Thursday, November 12, 2009


Last month I traveled to the island of Crete, in the southern Greek islands. I was traveling with my 81-year-old mother, although we met up with some friends for part of our journey.

It was a very rich and full experience – it felt like several months worth of life – so much so that I’ve found it hard to write about, despite being back for more than a month. What I’ve decided is to write two posts about the trip – one of thoughts and musings about Cretan history and culture, and one more straightforward travelogue, for those of you who might want to travel there yourselves someday. This first post is the “thoughts and musings” one.

A number of people asked me, “Why Crete?” Why does a Zen Buddhist priest with not much money fly halfway around the world to visit a Greek island? The easiest answer is that I was drawn like a moth to the light of an ancient people.

Five thousand years ago, when most of my ancestors in northern Europe were probably still standing nervously behind wooden stockades hoping that the most recent wave of barbarians wouldn’t do us in (or were the barbarians headed for the stockade), an extraordinary culture grew up on Crete. We don’t know what they called themselves; the later Greeks called them the Minoans, and named their island the birthplace of Zeus, the greatest of the gods.

Crete is one of the largest islands in the Mediterranean, more than 100 miles long, and it was - and is - full of high forested mountains and deep caves, gorges and rivers and fertile soils, wild olives and wild grapes and wild herbs, surrounded by the rich waters of the southern Mediterranean.

There, a long way from the waves of barbarians, there was enough peace and enough prosperity for something utterly unique and highly sophisticated to develop, at the very dawn of Western history and culture. Their world continued for sixteen centuries. And even though the Minoan culture has been gone for 3,400 years, a few of its gifts were passed to the Greeks and Egyptians and through them, faintly, to us.

I only wish that more of those gifts had come our way. From the many archaeological sites (and it seems like every little village has at least one Minoan site), it seems that the Minoans lived with extraordinary grace, playfulness, awareness of the natural world, and appreciation of both men and women.

The shrines to their divinities were simple structures on the heights of the mountains, rather than heavy-handed temples, and most of the images of divinities that have been found are of goddesses.

The frescoes that remain in the ruins of their “palaces” are full of leaping dolphins, flowers, bold unveiled women, and lifelike animals, as if the artist could feel the animals from the inside.

Their architecture was human-centered and extremely graceful – I would happily live in a Minoan house, with its colonnades and light wells, its brightly painted walls and smooth stone floors, its clever waterways and drains, its gardens and terraces.

No fortified Minoan site has been found, nor any images of slaves. Artisans lived side by side with nobility, and Minoan artisans were the finest in the Western world at the time. They knew how to work gold into delicate filigree, how to make glass paste figurines, how to cast bronze, how to throw and fire elaborately decorated terracotta pots six feet high, how to make fantastically beautiful frescoes that have survived for four thousand years … and those are just the things we know and that survived the many earthquakes and invasions and wars since their time.

We don’t know their music or their poetry (their script has yet to be deciphered), but I imagine that it was equal to their art and craft and architecture. Some researchers believe that they were the first people to cultivate olives for olive oil and crocuses for saffron, and they had great wooden boats that traveled all across the Mediterranean. Evidence of their fine craftsmanship have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs and on mainland Greece, and there were Minoan settlements on many other islands.

I find this tremendously sustaining and uplifting. If the Minoans could create and maintain such a culture, perhaps we too can someday create and maintain a humane and graceful culture. If it was in them, it’s in us. As different as we seem to be, with our vast technologies and complex economic and social structures, genetically we are virtually the same. I know I may be idealizing them, and it’s impossible to know what it might have been like to live as a Cretan woman or farmer or artisan, but I choose to believe that there was truly something good there, so far back in our history. Their beauty, so long gone, gives me hope.

The cynics among you are probably thinking, “Yeah, and I know what happened to the Minoans. Run over by some warlike tribe from somewhere, right? The nice peaceful people never win in the end.” Well, not quite. Instead, as far as the archaeologists can tell, what destroyed the Minoans was the very land that had nurtured them. In about 1450, one of the Minoan islands, the modern-day Santorini, not far from Crete, blew up in a massive volcanic explosion, the largest in early history. Violent earthquakes and tsunamis rocked the entire eastern Mediterranean. The Minoan “palaces” and houses burned and fell into rubble, and the Minoan settlements on Santorini were buried in pumice and ash. The culture never recovered.

Fifty years later a warlike group from mainland Greece, the Mycenaeans, invaded and took over the ruins of the old palaces and settlements, driving the Minoans deep into the mountains. For a few hundred years, refugee artisans continued to make beautiful objects in these mountain holdouts, but now made of clay rather than gold. The jewels and glass and bronze was gone. The work became rougher and rougher as conditions deteriorated, and eventually even the mountain refuges disappeared.

But the Mycenaeans must have been in awe of what they found in the rubble on Crete, and maybe a few of the Minoans stayed and taught their new overlords, because many aspects of Minoan culture began to appear in Mycenaean art and myth, and spread throughout Greece. The last vestiges of the encounter between the Greeks and the Minoans is preserved in the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, the great half-bull (a symbol of the Minoan’s connection to the animal realm?) hidden in the middle of the labyrinth of the palace at Knossos.

