March/April 2008

A little bit about Orchids

What is an orchid? Well for a start most of them grow from a pair of round knobbly tubers. Now what does that remind you of? Yes - the name orchid comes from the Greek word όρχις, meaning testicle. Because of this resemblance, orchids were thought to be an aphrodisiac. The tubers actually contain starch and proteins, and dried orchid tubers are still made into a nutritious drink called “salep” in some countries. Salep is an Arabian word, but the Greeks still use it as their name for orchids. Orchid tubers were also once medically for stomach disorders. They were particularly useful for stopping diarrhea. But as numbers of orchids were declining in the wild, herbalists do not use them anymore.

Orchids are monocotyledons. That means that they grow from an underground food store such as a corm, tube, rhizome or bulb. The veins on their leaves run in parallel lines and the flower parts are in threes. Other monocotyledons that grow in Crete are plants like asphodel and iris. Dicotyledon flowers have an outer ring of petals. The sexual parts (stamens and carpels) are in the centre. Monocot flowers do not have separately identifiable petals and sepals, so botanists call their flower parts tepals. Orchid flowers are symmetrical, if divided vertically, and have six segments. There are three outer parts, one vertical and two lateral. Between these are two inner parts and a third inner lip that is larger and extends outwards and downwards. This prominent lip or spur distinguishes orchid flowers from other monocots.

Orchids are highly adaptive plants and grow in all sorts of environments from deserts to jungles. They can grow as epiphytes (i.e. without soil) or even underground. That excellent writer on all things horticultural, Jennifer Gay, says that around 28,000 species of orchid have been identified in the wild. In their book “Flowers of Greece and the Aegean”, Huxley and Taylor list over 60 species that are native to Greece. There are so many orchids that botanists have divided them into families (genera).

barlia robertianaI had never seen an orchid growing in the wild until I came to live in Crete, so I am certainly no expert. I would like to share the pleasure I have found in identifying a few that grow on the hills and in the olive groves surrounding my home. Orchids start flowering here in January and can go on until the end of May but they are at their peak now in March and April. The earliest to flower is called Barlia robertiana. It is in a genus all on its own. Because it is relatively big for an orchid it is easy to spot. It grows 30-80 cm tall (12-32 in) and has big glossy leaves and fragrant flowers borne on a thick stem in a tightly packed spike. They are a mixture of green and pink with that typical waxy texture that orchids have. The prominent pink lip has wary edges and little spots or streaks in darker pink. Because it is such a bulky plant its common name is Giant Orchid.

orchis papilionaceaThis pretty pink flower is Orchis papilionacea. Papillionaceus, in Latin, means resembling a butterfly - so its common name is the Pink Butterfly Orchid. Orchids in the genus Orchis have a hood or helmet shape at the top formed by the three upper segments of the flower joined together. The flowers of Orchis Papilionacea grow in a loose bunch at the top of a slander, leafy stem. They are in bloom from February to May. These plants I found were small - only about 10cm high. But the books say they can grow taller up to 30cm. This group was growing in a typical place for this plant - a dry, sunny hilltop protected by some cistus bushes.

In the flowers of the Serapias genus the upper parts grow upwards in a point. The lip curves strongly out and downwards. It has a pointed end and smooth edges, making it look rather like someone pulling tongues! So the common name for this group is Tongue Orchids. Their botanical name came from Serapuis the Egyptian god of fertility. There are some that grow by the stream in my valley protected by some shrubbery. Although they flower from March to May I couldn’t take a photo for you because they are not out yet.

ophrys_luteaThe genus Ophrys are perhaps the most well known and the type of flower that people often imagine when they think of orchids. The flowers are specially adapted to attract the male gender of their pollinating insect (a wasp, hornet or bee). Some are even furry, like a bee’s body! Others produce substances that smell like a female to the male insect. Crete has its own special ophrys - the Cretan Bee Orchid - which grows nowhere else in the world. The example in my photo is called Ophrys Lutea (Luteus being yellow in Latin). The yellow lip is patterned in brown and the flowers face upwards. They grow 10-30cm tall and are found on hillsides amongst the shrubs of the maquis and in woods and olive groves. I found mine on a grassy slope between the olive tree terraces and the stream. I hope I have given those of you who, like me, are fairly ignorant about orchids, an idea of where to find the more common types and how to identify them. Good hunting!

What's in a name?

FYROMEver since the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, Greece has had a problem of an erstwhile part that calls itself Macedonia. Greece has its own northern region called Macedonia. This was famously the birthplace and original kingdom of Alexander the Great. In February 1994 Greece put on embargo on Macedonia until it agreed to call itself something else. It may not seem very important to you and I, but Greeks see it as a matter of national pride that they have the one and only Macedonia and will not budge on it. Everything, except humanitarian aid, was blocked from going in and out the country until, in September 1995, a deal was brokered. Macedonia agreed to call itself The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).

