Blog 39. 20/08/2016 Crete: Chieftains and Heroes. A War Museum in the Mountains.

Posted in on 19 August, 2016 in News

Crete: Chieftains and Heroes. A War Museum in the Mountains.

“Left to his own resources, man always begins again in the

Greek way – a few goats or sheep, a rude hut, a patch of crops,

a clump of olive trees, a running stream, a flute.”

                                               From “The Colossus of Maroussi”

                                                                                                                                                 Henry Miller (1891-1980)

There are many places I love in Greece and all for different reasons. Crete is one of them. Prior to beginning “The Embroiderer” I spent several weeks there in search of the hidden Crete away from the tourist hoards. Crete never failed me. Time and time again I discovered the old world and usually when I least expected it. Most of those encounters remain some of my fondest memories of the country which is my spiritual home. The following extracts are from notes written at the time.

The road to Milia

The road to Milia.


Milia Settlement

Milia Settlement

Milia my roomThe perfect sun-drenched summer slips into autumn as serenely as day slips into night. In the mountains of Selino Province, the days are still hot and the evenings are warmed by the last of the summer sun. Ennia Horia, the nine villages, nestle among lush and fertile forests of chestnuts and oaks. Beyond the villages, the mountain tops stretch out in an undulating rhythm, remaining configurations of a landmass that millions of years ago lay covered by vast seas.  I have just spent three days in Milia, the most isolated of these villages. The history of Milia’s origins is lost in the annals of time. For almost two centuries, this tiny hamlet remained hidden from the outside world, abandoned to the forces of nature. Milia, which means Apple Tree, was inhabited in the 16th century and remained a flourishing community until it was struck by a plague of cholera in the 17th century. Just prior to WWII, this ideal location, hidden away from intrusive invaders, became home once more to twelve families. After the war, Milia was again abandoned, the buildings deteriorated and the land became grazing pastures for sheep and goats. With the aid of an EEC grant, it was lovingly restored to an eco-friendly hamlet based on the traditions of Crete. There is no electricity on the premises. Solar energy and a wind generator cover the basic needs of the site and warm water for the showers comes from boilers heated by wood fires.

Milia environment 2

The rocky outcrop around Milia

Milia 4

Milia environmentIn such a secret world, one’s senses become heightened.  A pair of vultures soar through the air with majestic grace, disappearing over the mountain top only to reappear over another. It is autumn and rays of sunshine stream through the leafy dark green canopy, enhancing the swollen chestnuts, their spiny shells burst open to reveal glossy brown nuts, plump and inviting and which will be served for tonight’s dinner cooked in a rich red-wine in the wood fired oven.  Tassel hyacinths and white cyclamen thrive in the lush landscape. The sound of a humming bee in the doorway of my stone cottage, magnified in the silence, captures my attention. But most of all, I am aware of the smells; wood-smoke from the embers of the fire that have permeated into the thick stone walls, the smell of natural fabrics on the bed, and the smell of the warm earth outside. I have never been so isolated and yet so at peace.

Leaving the village, I spot a sign that says ‘Musuem”. It doesn’t tell me what sort of museum. And so I check my guide book. There is no mention of a museum. As I flick through the pages, the passenger door opens, startling me. A woman who, unaware to me, had been waiting in the shade of the hedgerow thinks I have stopped to give her a lift.

‘Are you going to Elafonisi?’ she asks.’ Can you take me with you?’

I tell her I will be going there but first I want to see what the museum is about.

‘It’s near here,’ she says, making herself comfortable in the passenger seat. ‘I’ll show you.’

When I ask her what she will do while I’m there, she says ‘Don’t worry, I will wait. I live there.’

Dana, as I discover is her name, directs me some five kilometers along a narrow road until we arrive at Perivolia, a hamlet of white-washed villages set around a plateia. A sign saying “War Musuem” is tacked on to a gate outside one of the houses. Dana leads me along a path lined with olive oil containers filled with red geraniums and basil to another house. An elderly and rather spritely old woman greets us followed by an equally spritely man. The man offers to take me to the museum whilst Dana and the women disappear back into the house. He introduces himself as Zaccariah Skalithes and tells me he has created the museum in what was once his grandfather’s home. His grandfather, Georgos Anagnostou Skalithes, was once the chieftain of the region of Kissamos, an area covering part of the north-west coast and into these mountains. The museum consists of one small room – a room that once would have been used as the main room of this house. The white-washed stone walls are filled with photographs and memorabilia that once belonged to his grandfather and colleagues who, through the following two generations, fought both the Turks and the Germans. The museum is about fifteen years old and stands on the site of his grandfather’s original house. That one was burnt to the ground by the Turks and all that remained was the fireplace which is now part of the museum.

Zaccariah and his family

I find myself surrounded by faces of some of the most important men who took part in the Cretan Revolts together with memorabilia that would normally be housed in the Historical Museum of Crete.  Yet here in this humble room in this tiny village in the wild and beautiful mountains, the stories of freedom fighters are as alive as if it were yesterday. My eyes pour over the portrait-sized photographs of some of Crete’s finest palikaria (brave young men), most of which are framed in ornate gilded or polished wooden frames. The photo of Anagnostis Skalithes, Zaccariah’s great grandfather takes centre stage. Born in 1818, he died in 1901, and was the general commander of the Kissamos region and for a period, was President of a Cretan Government. Anagnostis is shown in the midst of his prime. A strong featured man with a well-groomed mustache, he proudly wears a large Cretan hat with the long tassel elegantly falling onto his left shoulder, and his jacket and waistcoat appear to be of fine silk with contrasting embroidered buttons. In his zounari ( sash waistband which is 8 metres long)) are two enormous and elaborately carved Cretan Daggers of which no self-respecting freedom fighter would ever be without. Nearby is a photograph of his son and grandfather of Zaccariah, Georgios Anagnostou Skalithes, 1845-1926, taken in old age. He appears to be standing in front of the house. Sporting a long white beard and fine mustache, he wears the high boots and breeches of the mountain fighters. Inside his cummerbund are two daggers similar to those of his father and he holds a rifle, the same one that now stands on the nearby table.

