Turkey In Europe – Crete And The Islands Of The Archipelago

CRETE, next to Cyprus, is the largest island inhabited by Greeks. It is a natural dependency of Greece, but treaties made without consulting the wishes of the people have handed it over to the Turks. It is Greek in spite of this, not only because the majority of its inhabitants consider it to be so, but also because of its soil, its climate, and its geographical position. On all sides it is surrounded by deep seas, except towards the north-west, where a submarine plateau joins it to Cythera and the Peloponnesus.

There are few countries in the world more favoured by nature. Its climate is mild, though sometimes too dry in summer; its soil fertile in spite of the waters being swallowed up by the limestone rocks; its harbours spacious and well sheltered; and its scenery exhibits both grandeur and quiet beauty. The position of Crete, at the mouth of the Archipelago, between Europe, Asia, and Africa, seems to have destined that island to become the great commercial emporium of that part of the world. Aristotle already observed this, and, if tradition can be trusted, Crete actually held that position for more than three thousand years. During that time it ” ruled the waves; ” the Cyclades acknowledged the sway of Minos, its king; Cretan colonists established themselves in Sicily ; and Cretan vessels found their way to every part of the Mediterranean. But the island unfortunately became divided into innumerable small republics jealous of each other, and was therefore unable to maintain this commercial supremacy in the face of Dorian and other Greeks. At a subsequent period the Romans subjected the island, and it never recovered its independence. Byzantines, Arabs, Venetians, and Turks have held it in turn, and by each of them it has been laid waste and impoverished.

The elongated shape of the island, and the range of mountains which runs through it from one extremity to the other, enable us to understand how it was that at a time when most Greeks looked upon the walls of their cities as synonymous with the limits of their fatherland, Crete became divided into a multitude of small republics, and how every attempt at federation (” syncretism “) miserably failed. The inhabitants, in fact, were more effectually separated from each other than if they had inhabited a number of small islands forming an archipelago. Most of the coast valleys are enclosed by high mountains, the only easy access to them being from the sea, and communications between the towns occupying their centres are possible only by crossing difficult mountain paths easily defended. In all Crete there exists but one plain deserving the name, viz. that of Messara, to the south of the central mass of mountains. It is the granary of the island, and the Ieropotamo, or “holy river,” which traverses it, has a little water even in the middle of summer.

The contour of Crete corresponds in a remarkable manner with the height of its mountains. ‘Where these are high, the island is broad; where they sink down, it is narrow. In the centre of the island rises Mount Ida (Psiloriti), where Jupiter was educated by the Corybantes, and where his tomb was shown. Its lofty summit, covered with snow almost throughout the year. its gigantic buttresses, and the verdant valleys at its base render it one of the most imposing mountains in the world; but it was still more magnificent in the time of the ancient Greeks, when forests covered its slopes, and justified its being called Mount Ida, or ” the wooded.” On the summit of this mountain the whole island lies spread out beneath our feet; the horizon towards the north, from Mount Taygetus to the shores of Asia, is dotted with islands and peninsulas; and in the south a wide expanse of water extends beyond the barren and inhospitable island of Gaudo.

The Leuca-Ori, or ” White Mountains,” in the western extremity of the island, are thus called on account of the snow which covers their summits, or because of their white limestone cliffs. They are exceedingly steep, and perfectly bare, hardly any verdure being met with even in the valleys at their foot. They are known, also, as the Mountains of the Sphakiotes, the descendants of the ancient Dorians, who have retired into their fastnesses, where they are protected by nature against every attack. Some of their villages are . accessible only by following the stony bed of mountain torrents leaping down from the heights in small cascades. During the rains the water rushes down these ravines in mighty torrents. The ” gates are closed ” then, as it is said. One of theme gates, or pharynghi, is that of Hagio Runieli, on the southern slope of the Leuca-Ori. When rain threatens it is dangerous to enter these gorges, for the waters rush down and carry everything before them. Paring the war of independence the Turks vainly endeavoured to force this ” gate ” of the strong mountain citadel. The level pieces of ground on these heights are sufficiently extensive to support a considerable population, if it were not for the cold. The villages of Askyfo occupy one of these plains, which is surrounded on all sides by an amphitheatre of mountains. In former times this cavity was occupied by a lake. This is proved by ancient beaches and by other evidence. But, the waters of the lake found an outlet through some katavothras (khonos, ” sinks “) and discharged themselves into the sea.

