on

towards Ierapetra one can see

the remains of the Proto-Minoan settlement

of Vasiliki, almost directly opposite the

clean break made by the Ha gorge which

looks as though it had been cut open

At the foot of

the Ha gorge

archaeologists

have discovered

remains of an

ancient settlement

61


C H A P T E R 3

The inner walls

of the houses

of Vasiliki were

originally

plastered and

painted red

by a giant's sword. Vasiliki too, lying in the

shade of wind-bent olive trees, retains the

perfect outline of the city layout and is

famous for the discovery of a great quantity

of "flame-mottled" pottery with decorations

in red and black, known as Vasiliki Ware. The

corners of the small complex are orientated

towards the four points of the compass, as

was the practice in the constructions of Asia

Minor: the settlement was destroyed.

The town of Episkopi, midway along

our route, has ancient origins as is testified

by the sarcophagi found by pure chance

whilst road works were being done near

the double church of Ayios Georgios and

Ayios Haralambos. The church dates back to

the seventh or eighth century and is

characterised by the double facades

62


with one triangular pediment and one

arched, and by an unusual brick dome with

many niches that were once frescoed.

Ierapetra, the ancient Hierapytna,

is the largest port-town on the southern

coast of Crete. It grew to be an important

centre in the Graeco-Roman era when it was

furnished with temples, baths, an

amphitheatre and two theatres, porticos

and an aqueduct, of which, however, there

remains no trace. In the thirteenth century

the Venetians built an imposing castle with

battlements and ramparts. The Turks also

embellished Ierapetra with mosques and

fountains and there are corners of the city

that retain a decidedly oriental aspect.

The Venetian and

Ottoman ruins are

the most attractive

monuments in

Ierapetra, while

nothing has

survived from the

Minoan, Greek or

Roman periods

On 26 th June 1798 the city had an

illustrious guest in the person of Napoleon

Bonaparte who, returning from the Egyptian

campaign, spent a night here in a small

house (now known as spiti tu Napoleonta or

Napoleon’s House) not far from the church

of Afendi Christou.

Ierapetra has a fine Archaeological

Museum with glass cabinets brimming with

Minoan finds, ceramics, painted sarcophagi

and statues dating from the Classical,

Hellenistic and Roman eras.

63


64

C H A P T E R 3


Kavousi and the

Thryptis and Orno mountains

The road to Kavousi begins with a sea of

dark olive trees. Here one can admire the

oldest olive tree in Crete: how many years

or centuries old it is no one knows, but its

immense trunk, rough and scarred with

hardened swellings like the body of a

prehistoric animal, gives the impression

that this tree/monument has seen more

things than we humans are capable of

imagining. Its branches were used to weave

the crowns for the Athens Olympics in 2004.

On the mountain that overlooks the

village of Kavousi one can make out the

foundations of two archaic settlements from

the Early Bronze Age: a hilltop encampment

and a settlement built around a rocky terrace

with a view across the sea. Following the

Dorian invasion the Eteocretans chose the

sites on which to build their villages with

care: fairly inaccessible, but with an ample

vista that allowed them to control passing

traffic without been seen. Hidden among

luxuriant bushes of yellow-gold broom and

wild sage there are numerous tholos tombs

in which arms, jewellery and armour of the

Geometric period have been found.

The circular tombs

of Kavousi are

partly hidden by

flowering bushes

65


C H A P T E R 3

From ancient Kavousi one can continue

along rough roads (to be braved in a fourwheel-drive)

that wind through the

Thryptis and Orno mountains. One has to

be a lover of wild and archaic landscapes to

appreciate this itinerary which takes us

through bare mountains, passes hazardously

above deep ravines and where the only

signs of life are the birdsong and the

bleating of the goats. Once up in the

Thryptis mountains it is a good idea to make

a excursion on foot as far as the Ha gorge

among perfumed bushes and silvery rocks.

The bare

mountainside

is the reign of

sheep and

goats

The Orno mountains

are formed of many

rocky cones with dark,

solitary trees, where

the white road passes

through a valley with

isolated cultivated

fields, figs, pome -

granates and even

vines which grow at a

surprisingly high

altitude. A single small

village of just a few

houses, Bembonas,

offers the chance for

66


The best way to

discover the beauty

of this countryside

is by travelling

slowly and

whenever possible

on foot

a rest at the little kafeneion which is frequented

by the farmers and shepherds of the area.

Having arrived at Chryssopighi the road

is asphalted once again: further ahead on the

right one comes to the pretty village of Orino

with its myrtle bushes and their white

headily-perfumed flowers, while on the

slopes of the Orno one arrives at Dafni and

Skordillo amid great groves of olives. At that

point a geological peculiarity has created

bright white rocks of limestone and chalk that

thrust up from the dark earth like sharp

blades and calcified bones. In the fissures

there grow anemones and cyclamens that

bring to mind certain details, painted with

brush-tip, in medieval miniatures.

67


C H A P T E R 3

The stones of history

Beyond the tiny hamlet of Riza there lies

the village of Achladia and venturing along

the little roads among olives groves,

orchards and vineyards, one can go in search

of a Minoan villa and a tholos tomb, wellhidden

by the trees. The perfectly preserved

tholos in all probability dates back to 1300

B.C., to the Mycenaean period. A long

dromos, a ramp faced with large dressed

stones, runs down towards a doorway

formed of great monolithic blocks which

leads into a dark chamber roofed with a

dome formed of horizontal courses of stone

[corbelling]. The burial chamber has a false

door which perhaps served to allow

communication between the world of the

dead and that of the living.

The tholos

tomb at

Achladia is the

best preserved

in eastern Crete

Rendered almost invisible by the olive

grove that grows above it, the Minoan villa

at Achladia is a large rural construction with

various rooms built around an expansive

courtyard with a kiln for producing ceramics.

Of the villa there remain only the foundations,

which do however give a good idea of how

Minoan country life was organised.

68


Decidedly more interesting is the

ancient Minoan complex of Hamezi, dating

back to 2000 B.C., which occupies the entire

crest of a bare hill called Souvloti Mouri

("pointed hill"). Built of a rosy stone, and in a

strange elliptical form (the only one of its kind

on Crete) it was long believed to be a peak

sanctuary,

but was more

probably a

rural villa

housing

several

families who

found

themselves

forced to

adapt the

shape of the

house to that

of the hillside

terrain. The

rooms are

arranged in

a circle around a deep cistern which served

to collect rainwater because the hill has no

springs or wells.

The view from the

top of the hill of

Hamezi looks over

large olive groves

and vineyards right

down to the sea's

edge

69


C H A P T E R 3

Nowadays the

traditional

handicrafts of

Crete are to be

found only in

the Folklore

Museum

In the modern village of Hamezi there

is an interesting Folklore Museum with

traditional agricultural instruments and

craftsmens' tools, costumes, furnishings and

finely embroidered cloths shown in various

rooms which recreate the atmosphere of

a real peasant home of the past.

