Traveling with Cretan friends, we boarded a ferry at the port of Iraklion bound for Karpathos — an island at the eastern corner of the Cretan Sea. After a boring eight-hour voyage, we finally drew near the island. Our impression was of a rugged mountain range thrust up from the sea (which it is), but it is also much more.
Like many ferries that ply the Cretan Sea, the Preveli was quite large
Karpathos is a craggy, sparsely populated island with a unique characteristic: many of its people still live by traditions that others have forgotten in modern times. Some say it is the most truly Greek island in Greece. Our ferry docked at the main town of Pigadia, the only port that can cope with large ships. Actually, there are only two ports on the island — not counting shallow bays where smaller boats anchor.
Wind was the first thing we noticed when we stepped off the ferry. Homer, the famous epic poet, mentioned Karpathos in the Iliad, and called it “the windy island.” This is because the mountains and canyons focus and intensify the Meltemi winds that sweep across the sea during summer. We were told that Karpatians build their houses with doors facing away from the incoming wind.
Pigadia harbor is the only one that can handle large ships
Our island guide (Eleni) was waiting at the dock. She took us to our hotel, where she explained our travel agenda. After settling into our room we went looking for a place to eat supper. Waterfront cafes seemed to be geared towards foreign visitors. As usual, we searched the backstreets for tavernas where local people eat. We found Mike’s Place, where the owner recommended Karpathian sausages — which were unique and delicious.
Our coastal ferry to the port of Diafani was a small, well-kept wooden vessel
The next morning we rose early, had a quick buffet breakfast, and boarded a bus that returned us to the harbor. The Chrysovalantou, a well-maintained wooden ferry was waiting for us at the dock. Eleni stood at the gangplank to explain our voyage to the port of Diafani, and then onward by bus to the mountain village of Olimbos. We learned that our bus driver (also at the dock) was Eleni’s mother. The captain of our ferry was her uncle, and the crew were relatives. Family businesses are common in Greece — and especially on Karpathos.
The trip north to Diafani was educational. When we first arrived on the big ferry, the island appeared to be rocky and desolate. Cruising near the coast, we could see that pine forests covered the mountains and extended down to the edge of sea cliffs. It is much greener than we had thought.
Diafani is a small port town with a few remnants of its agricultural past
Smaller and less touristic than Pigadia, Diafani is proud of its rich cultural traditions. This was obvious in the people — especially women — going about their daily chores in traditional clothing. Karpathians are very conservative about their way of life and their clothing, and even their language — which includes several unique dialects (one of which is similar to the Cretan dialect).
While waiting for our bus, Eleni gave us a quick tour around the harbor area. One of more interesting sights was the “Fountain of Poseidon,” the base of which was ringed by hand-made tiles depicting traditional activities on the island, and tiles on the upper basin portrayed heroes of the past.
The waterfront fountain depicts Karpathian heroes and traditional life style
The tile images depicted the clothing Karpathians wore in the old days. There have been changes in recent years, but many women still wear the traditional dress with colorful embroidered vests and aprons. On a nearby stone wall was a statue of a traditional woman looking out to sea, perhaps awaiting the return of her husband’s fishing boat.
Sculpture of traditional woman looking out to sea
Eleni’s mother arrived with our bus before we had a chance to see more, so everyone boarded for the ride to the village of Olimbos. It was a short trip — only 5 miles on a new road— but rather unsettling. The road (which has no curbs or guardrails) twisted and turned along the edge of deep gorges. Between crags and cliffs, we passed ancient donkey trails and foot paths, as well as farming plots wherever there was enough soil to produce crops.
The winding mountain road to Olimbos is not for nervous people
Olimbos is perched high on a mountain ridge, and the way up from the sea is steep and strenuous — as a protection against pirate raids. Many Karpathians abandoned coastal settlements between the sixth and 13th centuries, and built more defensible villages in the highlands. (Our own Cretan village was built on a mountainside for the same reason.)
Our bus had to park outside the village, because its steep and narrow lanes were designed for foot traffic and donkeys. With only about 400 residents, the village is a living museum, where traditional clothing, crafts, music and a local dialect are preserved. They used oil lamps and candles until electricity came in 1980. Because it is remote and has few lodgings for outsiders, the village is not clogged with visitors.
Olimbos would seem to be a mountain climber’s ideal town
Above the village, along a mountain ridge, is a string of ancient windmills. There are 75 of them on the windy slopes near Olimbos. Most are ruins now, but four of them are still used to grind wheat and barley into flour for bread. During the hard years of World War II, Olimbos windmills and highland agriculture fed everyone on the island.
