I woke this morning with the afterglow of an unknown face burned into my cerebral cortex. Stirred from a lucid dream by the rare sound of barking by my Cretan Hound Mojito, I tried hard to recall the vivid imagery of dreamy fantasy. In the dream, a man dressed scantily in typical Minoan fashion stood smiling, as he poured liquid gold olive oil into a huge pithoi. The Cretan landscape, the flawless azure sky, and the luster of the man’s skin are now etched into my mind. More importantly, the dream or vision prompts me to tell a broader story of how Crete island may once again shine as in the past, based on a unique lifestyle and culture almost lost in the annals of time.
Thinking as I type this, I can piece together images from my recent adventures on Crete, images that fit the era of my mystery Minoan storekeeper. The sky and the backdrop of my dream are silk veiled versions of the backdrop of the Lost Palace of Galatas in Heraklion Prefecture’s center. I’ve told the story many times of how I made my discoveries at the spot Dr. Giorgos Rethemiotakis excavated the long lost Minoan city. But Galatas palace was not like the other palatial centers. Archaeology and my sense of place tell us this. And this leads to how this dream ties to modern Crete.
Galatiani Kefal – A Temple of Agriculture
Galatas Palace was a feasting place, and probably a place of devout worship. Everything about the palace and the surroundings reminds me of a magnificent temple, probably a unique center for Minoan animism rites, but I am ahead of myself and a dozen brilliant archaeologists. No one has tied the famous Arkalochori votive axes to Galatas, not just yet. But we do know that the culinary, pottery and other traditions in this part of the island are very, very old. And as for olive oil, the lifeblood of the Crete for recorded time, I am sure this piece of the Minoan landscape was and is very special.
My renowned archaeologist friend Dr. Kostis Christakis and the brilliant aforementioned excavator of Galatas Dr. Rethymiotakis wrote a paper about Galatas and the area it dominates (Galatiani Kefala) in which the scientists say the site is one of the most strategic locations in the region. The authors of Landscapes of Power in Protopalatial Crete: New Evidence From Galatas, Pediada also discuss the Early Minoan I (3400–2800 BC – Evans) settlement that predates the palace. Since the oldest surviving olive oil amphorae date to 3,500 BC, it also seems safe to assume that Crete produced large quantities even earlier. Some experts say production began sometime before 6,000 years ago. This would make Crete’s olive oil tradition one of the oldest, if not the oldest in the world. Dynastic Egyptians imported Crete olive oil even before 2000 BC. This is an important facet of my story here.
From their description and research after the limited excavations on the hill, it’s not difficult to imagine a fairly massive early Bronze Age city sprawling out on top of the prominent mesa. So, it also seems fair to theorize that olive oil production here is a tradition at least 5400 years old. Speculative as this may be, the reality of Galatas as a major agro-center of the Bronze Age, is not a wild fantasy. It is widely accepted that one of the sources of Minoan wealth was the export of fine oil to other parts of the Mediterranean basin.
Kostis Christakis and George Rethemiotakis discuss the nature of Galatas Palace as unique for many reasons, not the least of which is the character and obvious usage of pottery there. Of special note, is the archaeologists’ assertions about Galatas and provincial centers possessing advanced technologies employed by other palatial centers like the world-famous Knossos Palace. This brings me to my dream, or I should say, my fantasy for Crete.
Agrotourism, Sustainability, and Survival
A week ago I met for the first time (in person) an extraordinary man named Dimitris Psarras, who is a brilliant expert in sustainable development. Psarras, like many of my colleagues here on Crete, is passionate about preserving this wonderful island, a dream which most of us believe is inextricably tied to rebuilding the rural communities of Crete. On a perfect evening not at his home on a hillside overlooking Gouves and Hersonissos, I sat and listened, amazed at the story Psarras told my friend Minas Liapakis and I, about his successful efforts in Italy. The story of Italian sustainability efforts in agriculture the environmentalist told, was in stark contrast to the dire frustration he’s had helping Crete agriculture entities to succeed similarly.