Basket-shaped

vase with

double axes -

the symbol of

Minoan

religion and

power - from

the island of

Psira

70


Psira and Mochlos

Turning back onto the main road towards

Ayios Nikolaon one meanders through the

mountains as far as a panoramic

promontory, after the village of Mirsini, from

which there can be seen two small islands,

Mochlos and Psira, and also a huge gypsum

quarry which over time has taken on the

appearance of a pyramid.

It was once possible

to reach the small

island of Mochlos

on foot, walking

along the isthmus

Mochlos emerges from the water for

only 45 metres, and once formed part of the

mainland, but during the Roman era the

waves began to climb and submerged the

isthmus. Mochlos is one of the most ancient

settlements on Crete, and in its rock tombs,

where the local rulers were buried, there

have been found rich grave-goods: gold

jewellery in filigree, silver cups, alabaster

vases and objects in faience.

Gold diadem from

Early Minoan

period, found at

Mochlos

71


C H A P T E R 3

The bold, dark

profile of the

rocky island of

Psira

The gypsum

quarry once

ruined the

coastline but

now seems part

of the natural

landscape

Psira is larger and further from the

coast and was inhabited from the time of

the Minoans until the Byzantine era. It had

an important port with the houses built

amphitheatre-style around it and was well

sheltered from the winds. Psira controlled

the rich maritime trade between Crete and

the East and the inhabitants must have been

very wealthy merchants: their houses were

frescoed and decorated with reliefs of very

fine workmanship, worthy of a royal palace.

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73


CHAPTER 4

ETEOCRETANS AND RELICS

OF THE VENETIANS


SITIA

PETRAS

TRIPYTOS

AYIA PHOTIA

ZOU

PRINIAS

ETIA

VOILA

LITHINES

MAKRYYIALOS

KOUFONISSI


C H A P T E R 4

The Venetian castle

of Sitia in an old

engraving. Today

the fortress, known

as kazarma and

which was

destroyed by the

Ottomans, has been

partially restored.

The Venetian

influence in

architecture and

arts is still to be felt

in many places

around Sitia

Starting out from Sitia (the city which has

lent its name to the whole region, in that

Lasithi is simply a distortion of the Venetian

"La Sitia"), our journey takes us into the most

hidden lands of the Eteocretans, the "true

Cretans", who, after the destruction of the

Minoan palaces, preserved the customs, the

language and the religion of the Minoans for

many centuries. Following the end of the

ancient world it was, however, the Venetians

who left a strong imprint on the region, and

their traces can be found in the cities, the

small villages and the ruins dotted about

the territory. In a document of the era, the

Venetians describe the population of Sitia

as "peaceable and respectful of the laws

and lovers of feasts".

The Turkish presence was also strong,

governing the region with an iron fist, and

the occupiers were guilty of innumerable

massacres many of which were the work of

Khaireddin Barbarossa, a pirate in the pay

of the Ottomans.

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79


C H A P T E R 4

Sitia from Minoan times

to Venetian dominion

Clear, light waters

and a wide horizon

characterize the

bay of Sitia

Like a white amphitheatre, Sitia hugs the

bay with its port from which the ships that

sail towards the islands of the Dodecanese

leave. In ancient times the port was called

Eteia and belonged to the city of Pressos

(Praisos), a settlement on the hills inland that

remained important from Minoan times to

the Hellenistic period.

Later the Romans were to occupy Sitia as

an eastern Cretan outpost: the remains of

a large fish tank date back to this period,

whilst all traces of the earlier civilisations

were destroyed by the continual incursions

of pirates and by the numerous earthquakes

that have plagued the area.

80

Before the ninth century an important

diocese was founded in Sitia, to then be

devastated shortly after by the Saracens.

For this reason it was decided to transfer

the bishopric to Episkopi, less exposed to

raids and pillaging. On the Byzantine ruins

the Genoese Enrico Pescatore built a fortress

which the Venetians took possession of in

1280, and which became, together with

Hania, Rethymnon and Heraklion, one of

Crete's most powerful strongholds.


The Venetian Castle

overlooking the

town of Sitia

For many centuries Sitia remained one

of the most important fiefs of the aristocratic

families of the Venetian Republic. The

fortress (commonly known as Kazarma) was

destroyed along with the rest of the city in

1538 by the pirate Khaireddin Barbarossa,

but immediately rebuilt by the Venetians,

although it was then captured by the Turks

at the end of the eighteenth century. The

signs left by the devastation that Barbarossa

wreaked can still be seen in the little fireblackened

church of the monastery of

Faneromeni, few kilometres distant from

Sitia, built above a gorge of white rock and

visible from the sea, therefore easy prey for

the foreign hordes who landed on the coast.

In the period between the end of Venetian

rule and the imminent occupation by the

Turks, one of the island's most famous

writers, Vincenzo Cornaro (or Vincente

Kornaros), was born in Sitia, possibly of

noble Venetian origins or a Cretan aristocrat

who adopted an Italian name as was the

A small hamlet

was built near the

monastery of

Faneromeni

81


C H A P T E R 4

Archaeological Museum

of Sitia

The Minoan

"prince" in gold

and ivory from

Palaekastro is one

of the most

precious finds to

have come out of

eastern Crete

The Museum's rich collection

includes pottery, clay figurines,

votive offerings, tablets with

Minoan inscriptions, tools,

jewellery and fragments of

murals

82


fashion at the time. His epic chivalric poem

"Erotokritos" (he who is tormented by Eros)

is composed of 1680 verses and tells, in

flowery language, of the heroic battle

between princes and warriors for the hand

of the Princess Aretusa, who after terrible

misadventures comes to marry the

protagonist Erotokritos. The romance unites

myth, legend, magic, passion, adventure,

proverbs and folk wisdom and today the old

folk still know the verses by heart, and sing

them as they did in the past.

With the Ottoman occupation the city

fell into ruin until 1870, when an illuminated

Turk, Avni Pasha, drew up the new city plan

and had it rebuilt, in spite of the outbreaks

of rebellion that hinted at the imminent

demise of the Sultans' dominion. Following

the liberation and independence of the

island, Sitia was gradually repopulated and

became the lively and beautiful town,

oriental in character, with narrow streets,

cafes, taverns and open-air markets, that it

is today. One should not miss out on a visit

to the Folklore Museum and above all the

Archaeological Museum which houses

important finds from the Minoan civilisation

- including many votive

offerings from the

nearby peak

sanctuaries and a

splendid Minoan

"prince" in gold and

ivory found at

Palaekastro, along with

numerous daedalic

figurines in the

Egyptian style and

objects from the Greek

and Roman periods.