The windmills are built along the ridge line, with full exposure to the wind
Walking towards the village, we quickly encountered a smiling woman in traditional clothing with a colorful head scarf. She wanted to interest us in some of her weavings. Many of the traditional folk costumes of Karpathos have been lost, except in the village of Olimbos, where inhabitants cling to the old ways.
A smiling shopkeeper was the first person we met in the village
Karpathian clothing is symbolic — more so in the past than in modern times. A hundred years ago, the costume revealed the person. It was a status symbol that distinguished an upper class person from those of the lower classes. Now most traditional costumes appear to be very similar, with multi-colored embroidered skirts, aprons and scarves. The design of clothing worn by unmarried women and girls is somewhat different from that of their mothers.
We strolled along a lane wide enough only for people and donkeys, and paused at the counter of a small cafe, where a woman was hand-rolling some type of pasta. We were told these were makarounes — a Karpathian specialty. When someone mentions “specialty” we begin to fantasize about flavor, but it was early for lunch.
Woman making traditional makarounes to serve in her cafe
Continuing through the village, several of our female friends were attracted to a shop selling traditional headscarfs. Since we were heading towards the main church at the top of the village, those without head coverings for the church decided to buy.
Selling a traditional headscarf to a visitor on the way to church
Farther up the lane, we were invited into a Karpathian house. Although many island homes exhibit art and handcrafts and family photographs, this one was actually more a museum than an actual living space. It displayed a marvelous family record passed down for centuries in the form of colorful embroidery, knitting, weaving, and woodcarving.
The “traditional home” we visited was more a museum than a living space
We made our way up to the central square at the top of the ridge, where the main church stands. In the early days the little village of Olimbos was located here, and fortified against pirates. In the center of the fortress was a church and a tower (now gone) from which watchmen scanned the western coast for the sails of pirate ships. Houses built on the western slope were not painted, so they would blend in with the mountain. None of the village houses had chimneys, which could also give them away.
A beautiful church is located at the peak of the village
Climbing stairs to the square, we speculated that the bright colors of church and surrounding buildings were perhaps a celebration of freedom from piracy and the oppression these people had suffered for centuries.
Inside the church is a stunning display of gold and religious art
The interior of the church was a different world — filled with wall paintings, gold leaf, crystal chandeliers, religious icons, and countless candles representing the prayers of faithful visitors.
After visiting the church, we wandered downhill, investigating side alleys until we found a small cafe near the edge of the village. We stopped for iced coffee frappes and chatted with the lady who owned the place. She spoke English quite well, and had a good sense of humor. Members of our group began to walk by, and when we saw our driver we knew it was time for the bus to leave for Diafani.
The owner saw us off to the bus after coffee frappes and conversation
The return trip to Diafani was not as anxious as the journey into the mountains, perhaps we were used to it at this point. When we arrived in town Eleni informed us that we had some free time to explore and dine before boarding the boat back to Pigalia. So we did explore the town, and spent some time in their little natural history museum. We discovered that a large part of Karpathos is a refuge for various endangered species.
We found an inviting cafe nearly at the edge of town, just above the beach
After the museum, we walked along the waterfront almost the length of the town, until we found a cafe with outdoor seating and a view of the harbor. We looked over the menu, looking for something interesting. When the owner asked what we would like, we asked “Do you have makarounes?” She responded with an astonished “Of course we do!”
Makarounes topped with caramelized onions and grated goat cheese became one of our forever favorites.
NOTE: There are multiple spellings of the name Olimbos. Because there is no “y” in the Greek alphabet, and the letters “mp” are pronounced as a “b” there is some confusion when translating to English. Depending on what reference you find, the name of this village may be spelled Olympos, Olimpos, Olibos or Olimbos (which we saw on several maps and road signs). This is not to be confused with Mount Olympus (home of the ancient Greek gods), which is in northern Greece.
Driving west of Iraklion on the E75 highway, we turned southward toward Fodele (pronounced Foe-deh-lay). The road runs through the lush Pantomantris river valley filled with citrus groves and native forest. Fodele is a quiet farming village is known for its oranges and macramé artists, but it is mainly noted as the place where Domenikos Theotokopoulos, popularly known as El Greco (The Greek), was born in 1541. We came to visit the El Greco museum.
