Raindrops and Roses

Well the rains have now come to northern Crete certainly. Although there were some hailstones falling in Iraklion, here in northwest Crete we have had just the gentle rains that always come every autumn. I love it when the rain comes.

The earth that summer baked hard is now soft and damp. A great time to plant trees, orange, lemon – even a new olive tree of the Kalamata type with big olives that you can store in jars and enjoy all year round. Plus we shall be buying some rose trees this year to build up a rose garden. Roses do so well in Crete that it is a shame not to have some. Also looking closely at the ground there is a host of new grass shoots with that typical bright green colour. Plus so many tiny seedlings are pushing through the surface that it is almost astonishing.

The best thing though is that at this time of year the rains help the olives grow larger on the trees ready for harvest in November. This means a good crop of oil that will see us through another wonderful year. Not like the oil you buy, but first pressing superb extra virgin oil that you can spread on bread, it tastes so good. Almost every Greek family have an access to oil of this quality wherever they live. Next month there will be holidays asked for in the various offices and businesses around Greece so that their employees and even board members can get back to their family olive groves and work like everyone else to take in the harvest. Accountants, doctors, factory workers and whatever will all become the same in order to take the crop of olives and get them to the press. Everyone working together in a common cause.

In a couple of weeks all the dead grasses and thistles that the end of summer brings will be hidden by new plants and the many yellow flowers that will cover the olive groves. Soon the snows will build up on the White Mountains and the high white peaks will glint again in the winter sun.

Still the local temperatures remain between 20 – 25 degrees Celsius so it is also a good time to be out and about exploring and getting things done. The end of October means the end of direct charter flights for the year. No more tourism until next April just work to gather the olives, the oranges and tree pruning. A great time to spend in tavernas, especially on saints days without the high prices and language difficulties that exist all of the tourist season. A time for outside work and a time of rest for the so many Greeks who have to work so hard all summer.

I hope I don’t again hear foreigners pleading for direct flights all year. The way we do it now is just right. Look at Cyprus!

Moments in Souda Bay War Cemetery

I spent a while this afternoon in the Souda Bay War Cemetery. Sometimes I just like to go there to sit and stare across the many neatly lined graves to the sea of Souda. I am too young to actually remember the war because I wasn’t born until 1946, but from what I have read, heard and seen on some newsreels, I have a good idea what happened here.

British and allied troops, New Zealanders, Australians and others were being rescued from the mainland of Greece and being brought to Souda by the Royal Navy. The British Expeditionary force on the mainland had been overrun by the German forces and those who could manage to get onto Naval ships were luckier than most.

Most of the battleships and destroyers had large red crosses on their decks to show that they were acting as hospital ships carrying wounded men. But this did not bother the Germans who continued to shoot at and bomb the British ships from the air. Some never even made it to Souda Bay. Eventually there were up to thirty British naval ships in Souda still being bombed and blasted by the German luftwaffe.

It is guessed that up to twenty of these ships are still there, sunk in Souda Bay. The men who could get off of the ships managed to climb up the sides of the bay and escape to olive groves wherever possible. It was a scene of absolute chaos and so many people died. More were to die in May 1941 when the German forces attacked the island of Crete, again by air.

After the war, all of the bodies that could be found, recognisable or unrecognisable, were brought back to Souda Bay to be laid to rest in this superb cemetery, gifted to the War Graves Commission by the Greek people. Each body has a stone, some of the stones have names, but so many just say ‘ A British Airman’ or ‘A New Zealand Soldier. Some of the stones have the names of famous people like John Pendlbury, curator of Knossos who joined up to defend Crete and died valiantly in 1941.

But today I saw the stone that had the name of a New Zealand Maori soldier who died fighting the Germans during the invasion of Crete. Just by the stone, a little wooden cross lies in the earth and beside that a photograph of him before he left New Zealand to come so far to fight people he had maybe never even heard of.

The photograph meant that someone, his parents, a brother or sister had also travelled this far. To pray for him and leave this small memento of his life cut drastically short by war. Today I looked right into his eyes and I felt desperately saddened by their terrible loss.

The Magical Mesara Plain.

In the whole of the island of Crete, one area that is still magical today as well as being vitally important to the history of Crete, is the Mesara Plain. The  Mesara is in southern central Crete in the south of the Nomos of Iraklion. It is the biggest plain in Crete and very important for the extensive agriculture that is produced there both now and around five thousand years ago.

The name ‘Mesara’ comes from the Greek for ‘between mountains.’ Mesos – between, oros – mountains, which becomes Mesaoria or the modern word, Mesara. In the north are the southern foothills of the Psiloritis or Ida mountain range and in the south are the Asterousian mountains between the Mesara and the Libyan Sea. The coastline of the Mesara faces west almost from Agia Galini in the north to Matala in the south. Between the two is one of the most perfect and extensive beaches in Crete, mostly with hardly a soul to be seen.