This engraving

from 1651 shows

the town of Sitia at

the time of the

famous poet

Vincenzo Cornaro,

author of the epic

"Erotokritos"

Daedalic figurines

were very common

in Doric time

83


A white-rock

gorge leads to a

stony beach and

the monastery of

Faneromeni, with

its dark

katholikon, the

monks' Byzantine

church with

beautiful icons

and frescocovered

walls


C H A P T E R 4

Traces of the ancients

around Sitia

The double axe

symbol is found

engraved on

stone and clay

vessels

wherever the

Minoans

founded a

settlement

An inscription on a Minoan tablet bears

the word "se-to-i-ja", the most ancient name

given to the city of Sitia, used right up to our

own times. Its precise location is not known,

but some scholars believe that it may have

lain on the hill at Petras, where Minoan

constructions with enormous blocks of

dressed stone have been discovered. Petras

is also cited by Plato in the Protagoras where

he mentions it as the birthplace of Myson,

one of the Seven Sages of ancient Greece.

Other Minoan ruins have been found at the

gates of Sitia, along the edge of the road

that leads towards the Libyan sea: they are

the remains of a Minoan villa dating from

1600 B.C. with a series of rooms arranged

across terraces, two well - preserved

stairways and a crypt.

Again near Sitia, to be found on a hill

overlooking the sea is Tripytos, a large

settlement with houses, workshops and

storerooms built on the sandstone slope:

86


Hellenistic-Roman period. Continuing along

the road towards the east, after a few

kilometres one comes to Ayia Photia, one

of the largest

Minoan

necropolises

on the island,

with 252

tombs, some

cut into the

rock, some in

the form of

tholoi. Next to the necropolis, on the crest of

a low hill, a large fortified Minoan villa from

the Middle Minoan period has been

Sitia is surrounded

by Minoan

settlements, rural

villas and

cemeteries dating

from the Middle

Minoan period to

the time when the

Eteocretans took

refuge in the

mountain of

eastern Crete

uncovered with 37 rooms and two circular

structures: even if the archaeological

remains are little but outlines, the place has

its own particular fascination, between the

blue of the sea and rocks overrun with a

blanket of succulents with bright purple

flowers.

87


C H A P T E R 4

The Minoans from war and work

to religion

On the road that leads from Sitia to

Makryyialos along the coast of the Libyan

Sea we come across a series of settlements

and sanctuaries of the later generations of

Minoans and Eteocretans who, amid these

hills, sought refuge from the Dorian invaders

in around 1000 B.C.. These sites enable us to

better-understand three of the fundamental

aspects of Minoan culture: country life, town

life and the religious cults.

Minoan country

villas like that of

Zou were very

important in the

Eteocretan period,

since they provided

the population's

sustenance

Near Zou, famous for its springs which

provided fresh water for all of the

surrounding area as far as Sitia, a rural villa

has been discovered dating back to around

1600 B.C., built of dressed stone on a very

steep slope on a sandy and fragile terrain

that threatens to crumble. The house is

composed of various rooms, workshops and

a kiln for ceramics, and a large number of

tools and agricultural instruments have been

found there.

Travelling south one can make out a

small sandstone ridge in the middle of a

dense grove of olives: this is the Minoan

88


Even very small

settlements were

built in the form of

miniature royal

palaces

settlement of Ayios Georgios which, in its

form and structure, is more like a miniature

Gournia than a simple country house. The

entrance is marked by a steep staircase

formed of monolithic blocks which leads to

a myriad of small chambers with the massive

walls of a fortress. From the foot of the hill

the green countryside stretches out

immersed in absolute silence, and it is easy

to believe that the ancients who inhabited

this place loved to surround themselves

with beauty.

More imposing in appearance is

Pressos (Praisos), a Late Minoan city which

was active up until the Roman period, with

a triple acropolis built on a cone-shaped hill

entirely surrounded by fortified walls: from

afar the hill seems built up in a spiral, like

old representations of the tower of Babel.

Pressos lies exactly halfway between the two

coasts and was of strategic importance,

allowing control over the traffic of people

and goods across a vast territory. In the

Greek era it was the most powerful city-state

of eastern Crete, together with Itanos

89


C H A P T E R 4

The dominion

of the powerful

Pressos

extended over

the whole

region of Sitia,

and a treaty

was even made

with the distant

Itanos in order

to avoid

surrender to

the rival city of

Hierapytna

Every Minoan

settlement had its

own mountain-top

sanctuary:

the sanctuary of

Pressos lay on the

peak of Prinias

with which it was

linked by friendship,

and Hierapytna

(Ierapetra), the

eternal rival,

especially as far as

the lucrative trade in

purple dye which was

extracted from a

particular species

of mollusc which

abounded in the

coastal waters was

concerned.

Pressos venerated

Zeus Dikteo and

practiced a strange cult, that of the "sacred

pig", as a result of which the populace was

forbidden to eat pork. Governed by a

democratic aristocracy, Pressos was an

extremely wealthy city that minted coins

with the effigies of Apollo, Hercules, Zeus

and Demeter. In the buildings from the

Greek/Hellenistic period, in the sanctuary

and in the tombs, precious finds have been

made: terracotta figures, painted lions,

helmets, shields and pectorals in bronze and

two Athenian amphorae of the sixth century

B.C. which probably belonged to a local

athlete who had won prizes at the

Panathenian Games.

When Ierapetra openly declared war on

Pressos, the inhabitants turned for

protection to the allied city of Itanos and

also to Ptolemy Philimetor, ruler of Egypt

90


with whom they had commercial dealings,

but, despite their repeated appeals for help,

in 146 B.C. Ierapetra succeeded in destroying

the city. In decline and no longer

independent, in 58 B.C. Pressos was

occupied by the Romans who partially

rebuilt the city. However it had, lost all its

power.

The Minoans and Eteocretans of these

lands chose a "holy mountain" to take their

votive offerings to the gods. The most

imposing of these peak sanctuaries is found

on the mountain of Prinias, which is very

difficult to scale because defended by a very

steep wall of jagged rocks on its western

face and by a

deep gorge on

the east. In the

past shepherds,

farmers and

townsfolk

climbed as far as

the summit

carrying offerings

of figurines and

objects in

terracotta, bronze

and gold which

were deposited in

a sacred enclosure or hidden in the cracks

between the rocks.

The mountain-top sanctuaries were not

always situated on the highest mountain

peaks. Even low hills which were unusual in

form or simply emerged from flat terrain

could function as holy mountains for the

population: for example the little mount

Katrinia at Piskokephala, nowadays

cultivated with olive groves and vineyards,

and the low ridge of Alia, crowned with

a small white church between Sykia and

Papagianades, where many votive offerings

have been found (now exhibited in the

museums of Sitia and Ayios Nikolaos).

