“Exploring Crete” is Peter Sommer Travels’ first scheduled tour in 2017. This year, to give an impression of the experience, we are providing a diary of sorts on our blog. Rather than describing every day in detail (you can check our itineraries on www.petersommer.com for that), every day we will pick one image we took that day, accompanied by some explanations and thoughts.
What do you make of this view? Is it eerie or inviting, mysterious or plain, strange or commonplace?
It is a picture taken just inside the little-visited Cave of Trapeza (on the edge of the stupendous Lasithi Plateau), facing towards the exit – which is the source of light just beyond the left edge of the image. Trapeza is the only cave we visit on this spring’s Cretan itinerary, and although it is not the island’s most famous, most impressive or largest cave by any means, it has its role to play in our tour of the island, as it opens windows into more than one of the many stories of Crete.
Crete is mostly limestone and caves are a typical feature of such geology. There are probably thousands of caves in the island, ranging from little rock shelters to deep cavernous labyrinths, some embellished with spectacular concretions. Trapeza Cave is somewhere in the middle of that range. They are strange places, all of them, well-defined spaces provided by nature, part of the landscape, but hidden away at its margins. The only part of a cave that is truly a landscape feature is its mouth or entrance – the cave proper is part of a different sphere, set within the rock itself.
Throughout history, Cretans have used caves in many ways: as shelters from the elements for humans and animals, as sites of storage for produce, as places of hidden refuge at times of threat, as tombs for their dead, even as shrines for their gods, heroes or saints. Many caves have seen more than one of these uses.
Trapeza Cave is deeply embedded in the story of Cretan archaeology. It was excavated in 1936 and 1938, revealing evidence for extensive human activity – including multiple burials – from the 3000s and 2000s BC. The project was pioneering at a time when Cretan archaeology was dominated by “major” sites like the Minoan “Palaces” of Knossos, Phaistos or Malia (which we visited earlier today). It throws light on the Neolithic and Bronze Age “Minoan” use of such distinctive places in the landscape.
But there is more to it: Trapeza Cave’s co-excavator, J.D.S. Pendlebury (1904-1941), was one of the most colourful, most influential and most tragic scholars to have graced the island, and his presence is still felt. His story, of a youthful prodigy and athlete, en exceptional explorer and a highly gifted archaeologist, but also of his murder by German troops, has become stuff of Cretan legend, and at Trapeza Cave, we are standing in his footsteps. We will come across his legacy again and again on our tour of Crete.
So, for us, Trapeza Cave is a trigger for stories: stories of the land of Crete itself, stories of the island’s ancient peoples, and its modern ones, stories that illustrate the close link between landscape, topography, human endeavour and individual achievement. What could be more interesting?