The Crete of the countryside

Crete stretches from east to west its mountains alternating with lowland and coastal areas, featuring natural harbours, welcoming and accessible or rocky coasts, gorges, caves and plateaux, sometimes isolated and sometimes spacious and open to communication. The geographical location of Crete, its size, terrain, history and high degree of self-sufficiency, have all contributed to the formation of a dense network of settlement in the countryside, oriented towards the cultivation of the soil and the production of surplus people and goods for the cities.

During the course of Cretan history, particularly from the 13th century, during the period of Venetian rule, the conditions were established for the development of a network of large and small centres in the hinterland, based on the need for agricultural produce, defence and movement to and from the ports. In the natural landscape of the island, farming and habitation led over time to the creation of a cultural space with its own distinct character, which can be described today as the Cretan landscape.

Σπήλαιο Μιλάτου
Milatos’ cave | Regional Unit of Lasithi | phot. Chryssa Pagalou
Μ. Μαθιουδάκης - Αβδού 2015
Avdou | Regional Unit of Heraklion | phot. Manolis Mathioudakis

This established picture of prosperitybased on working the land, which gave meaning to people’s lives, led subsequent generations to engage in academic studies and the arts, opening up to the wider world. Societies that matured through the participation of their members in liberation movements and major wars were depicted on the loom, on ceramics, in songs and by the lenses of well-known photographers. Recorded by European and American historians and archaeologists, this world entered the 20th century, constantly enriched with new tools, new ways of thinking and new modes of behaviour, shaping Cretan tradition alongside the modern world. The land and people of Crete changed, some places being abandoned and others thriving. When we speak of rural Crete today, our minds turn away from the north coast, climbing from the plains to the mountains, listening and looking out from the peaks before descending the gorges to the Libyan Sea.

In the 1970s and 1980s there were various efforts by local bodies to recognise the productive role of rural Crete and its culture. These activities provided the permanent inhabitants of the countryside with financial resources, while also offering incentives to city dwellers to return to the villages, although this was almost exclusively at weekends.

The countryside, village life and tradition constitute a structured world, each part wonderfully dependent on the others, which has proved that it can absorb new elements and redefine itself, evolving in accordance with the principle of continuity, where everything changes and everything remains the same, silent and undisputed. This knowledge was unable, by its very nature, to structure its own system of education; it left this task up to the culture of the city, which undertook it as part of its own imaginary space. Modern culture, city culture, does not cultivate incentives for coexistence on an equal basis with the countryside. Dismissing it as either idealised or brutal, it sets the terms for coexistence on a case-by-case basis. The grape harvest, the olive harvest, pruning and shearing, like weddings, religious processions and festivals, function as spectacle rather than real expressions of village life.

Today, it is our responsibility to go deeper into the rural world, in order to ensure all the conditions necessary for it to be represented on an equal footing with the city, which continues to super impose its own urban education on the countryside. We should see the countryside for what it truly is and re-inhabit it, taking part in the whole range of life there, both using new means and reviving the old ones. However, the people who left the countryside are not the same as those who now return to it. Leaving was a historical necessity at various times, and return must also arise by necessity.

Βένι - Αξός - Ανώγεια
Veni – Axos – Anogeia | Regional Unit of Rethymno | phot. Nikos Skoutelis
Φωτογραφικό αρχείο Νίκου Σκουτέλη
Nikos Skoutelis’ photo archive

In today’s world, public and private bodies and other representatives of society have a duty to provide an attractive framework for people willing both to live and to work in the countryside, people who consciously choose to do so, fully aware that rural life will always entail coexisting with animals and plants, and will always involve sweat and dirt. This reality must become a model of real modern life, the place where, as the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa says, we measure the world according to our own stature.

We must take initiatives for the network of villages and the network of connections among places shaped by the history of Crete, promote actions for the reappraisal of nature and the possibilities it offers, through a constant process of discussion in order to achieve the necessary consensus regarding the expectations of the various communities. The need to support this endeavour has led to the creation of the Rural Crete Observatory (RCO), a structure whose purpose is to continuously record the dynamics of rural locations in an interdisciplinary manner and encourage the renewed desire to resettle the Cretan countryside, through three basic steps: data collection, data evaluation and processing, and suggestions and proposals addressed to Cretan bodies, stakeholders and other actors.