At Prinias in

particular there

a large number of

horned scarabs in

clay have been

found, the rinoceros

orytes commonly

known as

"rhinoceros scarab"

and believed, in the

"household" cults,

to be talismanic.

91


C H A P T E R 4

The Venetian feudal

territories

As we wander among the roads that lead

from Sitia to the Libyan sea, history moves

forward in great bounds because in an area

of only a few kilometres we find ourselves

immersed in Minoan remains and then

immediately afterwards in the feudal

possessions of the Venetians.

Kato Episkopi is the village to which,

in the eleventh century, the bishopric of Sitia

was transferred to escape the devastations

wreaked by the Saracens. The three-naved

church of the Ayioi Apostoloi with its cupola

that recalls Islamic architecture, was noted

by Venetian sources for a peculiarity: it had

Under Venetian

rule Kato and

Epano Episkopi

were seats of

the Catholic

bishopric, but in

the churches

both Orthodox

and Catholic

rites were

celebrated

two altars, one dedicated to the Latin rite

and one to the Greek, and often the liturgies

of the respective priests were celebrated

simultaneously. Another beautiful old

church, Panayia, is to be found at Epano

Episkopi and is worth a visit.

A small sign indicates the road to Forte

castle, which is recognisable from far off

thanks to its stern outline above a rocky spur

rising up in front of the Orno mountain

range. The road winds through cultivated

fields and sweet-scented meadows with

92


eautiful panoramas, as far as the ruins of

the castle which was once property of the

Genoese and later recovered by the

Venetians who called it Monforte. Climbing

to the crest one has a splendid view over the

easternmost part of Crete as far as the

Libyan sea. In the sixteenth century the

fortress was abandoned and fell into ruin for

lack of care. Later the site became a refuge

for the peoples persecuted by the Ottomans

and it is said that up to 3000 people could

take shelter within its walls.

To visit some of the most important

lands of the noble families of Venice one

must push on through narrow roads

between vineyards and orchards in the

direction of Ziros. One of the most

fascinating sites is Etia, property of the

powerful Venetian De Mezzo family, who

built their residence here in the sixteenth

century, a large palace, well-conserved and

restored, with two churches alongside it,

Ayia Ekaterina and Ayios Ioannis. Atop the

main door is the family crest of two

mermaids, while inside it opens onto a large

hall with barrel-vaulting and a stairway

which once led to the now non-existent

upper floor.

Castles, churches

and palaces testify

to the power of

Venetian rule which

lasted for over four

centuries

93


The palace at Etia

with its two small

churches has

been carefully

restored and is

now listed as a

national

monument

The mansion house at

Etia is one of the most

representative

examples of Venetian

architecture in

eastern Crete. There

was originally a

second floor but the

building fell in at the

beginning of the

nineteenth century


Continuing on towards Armeni and

Handras (two agricultural villages famous

for their wine and the production of

sultanas, which are left to dry on great

sheets stretched out in the sun), one arrives

at Voila, another important Venetian feudal

estate belonging to the Zeno family who,

following the Turkish conquest, converted

to Islam: their sons became fanatical

janissaries, transforming the Italian surname

into Tzin-Ali. Of the Venetian/Turkish village

there remains the imposing tower of the

palace/fortress with crests and relief

sculptures carved on the entrances.

The fertile valley

near Armeni e

Handras was once

Venetian territory,

but after the feud of

Voila was ruled by a

Turkish-Venetian

janissary

Alongside the palace we can see the

ruins of the church of Ayios Panteleimonas

and some stone houses with blackened

ovens and fireplaces that attest to their

sporadic use by shepherds and local farmers.

Coming back down past scattered rocks and

boulders, one arrives at a beautiful fountain

in the Turkish style with an enclosed garden.

Overhead is the church of Ayios Georgios

which houses the tomb of the Cretan

95


C H A P T E R 4

Salomons, the family which

was to give Greece one of

her famous theologians,

Jacopo, and the poet

Diorisi.

Another village,

Katelionas (which would

be almost camouflaged

among the rocks were it

not for two white churches

that shine in the sunlight) contains traces

of the Venetian presence of the sixteenth

century, when it was a large town with a

population of thousands. The Ottomans

forced the residents to convert to Islam or

risk expulsion. Katelionas slowly emptied

and was never repopulated.

96


Returning towards Armeni, where on

the crest of the hill the blades of a wind farm

spin dizzyingly, on the plain below one can

make out the ruins of the monastery of Ayia

Sofia, of which there remain some Venetianera

rooms surmounted by wide arches and

blocks from columns and capitals. Used for

a short time as a school during the Turkish

occupation, but ever since with neither

students nor vocation, the grey stone

monastery has fallen into total abandon.

Ruins and small

churches are

reminders of the

past centuries,

often troubled and

rife with

intolerance

Lifting one's eyes up from the

monastery to the high wall of rock that

faces onto a narrow gorge, one can see two

small cave churches dedicated to Ayio

Pneuma. Both little churches are modest,

dug into the rock, and their iconostases too

are simple screens between the altar and the

space reserved for the faithful, with a few

icons of the saints, but it is worthwhile

climbing up this far to sit on the stone

benches and meditate, on the beauty of

the nature here and of the sky amid the

great silence.

97


C H A P T E R 4

In the silent villages

Time seems to stop

in the archaic and

unsullied landscape

around Perivolakia

To better understand the spirit of this

region we would suggest a visit to the

villages that tourism has forgotten, like

Perivolakia and Drongari, set into a

landscape both wild and sensual and

approachable via a narrow path along the

gorge that lies halfway down the slope

beneath the little churches of Ayio Pneuma.

Where the gorge ends one encounters a

small plateau with thistles and thorny

bushes amid farmhouses, all deserted, save

one which appears to be inhabited by

someone fairly eccentric who has decorated

the house with odds and ends that vary from

old pieces of iron to ox-horns and empty tin

cans. The place is called Epano Perivolakia

and was abandoned after a terrible

earthquake.

98

Further down, settled among the olive

trees, Kato Perivolakia appears, a group of

low white houses with flat roofs and

terracotta chimney pots. In Venetian times it

was a rich agricultural village, but now the

life in its streets seems to have stopped still

and the few remaining inhabitants gaze


in wonder at the rare visitors who come this

far. Yet more desolate is the old stone

hamlet on a ridge at the beginning of the

Perivolakia gorge, which descends between

great boulders and open tree trunks towards

Kapsa Monastery on the southern coast. The

site has the rough beauty of a fortified

village and it is with amazement that one

notices that behind those impenetrable

walls some homes have been rebuilt with

tiny gardens in which there grow almonds

and pomegranates.

