OCTOBER 18TH - 25TH, 2014
Crete, cradle of the oldest recorded civilization in Europe with a coastal climate as generous as its history. Even in late September warming rays blazed brilliantly through the thatching of our patio.
Despite being the largest and most populous of all the Greek islands, much of Crete's natural splendor remains unspoiled.
In good weather, the best vehicle for touring is a lowly scooter. No sound argument can be made against the uninterrupted views and adrenal highs won by careening around the switchbacks of open country roads on toy wagon-sized wheels. Safety is hardly a concern, proven by the ease of renting vehicles from Greek agencies without presenting a valid driver's liscense. Clearly, such confidence on their part must mean limited risk is involved; or that danger is culturally subjective.
*Please ensure the volume of your machine isn't too high before playing the video, on account of the authenticity-enhancing sound of wind blowing out the microphone.
No, it isn't a mailbox, though many first-time visitors fall prey to similar misconceptions. In doing so, they miss an enlightening opportunity. Thousands of these roadside altars line Greek highways, yet each has a unique story. Reminiscient of the devotional offerings to deceased victims of traffic collisions prominent elsewhere, many are actually remarkably optimistic and commemorate not death, but survivial. Often, they are placed and maintained by survivors themselves. Some frequently return to contemplate the significance of being spared a tragic end. Likewise, they offer travelers an excuse to pause momentarily and reflect, take in the surrounding olive groves, empathize with the altar's devotee, and in some cases even admire an ancient predecessor located near the contemporary counterpart and constructed for much the same, timeless reasons. Furthermore, certain altars track the progress of their patron's families: as fortunes improve, so do shrines. Occasionally, some even develop into small chapels capable of hosting quaint services. In a country celebrated for religious icons as colossal as the Parthenon, these individually endowed structures represent refreshingly personal expressions of spirituality.
Skeletal windmills dot the Lasithi Plateau, haunting this landscape like scenic ghosts befitting of the area's suprisingly melancholy heritage. The beaches of Crete boast summery temperatures most of the year, but elevated places experience harsh enough winters to accumulate measureable snowfall. Alluvial run-off from said snow has fertilized the soil here for ages, attracting human settlers as early as the Neolithic period (6000 BC). The plateau has thus been continuously inhabited through to the present, excepting a span of longer than 200 years beginning from 1293 during the Venetian occupation, when frequent local rebellions led the Italians to deem Lasithi "spina nel cuore di Venezia" or 'thorn in the heart of Venice'; colonists demolished villages, prohibited cultivation, expelled natives and ultimately forbade them to return on penalty of death. Over five centuries later, the Greek War of Independence saw the plateau siezed by Ottoman and Egyptian forces sent by Muhammud Ali (the pasha, not the boxer), who slaughtered most residents too stalwart to flee. Again in 1837 the Great Cretan Revolt prompted another Ottoman and Egyptian company to march on the plateau, once more resulting in mass murder paired with the typical heinous mix of enslavement, pillaging and arson. Finally, the peaks enclosing the plateau provided refuge for local resistance fighters through the Axis occupation of Greece from 1941 - 1944. In addition to founding a legacy of bloodshed, the Venetians left an expansive system of irrigation ditches. Still in use, these ditches were once filled by some 10,000 wind-pumps including those pictured above, of late mostly abandoned in favor of modern diesel and electrical technologies.
Nearly every establishment on the island has a posse of pets, freeloaders or vermin, depending on your feelings towards felines.
A classic Cretan picnic, sequestered from our hotel's breakfast buffet.
No Hellenic meal can be called complete without at least one serving of baklava. Utterly ubiquitous in Greece and Turkey alike, the delightful dessert traditionally consists of layered pastry dough stretched so thin it becomes transparent (phyllo or filo) soaked in honey or sugar syrup and layered with chopped nuts. There are almost an infinite number of popular variations on this theme, ranging from kataifi, a more absorbent alteration using shredded strings of phyllo, to versions incorporating coconut, pistachio, chocolate and a pandora's box of other accoutrements. The golden jar in this photo holds another sinful product of Crete, thyme honey. Describing the thyme honey as sinful deserves further clarification- this aromatic elixir indeed lends itself to guilt-inducing gluttony, but posseses healthful antibacterial properties and are outstandingly effective at healing minor respiratory and digestive problems.
