A short history of life and death in Crete

6 and 7 October 2017

* Subtitle: mostly death

Time spent in Chania had already introduced us to some of the tragedies of Crete’s recent past but we weren’t quite prepared for the events and atrocities that unfolded themselves as we took a two day road trip from Rethymno into the mountain villages.

What follows is not a chronological account of our visits rather a chronological tour through the history of those events.

We start in the Geometric and Archaic periods – that’s from about 1050 BC – aptly enough, for a wander through life and death in Crete, in a graveyard and crematorium. The site at Eleftherna is still an active archeological site (hence no close up photos) tucked into a gorge otherwise full of olive groves and sheep and where we were grateful for its very modern roof which sheltered us from the rain.

What was found there in the 1980s was a network of catacombs and cremation pits, scorched earth still visible and burial pots (like big wine jugs used as coffins) unearthed along with the objects buried with the dead for their journey into the next life. It was an eerie but very interesting place. We learnt that only men and women who died in childbirth were important enough to be cremated. Outside one tomb was the skeleton of a dog. It is conjecture whether the dog died and was buried alongside his master or had died pining for him at his graveside. I like to think of that little dog as a Cretan version of Edinburgh’s Greyfriar’s Bobby.

Fast forward in time to the Turkish occupation of Crete and the Greek War of Independence of the early 19th century. The caves at Melidoni had been used for various purposes by people since the Early Neolithic period – that’s from 6500 BC – but it is the tragedy that took place there in 1824 for which it is best known. From 1822 the people of Melidoni hid from the Turkish forces in the Gerontospilios cave. In January 1824 the Turkish forces discovered their hiding place, lit fires in the cave’s entrance and asphyxiated all but one of the 370 men, women and children inside. 10 years later the sole survivor of this massacre, Manolis Kirmizakis, returned to the cave and found the bones of the dead. The ossuary containing those bones is housed in the cave’s first chamber and the dead still remembered in a service at the cave every year.

A short time travel forward again to the continuing war against more invading Turkish forces in 1866  and to the monastery at Arkadi. Despite being a big draw on the tourist trail and its very grisly history the monastery at the foot of the mountain, Psiloritis, is today a surprisingly calm and peaceful place.

The bullet tree in its courtyard however bears a reminder of the tragic events which unfolded there. Women and children hid in the monastery’s gunpower store from the approaching Turkish forces as Cretan fighters tried to defend the monastery . As the Turkish troops finally breached the monastery’s defenses everyone else remaining was gathered together in the store. With the Turkish at the door of the store, the priest gave the order to set light to the gunpowder causing an explosion which would kill the Turks but also the Cretan Christians inside. 846 Cretans were lost either defending the monastery or in the explosion.

The resistance fighters are celebrated in portraits on the walls and in sculpture around the monastery but one woman also features there repeatedly. As a young child she was the sole survivor of the explosion and lived to a good old age in the nearby village.

We caught a glimpse at how the monks still live in the monastery. On coming out of one of the cells Stefan quipped “It’s surprisingly spacious after living on a boat”!

I wondered how it must be living amongst so many ghosts.

Higher up the slopes of Psiloritis we found ourselves in living memory – not ours but certainly many still alive in Crete.

The fierce resistance of the Cretan people to the German occupation of the island in 1941 is writ large everywhere you go in Crete and nowhere more so than in the mountain village of Anoyia. The village became a centre for the resistance movement and paid a heavy, heavy price. On 13 August 1944 it was the first of many villages on Crete to be razed to the ground.

The order given by the German Commander is reproduced in its entirety on the war memorial lest anyone forget the horrible retaliation of the Germans against the resistance fighters. Villagers, including women and elderly and disabled residents who refused to leave were either shot or burned to death in their homes. The displacement of many others caused years of homelessness and poverty.


Today life goes on in a very ordinary way in Anoyia. The town is largely rebuilt. This little dog had found a perch in a nearly finished house.

Everyone seemed to be getting ready for winter – buying their winter coat from the mobile market stall, selling shawls and preparing their wood piles. Snow will soon be falling in the mountains.


Yet the memories of that terrible day must not be far away. At the café in the square, sitting amongst the old boys with their worry beads and black headscarves and in the pictures of the menfolk celebrated inside, you couldn’t help wondering what their memories were.

Two days of death, war and genocide was enough for these two weary travellers. We know that these are not the only tragic tales Crete holds but we vowed to make our next excursions somewhat lighter in subject matter.

One thing, however, we have leant very early on in our time on Crete is that there is something truly indomitable about the spirit of the Cretan people. Their survival through the centuries is testament to a very fierce patriotism, bravery and passion and woe betide anyone who stands between them and their beloved island.

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