Continuing along a dirt road in the

direction of Apidia one can visit the ruins

of the medieval village of Drongari, which

emerges amid hay fields and olive trees with

its grey stones that once formed homes,

shops, stables and storehouses. Over the last

few years it has all but completely fallen in,

Great silence and

the scent of wild

flowers are this

spot's only riches

but one can still make out arched doorways

and rooms with stairs, niches and stone

seats. On the platform that marks the

entrance to the ruins, a bare white church

has been erected with a wooden iconostasis

with brightly-coloured paintings.

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C H A P T E R 4

Along the coast of

the Libyan sea

From outside the

church seems

rather poor, but

inside it boasts

surprisingly

beautiful frescoes

and holy icons

Back on the main road leading to the sea,

the white town of Lithines comes into view,

and merits a stop: it is a lively and well-kept

place with restored houses, flower-filled

gardens and labyrinthine streets. The site

was know as far back as pre-Hellenistic

times, but acquired real importance only in

the Byzantine and Venetian eras when it

took the name of the aristocratic Lithini

family who, in 1591, built the church of Ayios

Athanasios in the town square. Here was

buried the Venetian patrician Gerolamo

Vlasto, fighter for the freedom of Crete and

refined man of letters. Of the small castle

which was once to be found in the middle

of the village there remain only a few

fragments of reliefs which are now

incorporated into the church.

100


101


C H A P T E R 4

The Venetian

style of

architecture

and decoration

continued to be

adopted by

local craftsmen

even after

Venetian rule

ended

Mysteriously dark, the church of

Panayia Hodegetria ("the Virgin who shows

the true path") is entirely frescoed.

Blackened with smoke from the candles, it

houses a precious icon of the Madonna from

the fourteenth century:

from the image there

hang hundreds of silver

ex votos - eyes, hands,

feet, figures of men,

women and children

invoking mercy - held by

fine chains so that they

form a wide, tiered skirt

of metal right down to

the floor.

The third church of Lithines is dedicated

to the Ayia Triada and to Ayios Haralambos.

It has two apses and dates back to 1886. Its

beautiful portals with relief sculptures were

probably salvaged from an older Venetian

building.

102

After Lithines the road drops steeply

towards the Libyan sea where we find the

coastal village of Makryyialos with a small

fishing port. Two ancient constructions have

been found here, a Roman villa facing the

sea and a Minoan villa on a flat area of land

higher up, both hidden among the modern

houses.


The Roman villa dates back to the first

century A.D. and has a regular plan with a

central courtyard surrounded by many

rooms including small baths and a semicircular

pool - possibly a fish pond. Judging

from the precious pavement mosaics and

the fragments of marble that decorated the

walls, this was a luxury abode.

The large Minoan villa belongs to the

Second Palace period, it has a surrounding

wall and is divided into numerous rooms

with traces of cobbled flooring. The villa had

strong links with the religious cults of the

Minoans because inside there have been

found stone altars, a chamber for ritual

banquets and a magnificent seal on which

there is inscribed a ship with a sanctuary

floating on the waves, symbol of the sea

gods.

Turning instead towards the line of

coast that leads eastwards, we encounter

the fifteenth-century monastery of Kapsa,

clinging to the high rocks and dedicated to

St John the Baptist. In the mid 1800s the

monastery became the property of the

adventurer Yerontoyiannis, a decidedly

controversial character: repenting of a life

of dissolution he became a monk, dedicating

himself to the poor, healing the sick and

working miracles. Ever since Yerontoyiannis

has been venerated as a saint and every 29 th

August a great feast is dedicated to him at

the monastery.

The ancient

settlements, villas

and monasteries

were rarely built on

exposed stretches

of coast because

the population

feared foreign

invaders coming

from the sea

103


C H A P T E R 4

The island of Koufonissi:

a very special outing

Murex shells are

still to be found

on the sandy

beaches of the

island of

Koufonissi

In the summer when the sea is calm, a

passenger ferry sets out from the port of

Makryyialos for the uninhabited island of

Koufonissi (the ancient Lefki). White

beaches, crystalline, turquoise waters and

ancient remains make this island an

uncontaminated little paradise, and

exploring it on foot leaves one feeling as free

as the birds that wheel between its sea and

the sky. Koufonissi has not always been so

silent: in the Graeco-Roman period the

island had a flourishing industry producing

the red-purple dye that is extracted from the

muscles of the murex shellfish that are to be

caught in the surrounding sea, a dye which

was sold on at great price. The inhabitants of

Koufonissi had commercial dealings with the

city states of Hierapytna, Itanos and Pressos

and also with Athens and Rome where use

of the colour purple was reserved for the

clothing of the aristocracy.

A twelve-tiered Roman theatre of the

fourth century A.D., a temple dedicated to

104


Zeus, an aqueduct and the remains of a

Roman villa with columns of porphyry and

mosaic floors all attest to the wealth of the

past. Koufonissi was inhabited up until the

Byzantine era, as is demonstrated by the

walls beside the sea. Sailing around the

island, one notes graffiti on the rocks

representing sailing-ships, smaller boats and

holy images: they were scratched there by

the shipwrecked and by sailors and pirates

whom the wind had driven onto the rocks.

105


107


CHAPTER 5

PLACES OF WORSHIP

UNDER A VAST SKY


PEAK SANCTUARIES

MONI TOPLOU

ITANOS

PALAEKASTRO

KARYDI

ZAKROS

ETIA

AMBELOS


C H A P T E R 5

Mountain-top sanctuaries

In the easternmost part of Crete we find

the traces of one of the most important and

mysterious religious manifestations of the

Minoan Civilization: the rites of worship that

took place on the mountain peaks. The peak

sanctuaries originated in the Middle

Minoan period, around 2000 B.C., and

remained functional up to the time of the

Eteocretans. According to the Greek

archaeologist Costis Davaras, in the area

between Itanos and Goudouras alone there

are concentrated a full nine sacred

mountains, the best-known of which are

Petsofas and Modi above Palaekastro,

Traostalos and Vigla on the road to Zakros,

Kalamaki near Itanos, and Prinias and

Piskokephalo which are found just outside

Sitia.

110

Our knowledge of

Minoan religion is

still very limited.

The finds from

peak-sanctuaries,

caves, domestic

shrines and tombs

seem to indicate

that the natural

world played an

important part in

magical

ceremonies

The traveller notes nothing in

particular, if not the mountain peaks with

irregular rock formations which contrast

with the surrounding landscape and catch

the eye: a conical summit, jagged boulders,

rings of rock or majestic ridges. Many of

these sanctuaries did not even have a sacred

enclosure (only on the mountain of Petsofas

do the walls of a temenos remain), and for

this reason scholars believe that the devout

made their way to the mountain tops simply

to pray close to the sky, where the gods


111


C H A P T E R 5

The peak

sanctuary on

Mount Petsofas

is one of the few

sacred sites

with remains of

a shrine

A quantity of

clay scarabs

have been

found at the

peak sanctuary

of Prinias

could more easily manifest themselves. The

mountain belonged to the gods, and to

indicate the sacredness of the place was

unnecessary.

