Traveling Classroom Foundation
Saturday April 19th 2014

Shadow Theater

Brightly colored posters went up last week announcing the “shadow theater” was coming to our village. Long before movies and television, Greece had a different form of entertainment based on folklore traditions and social satire.

shadow theater poster Shadow theater posters were everywhere in the village.

Known as Karagiozis (the main character’s name), it involved paper-made puppets operated by a puppeteer behind a white screen (perhaps a piece of cloth or a sheet) backlit by a lantern or some other light source (now electric lamps).

behind_screen2 Karagiozis puppeteers manipulate the characters behind a screen, and provide a different voice for each of them.

Shadow theater began in Asia as part of a religious tradition. By the time it came to Greece during Ottoman rule (around 1880), it was a form of entertainment. Greeks took it several steps further by turning it into an outrageously funny satire that poked fun at everything that made life hard for people.


The hero – Karagiozis – is a clever pauper who lives with his family in a rundown shack near the Ottoman pasha’s palace. He is always coming up with absurd schemes to make a lot of money – and these plots are always doomed to hilarious failure.  Even in failure, however, Karagiozis manages to show great cunning in making the pashas, Turkish overlords and wealthy/corrupt Greeks all come off as fools themselves.

The themes of each play were adapted to various current social and political issues, as well as to historical events in Greece. These historical “Karagiozis” plays were very popular in the past and during times of crises, as they lifted the people’s spirits and offered hope.Through Karagiozis, the puppeteer mocks authority figures and situations … often adapts the script to current events. Ugly and hunchbacked, Karagiozis represents the common folk, always in conflict with injustice. He pretends to be a man of all trades in order to find work and devises silly but cunning solutions to the various difficult and strange situations he gets into. Karagiozis is famous for his pranks, which he uses to tease those around him.

Karagiozis offers the policeman a taste of his "special" mouse soup Karagiozis offers policeman his “special” mouse soup

From 1915 until 1950, which was a hard time for Greeks (wars, social unrest), Karagiozis was a continuous inspiration for the poor. He was an uncompromising hero who tried in vain to change his fate and fight against social injustice. The loud voice of the puppeteer, who portrays all the characters, could be heard in most of the cities and villages throughout Greece, with many generations of Greek children brought up with Karagiozis and the other characters.

karaghiozi characters Karagiozis characters represent a broad view of society, with all its faults.

Within each play one can find historical references, invention and much symbolism that makes the show enjoyable to intellectuals, ordinary people, and – of course – children.  Some suggest that Karagiozis plays are the histories of Greek people trying to conform to the laws, customs, values, and politics other countries have forced upon them. Noting the rising popularity of Karagiozis during the current political-economic crisis in Greece, this is something to consider.

audience The rapt attention of children is the biggest payoff for puppeteers.

However, last night “Karagiozis the Pirate” played to a full house of laughing children and adults. Hardly anyone was thinking about politics.

Way Station

The ancient Cretans, known as “Minoans” today, created a far-flung shipping and trade network with Europe, Africa and Asia. They built grand public buildings (palaces) with beautiful wall paintings, colorful stonework, light wells and sophisticated plumbing. However, after more than a century of digging up Minoan artifacts, archaeologists are still trying to explain who the Minoans were and how their society was organized. This is the main focus of a project started in 2007 near Sissi (pronounced “see-see”), a small fishing village on Crete’s north coast.

sissi-harbor Sissi is a small fishing and farming village near the Palace of Malia.

On our first visit to the excavation site, located on a seaside hill called Kefali, we found it fenced and locked.  Luckily, we were later invited to attend an on-site seminar hosted by Professor Jan Driessen, the project director.  Arriving at the site entrance, we found a large group of people, including some well-known archaeologists interested in learning about the progress of research.

Sisi_Driessen Dr. Driessen described the structure and orientation of Sissi building.

Sissi is within walking distance of Malia (one of the great palace complexes on Crete).  Therefore, one might assume Sissi served the ruler of Malia. However, like other Minoan palaces, Malia was supported by farms and villages that produced food supplies and manufactured goods to fill the palace store-rooms and treasure-houses.  Some of these products were consumed, and others were shipped out as trade goods to other countries.  However, Sissi was certainly not a peasant farmstead supporting the ruling class.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Scale model of Malia’s main palace buildings.

Malia was ruled by rich and cultured leaders, which can be inferred from the refined architecture, cultural artifacts and other records they left behind.  The ancient site at Sissi is similar to Malia palace – but on a smaller scale.  This raises some interesting questions:

  1. Why did Sissi exist, and what was its purpose?
  2. Who was in charge at Sissi?
  3. What was the relationship between Malia and Sissi?
  4. How did they interact?