ZaccZacc with gunThere are many more fine looking men including another chieftain from the Kissamos region, Tzanis Kartsonis, 1797-1884, chieftain of Selino Province, and an even earlier revolutionary figure, Konstantinos Kriaris, also a chieftain of Selino Province. There are also numerous photographs of priests and archbishops alongside letters and documents stamped with official seals and tables around the walls are filled with books and newspaper clippings.  An amphora sits inside a wall niche and in another even smaller niche is an old drinking jug once carried by one of the men as he moved about the mountainside.

A photograph of a young man in a suit catches my eye. It’s Zaccariah’s brother. He fights back the tears as he tells me his story. Aged 22, Eleftherios Skalithes was executed by the Germans on the 29th. August 1944, as part of reprisals committed on the villagers for harbouring allied soldiers and partisans. Eletherios joined his ancestors, defying the enemy to his last breath. I feel extremely privileged to be standing here in this house – the house where valiant men once sat, ate and drank whilst discussing plans of ridding their enemies. It occurs to me that some of them would have known the famous Turkish Governor – Mustapha Naili Pasha who overwhelmed the men and women at the Monastery of Arkadi. I feel empowered by their spirit and feel sure that like many Cretan women, I also would have supported my husband or son in the struggle for freedom. Whether it is my heightened sensitivity of the past few days of near isolation spent in these mountains making me feel this way, I am not sure but it seems to me that the whole spirit of Crete, especially the wild and magnificent mountains, screams out for freedom.  It is in the air, in their blood and nothing less will suffice.

Zaccariah and his brother

Zaccariah and his brother

Most of the time we have been speaking in Greek but at one point Zaccariah picks up his notes and tells me about the memorabilia in excellent English.

“I thought you couldn’t speak English?’ I ask, quite surprised at this sudden change.

‘I can’t,’ he replies in Greek.

‘But you’re reading to me in English’

Confused, I look at his notes and am astounded. They are all in Greek. He has learnt them all by heart in English. He reads these notes with the confidence of an actor giving a fine stage performance. I ask him if he’d mind if I took a photo of him with his grandfather and another with his brother.  He’s thrilled and asks me to wait while he takes off his jacket and smooths his hair back. Looking at him through the lens of the camera, his face proudly looking back, he reminds me of the smartly dressed old men I met at the communist party meeting in Mytilene a month ago. This is special for Zaccariah and he wants to do his ancestors proud. I mention to him that I had earlier given a lift to a German couple coming back from Hora Sfakion and how ironic it was.

‘One minute we are enemies, the next minute friends,’ he answers. ‘Etsi einai zoe, that’s life,’ he shrugs, philosophically. ‘My son now lives and works in Germany and is very happy.’

We both laugh. How ironic that we have to fight and suffer in life to find its meaning. I have lost count of the times I’d heard this in Greece. He asks me to sign the guest book. Willingly I write a few comments expressing my gratitude. This is his third book. I glimpse at the earlier pages. They are full of similar appreciative comments from visitors from all over the world.

The door opens and his wife enters bringing us a plate of food – slices of sweet cake with a hint of mastica. They kindly offer me a glass of wine and while I am sorely tempted I must continue to Elafonisi. Dana patiently waits for me on the step. As I leave, Zaccariah reaches into a sack lying outside the door. With his huge hands, he offers me chestnuts for the drive. His wife adds a handful of locally grown peanuts and wraps the remaining sweet cake in foil for my trip. Zaccariah asks if I will send him copies of the photographs (which I did).

‘And anything else from Australia,’ he adds ‘Anything; a picture of a lake; whatever you want.’ I promise him that also.

‘Please return again someday,’ he says as he waves goodbye.

My throat chokes at the beauty of this past hour. It has been an extraordinary experience and Zaccariah an extraordinary man.

This would not be the last time I would meet the palikaria of the fight for freedom, but it was the most memorable.

Milia 3

The olive trees around Milia

The Embroiderer

The Embroiderer1822: During one of the bloodiest massacres of The Greek War of Independence, a child is born to a woman of legendary beauty in the Byzantine monastery of Nea Moni on the Greek island of Chios. The subsequent decades of bitter struggle between Greeks and Turks simmer to a head when the Greek army invades Turkey in 1919. During this time, Dimitra Lamartine arrives in Smyrna and gains fame and fortune as an embroiderer to the elite of Ottoman society. However it is her grand-daughter Sophia, who takes the business to great heights only to see their world come crashing down with the outbreak of The Balkan Wars, 1912-13. In 1922, Sophia begins a new life in Athens but the memory of a dire prophecy once told to her grandmother about a girl with flaming red hair begins to haunt her with devastating consequences.

1972: Eleni Stephenson is called to the bedside of her dying aunt in Athens. In a story that rips her world apart, Eleni discovers the chilling truth behind her family’s dark past plunging her into the shadowy world of political intrigue, secret societies and espionage where families and friends are torn apart and where a belief in superstition simmers just below the surface.

Set against the mosques and minarets of Asia Minor and the ruins of ancient Athens, The Embroiderer is a gripping saga of love and loss, hope and despair, and of the extraordinary courage of women in the face of adversity.

The Embroiderer is a beautifully written novel spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, set against the backdrop of the Greek War of Independence. It was published on 5th November 2014 and is available to buy in paperback and as an ebook.