An ancient plane (platanos) tree dominates the central platia of Fodele village
Passing through the village square beneath a thousand-year-old plane tree, we could see the river flowing through in a canal designed to prevent spring flooding. However, during summer months the river becomes a shallow stream, perfect for wading on a hot day.
About a kilometer beyond the village, we parked near the 14th century Byzantine chapel of Panagia (Holy Mother). There are beautiful murals inside, but the doors were locked (churches do not leave valuable art unattended).
Byzantine church of Panagia on the roadside near the El Greco museum
So we crossed the road and climbed stairs through several terraces to an ancient stone house converted for use as a museum. It is thought to be the artist’s home, but no one knows that for certain. Regardless, a bronze bust of El Greco is mounted by the doorway.
A bronze bust of El Greco stands near the entrance of the museum
Inside, we found a collection of reproductions of El Greco’s paintings hung with back-lighting, accentuating their own light and color. Visitors are permitted to take photos (which is not allowed in most museums). We have seen a few El Greco originals in Greece, but most are scattered across Europe in churches and museums. So this was an opportunity to see many of his paintings in one place.
El Greco’s painting are displayed as large, backlighted transparencies
El Greco attended the Agia Ekaterini (St. Catherine) school in Iraklion. Their art department focused on the Byzantine style of those times. It produced some of the best religious artists of the century. Unlike his schoolmates, who worked within a framework of religious art, El Greco began to develop his own style at an early age.
El Greco studied art at Saint Catherine school in Iraklion
One of his early works, the icon “Dormition of the Virgin” in the Cathedral of the Dormition on the island of Syros, exhibits a Byzantine style. But this soon evolved into something new and different.
The Dormition is one of the most famous of the artist’s early works
Around 1566 he went to Venice and studied under Renaissance masters, which is reflected in some of his early work. El Greco combined Titian’s use of color and Tintoretto’s compositions of people and use of space. It was a clear departure from Byzantine icons.
El Greco’s Disrobing of Christ shows the influence of Titian and Tintoretto
When he later moved to Rome, where he was further influenced by some of the great Italian artists and sculptors of the time. However, disappointed by his inability to earn a living in Rome, in 1577 he moved to Spain in search of a patron for his work.
His first Spanish commission was for the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo. The Assumption of the Virgin (now on display in Chicago) was based on that of his old master, Titian. But El Greco was already showing his own style. He used strange colors, groupings and proportions for the figures. Throughout the rest of his career these differences became more evident, though Byzantine influences can still be seen through the mystic expressions and mood of his paintings.
The Burial of Count Orgaz is considered one of El Greco’s finest masterpieces
El Greco was well known and did have supporters in Toledo, but his style was unlike that of other artists of that time. He was forced to accept all kinds of commissions to pay off his debts, producing numerous portraits and religious images. He struggled for acceptance throughout his career, and he died trying to finish a commission in a hospital chapel.
For centuries after his death, El Greco was virtually ignored. Then, in the late 19th Century, he was rediscovered and studied by modern artists. Now he is considered an influential figure in the development of art in the 20th Century and into our time. This can be seen in the examples below.
Lady in Fur is a well known El Greco painting from his time in Toledo
Cézanne’s “Lady in Fur” is the artist’s tribute to El Greco’s work
Expressionism was a movement that used distortion to suggest mood and emotion, and El Greco was hailed as the forerunner of this style. In fact, he is considered a precursor of both Expressionism and Cubism. He is seen by modern scholars as an artist so individual that he belongs to no conventional school.
Vision of Saint John (The Fifth Seal) shows El Greco’s elongated figures and bold use of color
El Greco’s work inspired Picasso’s “Ladies of Avignon“ (compare the women to the right of St. John)
This week the Prado, Madrid’s top art museum, unveiled a major exhibit exploring the influence of El Greco on modern greats such as Édouard Manet, Paul Cézanne, Francis Bacon, Jackson Pollock, and Pablo Picasso.
El Greco’s composition is the source of the Expressionist painting on the right. Note that the positioning of the various figures and the colors used are very similar.
It has been more than 400 years since Domenikos Theotokopoulos lived, but the fame of El Greco has been rekindled and continues to grow. His artistic concepts (so strange to those who lived in his time) have inspired artists who live today. What was old has become new.
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 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).
Puppeteers manipulate characters behind a screen, and provide their voices
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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:
- Why did Sissi exist, and what was its purpose?
- Who was in charge at Sissi?
- What was the relationship between Malia and Sissi?
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Direct view from the mountain pass to Sissi and Kefali Hill.
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.
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 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 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.
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 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.
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.
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?
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.