Two rivers flow through the Mesara and both have their source near to the village of Asimi. From there they flow in opposite directions. Geropotamos, known in ancient times as Lethaios, flows westwards to the sea and out into the Gulf of Mesara. Anapodaris, ancient name Katarhaktes, flows into the bay of Derma, east of the village of Tsoutsouros.

Here in the Mesara in ancient times, civilisation grew from Neolithic (5th Century BC) to the modern day. During the Minoan Prepalatial period growth was amazing (4th & 3rd centuries BC) where huge leaps forward were taken in architecture, pottery, the incredible circular tholos tombs, Agios Onoufrios and Kamares ware, countless figurines, seals and jewelry were produced.

In the first Palace period we see the palace at Festos being built (1900 – 1700 BC). The second Palace period was centered around the later palace at Festos, the palatial buildings at Agia Triada and at the port of Kommos just north of Matala near Pitsidia (1700 – 1300 BC).

Later the came Gortyn, the magnificent city that dominated the Mesara for sixteen centuries, from 800BC to 800AD. Gortyn is situated just west of Agioi Deka and covered a diameter of ten kilometres. It is said that in its greatest years over 80,000 people lived in Gortyn and in Roman times it became not only the capital of Crete but the Capital of Cyrene as well (North Africa).

There is still a plane tree in the ruins of Gortyn that keeps its leaves all year. Under that tree Zeus made love to Europa and the children that they produced were Minos, the king at Knossos and his brother Rhadamantys, King of Festos.

Agioi Deka, the ten saints of Crete.

The road from Iraklion winds south through the town of Agia Barbara and descends to the Mesara Plain at a small village which is still called, to this day, Agioi Deka. Agioi Deka is built on the eastern part of the ancient city of Gortyn. Gortyn is one of my favourite sites in Crete and more will be written of this exciting city of Crete which was the capital for many centuries of Crete and north Africa.

At the end of the second century AD, Christianity was spreading across Crete thanks to the earlier work of the Apostle Titus, a Cretan who was student to the Apostle Paul who landed on the island around 62AD.  Titus became the Patron Saint of Crete and a huge Basilica with five aisles has now been discovered west of the centre of Gortyn near the village of Metropolis, which is called the church of St Titus. The old church of St Titus in the public area of the Gortyn site was not the original church by any means. It was just called that by an archeologist in the last century.

By the end of the second century AD Christianity was an important religion in Gortyn. Circa 170 to 190AD Gortyn had a very active Christian bishop called Philip who is today held as a saint in the Roman Catholic church. Every day we learn more about these times in Crete but the information is still pretty scarce. At least until the year 249AD. Within the Roman Empire that year was a leader called Emperor Decius who was deified as were all Roman leaders. Decius though, wanted the whole of the Roman Empire to worship his name and this happened in Gortyn. A shrine was set up and a great celebration declared to worship the Emperor Decius, god of Rome.

Although Gortyn was by now becoming a Christian city, no one argued with the Emperor of Rome. So everyone in Gortyn went through the motions watched by the Romans. All except ten men who used the moment to protest saying that no one should be worshipped except the true god, Jesus Christ. Consequently all ten were arrested.

It is interesting though that this protest seemed to have been a planned protest. Although five of the men, Theodoulos, Satornilos, Euporos, Gelasios and Eunikianos came from Gortyn, the other five came from other cities such as: Pompios from Lebena, Agathapos from Panormos, Basiliedes from Kydonia (Hania), Zotikos from Knossos and Euarestos from Iraklion. The men were held in prison and tortured for one month. But they failed to change their opinions and so they were sentenced to death by the governor of Crete. The executions took place in Alonion, a part of Gortyn now known to be the main amphitheatre of Gortyn. Later in the reign of Constantine the Great of Eastern Rome now called Byzantium governed from Constantinopolis (Istanbul), permission was given to raise the bodies of the ten men, now sanctified as saints, and rebury them in holy ground in sarcophogi. No one knows exactly where they are buried for there is still so very much of Gortyn to discover.

The graves of the martyrs of Alonion, Gortyn may be the sarcophogi discovered during a rescue excavation in 1981. There was a low enclosure where stone sarcophogi were seen at the centre of which was a small votive pit. The site was then recovered and is now, apparently, no longer accessible. We just don’t know.

However the ten saints of Crete are still celebrated today for their courage and their sanctity and the previous centre of the amphitheatre Alonion now holds the church of the ten saints in the village of Agioi Deka, just south of the main road through the village. The church stands in the original oval of the centre of the amphitheatre and is dated to the late twelfth or early thirteenth century. It has a fine icon to the saints as well as wall paintings that depict the ten saints. It is well worth a look.

It is also worth remembering that the ten saints came from cities in central and western Crete suggesting that even in the third century AD, Christianity had not yet penetrated the east of the island.

Blogger to blogger in Crete

I had the great pleasure today to meet Jane of Jane’s Vrahassi and spent a good time talking with her, her husband David and George who is apparently known by some as ‘little legs.’ David is a great guy and we got on with him very well and swapped some stories and enjoyed their excellent source of red wine which is apparently delivered to them every week. How good can it get?

Here’s Jane.

