Thursday, 23 October 2014

The struggle for independence in south-west Crete

There was a certain piquancy in leaving a Scotland which had just voted against independence to visit a country which had struggled so hard to regain its own. And yet there are as many similarities between Scotland and Crete as there are differences. Separated from the rest of Crete by a spine of mountains, the area of Sfakia in the south west nurtured a wild rebellious people proud of their independence, much like the clans living in the Highlands of Scotland. Scots, however, rarely use their road signs for target practice with their illegally-held guns! Sometimes Athens seems a very long way away.

Sfakia has become one of our favourite parts of the island, and Frangocastelo our location of preference. The very name of the hamlet (in its various spellings) means that there is no mistaking its historical significance. From our apartment, we could see the castle of the Franks (Venetians) towards the shore and behind us the towering craggy mountains where freedom fighters have lain in hiding from one conqueror or another over the centuries.

The flag of independent Greece, though not of Crete, now flies proudly from the battlements, while you can still see the Lion of St Mark over the original entrance. Interestingly, the culture of the Venetians, who had arrived as conquerors in the 13th century and then became colonists, combined with the local Byzantine art and literature to give birth to what is known as the Cretan Renaissance. The mixing of cultures, similar to the mixing of races, can give rise to extraordinary beauty, such as we see in Cretan icons and the work of El Greco.

Back to our castle, though. Built by the Venetians in 1371 to deter pirates from the African coast, Frangocastelo saw little action until the Turks had defeated the Venetians and occupied the island themselves. It was here in 1770 that the revolutionary Cretan leader Daskaloyiannis surrendered to the Turks, having been let down by an unfulfilled promise of Russian reinforcements. He was flayed alive at Heraklion.

It was also at Frangocastelo that, in 1828, another rebel leader, Dalianis, and 600 fighters made a heroic last stand against the Turks and their Albanian allies. Beseiged for seven days, eventually, on May 17th, Dalianis was beheaded and 385 of his men slaughtered. Every year, for ten days after this date, their spirits are said to return and dance in front of the castle. The 'scientific' explanation is that these huge ghostly figures are magnified and distorted mirages of people walking along the coast of Libya, two hundred miles to the south.

Reminders of previous occupations are scattered across this part of Crete. Ruins of another Venetian castle overlook the harbour at Hora Sfakion, half a dozen miles away, its purpose, like that of Frangocastelo, not just to control the local population, but also to keep an eye out for pirates from the Barbary Coast of North Africa.

The novels of Crete's great twentieth century novelist, Nikos Kazantzakis, who in his adulthood seems to have lived in every western European country except Crete, record the conflicts between the Cretan people and their Turkish masters. Throughout the nineteenth century, uprising after uprising tore the island apart. In Freedom and Death, Kazantzakis describes how communities of Christians and Muslims which had lived side by side for centuries and even, like the main characters, become 'blood brothers', swear vengeance on each other for historical and contemporary wrongs. It all sounds sadly familiar to twenty first century readers looking across the Middle East to Syria and the Levant.

The Muslim inhabitants, longstanding Cretan converts rather than Turkish invaders, are long gone. They were tragically expelled after the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, which forced Christian and Muslim populations across the Balkans to pull up their roots and move to countries in which they were foreigners. However, in some towns in the north of Crete, as here in Chania, you can still see the disused mosques the Muslims left behind. Converted into gift shops and restaurants, their holy structures like the mihrab on the right have become just another architectural feature.

Strangely, we have seen no Ottoman ruins at all in 'our' area of Sfakia. What we have seen is a plateau of loose stones, high above Hora Sfakion and reached by a modern switchback road, the first part of which you may just be able to make out on the photo on the left. It follows the line of what must have been a hair-raising track before the EU carried out its improvements.

Once there was a sizeable city up here, in the vicinity of the modern town of Anapolis. From here the Cretan rebels launched their raids against the Venetians and then the Turks. Daskaloyiannis and the other Sfakian chiefs began their rebellion here. The Turks burnt the city to the ground three times and each time the Sfakians stubbornly rebuilt it, until even they gave up.

In the same area is the deserted village of Aradena, reached by means of the noisy iron bridge spanning the gorge. You can walk from here through the ravine to Loutro, the ancient Roman port which served both Anopolis and Aradin. If you are not prepared to scale a ten metre high cliff using the ladder which the Fire Department has kindly provided, your only route into Loutro is from the sea.

Aradin, the town's ancient name, suffered the same fate as the city of Anapolis, being destroyed by the Turks in 1770 and then 1867.

By the side of the ravine is the beautiful little 14th century church of Mikhail Archangelos, now being restored with EU funds.

The village around it was abandoned many many years ago. Those families which survived the Turkish reprisals ended up turning on each other in vicious family feuds more reminiscent of bloodthirsty Sicilians - or feuding Scottish clans - than cultured Venetians.

In the end, the people all left. However, if you wander around the back of the church, you do see some relatively recent tombstones, here seen lying in the few remaining patches of sunshine while a storm brews overhead. For, a few families are beginning to move back, rebuilding the old stone houses from the blocks lying around. The distinctive square Cretan village houses are beginning to rise from the rubble again.

The obstinate pugnacious Sfakians, however, like their distant cousins the Scots, have proved their bravery and stamina in battles and guerilla actions more recent than their uprisings against the Turkish aggressors. In 1941, after the fierce fighting which followed the German airborne invasion, the Allied forces evacuated their bases on the northern coast of Crete. The last to leave were those in Rethymnon, now surrounded and with only one possible escape route left to them: a dirt track across the inhospitable mountains and down the Imbros gorge. The path comes out five hundred metres above and three kilometres short of Hora Sfakion from which they hoped to be rescued by boat. Here they were led by the men of Sfakia: British, Australian, New Zealanders and Greeks, all hungry and exhausted. Over four days, they were picked up by Australian and British warships sent from Alexandria.

Not all of the Allied troops got away: 5,000 were captured and ended up in German prisoner-of-war camps. With the help of Cretan resistance fighters, a further 600 soldiers made it across wild rocky country to the Monastery of Priveli, to the east of Frangocastelo. Here the monks sheltered them, enabling those who could to make their escape from the small harbours nearby.

The Cretan fighters continued their courageous struggle, however, using as their bases the hidden ravines and caves which their ancestors had used before them in their battles against other foreign invaders. The local population - wives, parents and children - suffered terribly from the German reprisals. Villages were burned, non-combatants and hostages were shot.

All these events happened over sixty years ago. Nowadays, interestingly, most of the independent travellers who visit Sfakia (for package tours fortunately haven't penetrated the area much yet) are German. And it is the Germans who, through their role in the EU, are supporting the failing Greek economy and, hence, also that of Crete. As a concept and a reality, Europe works.

You might think that the island of Crete, nearer to Africa than to the capital Athens, would be champing impatiently at its inclusion in the broader Greek nation. Far from it. With the help of the Great European Powers, Crete eventually became independent of the Ottoman Empire in 1898. Greece had become independent in 1832. Crete existed as an autonomous state, with its own flag, currency and national anthem, for less than fifteen years, however. In 1905, another revolt began near Chania. This time, its leaders were demanding union with Greece and, in 1913, that is what happened.

To this day, Crete remains a devolved state within the Greek nation. Our Cretan friends tells us that, in theory, a couple of years ago the population was supposed to decide whether they wished that constitutional arrangement to continue. Nobody, however, showed any interest in independence from Greece.

For, over many bloody centuries, Crete has discovered that there is more security in unity than in separation.

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