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Life in Olympos, Karpathos

A secluded village on a secluded Greek island. One of the reasons that this place still keeps most of its traditions. That, and the richness of these traditions. A matriarchal community where the firstborn girl will be the sole heir to the family fortune. Olympians are descendants of the Byzantine Empire, where Byzantine traditions still survive in their most vivid form.

The Byzantine Easter

As a photographer interested in the Greek culture and traditions, I had a strong interest to photograph Easter in Olympos. This is a rather secluded place on Karpathos island where traditions are fading at a very small pace. Located 40km away from Pigadia, the capital of the island, you can reach Olympos by a tricky road that was only laid with asphalt in the 2010s. They consider themselves descendants of the Byzantine empire and are one of the few places in the world where a visitor can experience real Byzantine traditions, if not the only one. Actually, their way of celebration has been registered with UNESCO's archive of the world's intangible cultural heritage.

The Byzantine Easter at Olympos, Karpathos
Preparing the Epitaph on Good Friday

I wanted to experience in-depth the customs of Olympos and get to know the people living there. That was the reason I traveled to the island early when the village was still empty. I had found a place to stay in Diafani village. This is a nearby village that serves as a port. In the old days, people from Olympos who had affairs with the sea would stay in this place and after some time, houses started to appear and a village was formed. Today, Diafani is the second port of the island.

Olympos is probably the most beautiful place on the island. A village of beautiful architecture, built on a hilltop, between two mountains. You can get lost around the narrow alleys and enjoy travel back in time.

The Byzantine Easter at Olympos, Karpathos
Cafe at the central square (Selai)

The first few days of the Holy Week are devoted to preparations for Easter, which is mostly baking. Around Olympos village, many wood ovens are built by the community. These ovens can be used by anyone, as long as they use their own wood and keep the place clean and tidy. There are traditional recipes for the bread and cakes being cooked around these days.

The Byzantine Easter at Olympos, Karpathos
Papa-Yannis' wife Irene with her friend, lighting up the wood oven

Notable events regarding Easter start to occur on Wednesday, after Tuesday night's Hymn to Kassiani. On Wednesday, the priest will give a wish to each one visiting the church, so they are ready to receive the Holy Communion the day after. Still, this is not a busy day at the church and only a few people come for the wish since they can receive it on the next day, just before the Communion.

The Byzantine Easter at Olympos, Karpathos
Papa-Yannis performing Mass by himself

Spending time in the village was very nice and all the people I met were very hospitable. I learned a lot about the community by having small talk with most of the inhabitants and made nice friends.

The lady in the next picture is Kalliopi, who owns the local bakery and makes really nice traditional pies and bread in her wood oven. She offered coffee many times during the stay and I even had the chance to visit her place that keeps the traditional style of Olympos.

The Byzantine Easter at Olympos, Karpathos
Kalliope in her home

On Thursday, after the flock has received the Communion, the litany of the Christ on the cross takes place. The church starts to get busier and the next days until Easter Tuesday will be the busiest. Papa-Yannis is the local priest. A very kind man with a great posture and style. He is very funny, you can see him most of the afternoons sitting on a chair in the central square, talking with his fellow Olympians and even making shocking jokes! You just need to get to know him a little bit better before he gets loose!

He took the time to show me around the ancient main church of the village and explained the icons painted on the walls. During the Holy week, all the icons along the main iconostasis are covered with black embroidery, as a sign of mourning.

The Byzantine Easter at Olympos, Karpathos
Papa-Yannis holding the Christ on the Cross, making sure that his hand is on the Cross and not Christ as he notes

The next day is Good Friday and the day of the Epitaph. The Epitaph is a wooden tomb of Christ that is decorated with flowers by the village women in the morning. Most of them wear the traditional clothes of the place. The older women living in the village have no other clothes and refer to our clothing as "European".

A big difference about the Epitaph of Olympos, compared to the rest of Greece, is that pictures of the recently deceased are pasted on the Epitaph and their relatives mourn for them during the pilgrimage that takes place later, inside the church.

I had thought I would make images during the mourning inside the church, as it sounded really strong as an experience. However, the experience was so intense, that I never felt like picking up my camera, it felt disrespectful and in fact, I exited the church very soon because it was too much to take.