These are the sort of questions the Sissi research team hopes to answer.

Study of the technology, production and use of material culture (pottery, architecture, stone and metal objects) at Sissi is starting to reveal much about the social, economic and political life of those who lived there.  In addition to traditional excavation techniques, the team is using high-tech 3D scanning equipment, ground-penetrating radar, and aerial photography to record both topographical and archaeological features.  Electronic data are then organized in a computer, which makes it easier for researchers to access data and images.

Plan drawing of the Sissi site, with technical data. Computer drawing of the Sissi site, with technical data.

Dr. Driessen guided us through the Sissi excavation, describing the architecture and purpose of the buildings and artifacts uncovered during excavation, and answering technical questions asked by archaeologists in the audience.

Sisi_Driessen2 Dr. Driessen explains the functions of the various areas of Sissi.

An impressive area of the “mini-palace” was the reception hall and related rooms, where visitors would have meetings and enjoy banquets with the lords (or managers) of Sissi.  Here we could see the bases of stone columns that supported the high ceilings and upper floors.  Beyond stone thresholds were storerooms and a kitchen where food was prepared for guests.  From this part of the complex we could look down to the harbor, where Minoan ships once moored.

Sisi_palace_layout Main meeting rooms and banquest hall of the Sissi complex.

Several excavation campaigns have revealed a settlement occupied between 2600 and 1250 BCE, and a large cemetery used between 2600 and 1750 BCE.  The cemetery, located below the “palace” and just above the shoreline, is in poor condition.  Many centuries of human activity and erosion by the sea, rain and wind have uncovered many of the graves and destroyed artifacts.  In some places, the bones of ancient Minoans are visible on the surface.

Bones of an ancient Minoan can been see on the surface in the cemetery. Bones of an ancient Minoan can been see on the surface in the cemetery.

Why did this place endure for so long, even after the palace of Malia itself was abandoned?  Dr. Driessen believes the rulers of Malia chose this hill at Sissi for strategic reasons. With steep slopes on three sides and the sea on the fourth, Kefali hill could be easily defended. Also, the hill guards the only mountain pass between Malia and the eastern regions of Crete. This gave Sissi a unique a special defensive and commercial advantage.

In addition to controlling the mountain pass (now called Selinari Gorge), Sissi had its own protected harbor and easy access to the beach at Milato.  Both of these might have served as extra shipping ports for Malia (which is also located on the sea shore).  In other words, Sissi may have operated as a sort of “way station” handling security, cargo transfer, and perhaps tolls at import-export routes to Malia.  Who might have been in charge of such an important center?  Perhaps they were trusted Malia administrators and military leaders.

Sissi controls the sea and mountain pass routes to Malia. Sissi controls the sea and mountain pass routes to Malia.

After the decline of Malia, Sissi was still important to those who wanted to regulate trade and security in central Crete.  The Greeks, who came after the Minoans, controlled Selinari pass and (at Gournia) trade routes from the south coast.  Over the centuries, many rulers (the Romans, Byzantines, Venetians and Ottomans) tried to manage shipping and trade.  Even the German military established a base at Sissi (with an artillery emplacement just below Kefali hill) to defend against Allied ships during World War II.

view from selinari to sissi Direct view from the mountain pass to Sissi and Kefali Hill.

Ancient Sailors

Until recently, it was thought that humans began sailing the Mediterranean Sea around 12,000 BCE. But scientists now believe early Stone Age people arrived on Crete at least 130,000 years ago.

High, rocky bluffs around the village of Plakia were the shoreline zone in prehistoric times. Rocky bluffs around the village of Plakia were actually the shoreline zone in prehistoric times. This is where the team began excavations.

Why the huge timeline shift? A Greek-American research team found man-made tools in 130,000-year-old rock formations in southwest Crete, near the village of Plakias. And since Crete has been an island for more than five million years, the toolmakers must have arrived by boat. In other words, they could have been the world’s first sailors.

The boats of Stone Age migrants were probably log rafts with sails made of animal skins sewn together and mounted on poles to catch the wind. The boats of Stone Age migrants were probably log rafts with sails made of animal skins sewn together and lashed to a tree limb to catch the wind.

The Plakias Survey team collected over 2,000 artifacts at 29 sites around limestone caves and rockshelters, where ancient humans lived and made their stone tools.