So that’s why I went to Crete: to see, up close, the vestiges of that world. And this is the great thing about traveling…..whatever you think you will find is always not exactly what you find, and who would have it any other way? If you stay home your ideas are never shaken by reality.

I did see the palaces and the frescoes, the gold jewelry and the painted pottery, but all of it was somehow unapproachable, sanitized, inspiring but no longer alive. The ruins of the palace of Knossos were buried in busload after busload of cruise ship tourists, waiting in line for hours for the chance of a photograph in the “throne room”, their guides shouting at them in a dozen languages. All I wanted to do at Knossos was escape the crowds and go look at the birds in the pines.

The huge archaeological museum in Iraklion was undergoing renovations and only a few things were visible, although those few things were beautiful beyond belief.

I felt closest to the Minoans on top of Mount Yiouhta, which towers over ancient Knossos and the modern village of Archanes. We were there in the late afternoon, the only people on the mountain.

There was a Minoan shrine on the north peak, just a tumble-down group of stones surrounded by a half-hearted chain-link fence. On the south peak was a small Greek Orthodox church, built for local pilgrims who still walk up the mountain on holy days.

The sky was huge and misty blue, and enormous griffin vultures and a dozen hawks were catching the thermals along the ridge. It felt like a charged place, where the powers of the earth and sky meet and mingle.

* * * *

But mostly what I experienced on Crete were the many layers of post-Minoan time that sit heavily on the people and the land. One could say, with some accuracy, that Crete was a conquered place, a colonized place, from 1450 BC to 1905 AD – more than three thousand years. The Dorians, Romans, Arabs, Venetians, Turks, British and Germans all had their turn on the island. The forests were stripped from the mountains for naval fleets, leaving the soil unprotected from erosion. Goats kept the forests from growing back, leaving only stones and spiny shrubs. The people were brutalized, forcibly converted, turned into guerilla fighters hiding in caves.

Under the Turks there were bloody uprisings every few years, and every man became a warrior. While I was on the island I was reading Nikos Kazantzakis’ great book Freedom and Death, which is the fictionalized account of one of the last uprisings, and of the character of his own father. It reads like a book about modern-day Afghanistan, where the whole culture glorifies the man with the gun, the glorious, violent, hyper-masculine patriot who dies in a rain of bullets.

We stayed in the converted farmhouse of an old family in the village of Archanes, and on the walls were framed 19th century photographs of the fiercest-looking men and women I’ve ever seen, nearly every one brandishing a gun or a knife. It took the Nazis, by the way, six weeks to subdue the Cretans, and some believe that the delay cost them a victory in Russia. Without Crete, WW2 could have ended very differently.

I could still feel this in the people of Crete. They were friendly but rough; rough with each other, rough with us. Crete isn’t a gentle place; it’s a hard place, hewn through war and conquest and resistance. During the day we walked through beautiful gorges and swam in clear water, but at night my dreams were full of death, as if the ground itself was soaked with so much of it that it rose in the night like mist. The famous hand-worked Cretan knives, razor-sharp, hung incongruously in the tourist shops.

One night in the ancient city of Chania, four of us went out to hear traditional Cretan music at a small taverna in the old Turkish quarter, and for hours we sat at a table listening to the wildest, most beautiful, stirring and haunting music I’ve ever heard.

There was a small stage up front, and when we arrived there were three young men, dressed in black, one playing a lute, one playing a lyra (like a violin bowed and held upright in the lap), and one playing a small hand drum. As the night went on, other men would come in and join or replace the ones on stage, and the music grew more and more unrestrained.

My Greek friend leaned over and translated some of the songs, full of poetry - images of eagles and the sea and the moon and the mountains, unrequited desire, yearnings for freedom, love for the island (watch and listen here for to get a sense of the music I heard that night, played on traditional instruments, accompanied by photos of Crete, or here for a footage of one of the most famous Cretan lyra players, in his home village). Even without knowing the words, my eyes kept filling with tears.

Finally, late, late at night, a group of men began enacting a very old tradition – nearly lost, my Greek friend said – of linking improvised rhyming verses, like a battle in song. One would sing a verse, and then another man, staring straight into the eyes of the first, would take an image or a feeling and carry it further, turn it, and then another would turn the verse again. The intensity and fierceness between the singers was palpable, a vibrato of power, as if their feet were buried in the earth and the energy of the land was rising through them and between them.

Later I realized that my two ways of seeing the island came together that night. The Minoans aren’t gone – those men singing in the taverna are their descendents, most surely, full of poetry born from the land. And those men are also the descendents of the desperate guerillas, all softness beaten out of them by their conquerors. We carry the past in our bodies and voices, as surely as we carry the genetic gifts – and curses – handed down to us.

Now that I’ve written this, I have to admit that I don’t know why I went to Crete, really.

Maybe I went for that night of soul-stirring music in the dingy taverna in Chania.

Maybe I went for a moment standing with my mother in the crystal clear water of the Libyan Sea, while a brilliant kingfisher flashed by us, like a jewel in flight.

Maybe I needed to see and stand in a place where once something wonderful happened, for a few centuries long ago.

Like all traveling, we never really know why, though, if we’re lucky, our hearts are a little wider, a little less certain, when we come home again.