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Traveling Classroom | Traveling Classroom Foundation
Traveling Classroom Foundation
Wednesday August 17th 2022

Making Olive Oil

While the morning air is still cool, we are off on a hike through the three villages above Limin Hersonisou. Just downhill from our apartment, we pass the olive oil factory (now a stylish café) on the central street of the village. It makes us wonder where the local farmers have their olives processed these days.

The old olive oil factory is now a popular café

Our friend Pavlos mentioned a cooperative, but we have never seen it. The hillside villages – Koutouloufari (where we live), Piskopiano, and Ano Hersonisos – are surrounded by olive groves. Despite the growth of tourism, these are still farming communities and olives are a big part of their economy.

Olive groves in the hills above the sea

We arrive at a nearly empty platia in Ano Hersonisos. The little square is encircled by several cafés, a bakery, and the butcher’s shop, but it is always quiet at this time of day. Only the bakery (which bakes its bread before sunrise) is busy in the morning.

Adonis, an acquaintance of ours, is sitting in front of his empty café. He asks if we are ready for a cool drink, so we must stop to visit. We sit at one of the outdoor tables, and Adonis – without asking what we want – disappears into the café. A short time later he serves coffee frappes, metrio me gala (medium sweet with milk), as we always order them.

Empty cafés on the square in Ano Hersonisos

After drinking our frappes and chatting with Adonis, we continue to the village edge and more olive groves. At the roadside is an abandoned olive mill, which Duane begins to examine. He attracts the interest of an elderly fellow, who stops and speaks to us – first in Greek and then in German (he knows no English). Duane attended high school in Germany, so we manage a multi-language conversation.

Discussing an abandoned olive mill on the roadside

The man says the owner discarded this equipment because the mill stones are no longer serviceable. He points out wear patterns on the stones. While we don’t understand everything he is saying, we gather that such portable olive mills were kept near the groves and shared by neighboring farmers.

This makes sense, considering how olives are harvested. As in ancient times, it is often a community chore involving families and friends. In November, after the autumn rains, olives are gathered for the year’s oil. This can continue into January, if good weather lasts.

Harvesting the olives is a cooperative chore

Harvesters shake olives from the trees by pulling on the branches, tapping them with sticks, or using plastic rakes that won’t damage the tree. The fruit – along with leaves and twigs – fall onto netting or tarps spread on the ground beneath the trees. This is all collected in bags and hauled to a nearby olive press, where the olives are washed and prepared for processing.

Old stone olive mills are still used in some places

In ancient times, the clean olives were dumped into a stone basin and ground into a mash by a heavy millstone, which was rolled around the basin on an axle – usually harnessed to a donkey. In some places it is still done this way.  In fact, we have seen many old olive mills and millstones during our travels.

Workers then scooped the olive mash into loosely woven baskets and allowed the oil to drain into vats. Even more olive oil could be extracted by squeezing the baskets of mash. The pulp-filled baskets were stacked and placed under heavy stones or a weighted beam anchored into a wall. Later, various types of screw presses were used to compress the baskets, extracting the last drops of oil from the mash.

Old olive presses at an abandoned oil factory

More than half the pulp of an olive is oil, and the average olive tree can produce up to 18 gallons of oil annually. After the pressing, any oil residue was used to make soap, and the hulls were used to feed livestock or dried and burned for heat in winter. There was no waste.

These methods may seem old fashioned, but not when you consider that rural areas of mainland Greece and the islands did not have a stable electrical power grid until fairly recently.  So the old (non-electrical) methods worked well for farmers who could not rely on modern technology.

Modern stainless steel centrifuge quickly extracts olive oil

Many farmers now own pickup trucks, which carry more olives greater distances than donkeys can. So farmers can now take their harvest miles away to a cooperative processing plant. These plants have automated equipment to clean the olives and transport them into blades of a macerator, which quickly produces an olive slush that is piped into a centrifuge. The spinning centrifuge extracts the olive oil much more efficiently than the old olive press.

Olive oil fresh from the centrifuge

Some farmers think the old way is best, but those methods cannot process the vast quantities of olives produced by the larger growers. That discussion could go on forever, because olives are a part of Greek culture. According to an ancient myth, the goddess Athena gave Greeks the olive tree as a gift – one that keeps producing for hundreds of years. There have been olives and olive oil as long as there have been Greeks.

After our conversation with the old farmer, we hike back to Koutouloufari. It is noon when we arrive, and we are ready for lunch. We stop at our favorite little taverna for something light – mezes and a village salad with lemon juice and olive oil.

Accidental Discovery

We never know what our travels will reveal, and maybe that’s a good thing. Sometimes one discovers more by accident than through exertion – as we learned today. This morning we started out to find Nirou Hani, a large Minoan villa near the beach town of Kokkini Hani, about halfway to Iraklio. A very simple expedition.

