Notes from a big island

A couple of years ago I came across an extraordinary CD while idly thumbing through the stacks of a music store in Istanbul. On its cover was a beautifully fretted pear-shaped fiddle made of mulberry wood and decorated with fine filigree inlay. It was of a shape and curve I had only seen once before, years earlier on the Anatolian leg of a journey along the Silk Route to China. The spike fiddle had then been played by a pair of elderly Pontic Greeks from the hills behind Trebizond and I had loved the sad, moving and oddly timeless music of the two brothers: it seemed to contain all the tragedy of the Greeks of Asia Minor in its falling Byzantine maqam scales and its sweeping, sawing bow strokes. When I got home I put the CD straight into my laptop, hoping for more of the same.

The music was indeed closely related to the Pontic music but was far more full and finished than the raw sound I remembered. It was a superb recording, where the plaintive sound of the Greek upright fiddle was offset by a herdsman’s simple reed flute – the sort of instrument Patrick Leigh Fermor described mountain shepherds playing in Mani, his great evocation of the 1950s Peloponnese. The percussion was provided by a collection of echoing dafs and rattling chain and frame drums. In some tracks, the jingle and click of the hammers of some sort of dulcimer interwove with the plucking of an instrument that sounded like a lute or an oud. This instrumentation had the effect of moving the music much further eastwards: it seemed to hail from well beyond the Persian border, or even the edge of the deserts of Syria and Iraq. Yet to my surprise the recording turned out to have been made in the middle of the Mediterranean, well within the boundaries of Europe. It had come from Crete.

Stelios Petrakis, master lyra player

The instrument, the Cretan lyra, was the broader and slightly bigger Aegean cousin of the Pontic spike fiddle, and the CD, Orion, was the work of the brilliant young Cretan lyra player, Stelios Petrakis. Orion became my favourite CD that year, and the more I listened to it, the more I wanted to meet Petrakis and learn about the world that produced this elegiac and oddly medieval-sounding musical tradition.

From what I could gather on the internet, Petrakis – who was not just the leading young Cretan exponent of the instrument but also the principal modern craftsman actually making it – was part of a group of musicians who had gathered around the remarkable Irish-blooded, English-born, Cretan-adopted lyra master, Ross Daly. At Houdetsi, in the hills above Heraklion, Daly ran a music school and recording studio called Labyrinth where he had tried to preserve and pass on Cretan folk tunes and instruments.

It sounded fabulous – and led to me booking a holiday in Crete with the secret hope of trying to interest my family in this music: luring them out to the island under the guise of a luxury beach/taverna/villa holiday, then whisking them off to late-night concerts when their defences were down. Having been dragged around India, Egypt, Greece and Turkey with me, my children have, over the years, grown relatively tolerant of their father’s taste in music and today some of it has found its way onto their own iPods. Through Five Star Greece – a good source of properties throughout the Aegean – we booked a beautiful house, Villa Oulos, a sort of red-tiled pleasure palace on the cliffs of Elounda, on the north coast of the island, then fixed the flights.

The first thing you notice when you land in Crete is its sheer scale. Although it is only the fifth-largest island in the Mediterranean – Sicily, Corsica, Cyprus and Sardinia are all bigger – none of these have such a massive and forbidding skyline: five sets of brooding mountains divide up the interior and these, combined with the daunting length of Crete, give it an oddly continental feel. Corkscrewing your way up the zig-zags of the mountain roads that lead up to the Lasithi Plateau – past tower houses and wild mountain goats feeding on rosemary and thyme – you feel yourself to be much in the same landscape as, say, the road leading north from the Turkish city of Tarsus towards the Cilician Gates: these are mountains with Anatolian ambitions.

Then there is the very striking division between the green coastal plain – constantly invaded and colonised, first by Venetians and Turks, more recently by British package tourists – and the ruggedly rural and almost unspoilt interior. Up here in the mountains, many of Crete’s most ancient traditions have been preserved intact. Perhaps the most striking example of this is the knowledge of herbs: in the first millennium BC, the Cretan physician Epimenides was called from Knossos to Athens to purify the city with his secret herbal knowledge, while Theban inscriptions record how the Egyptian Pharaoh sent to Crete for priests to purify the Nile. Today the old people of the mountain villages are still famed throughout Greece for their knowledge of healing and purifying herbs.

This continuity of blood and tradition is far from a romantic fiction: the Minoan archaeologist Sandy MacGillivray of Columbia University told me that when he tested the DNA of modern Cretans against the bones he was digging up from sites dating back to 2500BC at Palaikastro on the east coast, it became apparent that over 30 per cent of the modern inhabitants are directly descended from the builders of Europe’s first great urban trading civilisation.