Fabled home to virgin-eating monsters, apogee of an inexpilcably decimated empire and recently victim to scandalous allegations of genuine human sacrifice, the palace at Knossos is by far Crete's most notable tourist destination. Happily, the mystique of the place is so captivating such popularity scantly diminshes its draw. Often attributed to the legendary architect Daedelus and his son Icarus of the wax wings, the sprawling design of the complex integrates some 1400 rooms, now largely crumbling. Conceivably, tales of the labyrinth and it's bull-headed denizen stem from the visibly maze-like layout of the palace itself.
The Throne Room of the palace is considered to be the oldest in Europe. Facing the central 'lustral basin', the alabaster 'throne' was cited by Sir Arthur Evans as evidence for his claim that the palace and empire were ruled by a godlike priest-king. More precisely, that it was the seat of Minos, a king of Crete mythologized by later ancient Greeks and namesake of the Minoans and minotaur. Since his pioneering archeological excavations of the early 20th century, Evans has become notorious both for such bold historical speculations and for the bold-faced manner in which he reconstructed the site to suit his own dubious interpretations. For instance, the columns and wooden beams of the Throne Room, as well as the roof they support, were all added by Evans' team. In placement and form they are supposedly based on archeologic evidence, especially the unusual inverted taper of the columns. Opposite Greek columns (smaller in diameter at top than bottom to appear taller) Minoan columns are smaller at bottom than top as a result of their materiality and construction: naturally pest-resistant cypress trunks were placed upside down to prevent sprouting. Apart from the basin and throne, what is extraordinarily original about this space is the lightwell, an open airshaft ingeniously employed by the Minoan builders to illuminate and ventilate rooms that would otherwise be unlivably claustrophobic. More recent, more scientific theorization suggests the room was indeed used for religious purposes but not administrative, debunking the notion of the seat as a proper 'throne'. Nonetheless, exaggeration continues to plague Knossos. While the basin may truly have been used for ritual sacrifice, the offerings were more likely animal than human contrary to certain sensationalized assertions. The understandable criticism of Evans' and others' melodramatic claims is that they obscure the facts. Or worse, as in the case of Evans' reconstructions, that they demolish any trace of the facts. On the other hand, it is important to remember that Evans was working at a time when cultural treasures weren't neccesarily regarded as public property- by the law of the day, Evans had purchased and rightfully owned the palace. Further complicating the scenario is the argument that had Evans' not undertaken structural interventions, the complex may have eroded into mere hillside long ago.
Regarded an architectural masterpiece, the Grand Staircase is composed of steps deep and short enough to make for easy, graceful strides and flanked by lightwells similar to those of the Throne Room. Because the structure was in such a delicate state upon discovery, excavators could not proceed normally for fear of collapse. Instead, Evans called upon the expertise of two Athenian silver miners who carefully tunnelled to the lower landings making way for the upper portions to be propped from beneath. Following a visit by the famous American-turned-Soviet dancer Isadora Duncan who performed ethereal ascents of the newly reconstructed stair in Greek styled robes, Evans suffered a malarial hallucination of characters from one of the palace's frescoes parading in similar fashion, led by his aforementioned priest-king Minos.
The so-called Queen's Megaron, decorated by the renowned Dolphin Fresco and site of the world's first ever flushing toilet. Curiously, almost 4000 years later, Greece seems still to be struggling with the flushing toilet; most every bathroom in the country has a sign cautioning patrons to place their waste paper in a bin rather than the bowl so as not to overwhelm the sensitive plumbing.