Caves and other ancient dwellings that were on the beach are now in the ridges above the sea. Caves that were on the beach are now high on the ridges above the sea.

The researchers think that prehistoric humans must have found Crete an attractive place to hunt for food. In fact, Crete had many edible plants and a variety of wildlife – including small elephants and dwarf hippopotami (much smaller than the big hippopotamus you might see at a zoo).

Several cave dwellings were found near Preveli Gorge, which flows into the sea. Several cave dwellings were found near Preveli Gorge.

Upon examining all caves and rockshelters near fresh water streams and rivers emptying into the Libyan Sea, the survey team discovered stone artifacts on the slopes directly below the openings.

Survey team examine a stone tool found on the marine terrace below cave. Survey team examine a stone tool found on the marine terrace below a cave.

The geological context (known age of the soil/stone strata) at five of the sites allowed an approximate date to be assigned of 130,000 years. However, some artifacts may be much older.

Layers of ancient beach were excavated to locate man-made stone tools. Layers of ancient beach were excavated to locate man-made stone tools.

Quartz (which can be given sharp edges) was the main raw material used to manufacture such things as hand axes, cleavers, scrapers, and other tools. These artifacts not only represent the earliest tools ever discovered on Crete, they also demonstrate the talented seafaring abilities of ancient humans. The Plakias team wants to conduct more archaeological and geological research into these early phases of prehistory in the region.

Handaxe excavated near one of the ancient cave homes. Quartz handaxe excavated near one of the ancient cave homes.

It is thought that these early arrivals on the island of Crete were Homo heidelbergensis – forerunners of modern humans. They were not the grunting cavemen depicted in movies. On the contrary, they were intelligent toolmakers who had a language, formed family and social groups, and buried their dead with gifts for the afterlife (suggesting they had a religion).

Scientists think first settlers on Crete were probably Homo heidelbergensis, an expert toolmaker who predates modern man by thousands of years.

Where did these early humans come from – the Greek mainland, Europe, the Near East, Africa? No one knows for certain. Wherever their origin, the findings at Plakias alters the way we must think about how people spread across the world. Until now, most scientists thought early man migrated by land routes. Since the first settlers on Crete came across the sea, it is possible that there could have been sea routes crossed by long-distance seafarers moving at will throughout the Mediterranean.

How long did these early humans stay on Crete, and what effect did they have on the environment? We know Homo heidelbergensis was an experienced hunter, and we also know prehistoric animals that once populated Crete vanished long ago. Did the early settlers hunt these creatures to extinction and then move on?

The dwarf hippopotomus was widespread across Crete, but became extinct long ago. Dwarf hippos were once widespread across Crete, but became extinct.

Such questions remain unanswered for the moment. However, recent discoveries at Plakias make us think about the significance and impact of early seafaring on the peopling of the Mediterranean, Europe and the world.

Olive Harvest

When the last tourists return to northern lands in autumn, Cretan interests swiftly turn to the olive harvest. Workers at the olive mill in Koutouloufari prepare for a flood of local olives. Not far away, near our home in Ano Hersonissos, growers inspect their crops for maturity. We had several rainfalls, but many olives were still small and hard in October. Important choices must be made.

Olives are still small and hard in early October

Harvest time depends on many things, including olive variety, temperature, sunlight and water. Every grower knows his decisions affect the value of his harvest. Cooler weather can result in unripe fruit clinging to trees well into winter. To avoid damage from frost or storms, farmers are sometimes forced to pick olives earlier than they want – which means less olive oil and lower quality. Careful planning ensures the harvest crew and equipment are ready when needed, and milling must be scheduled for a quick turnaround. You can’t leave olives sitting around in sacks without losing quality and flavor.

The olives are ready to harvest when they become plump

In October some growers from our village were already bringing their catch nets to the olive groves and preparing their storage tanks to receive the precious oil after milling. The harvest begins when the fruit is three quarters ripe, and it lasts through the winter months of November to January.

Nets are spread under the trees to catch the olives when they fall

During the harvest, families, friends and hired hands converge in the olive grove at first light. Nets are spread under the trees, and sacks are laid out nearby. Every winter harvesters can be seen coaxing the ripe fruit with sticks, long plastic forks, and hand-held motorized rakes. The fruit drops on to the nets beneath the trees, ready to be collected.

Rods with spinning heads knock olives down without damaging them

As workers move from one tree to the next, the gatherers sort through olives and leafy debris in the nets. They strip fruit from twigs that have been knocked down, discard the waste, and carry the olives to screened hoppers. The olives (and some leaves) fall through the screen into a funnel and then into a sack. When the sack is full, it is tied and set aside with others or loaded into a truck for a trip to the mill.

