Crete: A Mythological and Political Center

Athens is known for being the birthplace of democracy. Nearly all modern political ideology and institutions find their roots in the political system of Ancient Athens. Down south, on the island of Crete (Κρήτη), I also got a sense of a strong and central community rooted in tradition across millennia. Crete is the largest and most populated Greek island. It is known for its beautiful beaches (arguably more beautiful than those of Santorini), cultural heritage, and, most importantly, one of the most advanced ancient civilizations: the Minoans.  

Wall and Column of the Palace at Knossos

This trip was a mandatory field study organized by CYA, so it had more specific academic objectives than our optional weekend trip to Chios. My field study focused on the mythology and society of the Minoan civilization while thinking about the traditions and politics of modern-day Crete. Each group went to the same sites, just approached them with different lenses. After a long overnight ferry from Athens, we arrived in Crete’s capital city of Heraklion. Our first stop was the Palace of Knossos. The first time I learned about the Palace of Knossos was in my Introduction to Visual Arts course in my first year at the college. From what I remember, it was a massive and mysterious complex. Still, it had a lot of significance during its time. 

Me at the Palace at Knossos!
Hades and Persephone in the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion, Crete

The palace was way bigger than I ever imagined from learning about it in class. There are many mythological stories attached to the palace, one being about the Labyrinth and the Minotaur. After exploring the palace for a day, it makes sense why people created such a story. If I weren’t with my group, I would have easily gotten lost: there were multiple entrances, countless rooms, and even more than one story. It’s impressive to see what was left of a civilization so long ago. It makes us think about just how advanced they were back then.

Much of our time was spent discussing the mythological presence in Crete, but we also had the opportunity to learn about modern Cretan (and Greek) politics. We went to the city of Anogia, a mountain village that thoughtfully preserves its deep traditions. I learned that Anogia has a long history of personal vendettas, which are still around today, so be sure not to mess with them. Their village was relatively small, but I could tell it was rich in history, culture, and food. One of the highlights was eating roasted lamb straight off the grill. It was one of the specialty foods of Anogia, and it did not disappoint.

We spent the second half of our trip in a different part of the island called Chania (Χανιά). Unlike most of the time we spent in Heraklion, we focused on the more “modern” aspects of Crete, like its 14th-century Venetian architecture and beautiful beaches. To be fair, we were at the weekend at this point, so after several archaeological sites, museums, and lectures, a beach day was well-deserved. Throughout my travels thus far, I’ve observed such rich traditions and identities. Crete is one of the exemplary places to witness such rich communal identity. It takes a lot of dedication and enthusiasm to have a legacy run so deep it lasts for centuries, even when a small town like Anogia might be at odds, given its size. Overall, it was a very successful trip, and I’m looking forward to the next mandatory field study in the Peloponnese. Γεια σας!

Sougia Beach

The Island of Χίος

School sponsored trip to a Greek island? Count me in. As part of its experiential learning initiative, CYA offers many opportunities for on-site learning. Each semester, students are required to attend two field studies. This fall, we are going to Crete and the Peloponnese. In addition to these thematic trips, CYA offers several optional trips. The first optional trip was to an island off the coast of Turkey called Χίος (Chios). Less than an hour after leaving Athens, we traded the Acropolis for the crystal blue waters of the Aegean Sea. Being one of the Mediterranean’s biggest and historically rich islands, we had a lot to accomplish in the next three days. I could write a book on this trip alone, so I’ll give you a couple of highlights and takeaways.

The Abandoned Village of Ανάβατος
The Abandoned Village of Ανάβατος

Our first stop was up to the abandoned village of Anavatos (Ανάβατος). Established in the Byzantine era, this medieval village was abandoned after the Massacre of Chios in 1822 and the earthquake of 1881. While the village was desolate, much was still to learn about the city. We went up and down the hills and in and out of houses where possible. Even after so much time and destruction, the foundations remained intact; it was pretty impressive! 

The following day, we learned more about the identity and history of the island. From a foreigner’s perspective, Chios takes its communal identity very seriously, as it is deeply rooted in the island’s history. With this in mind, we went to a Mastic farm and museum unique to Chios. Mastic (Μαστίχα) is a type of resin that comes from Mastic trees in a crystal-like formation. In Chios, and Greece, more broadly, Mastic is used to make high-quality products like gum, pastries, bread, beauty products, and a liqueur called Mastika. If you ever come across a product with Mastic in it, you should give it a try! We even had the chance to harvest some Mastic from the trees. Overall, it’s a tedious process and takes a lot of dedication and hard work to keep up with it for the season.

Harvesting Μαστίχα

At the end of the day, we made it to a volcanic beach called Mavra Volia (Παραλία Μαύρα Βόλια). This isolated beach was full of small black pebbles that resulted from a volcanic eruption sometime during the prehistoric era. Without the proper shoes, it was quite tricky to walk on the rocks. It was so worth it! Over the weekend, we went to three beaches, all beautiful in their own ways, but Mavra Volia was by far the best one.

Παραλία Μαύρα Βόλια

Sure, no serious formal lectures were going on, but I still learned a lot about Chios as an island and also a community. There is a lot of deep pride and enthusiasm that speaks for itself. I saw this on the beaches, on the Mastic farm and just by walking around different villages. I also have a couple of friends who come from this island (I know, it’s such a small world); even at home, they constantly talk about their connections to Chios, even when they’re so far away. It was an overall incredible experience, something I couldn’t have imagined doing without this program. Shoutout to Angela, our incredible tour guide, who also comes from Chios! 

Thank you for reading along today, and be sure to anticipate my next blog post about our field study in Crete!

Village of Pygri