Indicated by the profusion of grips, jugs this robust merited the care of many hands. Fashioned of ceramic and known as pithoi, they likely held either Dionysian volumes of wine or garum, an equally popular food item in ancient Greece, Rome and Byzantium. In a world without refridgeration, anything not consumed immediately could quickly spoil or go rancid, making salt and powerfully flavored condiments indispensible- hence the transcontinental spice trade. Garum, a paste made of macerated, decomposed and fermented fish guts (often from mackerel and anchovies), was literally worth its weight in gold. The rich blended the yellowish head which rose to the top of the mixture with vinegar and seasonings to produce a mild sauce not at all fishy in its ultimate flavor. Supposedly, the elixir was so potent only a few drops were capable of salvaging even the most insipid broth or gruel. Fortunes were made from the stuff, sold for a price far beyond that of caviar (about $1800 per liter). The poor were left the dregs of rotting sludge, obviously not so wonderous. Whether old garum jars were ever desperately repurposed as container for wine in times of need is unclear.
The Heraklion Archaeological Museum houses scores of the ancient world's most astounding artifacts. In sheer quantity, the collection is dominated by tens, hundreds, perhaps thousands of assorted ceramics. We gave up counting, but a passionate pothead could be kept busy for years.
Possibly second in count rank these sculptures deemed 'Cycladic figurines' after their place of origin, the Cycladic islands (Santorini, Mykonons, Paros and Naxos chief among them). The characteristically stylized geometric forms inspired modern artists from Picasso to Brancusi and many others. Ranging from near life-size to pocket-size and variably schematic or naturalistic with a vocabulary of about ten different postural 'types', little is known about their function or import. Many anthropologists place them in the same tradition of fertility votives as the Venus of Willendorf. Archaeologists don't generally agree. One exceptionally vague authority contends they were "more than dolls and probably less than sacrosanct idols". This particular scholar may have missed her true calling in politics.
Behold one of the great uncracked riddles of archaeology: the Phaistos Disc. Or at least it was, until as recently as October of 2014. Doctor Gareth Owens, who cheekily refers to this clay tablet as the "first Minoan CD-ROM", has identified in the cryptic symbols a few combinatory 'words' relating to pregnancy, motherhood and divinity, revealing the text to have some sort of reverential significance. For those tantilized by the unknown, there's still Linear A, another undecifered Cretan script.
A feat of athleticism more spectacular than performing aerial acrobatics over the back of a charging bull is hard to imagine. Three and a half millenia after its creation, some of the exhiliration of the act still shines through the acclaimed Bull-Leaping Fresco, regardless of the sterility of its current setting in the Heraklion Museum. Incredibly, bull-leaping continues to be practiced in southwestern France and northern Spain under the name course Landaise. Like the Minoans, French and Spanish sauteurs defy fear by leaping over a raging bull, if not quite handspring as does the athlete in the fresco. This deviation from tradition ought not be held against the present day sportsmen, for recent attempts to mimic exactly the motion pictured -that is, grabbing the beast by the horns and using the energy of the buck to boost one's body into the air- has resulted only in a series of rather senseless deaths. However, one characteristic the modern rendition may rightly be faulted for in comparison with its ancient parallel is sexism. Whereas sateurs are most always young men, Minoan leapers conisisted both men and women. In this portrayal, the central figure is male, denoted by the dark hue of his skin, and the two flanking figures are female, signified by their pale complexions. This gendered convention is common in Greek art, and necessarily so as the abstracted anatomies are indistinguishably androgenous. Seemingly the epitome of masculine traits, e.g. the egotistical domination of nature, heroic or hubristic disregard for mortal peril and glorification of physical prowess (not to mention the testosterone-loaded symbolism of the specific animal involved), Minoan bull-leaping appears to have in fact been a co-ed pastime.
In addition to being a stunning work of art, this bull's head also functioned as a rhyton. In other words, it served as a liturgical libation vase, or, put plainly, a sacred cup. As the vessel was tipped forward, the ritual libation poured from a cavity in the sculpture's neck out through its mouth and into that of the waiting drinker. The liquid in question is a matter of some debate; water or wine are credible prospects, but one academic has proposed a radically more macabre possibility. Recall the previous discussion of animal sacrifices held in the Throne Room at Knossos? Maybe, just maybe, rhytons were conceived of as honorific portraits of the slain, and were filled with the spilt blood of the respective creature.
