Easter in Olimbos: A Living Museum

text and photos by Joseph F. Viesti

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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 Christ’s death. A bier representing Christ’s tomb is adorned with flowers and pictures of the deceased loved ones.

Holy Saturday the solemn mood lifts as preparations are made for Sunday’s 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 world’s 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.

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Tags: Cultural Identity Village life Greece Easter