Unfortunately, navigating Cretan roads is complicated by occasionally faulty maps and often nonexistent road signs. We drive the old coast road through Kato Gouves, Gournes, and finally Kokkini Hani. Then we turn south into the hills, looking for a road sign or any clue to the inland archaeological site indicated on our map. After several failed detours, we return to Kokkini Hani and stop at a beachside taverna. Taking a table on a terrace above the sand, we order iced coffee frappes.

It is too windy for lying on the beach

It is windy today. The sea is frothy and there are sizable waves (for the Aegean) rolling onto the shore. Consequently, the chaise lounges along the beach, usually occupied by sunbathers, are deserted. That’s okay with us. After driving about in the hills, it feels good to sit at an empty beach in a cool breeze.

About halfway through our frappes, we notice a small fenced area next to the taverna. It extends from the road above to the beach, and contains what appears to be part of an ancient foundation or seawall. After finishing our drinks, we walk over to investigate. It doesn’t make much sense, until we climb the stairs and find Nirou Hani, just across the road from where our car is parked.

Nirou Hani is sandwiched between streets of apartments

After collecting our camera bag, we cross the road to the fenced archaeological site. It is hemmed in by the modern town on the east and west, and farm land to the south.  From our first look at the covered ruins, it is clear that this was a magnificent villa – maybe big enough to be called a palace. According to our notes, it had about a 1000 square meters of floor space in two stories.  And it shows all the typical features of Minoan architecture: two paved courtyards, connecting corridors, storage rooms with pithoi, a staircase to the upper level, a light well (bringing sunlight to the ground floor), religious shrines, and so on.

View to the sea from Nirou Hani villa

Some archaeologists believe it was a high priest’s mansion or perhaps a religious center, because it contained many ceremonial vessels, as well as four bronze double axes, forty tripod altars, and other ritual objects.  The remains of a large pair of horns of consecration were also found on an altar, together with pieces of fresco showing sacral knots. These surely indicate religious activities.

Living area with seating, or perhaps a meeting chamber

The villa was probably built in the 16th century BCE, and then reconstructed after the tsunami caused by the eruption of Thera destroyed everything along the north coast.  In fact, votive cups containing pieces of volcanic pumice from Thera were found beneath the shrine. Perhaps they were placed there as an offering to ward off any future volcanic disasters.

It lasted another century, until it was destroyed by fire (the interior walls and upper floor were supported by wooden timbers). The villa was not rebuilt again.

We were lucky to have found Nirou Hani on the side of the road, where it was almost invisible to passing cars. The next time we search for something, we will try not to “plan” as carefully, and perhaps let events unfold by chance.

Ten Against the Emperor

After leaving Gortys, we stop in the small village of Ayioi Deka, at the eastern edge of the ancient city. This village is important to all Orthodox Christians on the island, because it was here that early supporters of the Cretan church were martyred.

Street in the old part of Ayioi Deka village

Christianity spread across Crete mainly due to the earlier work of Titos (Titus), a Cretan apprentice of the Apostle Paul who landed on the island around 62 CE.  Titos became the patron saint of Crete and a huge basilica dedicated to Ayios Titos was built west of the Gortys praetorium, near the village of Metropolis (this is not the smaller church at the public site).

Roman Emperor Gaius Messius Quintas Decius

By the end of the second century Gortys was becoming a Christian city. In 249 CE, the year he became emperor of Rome, Gaius Messius Quintas Decius decided to go back to the old Roman standard – he wanted to be worshiped as a god throughout the empire. This was mainly a ploy to weed out Christians in the Empire.

A shrine was built in Gortys, and a festival declared to venerate the Emperor Decius as a Roman god. Although there were many Christians in Gortys by this time, no one wanted to argue with the Emperor of Rome. So everyone went through the motions. All except ten men who protested, saying that no one should be worshiped except the true God.

This protest may have been organized. Although five of the men were from Gortys, the others came from Leviena, Panormos, Kydonia (Hania), Knossos and Iraklio to participate in the protest. They were all arrested, held in prison, and tortured for one month. But they refused to renounce their religious views, and so they were sentenced to death by the Roman governor of Crete.

The executions took place in the main amphitheater of Gortys. Later, during the reign of Constantine, the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire, permission was given to raise the bodies of the ten men, now sanctified as martyrs and saints, and rebury them in holy ground.

They became known as Ayioi Deka (Holy Ten), and the little village we are now exploring was named for them. In the village is the church of Ayioi Deka, built in the late 12th or early 13th century. It stands in the center of the amphitheater where the ten were decapitated.

Ayioi Deka church near the old village center

In the nave of the church is an icon portraying the martyrdom of the ten, and the block on which they were beheaded.