The Minoans brought precious

offerings to the gods - objects in gold, ivory

and bronze, or spontaneous gifts modelled

in clay: domestic animals such as goats,

oxen, bulls and sheep, but also birds, snakes,

tortoises and insects and many figurines,

both male and female, in the gesture of

worship with both arms raised above the

head or with a closed fist held to the

forehead. They invoked the benevolence

of the gods, for a good year, for an abundant

harvest or for the healing of their physical

ills: many feet, hands, arms, legs and little

heads have been found in the crevasses

between the rocks, along with miniature

vases and objects of domestic and

agricultural use.

Votive

offerings were

hidden in

fissures and

cracks in the

rocks

112


Which deities were

worshipped at the

peak sanctuaries is

still unknown, but

sacred figures -

especially female -

are often

identifiable

engraved on seals

or painted on

pottery and clay

sarcophagi

For the Minoans nature was sacred and

had no need of manipulation. Many plant

symbols appear on their seals and in their

painting: olive trees, fig trees, palms, oaks,

pillars

crowned with

treetops,

flowers, fruit

and scattered

leaves, and

water was

present too:

the waves of

the sea on

which there

sailed the

boats with

their sacrificial

altars.

Many of the

discoveries made relating to these peak

sanctuaries are owed to the French scholar,

and tireless traveller, Paul Faure who, in the

mid twentieth century scoured the

mountains and grottos of Crete on foot in

search of the traces of the civilian and

religious life of the Minoans. Many

archaeologists have used Faure's travel

notes and books as the basis of in-depth

studies of the sites that he indicated.

Figurines in the

shape of bulls were

a symbol of

strength,

independence and

fertility

The reconstruction

of the peak

sanctuary of

Petsofas

includes a fairly

large temenos

built into the

rocks

113


At the Museum of

Ayios Nikolaos all

sorts of votive

offerings from the

peak sanctuaries

are on show: small

clay animals,

pottery, and legs

and arms, used to

ask the gods for

good health or a

rich harvest

The small clay

figurines - both

male and female -

are in the typical

worshiping pose

of the Minoans


Archaeologists

have also found

bronze figurines

and animals and

objects in gold.

The peak

sanctuaries first

appear in the

Middle Minoan

period and some

remained in use up

until the Late

Minoan period

The female

figurines have

elaborate

hairstyles and

wide skirts, while

the male figures

wear only the

sacred knot and

a dagger


C H A P T E R 5

Travelling towards the

“deserted city”

From Sitia the road continues along the

coast towards the easternmost point of

Crete in a harsh, bare landscape, its few trees

bent by the wind which blows angrily here.

In the midst of this wild nature there rises

the fortress-like monastery of Toplou, which

takes its name from the Turkish word top,

cannon, because the Venetians had

equipped the complex with a powerful

artillery. Dedicated to the Panayia Akrotiriani

("the Virgin of the ridge"), the monastery was

founded in the fourteenth century by the

noble Venetian Cornaro family, but thanks

to armed conflicts and earthquakes, Toplou

Monastery has been damaged and rebuilt

many times.

Toplou

Monastery is one

of the most

important

monasteries on

Crete, erected in

the middle of a

fertile plateau

halfway to

Palaekastro. In

the past the

monastery held

land from Capo

Sideros all the

way to the south

coast - mainly

received as gifts

from the rich and

devoted families

of Sitia

116


Inside the monastery the monks have

organised an interesting museum with

antique engravings, illuminated

manuscripts, historical documents and holy

icons, an outstanding example of which is

the work painted by the eighteenth-century

artist Ioannis Kornaros when he was only

twenty-five years old. The icon is inspired by

the psalm "Lord, thou art great", and

represents 61 biblical scenes (in particular,

the creation) with hundreds of figures in the

style of the miniaturists.

The monastery's

museum has a rich

collection of

ancient documents

and icons: the most

famous is the

painting by Ioannis

Kornaros

The monastery of Toplou also possesses

a precious stone tablet with Greek

inscriptions dating from 146 B.C., this is the

treaty between the city states of Itanos and

Hierapytna concerning the ownership of

and trading rights regarding the purple dye

that was produced on the island of

Koufonissi. The arbitrator in this dispute was

the governor of the Roman city of Magnesia

in Asia Minor where an identical copy of the

ancient treaty has been found. The

inscription was discovered in 1834 at Itanos

by the British diplomat and traveller Robert

Pashley, who brought it to Toplou where it

was reused as an altar table and later walled

into the facade of the chapel.

The inscription on

the stone tablet

tells of the treaty

made between the

city states of Itanos

and Hierapytna in

the year 146 B.C.

117


118

C H A P T E R 5


The landscape appears increasingly

parched and desolate as we continue along

the road towards the bay of Grandes,

passing semi-abandoned farmhouses, great

swathes of shrubs toughened by the sun

and the sea salt, enclosed pastures for the

herds of long-haired goats, and fields

cultivated with melons, grapes and bananas

which belong to the monastic community

of Toplou. On a promontory overhanging

the sea one can make out the ruins of

ancient Itanos, later called Erimoupolis,

the deserted city. Legend tells that

Itanos belonged to the Kouretes, the young

warriors who danced and beat their arms

hard on their shields to cover the noise of

the whimpering baby Zeus, born in the

grotto of Mount Dikti (or perhaps on Mount

Ida).

The ruins of

Itanos - later

called

Erimoupolis, the

deserted city -

are spread wide

over the coastal

area, with traces

of Minoan,

Hellenistic and

Roman

constructions

and also early

Christian

remains

Inhabited by the Minoans and later

becoming a Phoenician trading post, Itanos

was considered one of the most powerful

city states of the Graeco-Roman era, it held

the right to mint coins and controlled the

maritime trade between the Orient, Egypt

and the Mediterranean. The only dangerous

rival was Hierapytna which had

demonstrated its bellicose intentions in

destroying the city-state of Pressos, ally of

Itanos. The relationship with Egypt was so

strong that in the third century B.C. the

119


C H A P T E R 5

The Christian

basilica has

fallen into ruin,

but contains the

columns of the

central nave,

salvaged from

Roman and

Greek buildings

populace could request the help of Ptolemy

Philadelphos to bring down the aristocratic

government that oppressed them.

