Moutnains of Crete
Moutnains of Crete
Both Pavlos and Manolis wear black shirts – a sign of defiance in Crete – and carry loaded rifles.
“It’s mostly for protection. I need a rifle for self-defense – and sometimes for dinner, too, as there’s some hunting in the mountains. When you’re on your own for months on end, you never know whom you might meet up there. Sometimes, there might be smugglers. Bad people. I wouldn’t feel safe without my gun. And yes, it’s illegal to carry a rifle in
Greece. But this is Crete first, and Greece, second”, - declares Manolis.
Hunting rabbits and self-defense isn’t always the real reason, though. Despite a very modern face of Crete – a popular Mediterranean destination for holidays, beach parties and SPA retreats – the whole island is still tightly knit together by an intricate clan system. And clans don’t always get along: bullet-ridden signs, shady makeshift barricades on rarely used
mountain tracks, and the notorious black shirts all bear witness to a tradition of bloody vendetta.
“It’s going away: there are less and less vendetta killings with every year. But the clan system is still something that people adhere to and respect. Just recently, Janis, a young man from the neighboring village had to quit his job and leave his wife and son in Athens to return to Crete, pick up his father’s rifle and leave for the mountains. His uncle was killed in a vendetta clash a few years ago, and Janis is now the last surviving male of his family. He never questioned it – he packed up his life in Athens and came back to Crete within a blink of an eye. He now herds sheep and makes cheese in the mountains, just like us”, - remarks Pavlos with a sigh.
“The black shirts we wear aren’t just a sign of defiance, it’s also a sign of mourning. It’s hard to find a family of mountain people who hadn’t lost a father, a brother or a son to a vendetta dispute. We never forget”.
Just as bloody clashes between opposing clans are an ever-rarer occurrence in Crete, the shepherds’ way of life itself is rapidly vanishing, too.
The tradition of animal herding is becoming obsolete: there’s better money to be made opening a little beach resort or a hotel, and Greece’s inclusion into the European Union is making it harder for independent shepherds to survive.
“Our cheeses used to be popular not just in Crete, but the whole of Greece, the whole of Europe, even. A lot of our cheese-making traditions are at least a thousand years old! But now that Greece is in the European Union, cheese-making is becoming more and more regulated. We used to make cheese in the mitatos, leaving it to mature between rocks and in cool caves, but now, we’re told it’s anti-sanitary. Anti-sanitary! They want us to buy these massive cheese maturing machines and refrigerators, but not only we can’t afford them, our recipes would have to change. The feed for sheep, goats and mules is more and more costly every year. Oh, Greece is killing us… The tradition of herding sheep will
end with us. We’re the last generation of free shepherds in Crete, and that’s
just how life is”, - Pavlos says quietly.
Pavlos knows that his children will most likely work in offices, not mountains.
“We can’t make a living being shepherds anymore. I keep bees. Other shepherds rent their mules for tourist rides or covert their houses to small hostels just to make ends meet. Every spring, when the snow melts, we still take the sheep up into the mountains, but every spring, there are less and less of us meeting in the mitatos”, Manolis adds.
Photos: @rtwPaul, Daphne Manoussaki
What a beautiful, interesting, and sad story. Thank you for telling it. You're a very talented writer. How did you come to learn about them? Did you meet them in your travels?
All over the world, it seems, people are being left behind by the advance of cities and technology and culture. Those of us who live in cities with our smartphones say we would never go back, so it's interesting to read about people who would.
You are too kind!
We were traveling Crete on a motorcycle and just kept seeing these men in the mountains. Sometimes they were old men, sitting and smoking pipes, sometimes younger ones just walking alongside their herds of sheep.
I asked a friend, a Chania university professor Daphne Manoussaki, who these people were and she told me they were nomadic shepherds. In Crete, they are held in very high regard because they know the land so well and so intimately; one of the shepherds who is now 86 years old can still out-climb the young and fit members of the Heraklion Mountaineering Club. But they are mostly respected so much because of their guerrilla stance against the Nazis during WW2 - a lot of Cretan shepherds fought the invading Germans with whatever they had, including their staffs. As a result, a few villages were razed to the ground but the shepherds never surrendered. So in a way, it's like they represent the very soul of Crete.
They also often rescue lost mountaineers, climbers and hikers as they are always there, in the mountains. "Anyone who is a friend of nature is our friend", - Manolis told me.
No Cretan will tell you that he or she is Greek; they are always Cretan first, Greek second, and this spirit of defiance and independence is still very much alive there, especially among the nomad shepherds. Some of them still wear the black tasseled caps, called sariki, and each black spur represents a tear for the fallen Constantinople (they still refuse to call the city Istanbul). Others say that each sariki spur represents the years of the Otoman rule over Crete, or the tragedy of the Arkadi Monastery where the local abbot gathered the monks and the remaining civilians, some one thousand Cretans, in the gunpowder room and where they blew themselves up in the last desperate attempt to stop the invading Turks.
It was Daphne who introduced us to Pavlos and the others, and translated all that happened that night in the little kafenio.
That's all so amazing. I had no idea. I would have never known what a sariki was and what it means.
I had the privilege of spending some time in Israel several years ago and a little time with bedouins and their sheep there. I am always interested in the culture and the people when I travel. So I asked our guide to ask them if I could help them wash their sheep. They laughed but agreed. I had been so taken by the fact that the sheep were so tame while they were being washed. They really seemed to know the shepherds and even tolerated me as I waded into the stream and helped. I am afraid their lifestyle is probably also not going to last long.