I cannot hear this joyous music without smiling
THESSALONIKI - NORTHERN GREECE
I have taken a short break away from my desk to visit - revisit - Greece. Last week I was in Thessaloniki where the city's 18th annual documentary film festival was in full swing. As my husband is a documentary filmmaker and I have written several films, this is always an excellent opportunity to meet up with colleagues and see works that will rarely find screenings anywhere except at festivals. It is also an opportunity to be with others who are writing, directing, producing, almost always working within very tight budgets, to complete films that matter to them, frequently on subjects that have little commercial value. I also love to be in a city that offers its citizens the possibility of participating, engaging in an international festival free of charge. Dear Greece, beyond the city of Thessaloniki, there are camps filled with thousands of traumatised Syrian refugees; the country itself is in a deep financial crisis with shops and businesses closing down at an alarming rate, yet still the municipalities continue to see the value of offering the arts to the public.
Aristotelous Square, Thessaloniki, hub of the film festival
I had considered hiring a car and driving out to one of the camps to try to talk with a few of the refugees, but several of the filmmakers in town went off with their cameras and I decided that enough is enough. I have visited refugee camps in other countries and little will be different. The question is, what is to be their fate, their life-line? Who will take them in?
It moved me when I was in conversation with Thessalonikan citizens to hear how concerned they are for the plight of the Syrians. Not one person I spoke to made any comment that suggested the refugees should be turned away or kicked out. 'We must feed them. We have to try and help them.' The main dilemma seemed to be 'how can we help, offer aid, when we are in crisis ourselves? What do we have to offer them?' I was humbled by their tolerance and generosity of spirit.
Thessaloniki (also known as Salonica) has a fascinating history. Founded in 315 BC by King Cassandra of Macedonia, it became the capital of the Macedonia kingdom. After its fall, during the Roman Empire, the city grew to be an important seaport and trading hub. I walked a fair length of its immense harbour last week recalling the many faces of its multi-cultural past: Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, Jewish... It was during the Ottoman rule that the Jews were welcomed to the city. The reasoning was that the Jewish culture and their individual skills would add a new dimension. The Jews were integrated with little difficulty and became neighbours and friends of the Greeks.
Predominantly, it was Sephardic Jews who settled here after their expulsion from Spain. For a while the city gained the nickname, la madre de Israel. The mother of Israel. Today, Salonica is a city twinned with Tel Aviv. Tragically, during the Second World War, after Germany occupied Greece in 1941, most of the Jews were deported and eradicated in the concentration camps. But even in their absence, they have left their unique mark on the tapestry of the city.
A visit to the Jewish quarter is a must. It gives a real sense of what Thessaloniki must have been like in earlier times.
Thessaloniki was also an important base for many Greek refugees who found themselves homeless after The Exchange in 1923/23 when Ataturk enforced the expulsion of all Greeks from the newly-founded Republic of Turkey. The Exchange, which is the subject of one my films in THE OLIVE ROUTE series of documentaries, decreed that all Greeks living on Turkish soil and all Turks living on Greek soil had to return to the land of their passport, even if, which was the case for most of them, they had never before set foot on the soil of their motherland.
So, the status of being a refugee is not alien to the Greek people.
CHANIA - CRETE.
Now I have flown south to Chania, western capital of Crete, where I am staying in a lovely hotel, Casa Delfino, which, during the Venetian occupation (1252 -1645) of this island, was a private mansion. I have spent a fair amount of time on this island over the years. I first came here over forty years ago and I frequently find myself returning here when I am in need of healing.
The Etz Hayyim synagogue in Chania. The Jews from Chania were massacred by the Nazis in 1944 and the synagogue was desecrated. It reopened in 1999 as a place of prayer and reconciliation. The building was originally a Catholic church during the Venetian period.
Multi-domed Ottoman Mosque built in 1649 for the Janissaries, designed by an Armenian architect, in Chania Port. It was the first mosque built in Crete after the Ottoman conquest of the island in 1645.
Chania began as a neolithic site and was then occupied by the Minoans. They named the city Kydonia which means 'quince'. Evidence of their existence here has been uncovered in various places beneath the old Venetian foundations. Cities built upon cities. I don't know whether they intended the city to be named after the quince tree or its fruit. My guess would be the tree itself. The Minoans worshipped trees. (I am not far off this practice myself!) In the hills behind the ancient city of Kydonia, there were large orchards of quince trees and it remains a fruit-growing region even today.
My trip this time has no professional purpose. I wanted the opportunity to be back in touch with the rhythms of nature, and of olive farming. We have spent several days up in the mountains where we spotted small herds of long-horned kri-kri or wild goat. Some historians believe that these are descended from escaped or released domesticated goats kept by the Minoans. Livestock farming was an important element in their economy.