In the ninth century the city, already badly

damaged by an

earthquake, was razed to

the ground by pirates and,

after some attempts at

rebuilding it, was

definitively abandoned in

the fifteenth century,

becoming the "deserted

city". At Itanos we can see

the ruins of each of the

city's periods of glory - the

walls of the Greek houses,

the Hellenistic fortifications, the Roman

storerooms dug into the rock, the necropolis

and the remains of a three-naved early

Christian basilica constructed with materials

salvaged from the older buildings.

A stone's throw from Itanos, the famous

sandy beach of Vai stretches out in the

shade of a vast palm grove. Legend has it

that it was the Saracens who brought the

palm to this area: pitching their tents near

the shoreline and living off dates, the dense

palm grove is thought to have grown from

the date-pits that they dropped there.

120


121


C H A P T E R 5

Palaekastro and the

mountain villages

Overlooking a

natural harbour

near the bay of

Kouremenos, in

the Middle

Minoan period

there flourished

a town today

called

Roussolakos - the

red hole -

because of the

area's purple soil

122

The immense arc of the bay of

Kouremenos (where nowadays the

students of a windsurfing school whisk past)

was inhabited by an important Minoan

community right from the dawn of that

civilization. Among the olive groves of

Palaekastro, in the area known as

Roussolakos at the foot of Mount Petsofas

(which watched over one of the most

frequented peak sanctuaries of ancient

times) a vast rosy-stoned Minoan settlement

has been

brought

back to

light. The

real name

of this city

is not

known, but

we do

know that later on the Greeks were to call it

Heleia for its marshy terrain. Rectangular in

plan with paved streets, steps and a dense

weave of houses built one up against the

other to form small districts, the city enjoyed

great prestige in the Middle Minoan period.

Following the natural disaster of around

1450 B.C. which destroyed all the palaces

and cities of Crete, Palaekastro also


crumbled and the few survivors withdrew

to the promontory of Kastri overlooking

the bay.

The city came to life again during the

Late Minoan period, and was still inhabited

in the Greek era when a great sanctuary

dedicated to Zeus was erected at some time

during the eighth to sixth centuries B.C.

When the archaeologists of the British school

in Athens arrived, the temple appeared to

have been completely demolished, and yet

among its ruins it concealed some important

archaeological remains including a frieze

representing a chariot, and a terracotta lion,

The peak

sanctuaries of

Petsofas and Modi,

with their stark

conical profiles,

were sacred to the

ancient population

of Palaekastro and

were places of

worship up until

the Roman period

Every afternoon

the fishing boats

leave the small

harbour of

Palaekastro

but above all here there was discovered a

stele carved with the famous "Hymn to Zeus

Kouros", to Zeus the youth, the perfect image

of the idealized hero, sung by the Kouretes

and by the men who worshipped the "divine

Zeus, native of Crete".

123


124

C H A P T E R 5


Turning right just before the entrance

to the modern village of Palaekastro, one

can follow a dirt road which leads right to the

base of the sacred mountain of Modi, the

conical outline of which stands out against

the sky from a long way off. To reach the

summit, where the Minoans worshipped the

gods of nature, and from which one enjoys

a magnificent view over the whole of the

eastern coast, one must pick one's way

through rocks and brushwood, ideally

following the winding goat tracks.

From the sacred

mountain of Modi a

dirt track leads to

small villages now

partly abandoned,

but with

interesting

traditional houses

The route continues past a forest

formed by the mills of a wind-farm and

groups of houses with modest gardens that

are swept by the perennial winds, as far as

Mitato and Vrysidi, two tiny hamlets with

few inhabitants. The soil takes on a rosy hue

as the path reaches Karydi with its low,

125


C H A P T E R 5

A deep, dark

hole marks the

entrance to the

large grotto of

Peristeria

situated

between Karydi

and Adravasti

square houses (most of which are no longer

inhabited) with doors and windows that bang

with every gust of the wind - the only master

in this ancient village. In the bare hills

surrounding Karydi the deep grotto of

Peristeria is to be found, opening its

immense

crater-like

mouth

amid the

thistles. At

this point

the

landscape

becomes

almost

lunar,

among

pointed rocks that take on the form of

animals or little stone monsters curled up

between the bushes: venturing on foot over

the uneven terrain, clambering over the

ridges of the hills and looking down towards

the dark precipices, the silence of this land

becomes almost unbearable.

The white

village of

Sitanos

126


Turning back towards Karydi and

following the road to Ziros, the snow-white

village of Sitanos awaits us, built on the

slope of hill with labyrinthine alleyways and

flat roofs on which onions, figs and pulses

are laid out to dry in the sun. Underground

watercourses have rendered this strip of land

more fertile and the landscape is softer here

among vast fields, vineyards and isolated

cypresses.

The area around

Sitanos and

Armeni is

famous for its

grapes and good

wine

127


C H A P T E R 5

Zakros and the Valley

of the Dead

From the top of

the sacred peak

of Traostalos

you can see the

grottoes that

mark the

entrance to the

Hochlakies

gorge

As one leaves the village of Palaekastro a

sign indicates the road for Zakros, one of the

great Minoan palaces of Crete. The land

between the two mountain chains that flank

the valley is fertile and is cultivated by the

farmers who live in the small traditional

villages of the area. Just past the houses of

Hochlakies a narrow gorge begins: the way

is almost blocked by

gigantic boulders

and a dense

vegetation, but at

the end it opens

suddenly onto a

great marshy

meadow with beds

of reeds which are

used for making

matting and baskets.

Further on, a lonely

beach of round

pebbles stretches

128


out before an eternally calm sea sheltered

by the cliffs on either side.

Behind a little cemetery with a small

white church that is level with the village of

Azokeramos, the climb towards the Minoan

peak sanctuary of Traostalos begins. The

path of pink soil contrasts with the dark

green bushes of thyme and sage, with their

scented flowers that feed the bees whose

honey has an intense and aromatic flavour.

At the summit a group of lighter-coloured

rocks marks out a natural sacred enclosure,

and the terrain is scattered with tiny

fragments of terracotta, chippings from the

votive offerings of the Minoans.

Once past the modern village of Zakros,

a small clearing marks the beginning of the

descent towards a deep gorge that runs out

into the creek of Kato Zakros where

the Minoan palace lies. Following

the twisted path of the gorge past

stones, pools of water and oleander

bushes, on the rock walls one notes

numerous caves cut into the stone:

these are Minoan graves, rock

tombs that have given the gorge

its name of "Valley of Death".

129


C H A P T E R 5

The gorge known

as the Valley of

Death descends

from the stoney

heights of Kato

Zakros as far as the

Minoan palace by

the sea

The asphalted road

drops rapidly down towards

the bay of Kato Zakros, with

fishing boats at anchor along

the shore and a row of

taverns that offer fresh fish.

