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I don’t know how much the rest of the world still thinks about the Hollywood film “Zorba the Greek,” but if you live anywhere near the Akrotiri Peninsula of Crete, you think of it almost daily. My wife Oksana and I, for example, look out from our balcony in Chania every morning and shake our heads at the beauty of the massive mountain in the distance sloping down dramatically towards the Sea of Crete. This beautiful, distinctive mountain looms large over Stavros, a small village in a corner of Akrotiri, where the final scene of “Zorba” was filmed. I’ll write more about that, and about Stavros (pronounced stav-ROS), sometime in the future. Today I want to focus specifically on the old, or ancient, rock quarries that lie next to the sea in Stavros.
Every time Oksana and I make the short trip out to Stavros – it’s about 15 or 20 minutes by car from Chania – we immediately make a beeline for what we call “the moon.” I’ve never been to the Moon, but I rather imagine that this is what it looks like – with water and a few low-lying plants added in. The jagged, colorless sandstone soil and rocks look very unearthly-like as you make your way through them. Whatever color they take on at the moment depends largely on what the sun is doing – if it is shining through clouds at the end of the day, the rocks take on a reddish hue. If the sun is trapped behind rain clouds, the rocks are a kind of blank, flat gray, with just a reddish tinge here and there. It is a beautiful, exotic place to take a walk.
It doesn’t take a scientist to tell you this area was once a quarry. The straight-line cuts and sharp 90 degree corners could only have been made by someone doing that on purpose. But it does take a scholar to help you make sense of what you’re seeing. If you dig around in the internet sources, you usually will read that these quarries were used by the Venetians when they were building up the city of Canea (Chania) on the island of Candia (Crete) more or less from 1205 to 1669. Surely, the Venetians used this quarry, too, it is too convenient for them not to have. But an interesting 2018 article by Eleni K. Tsiligkaki suggests that this quarry reaches back a lot further into the past for its origins.
“The majority of the islands’ published quarries are considered to be (or are) Minoan in date (see Shaw, 1971; Tzedakis et al., 1989), even though the island has been inhabited unceasingly ever since,” Tsiligkaki writes in “Quarrying the Coast of Crete in Antiquity; Some Geoarchaeological Considerations.”
That, then, takes us back as much as 4,000 to 5,000 years ago, and, in a way, it makes this quarry almost (…almost…) as fascinating as the palace ruins at Phaistos, Malia, or Zakros. At these archeological digs we see stones built up to create low-standing walls and corridors which are a feast for our imagination. But look at it backwards, as if it were a film run in reverse, or a negative film strip, and you see the holes in the ground at Stavros which, one fine Cretan day, were created as large stone bricks were cut away and carted off to build similar walls and buildings in Kydonia (later Canea, today Chania). Were I 40 years younger I would definitely throw up everything and go back to school to become an archaeologist in order to solve these tantalizing mysteries. As it is, I will have to leave this to future scholars, or maybe Eleni Tsiligkaki will come to my rescue. For now, however, we must jump from the Minoan years to the Venetian era to consider what may have gone on here in this gorgeous corner of the world.
Tsiligkaki tells us that the stone masons of the Akrotiri region – surely this also includes the Stavros area – were famed throughout the Venetian age. She writes that the “famous skillful quarrymen” of Akrotiri ” were spared from any compulsory labor in the Venetian galleys, a privilege that they continually exercised.”
She also touches on the fascinating holes and cavities that are carved into the rocks in so many places along the seashore in western Crete. There are numerous theories about them, some positing them as holes left behind when dead plants were pulled up, others saying they were holes cut by fishermen or by quarrymen, and still others suggesting that they may natural formations.
“Some of them may be artificial, but in general they should be interpreted as the roots and trunks of coastal vegetation that grew on the dunes before they were fossilized,” Tsiligkaki writes. I, however, am more intrigued by the suggestion that “some of these holes could have been opened by the quarrymen, in particular by the Minoans for the insertion of poles and wooden beams.”
Tsiligkaki writes specifically about a cube “of sandstone left intact at the coastal quarries of Stavros” which suggests such cubes “were a sort of indicator for the amount of cubic meters extracted from the site.” You can see this cube in the 7th, 9th and 11th photos below.
In short, what we don’t know about the quarries at Stavros could fill 100 books and 1,000 PhD dissertations. I won’t write a single one of them, although that will not stop me from calling this one of my favorite places in the greater Chania area.
All photos and text © copyright 2020 by John Freedman. If you wish to use either text or photos, I will almost surely grant permission as long as you do the courtesy of asking.