CAVES - MOUNTAINS & GORGES

 
 

The morphology of Crete is the result of various geological phenomena and tectonic movements. About  ten million years ago the island broke away from the land that linked Greece and Asia Minor, when the region was immersed by the sea. Approximately 1-3 million years ago, Crete acquired its present shape, with the famous high Cretan mountains being formed. These geological changes influenced life on the island and many of the large mammals that originally lived here, such as the straight-tusked Elephant 'Elephas antiquus'. 

 

The dwarf Elephant 'Elephas creticus' along with hippopotamuses, rhinoceroses and wild cattle, deer and bison all disappeared. Only the wild goats, almost identical to the kriti-kriti survived.

 
During this period Crete was a lush island with dense forests. These forests survived to a degree during the following centuries, even exporting cypress pine timber to the surrounding areas during Minoan times did not destroy the forests.
The Psiloritis mountain was covered with trees to which it also owes its name in antiquity 'Idi' from the Doric word Ida, which meant trees for lumber, forest, or wood-covered mountain. As is very visible today little is left of these ancient forests. With the deforestation due mainly to the Venetians and the Turks. In addition to this stock-raising and the lack of water and rivers contributed to the devastation of the land being covered by forest with only dry scrub land now.
 

The geological upheavals over the years which has created basins and plateaus has also formed a large number of impressive caves all around the island, many of which were used for religious purposes during antiquity and even today contain shrines and churches. 

Not surprisingly for a country largely composed of limestone, the mainland and islands of Greece abound in caves. Nobody will ever count how many of these natural openings, passages, rooms and halls, usually formed by water action, exist but they must number in the tens of thousands. Some are small and shallow, others vast. Some have not been entered by humans until recently, perhaps just providing shelter for bats or wild goats whilst others have been the location of human activities for hundreds, thousands, tens or even hundreds of thousands of years.

Many caves were used for different reasons at different times. Since caves are usually immune to the effects of erosion and other forms of natural or manmade deterioration, remains like bones, stone tools, pottery and metal objects are often found preserved inside them.

Humans have used caves for entirely practical reasons. Caves provide natural shelter, and they do not need to be constructed or maintained. For these reasons, they were often used as habitats, especially by individuals or societies that were mobile, nomadic or unable to invest in artificial shelters, be it tents, huts or houses.

 

One of the main characteristics of the Cretan landscape is the numerous ravines which cut through the island from the north to the south. The majority start in the mountain regions and end at the coast. The role they play in preserving the rare flora and fauna of the island is enormous, simply because they are the only areas that remain far away from human activity. A deep gorge drops some 198 metres near the abandoned city of Araden, which was one of the four city states during the Classic/Hellenic period of the island. Visitors can descend into the gorge and walk a little more than 6.4 kilometres (4 miles) to the Mediterranean Sea. In addition to magnificent scenery, the gorge provides a 750 metre (2,460 feet) descent to the sea. The best known, both for its size and its beauty, is the Samaria Gorge, this famous 'Pharangas'  is 18kms long and ranges from 3 metres in width at its narrowest point to 150 metres and takes between five to seven hours to negotiate on foot from May through to October only. 

 

A small mountain stream with often icy cold water runs along its base, if you walked the ravines length you would have to cross this stream forty seven times in total. At certain points along the route its vertical walls reach a height of 500 metres, and the mountain peaks of Volakias, Gigilos, Zaranokephala and Pachnes, which surround the gorge, are over 2,000 metres high.  Other large ravines in Crete are the Imbriotiko, between the villages of Imbros and Hora Sfakion, the Kourtaliotiko, where the historic Preveli Monastery  is located, the Topoliano, near the village of Topolia and the Prasiano, in the Prefecture of Rethymnon.

 

CAVE 'Spilio' SFENDON

   

  
Crete's most spectacular cave, crammed with strange rock formations deep beneath the Idi range.  Used as a home and for protection since Neolithic times. A series of excavations shows seasonal habitation during the Early Minoan Period and random use during the Roman Period. Finally, during the Turkish Occupation, the cave was again used as a refuge. The locals call it 'Sfendoni Trypa',  "the hole of Sfendoni" near Zoniana, it's located 47 kilometres from Rethymnon in the southeast, on the road to Axos and Anoyia and is open to the general public. It is one of the best developed caves on the island with an increasing number of visitors every year, one of the reasons that renovation work on the entrance and other parts of the cave became a necessity. 
 

There is a paved path leading from the kiosk to the mouth of the cave, which originally was only about a metre wide. Albeit, you do have to wait for the next tour but the view makes the wait very pleasant. Once inside a guide, will take you around telling lots of tales as you walk on the metal pontoons with roped handrails on either side. Stalactites and stalagmites of various shape and colour adorn the halls of the cave, while hollowed-out water basins and "cave pearls" can be found throughout the cavern, the sparkle of microscopic calcium crystals is very impressive. A word of warning, there are lots of bats living there along with other small snails and spider-like animals, the latter being mostly transparent and blind because of the darkness.

 

THE LEGENDS OF SFENDONI

 
As with all caves there are many legends attached to this one, the first is how the cave got its name. It is called Sfendoni's Hole after a man named Sfendonis who found refuge in the cave. He was believed to be a 'hainis' (partisan) from Sfakia on the southern coast. One day he was discovered by a young man while cooking at the caves entrance, the blackened ceiling is reportedly still visible today. The man asked for something to eat. Sfendoni frightened that the young man might give him away killed him. The legend tells how he kicked him so hard with his 'stivani', the traditional Cretan boot, that the blow killed him. This legend was told originally about a three eyed man, some have even related it with the legend of Ulysses and Polyphemus - the Cyclopes and their relation to Crete. This particular legend about three-eyed men has been passed on for generations and still exists in Zoniana today!

