Scenic Olimbos settles high atop the mountain (photo: Joseph F. Viesti)
Baking — a major preparation (photo: Joseph F. Viesti)
Easter festivities reflect signs of hope (photo: Joseph F. Viesti)
Carriers of the tradition into the future (photo: Joseph F. Viesti)
The mourning wails have been piercing the silent chill air of Olimbos every Good Friday since the days of Byzantium. Five hundred and thirty years after Constantinople fell to the Turks and the Byzantine era ended, Easter is celebrated the same way today as it has been for centuries. Olimbos is a tiny village on the northern end of the Greek island of Karpathos which is midway between Crete and Rhodes.
One of the most isolated villages in Greece, there is only one telephone in Olimbos for the 600 residents and one road connecting Olimbos to the 11 other villages on Karpathos. The farmers cultivate barley and wheat on the multi-terraced slopes with the same tools used in Byzantine times. First built on the coastline, Olimbos was the site of pirate plunderings. In the ninth century the villagers moved to safety in a remote mountain range which separates and protects the inhabitants from the sea. Farming is the main occupation of the men; women weave and embroider clothing.
The villagers commemoration of Easter is not their only preservation of the bygone Byzantine days of glory. The dialect in Olimbos is so old that many of the words date back to the era of Homer. The musical instruments they use: the three stringed lyre, lute and the goatskin bagpipe accompany mandinades spontaneous joyous or sad poems. When the subject of a mandinades involves emigrants who have left Olimbos for better economic opportunities abroad the villagers become emotional, often moved to tears.
On Good Friday the women of the village, wearing the traditional garb of black scarves, long-sleeved dresses and colorful aprons move from house to house grieving their loved ones who have died during the previous year. The procession follows the church service where the community gathers to mourn Christs death. A bier representing Christs tomb is adorned with flowers and pictures of the deceased loved ones.
Holy Saturday the solemn mood lifts as preparations are made for Sundays celebration of the Resurrection. Homes are whitewashed and doors repainted. Men have their hair cut outside the main coffeehouse. Women bake special breads in the outside ovens (furnos) scattered along the labyrinthian passageways throughout the village. These ovens are also used to roast the goats or lambs for Easter dinner. Every Saturday is baking day but on Holy Saturday special breads are made. Large round loaves are called koulouria and ornate shaped loaves contain dyed eggs. The red colored eggs symbolize the blood of Christ on the cross. The women also bake a spicy pastry stuffed with cheese called tiropitta.
That night the villagers gather at the church, whose interior is painted with centuries-old frescoes, and the lights are extinguished to symbolize the worlds darkness. Women are seated together in the northern end of the chapel, wearing their finest embroidered costumes. At precisely midnight the priest appears from behind the iconostasis carrying a white pascal candle. He prays Come forth and receive light from the unwaning light and glorify Christ who is risen from the dead. Members of the congregation step forward each carrying a candle to be lit. It is good luck if the candle stays lighted all the way home. Once the service is completed children set off firecrackers. The Lenten fast is broken with a supper of salad, soup, sour cream, cheese and wine.
The following day the feasting continues outside in the center of the plaza. Muscians and their families sit in front of tables laden with food and drink while rows of costumed villagers dance behind them. The kanakara, (the eldest or most favored daughter), stands wearing gold jewelry communicating the proud tradition of the village. In earlier years the kanakara had a special stone on the church floor reserved for her alone to stand upon; these stones were passed on to the next generationss eldest daughter as part of her dowry.
On Easter Monday attention shifts to the village cemetery which is being prepared for the next days events. Each grave is painted in bright pastels and the area around it tended, a process that occupies the entire day.
On Tuesday morning the ceremony begins at the church where three icons are hand carried in a procession to the cemetery. This tradition honors the dead and celebrates Christs resurrection. Once at the cemetery the priest spends hours blessing graves which are now covered with cookies, chocolates and pastries. The icons are then taken to the fields and prayers are offered at small private chapels. It is said this is done to insure good crops.
Once back in the village the icons are auctioned. The highest bidders carry them back to the church and are honored with the sponsorship of the icons for the next year. The icon of Mary usually draws the highest bidder, often the equivalent of several hundred dollars.
After the icons are safely back in the church, dancing, singing and feasting in the village plaza resumes.
The time honored customs of Olimbos testify to the grandeur with which the faithful of the Byzantine era celebrated Easter. A glimpse of that past, so alive today, speaks of mans need for tradition.
Joseph Viesti has traveled around the world in search of photographing festivals.