The Byzantine Easter at Olympos, Karpathos
A woman entering the church

At night, the Litany of the Epitaph takes place around the streets of Olympos. This is a very interesting event as the streets are beautiful and you can see people holding candles and following the Epitaph, chanting the beautiful Hymns of Good Friday.

That was the first time I went around the village and I was really intrigued by its beautiful architecture and location.

The Byzantine Easter at Olympos, Karpathos
The Litany of the Epitaph around the streets of Olympos

Saturday is the day that everyone prepares the Easter goat. The goats are slain in the morning and prepared by the women of the village. They fill the goats with rice and seal them inside the wood ovens. There, the goat will stay and slow-cook overnight. They will take it out just before Sunday's lunch. During the night, everyone will go to the church for the Resurrection Mass. At midnight, papa-Yannis will announce the Resurrection. This part is also different than in other places because the announcement is made at the women's place inside the church, as opposed to the church's yard. That is to make the analogy of Mary Magdalene who was the first to see Jesus resurrected.

Women stand in a different part of the temple than men. They also have a different side entrance.

The Byzantine Easter at Olympos, Karpathos
The announcement of the resurrection

On Sunday, it is Easter. A second Resurrection takes place at noon, which is also something different than other places. For the people of Olympos, this second Mass is the most important. The girls of the village wear their traditional dresses and stand in formation outside the church. Necklaces full of golden coins (Kolaina) hang from their necks. After the Mass finishes, everyone takes place in the queue, to have some of the blessed bread and Greek doughnuts (Loukoumades) with honey and cinnamon. There is also some Ouzo (Greek alcoholic drink with anise flavor, similar to Italian Sambuca). More firecrackers go off!

The Easter table is prepared and the goat gets out of the oven!

The Byzantine Easter at Olympos, Karpathos
Papa-Yannis with wife, daughter with her husband and grand-daughter, Irene

The Litany on Easter Tuesday

The traditional Easter in Olympos comes to its peak on Easter Tuesday, that is the Tuesday after Easter. This is the day where the main Icons of the central church are taken down and carried around the village in order to visit every church and perform memorials.

The icons are dressed up in local scarves to show their celebration for the resurrection of Christ. The black embroidery has been removed from the main iconostasis, since the annunciation. It's now time for celebration.

The Litany on Easter Tuesday in Olympos, Karpathos
Carrying the icons across the village

These are four Icons painted on wood and probably weigh around twenty Kgs each. The route is approximately eight to nine kilometers, with most of it being uphill, downhill, and off-road.

Papa Yannis is leading the litany, the priest of the village, who is over eighty years old. He really makes it look too easy. I have asked him to stop at a point that he wasn't feeling too well, but he never did and kept on walking.

The first big stop is at the cemetery of the village, where we stop for a couple of hours. Papa Yannis will perform a separate memorial for each grave.

The Litany on Easter Tuesday in Olympos, Karpathos
A memorial for each grave at the cemetary

The relatives of the deceased have treats with them to offer to anyone attending. Chocolate, candy, or even locally cooked delicacies. Make sure you don't say "Thank you" when you take something. Instead, you should say "Theos s'horeston" (may God forgive him).

A memorial is also held a the cemetery's ossuary. Each resident that has relatives in the ossuary will have a list of their names that they will pass to papa-Yannis for the memorial.

The Litany on Easter Tuesday in Olympos, Karpathos
Outside the cemetary's ossuary

The litany continues and the second stop is at a spring where people can have some water. Papa Yannis will also take some water with his bouquet of basil and spray at people as a blessing. He will also wet a corner of the Virgin Mary icon so that She gets cooler from all the tiring litany.

The road continues and if someone carrying an Icon gets tired, someone else will take his place. There are even a few tourists who come almost every year to see this custom. Some are so experienced that even show the way if someone forgets.

The Litany on Easter Tuesday in Olympos, Karpathos
Taking the long route around the village

Young ladies wear their traditional dresses (sakofoustano) which are colorful and have necklaces made of golden coins hanging from their necks. These dresses are only worn by younger ladies who have not yet been married. These are made by the girl's family and are rather expensive to make. More than three generations may have worked on each one of them, as each generation has the obligation to maintain or make the costume better to pass on to the next generation. These costumes, along with the jewelry that goes with them signify the financial status of the family. I have been told by one girl that she owns 37 of these dresses.

