Cretans are Greek in the same way that Corsicans are French and Texans – at least the Texans of my childhood – are American: fiercely independent. The Cretan’s resistance to outside domination is particularly legendary. Evidence of this can be seen in kafenios and tavernas throughout the island, especially in the mountain regions. If you ever visit there take a look at the pictures on the walls. Proud, determined-looking men bearing ancient rifles watch
over the drinkers and diners, reminders of
the wars fought against the Ottomans and Nazis for control of their land. Heroes here are still remembered.
Even their history differs from the rest of Greece. One of the first great civilizations arose from this island 2500 years BC and 1600 years before Homer was old enough to sing about them. We know little about this, the Minoan Civilization, other than they were possibly ruled by women, probably destroyed or at least hobbled by massive earthquakes and definitely an economic powerhouse of their time. Occasionally, I play a game by myself in which I wonder what period of
time. I would chose to live in if it were not this one. The New York of 1910 sometimes appeals, but more often as not I’d like to live in the heyday of the Minoans. Their palaces were airy and well-decorated, their food, from what has been found in the remaining rubble (and analyzed using DNA technology), superb
and – most importantly – they had indoor plumbing. And not just flushable toilets and running water, but running milk. Milk’s an excellent skin exfoliant; I suppose you
could say the Minoans operated the first spa.
Great civilizations require the blessings of nature. Mesopotamia and Egypt both flowed from the rivers that nurtured them. Crete’s rivers are few, but its’ land is magical. It is a land of contrasts. Along its mountainous spine, from the White Mountains in the west to Mt. Ditki in the east, snow covers the ground 8 months of the year. Yet its’ eastern end is the driest and sunniest in all of Europe. Dry, yes, but consecrated by water. While there is just one natural lake, streams flow abundantly throughout the island which enjoys (or at least its vegetal inhabitants do) plenty of rain. It is a land of lush green valleys, gorges and plateaus.
We’re talking major biodiversity. Today in Crete there are roughly 210 plant species for every 600 square miles – compared with a mere 2 or 3 species on average for the same acreage in mainland Europe. Of the 1700 plant species, a high percentage are endemic to the land and 160 species occur nowhere else in the world.
The ancients knew a lot about plants; far more, some would claim, than we do today. Ancient medicine as practiced by both the Mesopotamian and early Egyptian civilizations made much use of, for want of a better term, herbal remedies as well as diets prescribed to individuals to promote health. Certainly, the Minoans were familiar with these remedies and diets: both Egypt and Mesopotamia were major trading partners. Perhaps they even developed remedies of their own. The Centre for the History Medicine at the University of Birmingham suggests this in its study of the Early Minoan III Period (c.2200-2000 BC) pharmacy workshop at Chrysokamino in Eastern Crete. Plenty of Minoan texts – perhaps even medical treatises – have survived to this day. Unfortunately, no one knows how to read them and so their medical insights, if any, are unknown.