The remaining mountains of the island are less elevated and far less sterile than the White Mountains. The most remarkable amongst them are the Lasithi, and, still farther west, those of Dicte, or Sitia, a sort of pendant to the Mountains of the Sphakiotes. Raised sea-beaches have been traced along their northern slopes, covered with shells of living species, and they prove that that portion of the island has been upheaved more than sixty feet during a recent geological epoch. The northern coast, between the White Y Mountains and Mount Dicte, offers a greater variety of contour than does the south coast. Its capes, or acroteria, project far into the sea, and thence are gulfs, bays, and secure anchorages. For these reasons most commercial cities have been built upon that side of the island, which faces the Archipelago and presents a picture of life, whilst the south coat, facing Africa, is comparatively deserted. All the modern cities on the northern coasts have been built upon the sites of ancient ones. Megalokastron, better known by its Italian name of Candia, is the Heracleum of the ancients, the famous haven of Cnossus. Retimo, on the western front of Mount Ida, is easily identified with the ancient Rithymna ; whilst Khanea (Canea), whose white houses are almost confounded with the arid slopes of the White Mountains. represents the Cydonia of the Greeks, famous for its forests of quince-trees. Canea is the actual capital, and although not the most populous, it is nevertheless the most important and the busiest city of the island. It has a second haven to the cast, Azizirge, on Suda Bay, one of the best sheltered on the island, and promises to become one of the principal maritime stations on the Mediterranean.

Crete has certainly lost much in population and wealth, and the epithet of the ” isle of a hundred cities,” which it received from the ancient Greeks, no longer applies to it. Miserable villages occupy the sites of the ancient cities, their houses built from the materials of a single ruined wall, whilst immense quarries had to be opened in order to supply the building materials required in former times. The famous labyrinth ” is one of the most considerable of these ancient quarries. Crete, in spite of its great fertility, exports merely a few agricultural products, and nothing now reminds us of the fruitful island upon which Ceres gave birth to Plutus. The peasants are the reputed owners of the land, but they take little heed of its cultivation. Their olives yield only an inferior oil, and though the wine they make is good in spite of them, it is no longer the Malvoisie so highly prized by the Venetians. The cultivation of cotton, tobacco, and of fruit of all sorts is neglected. The only progress in agriculture which can be recorded during the present century consists in the introduction of orange-trees, whose delicious fruit is highly appreciated throughout the East. M. Georges Perrot has drawn attention to the singular fact that, with the exception of the olive-trees and the vine, the cultivated trees of the island are confined to particular localities. Thus chestnuts are met with only at the western extremity of the island ; vigorous oaks and cypresses are confined to the elevated valleys of the Sphakiotes ; the valonia oaks are met with only in the province of Retimo ; Mount Dicte alone supports stone-pines and carob-trees ; and a promontory in South-eastern Crete, jutting out towards Africa, is surmounted by a grove of date-trees—the finest throughout the Archipelago.

The inhabitants of Crete and the neighbouring islets are still Greek, in spite of successive invasions, and they still speak a Greek dialect, recognised as a corrupted Dorian. The Slays, who invaded the island during the Middle Ages, have left no trace except the names of a few villages. The Arabs and Venetians, too, have been assimilated by the aboriginal Cretans; but there still exist a considerable number of Albanians, the descendants of soldiers, who have retained their language and their customs. As to the Mohammedans or pretended Turks, who constitute about one-fifth of the total population, they are, for the most part, the descendants of Cretans who embraced Islamism in order to escape persecution. They are the only Hellenes throughout the East who have embraced, in a body, the religion of their conquerors ; but since religious persecution has subsided several of those Mohammedan Greeks have returned to the religion of their ancestors. The Greeks of Crete are thus not only vastly in the majority, but they hold the first place also in industry, commerce, and wealth ; it is they who buy up the land, and the Mohammedan gradually retires before them. All Cretans, with the exception of the Albanians, speak Greek, and only in the capital and in a portion of Messara, where the Mohammedans live in compact masses, has the Turkish language made any progress.