“A truly sustainable model involves the coexistence of people and nature and it is up to local communities and local governments to build this model, the tools certainly exist.” – Dimitris Psarras
I won’t get into specifics, but every progressive thinking expert I talk to here on Crete reflects the same frustration. Liapakis, who’s one of the most successful marketing executives in Greece, registered the same frustration and concerns concerning Crete in the mid to long term. This brings me to another passionate Cretan named Stelios Kanakis, an entrepreneur and olive grower whose family is from Galatas village. His olive groves in Galatas, dot the ancient hillsides in the shadow of the now-famous archaeological site. An energetic and intelligent man, Kanakis also reflects both the pride and humility Cretans so often possess. His love of Galatas, of Crete island, and for the liquid gold he and others produce here, led him into a brilliant and timely vision.
Stelios Kanakis is determined to create an olive oil university based on new standards and processes, quality and grading, built from generation upon generation of Cretan olive oil tradition and wisdom. His dream, which is conjoined with the necessity for rebuilding Crete’s fantastic villages, is something that not only should happen, it’s a future for Crete that must happen. In all honesty, when Kanakis first told me of the helter-skelter olive oil industry on Crete, I could scarcely believe what I was hearing. One of the oldest, if not THE oldest olive oil traditions on Earth, is currently a patchwork of devoted and skilled growers, distrustful and unreceptive to any ideas for progress. The lack of consistent quality and process standards puts Crete in a kind of Dark Age of agricultural prosperity, just to be candid here.
Prospering Like the Minoans
Cretan olive oil, regardless of how romantic and iconic the brand may be, is sold at rock bottom prices, mostly as filler for higher-priced Italian or Spanish oils. Stelios wants to change all that, and if he can olive growers and the industry on Crete can be reborn as not only an olive oil Mecca but a gastronomy hub as well. And the villages, almost every one surrounded by a sea of olive groves, can relive at least part of what made Crete a legend in the first place. The Cretan Diet, famous around the world, is based on extra virgin Cretan olive oil, not Spanish or Italian variants, the heirs to an industry Minoans built many thousands of years ago. But a very big problem exists here on Crete. Many have forgotten what it means to be Cretan, the young people here have almost no idea who their ancestors were. This too must be rectified. And I believe repopulating the villages fundamental for this end.
The hurdles are high and numerous, even though the logic and correctness of resurrecting Minoan greatness through olive oil quality hub is obvious. Tradition on Crete is sold as the foundation stones of Knossos, which is a good thing almost all the time. Getting Cretans to agree, to give up any sort of freedom, perceived or actual, is a monumental task. Even so, Cretans are wise, and reasoning for survival and sustainability speak loudly to many. The village culture is very strong still. And it’s not difficult to imagine what once was, and what might still be when you walk the narrow streets of Galatas. When you stroll the hills beneath the lost city of Galatas up on the mountain, the sight of ten billion olives bending the branches of the olive trees is spellbinding.
Lost Galatas must be reborn. Every village here must reclaim the past for this wondrous paradise to survive. Crete’s olive oils must become the craving of every famous chef. Every family in America must set the table with finishing oils from the valleys and plains of the land the ancient Egyptians called Keftiu. This is how Crete was, and this is how it should be again. And THAT, my friends, will lead to a tourist attraction no Luxembourg banker or TUI executive could ever imagine. A sustainable and self-sufficient Crete island may once again be the envy of the world.
To this end, I for one have now dedicated myself. I am sure that with collaboration between Dimitris Psarras, Stelios Kanakis, their networks of friends, Minas Liapakis and other prominent Cretans, key officials, and even the input of the world’s great archaeologists working here, we can transform dying rural culture using the eternal olive tree as the altar of hope. If the EU, Athens, Crete Region, and the world cannot contribute to rebuilding Galatas, to a kind of rebirth of Minoan greatness in the shadow of a lost Minoan metropolis, or similar villages like Thronos or Monastiraki in the Amari Valley, then what hope is there for building futures anywhere in the world? This is the drumbeat we must make into a new kind of ritual.