Everyone was content and relations returned to normal, to the benefit of both countries. Now the issue has raised its ugly head again and Greek newspapers perceive it as a major story. Whole pages are dedicated to it. Editorials are written about it. The readers’ letters pages are full of it. This is all because FYROM wants to join NATO, and it wants to do so under the name of Macedonia. The Greek position is that Macedonia may contain part of historical and geographical ancient Macedonia. However it also contains parts of other ancient countries. Why can’t it call itself after one of them? To put the pressure on, Greece has used its veto to stop FYROM joining NATO. This also has implications for Macedonia joining the EU later on. The United Nations are involved and appointed a mediator called Martin Nimetz to sort it out.

A leaked memo from him proposed five alternative names for FYROM, all of them containing the word Macedonia. This sparked another big political row. Why, Greece asks, do they have to call themselves Macedonians? They aren’t ethnic Macedonians, for goodness sake - they will be saying Alexander the Great was born in Skopje next!

For all practical purposes it does not matter what the country calls itself, but in Greece the issue is political dynamite. Heaven help the Greek politician who gives in to allowing this place to call itself the “M” word. He or she will never sit in parliament again.

Rocks and caves

Crete is actually just a mountain range sticking up out of the sea, and the rocks that form the bones of the island are very evident. Because much of the rock is limestone, it has formed many caves. There are reckoned to be over 2,000 caves on Crete, and these features of the landscape have been made use of by people in different ways over the centuries.

Evidence of domestic occupation in Neolithic times (7,000-3,000 BC) has been found in the form of hearts and remnants of meals in larger caves. They made good shelters, as because of water leaking through the rock, there was also an easily accessed water supply. Smaller caves were walled in with stone to make them more weather proof. In the fourth century BC the population of the island seems to have increased. Probably this was due to immigration of people from Anatolia (modern Turkey). They brought with them domestic animals and farming methods. There was no longer enough shelter in caves. People moved out and formed small settlements. But Cretan rock was still useful. The small houses that have been excavated from this period, at places like Knossos and Festos, were built of a mixture of stone and mudbrick. Tools and weapons were also made of stone. These tools, often made of obsidian, and handmade pottery, with rippled decoration, are typical artefacts you will see in archeological museums, from this period.

Agia Sofia cave, TopoliaIn our part of Western Crete, evidence of Neolithic occupation has been found in St. Sophia’s cave at the southern end of Topolia gorge. In the Bronze Age (3,000-1,100 BC) caves were used for the burial of the dead. Some have been found to contain hundreds of burials, made over centuries, all belonging to many generations of one clan.

From about 1,300 BC Crete was gradually settled by people who moved south from mainland Greece. They came with their own religious beliefs and caves became shrines to the Greek gods. Some may have been used even before this as places of warship, in Neolithic times as well. Offerings to gods have been found in these sacred caves in the form of pottery or little statues. Sometimes a rock inside the cave has been formed into an altar. Stalagmites and stalactites with resemblance to animals or human form were the focus of warship. Some of these have been shaped a little to increase the resemblance, but they are still natural formations. Touchingly, some have been worn smooth in places by the fingers of the worshippers caressing the stone, perhaps in the hope of a miracle. There is one such cave on the eastern side of Hania, called Arkoudiotissa or Arkoudia. There is a large stalagmite in the cave that resembles a bear. This cave is thought to have been sacred to the goddess Artemis as she was often worshipped in the form of a bear.

graves, PolyrinniaFrom 1,100 to 69 BC Crete became increasingly settled by Dorians from mainland Greece. The Dorians established fortified hilltop towns. They were a rather warlike lot. Each hilltop city had its own clan, culture and religious beliefs. They annexed the surrounding countryside and became small city states fighting one another for territory and trade. Two of these in our local area were Falasarna and Polyrinnia. Falasarna had a big harbor and its main source of power was its navy. Polyrinnia (which means “many sheep”) drew its wealth from agriculture, but had a harbor on the coast at the place that is now Kissamos. During this period rich families stopped burying their dead in caves. They cut tombs into rock faces and created cementeries. There is one such site just below of the ancient city of Polyrinnia.

But caves, as holy places, were still important and one of these played a key part in Cretan history. There is a legend surrounding the birth of Zeus, the father of the gods. His father, Kronos, Lord of the Universe was afraid of losing power to his children. When they were born, he simply swallowed them whole! To save Zeus, when he was born, his mother, Rhea, offered Kronos a rock wrapped in swaddling clothes to swallow, then had the child whisked away to Crete. Here he was brought up by nymphs in the sacred cave of Nida on Psiloritis mountain. This sacred site made Crete an important prize for the Roman Empire to conquer. They failed the first time in 71 BC, but some of the Cretan city states supported the Romans. They came back again in 69 BC and after three years of resistance Crete became part of the Roman Empire. Polyrinnia, by the way, was on the Romans’ side so they got a fine new Roman aqueduct and water system. Falasarna was on the losing side, so it was destroyed and that is why there is very little of it to be seen today.

