Crete (Literary Travel)
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"His keen understanding of history and legend...illuminate[s] his visits." —Publishers Weekly
"A vivid picture of the island." —Associated Press
"It is hard to think of anywhere on earth where so many firsts and mosts are crammed into a space so small," Barry Unsworth writes of the isle of Crete. Birthplace of the Greek god Zeus, the Greek alphabet, and the first Greek laws, as well as the home of 15 mountain ranges and the longest gorge in Europe, this land is indisputably unique. And since ancient times, its inhabitants have maintained an astonishing tenacity and sense of national identity, even as they suffered conquest and occupation by Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Venetians, Ottoman Turks, and Germans.
Throughout this evocative book, now in trade paper, Unsworth describes the incredible physical and cultural proportions of the island—in history, myth, and reality. Moving and artful, Crete gives readers a comprehensive picture and rich understanding of this complex—and indeed, almost magical—world of Mediterranean wonders.
With the same keen eye and clear, eloquent prose that distinguishes his acclaimed historical novels, Barry Unsworth delivers his readers a two-fold traveler's reward, at once a wonderfully detailed panorama of Crete's many layers of history and an evocative portrait of an island almost literally larger than life.
feet in the first hour of walking. Two million years it has taken to make this great slice in the land. Some remote convulsion, a buckling and heaving as the tectonic plates shifted and scraped together, and the first cracks were made. Then the long, infinitely slow process of forcing the edges apart, the acid rainwater, the splitting and fragmenting of rock as temperatures changed. Then the mountain torrent that found the cleft and cut it deeper and deeper. As we follow the rough stone track
whether this niche or that was actually the family shrine, or precisely how high the staircase was, or—in any detail—how the water pipes were all joined up. I would only forget these things again. Making precise identifications on these Minoan sites is a headache anyway, for clues are scanty, and on-site information even scantier. Wandering here on a summer morning with the evidence of ancient life all around one, the olive groves and vineyards covering the plain below, the majestic peaks of
and even today more common in the breach than the observance. These are the laws of a society that was still tribal, still governed by rigid distinctions of caste. For rape committed against a free person the fine was 1,200 obols, while for the rape of a household slave the fine went from one to 24 obols, “depending on circumstances.” What strikes us today is not the particular notion of justice contained in the statutes, but the reverence with which they have been treated over such a great span
The Arab conquest and occupation of the island was one of the darkest periods in Cretan history. Originally from Cordoba in Spain, a band of Saracen adventurers, who had been driven from their base in Alexandria in A.D. 823, landed on Crete, led by their emir, Abu Hafs Omar. They defeated the Byzantine rulers and subjugated the island piece by piece, destroying most of the existing towns in the process. The invaders were interested only in plunder. In the 150 years of their rule, they turned the
said to have lived and died, lies just above the monastery, tunneling deep into the hillside, following the course of an underground stream. The saint’s grave is here, but one needs a flashlight to see it. It is said that, enfeebled by his privations and ascetic way of life, he could no longer walk upright but stooped so much that it looked as if he was going on all fours. A man out hunting mistook him for an animal and wounded him fatally with an arrow. He was just able to crawl back to his