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Crete is stunningly beautiful and deeply rich in historical detail. Yet, the one quality almost all Crete-lovers treasure most is its simplicity, and its lack of, shall we say, bling.
Let me start from afar. The day I write about here ended as my wife Oksana and I stopped into a tiny wind-cavern of a taverna in a village so small there was nothing there but a few houses and this taverna. We walked into the taverna’s courtyard to find a few tables scattered about at large distances (Covid-19) under a few trees. A young priest and two old men were deep in conversation over mugs of coffee and glasses of water at one table. (The cognoscenti will recognize that as a standard local image.) We sat at a table about 15 feet away from them and ordered the simplest, most Cretan meal one can imagine – Greek salad (choriatika) and pork souvlaki. And when the smiling owner brought our food we nearly fell over backwards. How many meals have I had of Greek salad and pork souvlaki? Surely 1,000 by now. But nothing could compare to what this friendly, warmly ironic man put on our table. The salad was inundated in fresh, village olive oil – surely his entire profit margin was exhausted in that oil. The pork souvlaki crumbled off the wooden spears and melted in our mouths. The sea salt we sprinkled over the salad and meat was crunchy and tangy, while the mountain spring water we washed it all down with was crisp, cold, sweet and wetter than wet on a very hot day.
What I’m trying to say is that Crete does this all the time – it delivers you the simplest of the simple, and knocks you off your feet doing it.
But now to the main topic. Earlier in the day we stopped by one of the hundreds, if not thousands, of archeological sites that dot the ancient island. I’d never heard of this one, Xerokambos, and the reason for that quickly became clear – there really wasn’t much of anything to see. What little is left here, a few walls and some scattered stones, dates back to the Hellenistic (Greek) period of Crete. The city was probably founded around the 5th century B.C. and reached its peak in the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C. Its reason for being was trade – one of its commodities being salt – and its location on the Libyan Sea in southeast Crete made it accessible to boats going to and from other nearby islands, and, probably, Egypt, which is approximately 600 kilometers (370 miles) away. There are indications that people lived here from prehistoric times, just as there are signs that the Minoans were here at least from 1500 to 1300 B.C.
Additionally, historians conjecture that this settlement which we now know as Xerokambos might have been called Ambelos at one time. In any case, one historical website informs us that Pliny the Elder in his Natural History in the year 1 B.C. referred to a city of that name located more or less where contemporary Xerokambos stands, while Ptolemaeus does the same in his Geography in the year 150 A.D.
And that pretty much exhausts what I can say about Xerokambos/Ambelos. Virtually all websites offering information about the ancient city copy each other word for word. No information, aside from the name of the settlement, is offered at the site itself.
But do you walk away disappointed? Are you kidding? Take a stroll through the photos below. Look at the mountains, the valleys, the beaches and the sea. That alone is enough to take your breath away, but that is not the entire experience. One’s imagination, when one stands in the middle of one of these archeological sites, takes you places you have never imagined, never encountered. The crudest old stone wall cutting through the landscape puts you in touch with enormous swaths of human history. You stand gazing out over the sea or land right where a Minoan once stood, a Greek, a Roman… Simple as that may be, it is truly humbling. And every bit as exhilarating as a fresh Greek salad on a hot, hot day in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.
All text and photos in this post, and on this website, are copyrighted © 2020 by John Freedman. If you wish to quote any of the text, or use any of the photos, usually the simple courtesy of a query will do the trick.