Although it is late March, many of the olive trees are still netted and some of the farmers are still harvesting their drupes. Those who have completed this work are pruning their trees. I love to see this process. Each country, each culture has a slightly different method of pruning. Always with the end result of opening up the centre of the tree, rather like a fully blossoming flower, so that air can circulate and humidity does not cause the fruits to grow mouldy.
Friday of this coming weekend in Greece is Independence Day (25th March). For those of us who are Christians but not Greek Orthodox, it is also Easter. Tourists will begin to arrive (there are only a few here at present). It means that at the coastal resorts and villages we have visited, everybody is busily painting, cleaning, hosing down pavements, airing furniture out on the streets, all in preparation for their next six months. Several years back when I was here during February, I climbed a snowy mountain route to its summit and then found myself descending to a beachside village on the south. The entire village was shuttered except for one restaurant, which was packed. All the inhabitants had come to enjoy a long lunch together. I walked in and silence descended.
"Yassus, I am looking for something to eat,' I said.
'We are closed, closed till the beginning of April,' was the reply.
'But you cannot go hungry you must join us.' Said another and someone jumped to their feet and hurried to lay up a place. I was given a seat and a full plate of food. It was a fascinating day I spent there. I was offered a bed for the night if I preferred not to make the taxing drive back over the mountain. I did not accept their generosity because I was on a tight schedule, researching for my book, THE OLIVE ROUTE.
I learnt that day that these southern Cretans, like so many others on this island, have two lives. They farm their olive groves by winter and they earn cash through tourism in the summer. They open up their coastal zones to foreigners but they jealously guard the interior, their agricultural lands. The land represents their history, their venerable farming culture. "We don't sell our olive farms,' one young man explained to me. 'These are bequeathed to our sons and daughters. Our olive history, our trees are sacred to us. They are at the centre of our lives and our culture.' They begged me not to give away the identity of their village because they did not want winter tourists arriving, looking to rent rooms, which I suspect, given their natural hospitality, these Cretans would have felt obliged to offer. I have always honoured that promise.
A day or so later I went to the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. I had heard talk of a Minoan ring recently rediscovered after half a century of having "gone missing". I wanted to see it for myself because it was a witness to the importance of the olive tree 3,000 years ago on this island. I have written about this ring and its astounding story at length in THE OLIVE ROUTE, so I will just say briefly that it was discovered in the 1920s by a small boy walking through a vineyard close to Knossos when he was taking lunch to his father who was working in the family fields. Soon after this astounding find, the ring went missing again under very mysterious circumstances only to be retrieved in the early twenty-first century.
This golden ring, known now as the Ring of Minos, offers vital insights into the Minoan culture for several reasons. No scriptures or prayers exist to tell us about Minoan spiritual practices, but this magnificent royal ring is a pictorial gem because it shows a goddess hovering in the sky above two humans who are worshipping trees. Sacred trees. Quite possibly these are intended to be olive trees. Throughout the Middle East, in the three monotheistic faiths and written in their holy books, the olive tree is regarded as sacred. I doubt it was any different here on the island of Crete. Even today, the villager on the south coast described his olive trees as "sacred".
Olive oil was a massive source of Minoan wealth. The royal palaces had amphorae brimming with litres of "liquid gold".
In a lower image on the Ring of Minos, the goddess is rowing a ship. She is setting off from the island in a boat transporting a shrine with horns... There are several other examples in Minion art of goddesses setting off from rocky shores with trees aboard their vessels.
It is possible that the Minoans were the first to add herbs to their olive oil. One stage later and they have created scented oils, perfumes. A fabulous source of wealth, and a cosmetic luxury. They sailed and traded their olive oil and scented oils all across the Mediterranean, journeying by boat. They were renowned sailors; theirs was an enterprising maritime trading culture. Some archaeologists and historians believe they reached as far as southern Spain to trade with the peoples of the ancient city of Tartessus who lived along the shores of the mouth of the mighty Guadalquivir River, pre-the Phoenician city of Gadir known today as Cadiz.
Those round-trip journeys would have taken the sailors two or three years.
Did they pray to their goddesses to protect them during their long voyages across the seas? To return them home safely to their Minoan cities?
We have been to Stavros and sat in the spring sunshine. We drank a glass of wine and then we walked the sandy beach where Anthony Quinn danced the dance. The cafe was playing that famous theme tune. And I felt impelled to get up and leap about.
I return to this island because it is a healing place for me. It puts me back in touch with the cycles of nature, with a history that is at least 3,000 years old and with the process of regeneration. After death comes life. After winter, comes spring.
Still, the island guards many mysteries and secrets, many unanswered questions. These always awaken my juices, always make me want to delve deeper. Always call me back to remind me that life goes on and the seasons turn.