After they get married, they will wear the other costume with black as the main color, called "Kavae" (comes from "Kavathe", but 'th' in a word is not pronounced in the local dialect). This costume slowly changes to less and less decorated as the woman gets older. Women over a certain age wear a Kavae that looks almost completely black.

The litany reaches back to the village with a very steep uphill. The view is really nice since you can enjoy the view of the sea from afar.

The Litany on Easter Tuesday in Olympos, Karpathos
Unmarried girl in the traditional costume, sakofoustano

The Icons return to the main square where a special place is set to host them for the next step.

All the unmarried girls stand in their traditional dresses in front of the steps of the church and an auction takes place. Families are bidding for each icon, so that they are able to pick it up themselves and take it back inside the church. The winning family will carry their Icon inside and mount it back to its place on the iconostasis.

Finally, the winning families will have dinner, offered by the church community inside the women's place of the church. This is also a tradition that I have never met in any other place around Greece. In fact, I have never seen anyone eating on a table inside a church for any reason.

The Litany on Easter Tuesday in Olympos, Karpathos
The highest bidders taking a meal inside the church

AUGUST \ The month with most events

Christ's church celebration

This is a small celebration in a small church in Olympos. The church has a terrific view of the village and many of the women come to the celebration dressed in their traditional costumes. It takes place on the day of Christ, on August 6.

This church is really beautiful. Hanging on a cliff on one side of the village, overlooking the whole west side of it. The west side of Olympos is the most beautiful one, where you can see most of the old mills of the village. During sunset of course the view is even more beautiful as you can see the sun diving inside the horizon and the warm light saturating the colors of the houses.

To find the church you have to walk along the west road of the village. Near the end of the road, there is a steep road to your right that leads to this secluded small church. Olympos is famous for its churches since almost every family owns a private one. This one is no exception as it is owned by a local family. It is said that there are over 300 churches in Olympos.

The Morning Mass starts at 8 o'clock in the morning and ends at about ten to eleven. During the Mass, papa-Yannis, the priest of the village will bless the bread made by local women. This is made by sourdough with spices such as cumin, anise, mastic, sesame, and cloves.

When the Mass and the blessing are finished, everyone gathers around to praise the Icon of the church, wish to papa-Yannis, get his blessing and take their treats. They consist of the Christ bread, Greek Loukoumades (doughnuts) with honey and walnuts as well as watermelon and Ouzo (alcoholic sweetened drink with anise flavor, similar to Italian Sambuca, but less sweet)

Everyone has the time for some small talk as most of the Olympian visitors have started to arrive. They visit during August every year and since this celebration is held in early August, most of them have been around for only a few days so they want to catch up with old friends and relatives.

Christ's church celebration in Olympos, Karpathos
Papa-Yannis blessing the bread, made by local women

Assumption of Mary Festival

This is a very important day for Olympos, as is for all over Greece. August 15 is the day that the Assumption of Mary is celebrated everywhere with festivals. The weather is beautiful and all Greeks have taken their annual leave and fled the city of Athens.

The girls in Olympos are getting ready for the big day. They will wear their colorful traditional dresses with the aid of their sisters or mothers and hang on their necks the golden necklaces, a sign of the family's wealth.

The village, especially the main square where the church is located, is packed with tourists. Olympos is the most famous village on the island and this day is very special. After all, the main church in Olympos is devoted to Virgin Mary, so it is celebrating today.

As soon as the morning Mass comes to its end, the dressed-up girls take the narrow alleys towards the church in order to pay respect to the church, wish to the relatives and friends, and of course show off their dresses and golden jewelry.

The older ladies find the opportunity to gossip about all local stories. They have a lot of news to share, because, unlike the winter, Olympos is full of life during August and many Olympians have gathered from places like Piraeus, Rhodes, or even the US and Australia.

Tourists look and wander around. Everything looks peculiar and new. They want to blend in and not feel too distant, so that is a good excuse to buy some local clothing and accessories to put on.