George is fun too. We were discussing how many people there actually are who live in Crete at the moment. According to George it is over a million. I said no, that cannot be. I would say that it is six to seven hundred thousand at least. Jane, ever practical, went into her office and looked it up. Two years ago it was six hundred and thirty thousand. Fair enough!

But not good enough for George. He told us that with all the Albanians, Romanians, Bulgarians, English, Italian, French and whatever nationality that had been flooding into Crete this year, it is at least a million. Well people do come to the island to work, but they do not become residents we said. Another glass of wine with the associated toasts and other cordialities and the discussion continued. In fact it might have continued for ever. Who knows?

But back to Jane who has had her blog and its sister for some years now – by the way the other blog is Janes poetry and is linked to her site. Anyway there are very few bloggers in Crete and fewer in English and Jane is one of the best. She lives with her husband and her neighbour ex-partner but good friend George who is a shepherd from time to time as well as a local politician as well as various other things, but whatever it rolls on. Jane and David have been many years in Crete and their village is Vrahassi, the place that adopted them. Jane has put her British senses to work and has now produced a brochure called Anavlohos Walks and it is all in English, has lots of photos and information about the various walks that Jane does.There is the monastery walk, the local archeological walk and the village history walk. They all look very tempting and who knows I might comply one day when the wine runs low and the stars cease to shine, but that is just me and we live a long way away. In fact it took over two hours to get home on the national road, the famous motorway of Crete. Oh, and I drive too fast probably.

But the walks aren’t arduous and I do recommend them. Jane can be found in Vrahassi – which is just after Malia on the national road to Agios Nicholas. Look for the signs to Vrahassi. Get a brochure and go for a walk. Or just have a glass of the excellent red wine and you may find that Crete takes over, a meal in Janes Cafe – the Revolution Cafe – and you may feel the contentment you seek.

Crete is like that, all the time.

Island with a Hundred Cities

After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and the foundation of the new Greek Kingdoms, mostly in the east, the island of Crete rose in importance. Hellenistic Greece was a real bed of influence and threat as well as downright attacks on each other, kingdom verses kingdom, state against state.

The only way that these kingdoms could become stronger was to form alliances with each other. Many mainland states forged such alliances with Cretan cities and so Crete became much more powerful by influence and the fact that they had some of the best mercenary soldiers anywhere.

Crete became known to ancient writers as the ‘Island with a hundred cities’ (ekatompolis). And truly it had perhaps even more than one hundred. It is believed that there were more than a million people on the island serving all of these cities and there was very little land that was not tilled to grow food. Back then Crete also had huge forested areas right up to the mountain’s tree line and there was much fruit gathered from these forests. There was also plenty of wild game and there were many hunters.

The cities of Crete were often large cities, like Gortyn for example, with a diameter of six miles – ten kilometres. Other notable cities were of course Knossos, Lappa, Kydonia, Aptera and many more. The two most powerful of the cities were considered to be Gortyn on the Messara Plain and Knossos near to modern Iraklion. These two cities were often in dispute with each other, at other times they combined to attack another city. The city of Lyttos was destroyed by them. (220 BC).

Like many other parts of Greece though, Crete had a Koinon. This could be translated as a sort of parliament. The function and make up of this ‘parliament is hardly known, but it was thought to be a place where differences between city states could be discussed and decisions made. Although some of the Cretan cities had alliances with other parts of Greece and with Egypt under Ptolemy (who married his sister), the Koinon also had the function of gathering all the cities of Crete into a major alliance if ever they were attacked by foreigners. It could be said that this could happen at any time since many of the pirate ships that scourged the eastern Mediterranean operated out of Crete. The major seafarers of the time where the people of the island of Rhodes and they were constantly angry with the Cretan pirates. The origin of the word ‘syncretism’ started because of the Cretan Koinon. It means that although the Cretan cities might fight with one another, under an outside threat they became as one force.

The ‘island of a hundred cities’ must have been a wonderful place to see. Today it seems hard to imagine ten cities on Crete, never mind a hundred.

Poem for Ersi

It was all so long ago,
Days that never seemed to end,
The gentle rising of the sea in the harbour,
And the birds that came to my window
Just to sing.

And as a child I was warmed
By the sun and by the constancy
Of life among flowers
Brushed by the cooling summer wind.

But my childhood ended that summer
As the birds, frightened, flew away;
And to my window
Came an invader with bullets
That put an end to song.

‘Come’ cried my mother, ‘we must leave here,
We must find refuge, come now
Your childhood is over.’
I cried as my childhood died.

It was all so long ago.
Today, halfway across the world,
I watch as we all grow old.

I watch as we learn that frontiers divide
Not only our lands
But our minds.
And though walls fall,
Somewhere, someone is building another.

And still invaders invade
As dreams and homes are crushed
By the will of the few
Who say they speak for many.

But I remember my invader,
Who came that day to my window:
The grey and tired face
Lined with mud and fear and anger
Now spent in age and death.

I shall outlive him.

And soon I will walk among birds
Along that dusty road
That leads me home to Kyrenia.