We need not be surprised, therefore, if the Greeks lay claim to a country in which their preponderance is so marked. But, in spite of their valour, they were no match against the Turkish and Egyptian armies which were brought against them.

The Cretans are said to resemble their ancestors in the eagerness with which they do business, and in their disregard of truth. They may possibly be ” Greeks amongst Greeks—liars amongst liars ; ” but they certainly cannot be reproached with being bad patriots. On the contrary, they have suffered much for the sake of their fatherland, and during the war of independence their blood was shed in torrents on many a battle-field. The vast cavern of Melidhoni, on the western slope of Mount Ida, was the scene of one of the terrible events of this war. In 1822 more than three hundred Hellenes, most of them women, children, and old men, had sought refuge in this cavern. The Turks lit a fire at its mouth, and the smoke, penetrating to its farthest extremity, suffocated the unfortunate beings who had hoped to find shelter there.

The profound ” Sea of Minos,” to the north of Crete, separates that island from the Archipelago. All the islands of the latter have been assigned to the kingdom of Greece—Astypalaea, vulgarly called Astropalaea or Stampalia, alone excepted, which still belongs to the Turks. The ancients called this island the ” Table of the Gods,” although it is only a barren rock. It clearly belongs to the eastern chain of the Cyclades, as far as geological formation and the configuration of the sea-bottom go ; but the diplomats allowed its fifteen hundred inhabitants to remain under the dominion of Turkey.

Amongst the other islands inhabited by Greeks, but belonging to Turkey, Thasos is that which lies nearest to the coast of Europe. The strait which separates it from Macedonia is hardly four miles across, and in its centre there is an island (Thasopulo), as well as several sand-banks, which interfere much with navigation. Though a natural dependency of Macedonia, this island is governed by a mudir of the Viceroy of Egypt, to whom the Porte made a present of it. When Mohammed II. put an end to the Byzantine empire, Thasos and the neighbouring islands formed a principality, the property of the Italian family of the Gateluzzi.

Thasos is one of those countries of the ancient world the present condition of which contrasts most unfavourably with former times. Thasos, an ancient Phoenician colony, was once the rival, and subsequently the wealthy and powerful ally, of Athens : its hundred thousand inhabitants worked the gold and iron mines of the island ; they quarried its beautiful white marble; cultivated vineyards yielding a famous wine ; and extended their commercial expeditions to every part of’ the AEgean Sea. But now there are neither mines nor quarries, the vines yield only an inferior product, the agricultural produce hardly suffices for the six thousand inhabitants of the island, and the ancient haven of Thasos is frequented only by the tiniest of vessels. The island has recovered very slowly from the blow inflicted upon it by Mohammed II., who carried nearly the whole of its inhabitants to Constantinople. Thasos after this became a haunt of pirates. and its inhabitants sought shelter within the mountains of the interior. They are Hellenes, but their dialect is very much mixed with Turkish words. l mike other Hellenes, they are not anxious to improve their minds. They are degenerate Greeks, and they know it. ” We are sheep and beasts of burden,” they repeatedly told the French traveller, Perrot.

Thasos, however, is the only island of the Archipelago where wooded mountains and verdant landscapes survive. Rains are abundant, and its vegetation luxuriant. Running streams of water murmur in every valley ; large trees throw their shade over the hill-sides; the villages near the foot of the mountain are hidden by cypresses, walnut, and olive-trees ; the valleys which radiate in all directions from the centre of the island abound in planes, laurels, yoke-elms, and vigorous oaks ; and dark pine forests cover the higher slopes of the bills, the glittering barren summits of Mount St. Elias and of other high mountains alone rising above them.