Olives are dumped into a hopper which fills the sacks

At midday women and children often join the workers in the grove for lunch and family time. Then it is back to work for the remainder of the day. Just before sunset, full sacks of olives are carefully bundled into trucks and taken to the mill for processing.

A short lunch at mid-day before returning to work

Each grower labels his sacks, so that his olives are not mixed with those from other groves on the production line. The mill washes the olives and removes any remaining leaves and debris, and the fruit is reduced to an olive slush. A press or a spinning centrifuge is then used to extract the precious extra virgin (top quality) oil, for which this region is famous. (See Making Olive Oil for details.)

Sacks of olives sit in the shade until they are taken to the mill

This winter, the olive harvest has never been more important. As the Greek economic crisis continues, many thousands of people are returning to their ancestral villages in search of jobs to support themselves until tourists (and summer jobs) return in spring.

Electric olive rods make the harvest go faster

Here in Crete, olives are on everyone’s mind. With over 1.5 million trees and near-perfect growing conditions, Cretan growers claim the highest percentage of extra virgin oil, and reputedly the tastiest in the world.

The commercial growers sell off their oil to the big brands, who distribute it around Greece. A large volume is shipped to Italy, where it is bottled (as Italian oil) for export around the world. However, the olive harvest in this local grove will provide oil to the local market. In fact, a much of that oil will be used to prepare tasty meals at Georgios Place, a traditional taverna near our home.

Much of the oil from this olive grove goes to a local taverna

Symbol of Freedom

We decide to visit the Arkadi monastery, perhaps the most important shrine of Cretan independence. Our journey takes us through Iraklio and towards Rethymno on the National Highway. We turn southward at Stavromenos and continue towards Mount Ida (Psiloritis), the highest peak in Crete and the sacred mountain of Rhea, known as the mother of the Greek Gods. It is also thought to be where Zeus was born and raised.

The road to Arkadi is a winding route through beautiful country

Our route through the foothills is winding, but there are few travelers at this time of the year – so we can enjoy the rugged landscape. We find the monastery on a fertile plateau, with the great mountain rising in the distance.

Arkadi Monastery is located on a fertile plateau beneath Mt. Ida

Arkadi does not look like other monasteries we have visited. In fact, its outer shell is more like a stone fortress. The large rectangle encloses rooms of the monks, a dining hall, work places, a school and fine library, storerooms for food, and stables for farm animals.

Arkadi is built like a fortress, with thick battle-scarred walls

In the center of the monastery compound stands Saint Constantine, a beautiful church designed by someone familiar with Italian Renaissance architecture in the late 16th century. The exterior does not match up with the interior of the church, which is made up of two identical prayer halls.

St. Constantine church stands in the middle of the monastery compound

The monastery was built at a time when bandit gangs would attack churches and steal their religious treasures. Because of this, it was designed as a stronghold where the monks could defend themselves and any local people who might take refuge there in times of trouble. No one imagined Arkadi would have to fight an army. But it did … and became the most famous monastery in Greece.

Below is a nice 3D tour of the entire monastery (from YouTube).

When a revolt against Turkish rule broke out across Crete in August 1866, Gabriel Marinakis (the Abbot of Arkadi), was a member of the Rethymno revolutionary committees. A small force of Cretan rebels commanded by Ioannis Dimakopoulos took refuge in the monastery, which was against the laws imposed by their Ottoman rulers. They were soon joined by hundreds of local residents, bringing their valuables in hopes of saving them from the Turks. By late October, the monastery was sheltering 964 people. Of the 325 men inside the monastery, only 259 were armed; the other refugees were women and children.

Mustafa Pasha was commander of the Ottoman military in Crete

The Ottoman ruler responded to the monastery “rebellion” by sending Mustafa Pasha, the military commander of Crete, with an army of 15,000 towards Arkadi. Mustafa stopped along the way to destroy the village of Episkopi, another rebel stronghold. From there, he sent a letter to the revolutionary committee at Arkadi, ordering them to surrender and informing them that he would arrive at the monastery in few days.

The freedom fighters answered by raising their rebel flag. It featured the initials of the motto “Enosis” (meaning union with Greece), “Freedom or Death”, and a cross with the inscription “Jesus Christ Conquers.”