Interior of Ayioi Deka Church

Ironically, Emperor Decius died about a year after the ten were executed, and his anti-Christian edicts faded. Within two generations religious tolerance was proclaimed throughout the Empire.

Gortys – A City for the Ages

To avoid the heat, we begin our journey to Gortys very early.  There are several winding country roads through the mountains. However, the best route is from Iraklio to the highway that leads directly to the south coast. Despite driving the mountain pass behind a large truck hauling construction equipment, we arrive in Gortys before 9:00 AM.  Unfortunately, it is already getting hot.

Messara has the richest farming land on the island of Crete

Gortys is located in the Messara Plain, the richest agricultural area on Crete. For a long time it was just a small Minoan village on a hill near the Lithaios river, under the power of the nearby palace of Phaestos and (later) Mycenaean conquerors. With the arrival of the Dorian Greeks, it began to develop into a powerful city in its own right.

All of the Dorians seemed to build their settlements in the same way: heavily fortified on top of a defensible hill (see Dreros). That makes sense when you are an intruder surrounded by real or imagined enemies. Gortys was no exception. We start our investigation at the old acropolis on Ayios Ioannis (St. John) hill, northwest of the public archaeological site. The Dorians built their fortress here during the Geometric period (10th – 7th century BCE), after taking over the walled Minoan village that had stood for over 600 years.

Remains of the fortified acropolis on Ayios Ioannis hill

There isn’t much here to see, just a few surviving fortifications and the remains of a small temple dedicated to Athina Poliouchos (Athena, Builder of Fortresses), a favorite goddess of warriors. The real growth of Gortys occurred below the acropolis, on the Messara Plain. As years passed, the town grew rich and powerful, and it spread over a large part of the plain.  By the end of the 7th century BCE, Gortys replaced Phaestos as the regional capital.

In the 5th century BCE, Gortys was the largest and richest city in the region. But if you think its wealth came from cultivating the land (as in Minoan times), you are mistaken. Instead of working in their olive groves and vineyards, many citizens of Gortys pursued more lucrative ventures: shipping and piracy. They operated out of the harbor towns of Matala and Leviena (modern Lentas), and their territory included the entire south coast of Crete.

Ruins at Leviena, the ancient port of Gortys

Despite some of its more nefarious activities – from piracy to warring with other city-states on Crete – governance and law were serious business in Gortys. The city’s Law Code, written in the Dorian dialect, is carved in stone using a form called “ox-plow turn”, running right to left in the first line and left to right in the next, and so on (resembling the way an ox turns when plowing a field). These carved stones were originally mounted in the vouleuterion (meeting-place of the citizens’ assembly) of Gortys, so that everyone could see what the law required.

The city's Law Code, carved in stone for public viewing

In addition to civil administration, the leaders of Gortys excelled in politics and foreign relations. They had excellent relations with Ptolemy IV of Egypt (also a Dorian), and experienced a new period of prosperity during the Roman period. As it had allied with Rome, Gortys avoided the disaster that befell the rest of Crete when Roman legions invaded in 68 BCE. Ironically, one of the chief reasons for the Roman campaign was to put down Cretan piracy on the high seas (a specialty of Gortys).

We have to drive slowly along a rutted dirt track through an olive grove to reach the center of the Roman city. Even if we didn’t know what we were looking for, the monumental ruins clearly mark this as the main administration hub.

Praetorium of Gortys, palace of the Roman governor

Here are the Praetorium (the seat of the Roman governor of Crete), several other administrative and decorative municipal structures, and the Nymphaion sanctuary, consecrated to water nymphs (also a reservoir and assembly chambers). An aqueduct into the city center supplied plenty of water for the lavish waterworks.

Beyond the Praetorium is the Temple of Pythian Apollo, the religious center of the city before the establishment of Christianity. The original building is dated to the 7th century BCE. Some inscriptions originally set in the outer walls of the temple have been preserved from this phase. The substantial remains of the stepped altar to the east, in front of the entrance, are also impressive.

Temple of Pythian Apollo was the most important in the city

Thirteen centuries of continuous worship in the same spot brought about architectural modifications to the first temple, so what we see is not the same as the original building.

In the precinct of the temple, we find an SAIA team (Scuola Archeologica Italiana di Atene) working a new dig. The Italians were the first to explore this city in the late 19th century, and they still run the excavation programs here.

Italian archaeologists conduct a new excavation near the temple

Not far from the temple are the Roman baths, which is where we want to be at this moment.  Unfortunately, these extensive baths haven’t been functional for many centuries, so we take another drink from our water bottle and continue onward.

Hot day, but no water in the ancient Roman Baths

We finally return to the public exhibit near the road – not so much to revisit the site, but to use the rest rooms to splash water on our faces and cool down. However, we must take a quick walk around the site.