Samothrace, though smaller than Thasos, is much more elevated. Its mountains are composed of granite, schists, limestones, and trachyte, and form a sort of pendant to Mount Athos, on the other side of the AEgean Sea. If we approach Samothrace from the north or the south, it presents the appearance of a huge coffin floating upon the waters ; from the east or west its profile resembles a pyramid rising from the waves. From its summit Neptune watched the fight of the Greeks before Troy. In the dark oak forests of the Black Mountains were carried on the mysteries of Cybele and her Corybantes, as well as the Cabiric worship, which was intimately connected with them, and Samothrace was to the ancient Greeks what Mount Athos is to the moderns—a sacred land. Numerous ruins and inscriptions remain to bear witness to the zeal of devout travellers from all parts of the world. But with the downfall of the heathen temples the pilgrims disappeared. There is only one village on the island now. Its inhabitants lead a secluded life, and the only strange faces they sec are those of the sponge-fishers who frequent the island during summer. The entire absence of harbours, and the dangerous current which separates Samothrace from Imbro, keep off the mariner, and though the valleys are extremely fertile, they have not hitherto attracted a single immigrant from the neighbouring continent.

Imbro and Lemnos are separated from Samothrace by a deep sea, and appear to continue the range of the Thracian Chersonesus. Imbro, which is nearest to the continent, is the more elevated of the two islands, but its St. Elias does not attain half the height of the mountains of Samothrace. There are no forests upon the slopes of this mountain, the valleys are covered with stores, and hardly an eighth of the surface of the island is capable of cultivation. Still, the position of Imbro, close to the mouth of the Dardanelles and upon an international ocean highway, will always secure to it a certain degree of importance. The majority of the inhabitants live in a small valley in the north-eastern portion of the island, and though the rivulet which flows through this valley regularly dries up in summer, it is nevertheless called emphatically the Megalos Potamos, or big river.”

Lemnos, or Limni, is the largest island of Thracia, and at the same time the least elevated and the most barren. You may walk for hours there without seeing a tree. Es en olive-trees are not met with in the fields, and the village gardens can boast but of few fruit trees. Timber has to be procured from Thasos or the continent. Lemnos, in spite of’ all this, is exceedingly fertile; it produces barley and other cereals in plenty, and the pastures amongst its hills sustain 40,000 sheep. The island consists of several distinct mountain groups of volcanic origin, 1,200 to 1,500 feet in height, and separated by low plains covered with scoriae, or by gulfs penetrating far inland. In the time of the ancient Greeks the volcanoes of Lemnos had not vet quenched their fires, for it was in one of them that Vulcan, when hurled from heaven, established his smithy, and, with the assistance of the Cyclops, forged his thunderbolts for Jupiter. About the beginning of our era Mount Mosychlos and the promontory of Chryse were swallowed up by the sea, and the vast shoals which extend from the eastern part of the island in the direction of Imbro probably mark their site. Since the disappearance of Mount Mosychlos, Lemnos has not again suffered from volcanic eruptions or earthquakes. The majority of’ the inhabitants are Greeks, and the Turks who have settled amongst them are being evicted by the conquered race, which is superior to them in intelligence and industry. Commerce is entirely in the hands of the Greeks. Its principal seat is at Kastro—the ancient Mvrhina—which occupies a headland between two roadsteads. Sealed earth is one of the articles exported, and is found in the mountains. In ancient times it was much prized as an astringent, and is so still throughout the East. It is not considered to possess its healing qualities unless it has been collected before sunrise ou Corpus Christi day.

The small island of Stratio (Hagios Eustrathios) depends politically and commercially upon Lemnos. It, too, is inhabited by Greeks. As to the islands along the coast of Asia Minor, they form a portion of Turkey in Europe as far as their political administration is concerned, but geographically they belong to Asia.