Panagia, PolyrinniaAround 63-66 AD Christianity came to Crete. The Christian missionaries did what any sensible religion does and simply took over many of the sacred caves and made them their own. All over Crete you will find Christian Churches built into caves ­ like this one on Polyrinnia hill, sacred to the Virgin Mary or Panagia.

Agia Sofia, TopoliaThe cave at Topolia is so huge that the little church, dedicated to St. Sofia, is built right inside the cave itself.

Rock of course is excellent building material. It has been used on Crete successively to build Minoan Palaces, Dorian city walls and Roman aqueducts. When the Venetians took over Crete in 1204, after the capture of Constantinopole, they used Cretan rock to build their fortified cities and castles. Venetian walls still stand around the old city of Hania. There are the remains of a Venetian fort in Kissamos and a fine example of one at Aptera overlooking Souda bay.

When Crete was occupied by the Ottoman Turks (1669-1898) caves again became a place of refuge. There were a series of failed rebellions against the Turks. Caves that were high in the mountains and easily defended were often used by the rebels. Sadly, sometimes the rebels were found in their refuge by Turkish soldiers and trapped there. This resulted in some tragic massacres of Cretans by Turks. One of the most famous took place in Malidoni cave near Rethymnon.

During the Second World War (1939-45) Crete was invaded from the air by German paratroopers. Again caves became refuge places for women and children while Cretan men were out there attacking the Germans, as they landed, with anything they could lay their hands on, from agricultural tools to rocks. A Cretan Gentleman of our acquaintance was born in a cave on Polyrinnia hill while his mother was hiding from the Germans!

In the 1960’s caves on Crete were taken over by another foreign invasion ­ northern European hippies! Most famously this happened at Matala, on the southern cost of Crete, in Iraklion province. As I walk around my part of Crete I still see caves and rock shelters used as store houses and places for keeping goats. Rocks and caves continue to play a part in the lives of the people of Crete.

1. Guide to Cretan Antiquities. Costis Davaras. (1976)
2. The County of Khania Through its Monuments. Maria Andreadaki-Vlasaki. 2nd Edition 2000.

The Trouble with Greek

The trouble with Greek for us poor foreigners, is those words that sound so similar but mean such different things. A friend of ours, was at a party last Easter having a very jolly time. Her hostess offered everyone coffee and asked my friend how she would like it. She does not like sugar so she asked for it plain - at least that’s what she meant. What she should have said was σκέτο. Unfortunately, what she actually said was σκατό, which means something far less appetising! Oh, how we laughed.

Saint of the Month

Greeks are always called after a Greek Orthodox saint. Each saint has his or her day in the religious calendar. This day is important to the Greek person who bears that saint’s name. It is called their “Name Day” and is a day of great celebration when friends and neighbors come to call. There may also be a special meal with family and friends and perhaps a visit to a local church dedicated to the particular saint. This church will have its own celebration going on, with special prayers chanted by the priest and a big party outside with lots of food and usually a barbeque. Most of these saints are an unknown quantity to those of us from a western Christian tradition. So here starts my attempt to explore the mysteries of the Greek Orthodox saints.

The Legend of St. Theodorus
Saint’s Day March 15thSt Theodoros
Theodorus was a military commander in the time of the Roman Emperor, Lucinius, and came from a place called Galatia, now located in central Turkey.

The emperor heard a rumor that Theodorus had converted to Christianity. He was not very pleased about this and sent for Theodorus to question him.

Theodorus was very cheeky and sent a message back saying he was busy and could the Emperor come and see him! Well, either the Emperor really liked Theodorus or he was a bit wary of his military power, because instead of immediately saying “Off with his head!”, he went to visit our Theo.

Theodorus met Lucinius with all the appropriate pomp and ceremony due to the great man.

Then Lucinius challenged Theodorus by asking him to make a sacrifice before images of the gods that he just happened to have with him.

Theodorus asked if he could take the statues home, but promised to honour them in public the next day.

galatiaWhen he got the idols home, Theodorus broke them up into pieces and gave the gold and silver to the poor.

A centurion reported to Emperor Lucinius that he had seen a pauper carrying away the head of a statue of Artemis from Theodorus’ house.

Naturally, Lucinius was not pleased about this and summoned Theodorus to him. But bold Theodorus refused to repent.

The Emperor immediately ordered that Theo be tortured and then crucified.

The torturers cut off Theo’s private parts, put out his eyes and shot him full of arrows. After crucifixion, Lucinius commanded that Theodorus’ lifeless body be cast into the sea.

But, behold a miracle: Theo was resurrected and found alive by his soldiers, with all his bits in the right places.

As a result of this marvel, all his soldiers then converted to Christianity.