At The Caves of the Wind: Cretan Meditations
by Valery Oisteanu
Crete is one of the largest islands in the Mediterranean, and is situated at the southernmost point of Greece, 50 miles from the Libyan coast of Africa. Surrounded on the north by the Aegean Sea, and in the south by the Libyan Sea, it is quite possible that this is the last surviving piece of land from the destruction of Atlantis. The Greeks designated this island as the birthplace of Zeus, in the mountains of Crete that are very mysterious and rough. With the help of his mother, Zeus hid from his father Cronos, known for his voracious hunger for eating his children. Four mountain ranges divide the island: the White Mountains in the west, Mount Ida in the center, both over 9,000 feet high, Lecithin Mountains, 7,000 feet high, and in the far east, Seteia, 5,000 feet high. Populated by people who claim ancient heritage, as old as 2,500 BC, Crete was home to the famed Minoan civilization that brought us architecture, an alphabet and a specific culture still not fully explored or understood.
With their baggy Turkish shalvars flapping in the warm breeze, the Cretan workmen dug their shovels deeper into the mound of Knossos. Slowly, as the trenches drove into the soil, there appeared long, massive walls. Soon after, stairs, corridors, enormous jars standing in rows, were revealed, as if by magic. The idols and jewelry were buried a few feet underground, waiting for some archeologist with a pick. In 1893, a shortsighted Englishman, Arthur Evans, bought some charms in Athens from a Greek woman. As he peered closely at the charms, which were small, polished stones with strange markings cut into them, he realized they were seal stones. They were used to press on clay or wax to make the mark or signature of the owner. He was amazed that the marks were in some way like hieroglyphs of the ancient Egyptians. He went back to the antique dealer to look at some more. When he asked where the stones came from, he was told they had been found in Crete.
In the spring of 1894, he sailed to Crete with a friend, and went out to explore the island, going to the cave of Psychro near Mount Dikte, which was supposed to be the birthplace of Zeus. Unfortunately, at that time, Turks ruled Crete and they refused to let anyone excavate. Six years later, when the Turks finally left Crete, and he began digging seriously with a gang of thirty workmen at Knossos, they peered through a hole in the dig and uncovered some painted earthenware jars five feet high and some brightly-brightly colored walls (frescoes). To speed up the excavation the number of workers was increased to 100, but the site was so big (over six acres) that he was still digging among the mighty ruins 25 years later. Buried only a few feet underground, he grouped together wonderful objects of clay and ivory, gold necklaces and other things used in Minoan times, nearly 4,000 years ago. But the greatest discovery was a broken clay bar bearing the same mysterious writing, which he seen on the charms he'd bought. More clay tablets appeared, and soon he had a collection of hundred of them. What a pity no one could read them. Then he was astonished to find a painting of a Minoan man, his body deep red, his eyes dark, and the line of his chest curved in a graceful form with a very slim waist, holding a funnel-like vase. Soon he uncovered more corridors and walls, and he became quite convinced that this was indeed the labyrinth of legend. There was a maze of passages in which anyone could become quite lost. White staircases led to a grand palace. Rows of pillars led to grand square doors. These were royal apartments, chapels, guardhouses, and large storerooms. The Minoans liked open spaces and fresh air. Such architecture gave them light without letting in the hot breeze of summer or the chilly blasts of winter.
The legend says that the Queen of Minos fell in love with a white bull that came out of the sea, and adopted him as a royal pet. The bull was glowingly white, and she decided to make love to him. She asked the court architect, Daedalus, to build a hollow bronze cow, which she entered to be impregnated by the bull. The result of the union was the Minotaur, a scary-looking creature that was kept in the labyrinth and who requested human sacrifice in the form of virgins.
The most unusual activity the Cretans indulged in was bull leaping. In many frescoes, they show an Olympic competition in which one competitor grasps the horns and jumps over the bull's head, and as the bull butts his head, another competitor somersaults over the bull. Behind the animal, there is another girl waiting to catch the youth. This activity could be the beginning of the Olympics we know today. Sometimes, the bull gored the daring, young jumpers. The wounds left their legs stiff and they had to leave the bull jumping team. The bull was a sacred animal, and Sir Arthur Evans believed that bull leaping had a religious purpose. That can be explained by the fact that the King wore a bull mask at certain religious ceremonies.
The Minotaur was slain eventually by Theseus, who ultimately escaped from the labyrinth by using the string given to him by Ariadne at the labyrinth's entrance.
Until 1,4oo BC, they used a written language with 88 signs called Linear B, and after that a new writing system called Linear A, with 54 symbols. The signs are largely the same, but the languages themselves different. After that, the palace was burned, and an earthquake brought havoc to Crete, and may have been the cause of the collapse of the buildings, or else a volcano on the island of Thera may have erupted and caused a giant tidal wave to sweep inland and destroy the coastal palaces. In fact, several disasters may have struck Crete. The full truth about Minoans will probably never be known. But, their works of art are still standing in the museums in Heraklion.
The first time I arrived there, it was in July 1977, after a long journey oversea and land from New York to Amsterdam by air, and then across Europe by land (Volkswagen bus through Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Greece) via Athens to Crete in a ferry passage with a boat from Piraeus to Heraklion. The trip was brutal, but the satisfaction to be in the company of Cretan gods gave me more strength. From there, I proceeded east to the old capital of Crete, Hania, a Venetian 15th century port augmented by Islamic architecture, and maybe one of the oldest cities in the world with architectural artifacts built during the Minoan civilization, called Kydonia.
A fifteenth-century Venetian church 100 meters from the old port abandoned during Turkish occupation was transformed in 1669 into a synagogue. This historical monument to longevity shadowing everything in the Jewish quarters that, at one time, had several synagogues, a Jewish ghetto called "Ovreiky." Today the only surviving synagogue is called Etz Hayyim. Etz Hayyim is a temple but also a museum, and tourist attraction. The synagogue is a monument that speaks of the long Jewish presence on the island of Crete. The restoration of this holy place pays tribute to the memory of over 265 Cretan Jews who, together with Christian brothers, were arrested by Nazis, forced into the German vessel Tanais, and on June 9, 1944, perished in the Aegean Sea, ironically sunk by allied troops. The restoration of the synagogue Etz Hayyim is a small miracle and a resisting sign of Jews against the destruction of the holocaust and its historical amnesia.