 

Another and more popular tale attached to the cave is of a little girl who's curiosity got the better of her. She found a crack in the rocks and crawled inside. Fascinated by what she found she wandered for days underground looking for the way out. Her family searched and searched, but alas when they found her she was dead. She had such a sweet smile on her face that the villagers said she had been abducted by fairies. This tale has some relevance as a few decades ago the skeleton of a small child was found at the last hall of the cave. The skeleton was fully covered with chalky material, indicating that it had been in the cave for centuries. There is nothing known as to how this child came into the cave but she could have just become lost or perhaps, some say, it could be the skeleton of the young man who Sfendonis killed?

 

The final legend tells about a shepherd and a beautiful fairy who used to hide in the cave. At a specific time of day the fairy came out of the cave to drink some water at the nearby spring called Skafidia about 150 metres further on. A little water still gushes out of it and is fresh and very therapeutic. A shepherd had seen her many times, but when he approached she always ran away into the cave. So one day he used his slingshot to catch her, but although she was hurt and bleeding, she ran away. One version of the story tells how she managed to escape leaving her the bloody handkerchief. Another version tells how he approached the injured fairy, and attempted to kiss her. The fairy promised to give him a magic reel of silk, which would never come to an end, if he let her go. But the shepherd could not resist kissing her. Then she cursed him - “I curse the hands of your offspring to shake forever and ever as I am shaking at this moment.”  

   

DIKTIAN CAVE - (Diktaion Antron)

  

This cave is pronounced Thiktian. According to ancient Greek myths, this mossy cavern, filled with strange limestone formations, was the birthplace of the greatest Olympian God, Zeus. Rhea, Zeus’s mother, supposedly hid the young God from his father, Kronos, in this very cave. Bronze figurines and Minoan double headed axes found in the cave are on show in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. The site is also often referred to as the Idaian Cave. It is situated above the Lasithi Plateau and contains an artificial lake. 

 
After Kronos and the other Titans had overthrown their father, Ouranos, they inherited rule of the universe. Kronos was much like his father in that he had a very violent side to him and when he took his sister Rhea as his wife, it was foretold that one of his children would rise up against him and overthrow him, like he had done to his father. He resorted to a more permanent solution than Ouranos upon hearing this premonition -  he swallowed them.

After he had disposed of five of his children in this way, Rhea was absolutely desperate to save her last child. Seeking help from her mother, she devised a plan. When the time came for her to give birth, she fled to Mount Dikti on the fertile island of Crete and hid her baby in a cave.  Then, instead of giving Kronos his son Zeus, she wrapped a rock in thick blankets and presented it to him, he promptly thrust it down his throat, blankets and all.

About a year later for whatever reason -  Kronos finally vomited up the children he thought he had permanently disposed of. They also fled to Crete and joined with Zeus, who had grown up healthy and strong away from his cannibalistic father. Together they all overthrew their father and took the rule over the world. Zeus won control over the skies, his brother Poseidon ruled over the oceans, and Hades ruled the underworld.

  

IDAIAN CAVE

 

 
This cavern on the slopes of Mount Ida was Zeus’s childhood hideout after he had moved from Diktian. It is a rival of the cave of Mount Dikti as to the title of Zeus's rightful birthplace. Scholars still argue as to the true. However the locals are certain that this was Zeus's birthplace.
 

 

KAMARES

   
 

This cave on Mount Ida's southern face lends its name to the sophisticated Minoan pottery discovered within. Northeast of the village of Kamares, a visit to this cave entails a 4-hour walk from the village.

   

THE CAVE OF AYIA PARASKEVI SKOTINO

  
  This is one of Crete’s largest caves. It was first dedicated to the virgin goddess Britomartis and later became a sanctuary to Artemis.

 

INATOS

  
 

The goddess Ilithia, daughter of Zeus and Hera, was worshipped in this grotto, which delves into the sea-cliff above Tsoutsouros.

   

THE CAVE OF EILEITHYIA (ILITHIIA)

  
 

This cave was used for cult rituals from the Neolithic era up to the 5th century B.C. Lying 1 km. south of Amnissos, it was sacred to Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth. Archaeologists uncovered idols of women in the act of giving birth or praying, figures of animals and neolithic shells and tools.

   

 

PROFITIS ILIAS

   

Like the Diktian Cave, this cave near Arkalochori is also claimed as birthplace of Zeus.

   

MELIDONI

   
  This cave was said to be the lair of Talos, the bronze giant created by Zeus.

   

CAVE OF THE HOLY FATHERS

     
 

Zoures Caves and Charakas Cave are situated adjacent to the village of Azogyres. They were home to 99 holy fathers who had come from Egypt, Cyprus and Attalia via the island Gavdos in 1300, in order to lead an ascetic life. It is purported that 98 of the monks simultaneously died in the cave on the same day as their spiritual leader, John (the 99th monk), died. Although at the time he was many miles away on the Akrotiri Peninsula.  Visitors can see the "Museum of Nature" dominated by a unique evergreen plane-tree.

 
  

 

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