After the Mass is finished, Olympians start to move towards the place where the table is set to feed anyone sitting. Tourists are usually too shy to attend, so most of the people at the table are locals. Sometimes, if the weather allows it, the table can be set outside on the main square. Most of the time, however, the table is set at Megaron, the reception hall of the church.

A second feast for the Assumption of Mary, the night after

On August 15, which is the official celebration of the Assumption of Mary, the village is far too crowded with too many tourists arriving to see all the girls in their traditional costumes. There is a dance at night, but this is also far too crowded.

Therefore, the locals want to have a more private celebration, which they do the day after. Make sure that if you want to see that, you try to be a little bit discreet, whatever that means. I think the best way is to have been there a few times before, so people have got to know you and your presence around makes sense.

A second feast for the Assumption of Mary, the night after
Olympos during August can be covered in a cloud, called "Pounentes" (West wind)

Olympians might be very hospitable and friendly, but during their celebrations, they are not so happy to have other people dancing with them. They are free to watch of course. At first, this didn't make much sense to me either, but after some time I spent with them, I got to kind of feel the reasoning behind that.

You see the thing is that their celebrations are somewhat different from other places and have to do both with melancholy and sadness as well as happiness. There are times during their feast that you may see people crying or mourning because someone sang something about good old times or about a passed away relative.

In addition to the above, friends and family don't get many chances to see one another, because many of those people may live in the US, Piraeus or Rhodes. So they want to enjoy their time together. Having some outsider dancing with them in the wrong rhythm may just spoil the fun of it.

Finally, people there keep up to old traditions. Men can dance next to their sisters, other female relatives, and their fiancés or wives. If they have a girlfriend, they are not allowed to be dancing next to her. Each one takes turns and moves to the front of the dance with his female co-dancers. So you understand, anyone who is an outsider would really look odd to this whole thing.

Don't get me wrong in that. By outsiders, I don't mean people coming from overseas. I am equally an outsider with any tourist there.

A second feast for the Assumption of Mary, the night after
Dancing the ecstatic "Pano Choros", around "Glentistades, loc. Glentista'es" (celebrators)

The party takes place in the central square (Selai) if the weather allows it. The host is usually the Parthenon cafe, which is responsible to get food and beverages, and apart from everything else, a lot of whisky is available, as in all Olympian feasts. You will also see women offering treats out of big baskets that have monkey nuts, caramels, and more.

You will see many women in their traditional costumes as well as girls in traditional dresses, with many gold coins hanging from their necks.

The dancing keeps up until the morning, which is common to all Olympian feasts. The progression of it is really slow. The feast begins with table songs, then moves to Mantinades (on-the-spot improvised songs). In the mid-way of Mantinades, the dance begins at a really slow pace and builds up to a frenzy dance that goes up till the morning, Pano Choros (Up Dance).

A traditional engagement

If you happen to be in Olympos village of Karpathos island during August, you might be lucky enough to see a traditional engagement taking place. Engagements, weddings, and christenings take place after the Assumption of Mary, as in the rest of Greece. These events do not take place during fasting, which is the period before August 15.

A traditional engagement in Olympos, Karpathos
Bride-to-be preparing for her engagement day

This is a custom that is not taking place too often, however. It takes a lot of preparation so it is not easy to perform. The family starts preparing a couple of weeks before, making many treats to offer to the whole village. Most of the people in the village are invited, and since it is August, the village is quite full.

A traditional engagement in Olympos, Karpathos
Papa-Yannis wife Irene, decorating a local treat with sesame and honey

The bride-to-be is getting ready inside her home which takes a few hours because she has to put on her traditional costume, Sakofoustano. This consists of three layers of clothing and many accessories, being the scarf and a lot of jewelry. She gets help from her relatives. The girls are really peculiar about wearing the scarf properly. They will make the one helping them untie and tie again many times. I honestly couldn't see any difference in each version.

A traditional engagement in Olympos, Karpathos
The bride-to-be gets help with her dress

As soon as the bride-to-be gets ready, she moves to the doorstep to wait for the groom to arrive. There is also time for some selfies! There is music playing in the yard all this time. The sweet treats are fantastic. I particularly enjoyed one that is made of sesame and honey.