The ancient palace of Zakros,

with its city that extends

across terracing on the hill

above, dates back to the

Second Palace period from

1600 to 1500 B.C. and was

discovered by chance in 1901

by the British archaeologist

David Hogarth, while intense

excavation was begun in

1962 by Nikolaos Platon.

Zakros's ancient masters lived

opulently thanks to the

flourishing maritime trade

that arrived from Egypt, Syria, Cyprus and

Asia Minor. Even though it was the smallest

of Crete's four Minoan palaces, the Zakros

residence had around 200 rooms, with

banqueting halls, purificatory baths, shrines,

130


the treasury, the megaron of the king and

the megaron of the queen, and an immense

archive-room in which hundreds of tablets

inscribed with the Linear A script were found,

still preserved in their boxes. In the various

rooms more than two-hundred vases were

discovered including real masterpieces

such as a rhyton in rock crystal, as well as

innumerable objects in bronze (axes, swords,

knives, hammers and various forms of vessel),

a very beautiful bull's head and many objects

in ivory, faience and gold.

The Minoan

palace and town

of Zakros

possessed one

of Crete's most

important

harbours and

became the

main gateway

for trade with

the Orient

131


C H A P T E R 5

The coast of the wild lilies

The rough and

stony land of

easternmost Crete

is still untouched

by the modern

construction

industry and mass

tourism

Just after the village of Zakros, a turning

beside the roadside remains of a Minoan

country villa indicates the way to

Xerokampos on the coast of the Libyan sea.

Amid olive groves, winding gorges and high

mountains, at last the coast comes into view,

little-inhabited and with wide beaches of

sand and pebbles. Immediately to the right

just before arriving at the village of

Xerokampos, one finds a small sandy bay

with emerald-green water and one of the

most beautiful beaches on Crete: right up to

the water's edge there grow snow-white lilies

and rare succulents that come into flower

under the baking midsummer sun.

132


Following the shoreline, one notes

a solitary small, white church built over

an ancient Minoan settlement called

Ambelos. Reoccupied in the Hellenistic

period, it was later conquered by the

Romans. The cut of the stones has nothing

of the monumental to it, but it is nonetheless

interesting to observe the remains of the

ancient site which probably belonged to

the kings of Zakros. Ambelos had a peak

sanctuary of its own on the promontory that

looks out over the two little islands in the

middle of the sea known as Kavali.

The coast near

Ambelos gives a

good idea of what

the island must

have been like in

ancient times

Leaving

Ambelos

behind us,

the landscape

becomes everwilder

and

more arid

while the sea

glitters in the

sunlight, inviting one to take continual dips

in its refreshing waters. We would

recommend a walk up to the far promontory

of Xerokampos which offers a magnificent

view over the entire coast as far as Koufonissi.

In one wall of rock the wind and the saltwater

have carved a giant face with a wide-open

mouth: it could easily be the face of the

gorgon Medusa,

The sea cliffs have

been eroded by

water, wind and

salt which have

sculpted strange

images into the

rock

133


C H A P T E R 5

sculpted by nature, ready to defend the

island. Nothing could be better than the

dizzying climb along the snaking road that

leads towards the few houses of the

traditional hamlet of Hametoulo and,

eventually, to Ziros, with its breathtaking

panorama, for taking our leave of eastern

Crete; wild, mysterious, secretive, austere

and at the

same time

warm and

hospitable,

rich in

magnificent

monuments

and jealous

of her many

hidden

beauties.

134


135


137


140


Chronology

7000 B.C. Stone Age, arrival of the first settlers

6500-2800 B.C. Neolithic Age and the beginning of the

Bronze Age

2800-2100 B.C. Arrival of the Minoans, pre-Palace period

2100-2000 B.C. Beginning of the First Palace period

2000-1700 B.C. Palace civilization, construction of the First

Palaces

1700 B.C. Destruction of the First Palaces by an

earthquake

1650-1500 B.C. Construction of the Second Palaces,

Second Palace period

1500-1450 B.C. Eruption of the volcano Thera and destruction

of the Second Palaces

1450-1200 B.C. Beginning of the post-Palace period,

arrival of the Mycenaeans

1200-1100 B.C. Beginning of the Iron Age

1100-900 B.C. Invasion of the Dorians

900-69 B.C. Geometric, Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic

periods. Creation of the city states, extensive

trade with the Near East and Egypt.

69 B.C.-330 A.D. Roman conquest and the beginning

of the Early Christian period

330-830 A.D. First Byzantine period

830-961 A.D. Invasion of the Arabs

961-1204 A.D. Second Byzantine period

1204-1669 A.D. Venetian dominion and the first stirrings

of Cretan resistance

1669-1898 A.D. Turkish occupation and very active

Cretan resistance

1898-1912 A.D. Liberation from Turkish occupation and

creation of the Autonomous Cretan State

under the protection of the European powers

1913 A.D. Official union of Crete with Greece

141


Glossary

Acropolis -

Ashlar-work -

Ayios -Ayia

Eteocretan -

Dromos -

Hestiatorion -

Iconostasis -

Kafeneion -

Kastro -

Katholikon -

Kernos -

Janissaries -

Megaron -

Mitate -

Paleos -

Panayia -

ancient citadel

square-hewn stone masonry or facing

‘saint’ or ‘holy’

'true Cretan', the last of the Minoan peoples

in eastern Crete

'street', the unroofed passage leading

into a tholos tomb

banqueting chamber in ancient buildings

screen between the altar and the nave

of the (Orthodox) church

coffeehouse

castle or fortified area

church or chapel within a monastery

vessel used for religious rituals

young Ottoman soldiers, guards selected

from Christian families and forced to

convert to Islam

the great hall of Minoan and Mycenaean

palaces

small stone house

'old'

the Virgin Mary

Peak sanctuary - ancient mountain-top shrine

Pithos - large storage jar

Polis -

town

Prytaneion - council chamber

Raki -

strong alcoholic drink produced on Crete

Rhyton - drinking horn, often in the form of an

animal-head

Spiti -

house

Temenos - sacred precinct

Tholos - conical or beehive-shaped tomb

142


TEXT

JUDITH LANGE

PHOTOGRAPHS

JUDITH LANGE - MARIA STEFOSSI

DESIGN - LAYOUT

MARIA STEFOSSI

ENGLISH TRANSLATION

JULIA MACGIBBON

PROOFREADING

JOHN O’ SHEA

COLOR SEPARATION - PRINTING - BINDING

BIBLIOSYNERGATIKI S.A.

The authors

Judith Lange is a journalist, photographer and painter,

Maria Stefossi is a photographer, graphic artist and editor.

Both are great travellers. They have published numerous books together,

among the most recent of which are: Ancient Theatres, Ancient Stadia, Crete,

Mani, Drama and Humble Beauty.

143


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