The Arkadi rebel flag, still stained with the blood of martyrs

When the Ottoman army arrived at Arkadi,  Mustafa Pasha was in comfortable lodgings elsewhere. The field commander (Suleyman) placed his troops and 30 small cannons around the monastery and sent a last demand for surrender. He received only gunfire in response, and so the siege began. The battle lasted all day without the Ottomans breaking into the monastery compound. The Cretan rebels had barricaded the main door and taking it would be difficult. They were protected by the thick monastery walls, while their enemy suffered many losses in the open fields.

The rebels refused to surrender, and the Ottoman siege began

The battle ceased with nightfall, and Suleyman received two heavy cannons from Rethymno. He aimed them at the barricaded entry of the monastery. The defenders sent two men, disguised as Turks, over the wall and across the Ottoman lines to seek reinforcements. The messengers returned later that night with bad news. No help would be coming, because all roads had been blocked by Ottoman forces.

Combat resumed the following day. Heavy cannons smashed the doors and Turkish soldiers swarmed into the compound, where they suffered more serious losses. However, the Cretans were running out of ammunition and many of them had to fight with only bayonets and farm tools. The Turks had the advantage.

Arkadi defenders were vastly outnumbered by the Ottoman army

After three days of desperate fighting, the rebels realized they could not win. They also knew torture and execution awaited them if they surrendered. This was when they made a decision that changed the history of Crete. They chose to die.

Artist's impression of the last minutes in the gunpowder storage room

The wounded fighters, monks, women and children crowded together in a wine cellar used for gunpowder storage, leaving the last few armed defenders outside to carry on the fight. When Turkish forces killed the last defenders and swarmed the door and over the roof of the munitions room, the gunpowder was ignited. Everyone inside died instantly and the huge explosion took many Ottoman soldiers with them.

Arkadi memorial stamp, showing destruction of the gunpowder room

One account suggests Abbot Gabriel set off the explosion, but others claim he was killed on the first day of the siege. In another version of the story, Kostis Giamboudakis was the hero who ignited the gunpowder storage room.

Kostis Giamboudakis, a Cretan hero of the Arkadi siege

Kostis was a villager who loved freedom. When the 1866 revolt broke out, Kostis moved his wife and children to safety in the mountain village of Amari. He told his family, “Farewell forever. I will go to Arkadi and I will fight to death. I will never surrender to the Turks.” Then he hiked to the monastery, where glory and immortality awaited him.

The Ottomans considered Arkadi a great victory. But the events at Arkadi provoked international outrage. Giuseppe Garibaldi – the leader who unified Italy – urged his supporters to join the Cretan struggle. One popular novelist compared the Arkadi tragedy with the Siege of Missolonghi, where many innocent people died. Money was raised in Britain to send a ship, the Arkadi, to run the Turkish blockade. American volunteers came to aid Crete in their battle for freedom, and the great powers of Europe committed themselves to ending the Ottoman Empire.

In 1897 – 31 years after the Arkadi massacre – British Marines marched into Hania to help free Cretans remove all Turkish troops from the island

Turkish forces were expelled in 1898, and an independent Cretan state was founded. In 1913, after the Ottoman Empire lost virtually all of its Balkan possessions, Crete was united with Greece. The last Turkish residents in Crete were sent back to Turkey in 1923.

The Arkadi monastery remains a symbol of the struggle for independence in Crete. But it is also a working monastery, although there are only three monks living here today.

An ossuary at the monastery holds the bones of Arkadi defenders

Outside the monastery, a windmill was converted into a monument to those who died at Arkadi in 1866. Their skulls and bones, clearly showing bullet holes and sword cuts, are displayed behind glass on shelves.

An inscription commemorates the sacrifice of the fallen Cretans:

“Nothing is more noble or glorious than dying for one’s country.”

The skulls of Arkadi heroes are carefully protected behind glass
 For American teachers who want to compare the events at Arkadi Monastery with something more familiar, consider the circumstances at the Battle of the Alamo – and the impact it had on Texans seeking independence.
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Shadow Theater

Shadow Theater

Brightly colored posters went up last week announcing the “shadow theater” was coming to our village. Long before [Read More]

Way Station

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The ancient Cretans, known as “Minoans” today, created a far-flung shipping and trade network with Europe, Africa [Read More]

Ancient Sailors

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Until recently, it was thought that humans began sailing the Mediterranean Sea around 12,000 BCE. But scientists now [Read More]

Olive Harvest

Olive Harvest

When the last tourists return to northern lands in autumn, Cretan interests swiftly turn to the olive harvest. Workers [Read More]

Symbol of Freedom

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