Demonstrated by the presence of metal weapons dating from the same period, the wearer of this helmet could easily have opted for one made of bronze, proving he made the deliberate choice to entrust his cranium to a much less protective version constructed of boar tusks. The abundance of tusks would have required killing no less than a handful of boars, implying such helmets may have been markers of high rank. Alternatively, they could have been meant to send an intimidating message to enemies along the lines of "don't mess with me, I'm so crazy I guard my brain with leather and bones".
Before an unidentified catastrophe shook the mighty empire to ruin in 1450 BC (see our Santorini page for one heady conjecture), Minoan artists attained profound levels of skill crafting glass, bone, precious stone and metal adornments for the empowered classes. Select objects in gold exhibit the masterful use of filigree, dot repoussé, inlaying, leaf coverings, and granulation. These are the premier instances of such advanced techniques in Europe, which still form the basic vocabulary of jewellers and smiths today.
It may not immediately look like a groundbreaking masterpiece, but the way in which the decorator of this pot used the volume of the object to accentuate that of the octopus depicted was highly innovative. The embellishment of ancient Athenian pottery, some thousand years in the future, would be far more rigidly constrained by simplistic notions of surface.
Made of faience (earthenware glazed with quartz paste), this sculpture of a woman reveals three outstandingly odd features. From top to bottom: the cat perched on her head, the snakes gripped in her hands and that bodacious bust. The whole figure purportedly alludes to the earth goddess, thus the cycle of life and death, and the cat presumbly has some virile significance. Of course, it's entirely possible that Evans, who is responsible for reassembling the pieces of that statue, made a ridiculous error in assuming the peg from the cat was intended to match the hole in the woman's head. The serpents are more widely accepted as emblematic protectors of temples, and 'chthonic masters' of the earth goddess. Chthonic means 'subterranean', and by extension 'of the underworld'. Funnily enough, pronouncing the word also makes one sound as if they have a mouthful of snakes. The amplified bust has two readings; intuitively, as a symbol of fertility; counterintuitively, as a symbol of mourning. The source for the latter theory is The Illiad, in which Homer describes Hecuba exposing her bosom upon learning of her son Hector's slaughter by the spear of Achilles at Troy:
Hector’s mother wept. Then she undid her robe, and with her hands pushed out her breasts, shedding tears. She cried out, calling him—her words had wings: “Hector, my child, respect and pity me. If I ever gave these breasts to soothe you, remember that, dear child. Protect yourself against your enemy inside these walls."
Who knew bare chested women could be so full of sorrow?
In early times, Minoan dead were placed in rock hollows or caves and subsequently in circular vaulted tombs, tholoi, or 'house tombs'. Later, from around 2400 to 2000 BC, a trend toward singular burials in large clay jars or ceramic and wooden sarcophagi, such as those pictured, took precedence. Minoans were indeed smaller than most nutritionally-endowed humans are now, still we were taken aback by the compactness of the coffins. The small size of the receptacles begged the question- how did they manage to fit entire bodies?
We soon received an answer: unceremoniously.
In stark contrast to the funerary relics kept under climate-controlled lock and key just meters away, these Turkish gravestones have been disrespectfully left out in the elements to decay. Aeons of animosity between the Greeks and the Turks, entrenched by imperial atrocities and territorial agressions, persist in poisoning relations between the neighboring countries. On the divided Greco-Turkish island of Cyprus, sectarian violence, demands of compensation for past invasions and ongoing conflicts over the legitimate ownership of offshore hydrocarbon reserves have led Greek administrators to repeatedly delay Turkey's efforts to join the European Union. There is some irony in this, as enduring economic hardships have given many other members of the EU cause to doubt the continuing validity of Greece's membership status. One would hope a nation placing as much importance on its history as do the Greeks might have learned, through trial and error, that such bitter fueds never benefit either party in the long run. Unfortunately, while a vivid cultural memory affords a great deal of pride and wisdom, it also keeps bygone wounds fresh.