Church of Ayios Titos is one of the oldest in the world

The two important features are the church of Ayios Titos (St. Titus) and the Roman Odeon (theater). The church is an imposing monument of Byzantine architecture dedicated to St. Titus, a disciple of the Apostle Paul and the first bishop of Crete. The church was built in the mid-6th to early 7th century.

The architectural type is a three-aisle basilica with a transept and dome. The church was built of dressed poros stone by master craftsmen and the interior must have been richly painted. Unfortunately the paintings have disappeared over the centuries.

Roman Odeon of Gortys

Only a short walk from this Byzantine church is a Roman theater. The Dorian town hall (vouleuterion) was converted into an odeon in the 1st century CE. The odeon was used for musical events, plays and recitals. This is the most important ancient odeon in Crete and one of the best of its type.

Of particular note: when the Roman builders had the old town hall dismantled, they preserved the Dorian Law Code. It is now mounted on a wall in the brick enclosure behind the odeon’s audience seating.

Gortys was declared the capital of the Roman province of Crete and Cyrenaica (northern Africa), and continued to grow and expand its influence through the fall of Rome and rise of the Byzantine Empire. It grew from village to city-state to empire over a period of 2,000 years.

Then, with the Arab conquest of Crete in 828 CE, it vanished … never to be rebuilt.

Innovations in ancient Dreros

Often on our return from archaeological sites in eastern Crete, we stop in the city of Neapoli to enjoy a cold frappe at one of the little cafes around the city square. On this occasion, we decide to drive out to the excavation of Dreros (now called Driros), just a few kilometers outside Neapoli.

Gated entrance to the Dreros excavation site

The narrow country road takes us through a valley green with olive groves and gardens. We turn off onto an even smaller road that climbs Chorais hill, and finally stops next to a fence with a gate to a path leading up. We lace our hiking boots and begin the ascent on a rocky trail. This has a familiar feel; it is very much like the roads into other Dorian towns.

Rocky path to Dreros passes under fortified walls

On our left, the path edge offers a very dangerous (possibly fatal) tumble down a rocky hillside. On our right are strong stone walls, from which defenders could force attackers over the side. The Dorians were an aggressive people from northern Greece, who invaded Crete. They were – in turn – harassed by sea raiders during the centuries of chaos that saw the fall of great empires; so they were obsessed with security and order. As at Lato, Vrokastro, and Karfi (“The Nail”), the Dorians built their fortress town of Dreros on a rocky and easily defended hill.

We find several recently covered excavations at the site

We arrive at a large open area located between two hill peaks and surrounded by oak trees. This appears to be the city agora (marketplace and community center). There are a few ruined buildings around the periphery, as well as huge heaps cut stone that appear to be the remains of many collapsed structures. Unlike some ancient towns, Dreros has not been reconstructed. In fact, the excavation is not yet complete. We find several open trenches covered with a heavy green fabric (to protect whatever artifacts lie below) and then partially refilled with dirt and rubble.

Dreros temple under protective cover, with community cistern

On one side of the agora is one of the earliest Greek temples, which dates from the Geometric period (around 750 BCE). It was dedicated to Apollo Delphinios (the god Apollo transformed into a dolphin to protect sailors).  What we see is not the temple itself, but a shelter built by archaeologists to protect the remains of this very unique and valuable structure. In front of the temple is a large communal cistern, which was the town’s main water supply.

Drawing of how the Temple of Apollo Delphinios was built

The temple itself is rather small, and very different from columned Greek temples of later periods (such as the Parthenon). Inside was a small altar, where three bronze statuettes were placed as devotional objects.

Hammered bronze statues from the temple altar

Discovered in the 1930s, these now-famous statuettes (created around the 7th century BCE) are thought to depict Apollo, Artemis, and their mother Leto. The statuettes were made of bronze sheets hammered over molding cores. The first of their kind (that anyone knows of), they mark a technical milestone in the history of Greek art – the first time anyone used bronze in sculpture.

The sacred laws of Dreros were written for public display

Other important finds from this excavation are many inscriptions from the geometric and archaic periods, when Dreros was at its height. One of those inscriptions is “the sacred law of Dreros,” the oldest written law ever found. It was posted at the agora for all citizens to see. In later years, this was how all Greek cities composed their legislation and established their constitution. The Dreros inscription is the most ancient example of this, and suggests the Dorians were innovators in legislation as well as art.

The wooded trail continues up through the old city

We leave the agora and continue hiking up the hill, passing fortification walls and ruined buildings of different types.  On the bare and rocky summit of Chorais hill is the small barrel-vaulted chapel of Ayios Antonios.

Chapel of Ayios Antonios at the top of the hill

This remote location seems appropriate, since Antonios was a religious hermit. In another way it is ironic, because this hill was the home of people who established community guidelines and legislation that allowed people to live together under laws that applied to everyone.

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