You can see the continuities in the art here, too. Crete’s most famous frescoes are those dug up – and controversially restored – at Knossos by Sir Arthur Evans. Yet what is most striking is the way motifs in these paintings reappear on the walls of Byzantine churches 3,000 years later. A young, swaggering St George astride his white charger at the church of Panagia Kera, south of Agios Nikólaos, is as warm-bloodedly Hellenistic as the youths jumping over the bulls of Minos. The same is true of a dazzlingly handsome St Demetrius with a mail coat, a bow slung over his shoulder and a single rather dandyish earring glinting from his right lobe.

Such continuities can, however, be deceptive. The population and beliefs of Crete have undergone radical changes since the end of the Ottoman occupation when 60 per cent of it, and almost 100 per cent of the citizens of the cities, were Muslim. Many chose to convert back to Christianity in the course of the Greek nationalist movement from the 1860s onwards but large numbers were expelled and “transferred” in 1922 during the catastrophic exchange of populations that followed Ataturk’s defeat of the Greek invasion of Turkey.

The Cretan Muslims were sent to Anatolia, and in return Crete took in the Christian villagers expelled from Cappadocia. The Turkish-speaking Cappadocians have still not been fully accepted by their Cretan neighbours, who to this day refer to them as “Turks”. When I went over to meet him at the Labyrinth, Daly told me how only the previous week the mayor of his village had made the gesture of going over to sleep in the “Turkish” village of Dhamania after Cretans had begun harassing and burning the crops of the “immigrants”.

Elounda, on the north coast of the island

Daly – who looks like a sort of Cretan Druid with a shock of grey hair, not unlike Cacofonix, the musician in Asterix – and Petrakis, a handsome, taciturn and surprisingly youthful figure, sat in a taverna opposite the Labyrinth studios. From over the wall emerged the mixed sounds of rubabs and ouds practising. We sat sipping raki and discussing the history of the instrument they both loved. They told me that the lyra has no real connection with the harp-like classical lyre, and is instead related to the long-necked Ottoman spike fiddle family found from Persia and Turkey through to Macedonia and Bulgaria. While there are references to upright bowed fiddles in Thrace in the accounts of a ninth-century Persian traveller, Ibn Khordadbeh, there is no record of anything resembling the modern lyra in Cretan poetry until the early 18th century. Touted today as the Cretan instrument, it is, in all probability, a relatively recent 18th-century import. The earliest surviving instrument on the island – now in the Museum of Greek Musical Instruments in Athens – dates only from 1743, and many of the most celebrated Cretan lyra melodies can be found in variant form elsewhere in the old Ottoman world, especially in Syria and Turkey.

“The Cretan tradition is very rural,” explained Daly. “The cities were Muslim and when the Muslims were expelled they took their musical traditions with them. So what we have is the music of the high villages, such as the syrta dances. Much of what is played today derives from what was passed on by two or three masters, and especially one man who taught both of us – Kostas Mountakis.” Petrakis was sent by his father to Mountakis at the age of four; Ross served a 16-year apprenticeship.

Later the two great lyra players took me around the Labyrinth. As they showed me the museum displays of every sort of string instrument from kemenches to sitars, all of which Daly seemed able to play, we passed knots of students practising. At the end of the tour Daly and Petrakis sat down in the main entrance hall and began almost absent-mindedly sawing away on their lyras. Gradually several other musicians joined the group and began jamming along with them. Within half an hour the hall was full of playing musicians.

The following night Petrakis took us all with him when he performed in the magnificent old Venetian fort on the coast in Rethymnon: in the summer he was booked to play almost every night, he said: the lyra seems to be undergoing a revival.

The concert was in the open space below the pepperpot turrets and glacis of the fortress walls, with the stage framed by the whitewashed domes of a converted mosque and an old Ottoman hammam. By the time we arrived all the 500 seats were taken except the front row; when we asked whether they were free we were told they were for VIPs. The VIPs duly appeared with a great flourish just before the concert began: the extravagantly bearded local archbishop accompanied by a rookery of Orthodox metropolitans, abbots and monks, who wafted in in their chimneystack hats and flowing vestments.

Then the music began. Petrakis was the only lyra player, accompanied by four men on the double-stringed Cretan lute, the laouta, and a percussionist with a frame drum. The lyra led the melody while the plucking of the laouta had an almost percussive effect, echoing the rap of the frame drum. Soon the tempo was building, rising and falling in a repetitive trance-like dance. As the bow moved back and forward, the sound seemed to move us back in time. Centuries vanished: you could imagine this sort of elegiac, courtly music being played in Mistra, the last Byzantine outpost in the Peloponnese to resist the Ottoman advance, as torches flickered and the horses of the Byzantine cavalry shifted in their stalls. At the end the crowd rose and gave the players a standing ovation, while the archbishop made a long speech and enveloped Petrakis in his robes.

“The people of Crete love this instrument,” said Petrakis afterwards over another glass of raki. “The way it makes people happy, makes them dance, or sometimes even makes them cry. Nothing else quite has this effect. Really – there is some magic in it.”


William Dalrymple was a guest of Five Star Greece ( The company offers a week at Villa Oulos, which sleeps 16, from €18,000. For details of concerts and seminars at Labyrinth, see

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