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 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. 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 travelled 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 harbour 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 travelling 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 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 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 making nice friends.


The lady in the next picture is Kalliopi, who owns the local bakery and makes 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 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 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 between 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 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 from 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 from 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 (a Greek alcoholic drink with anise flavour, 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, which is the Tuesday after Easter. This is the day when the main Icons of the central church are taken down and carried around the village to visit every church and perform memorials.


The icons are dressed up in local scarves to show their celebration of 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 kilometres, 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 makes it look too easy. I have asked him to stop at a point where 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 it 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 colourful 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 must maintain or make the costume better to pass on to the next generation. These costumes, along with the jewellery 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 colour, 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 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 can 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. I have never seen anyone eating at 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, 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 colours 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 a.m. 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 with 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 flavour, 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 colourful 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 to pay respect to the church, wish to the relatives and friends, and of course, show off their dresses and golden jewellery.


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, the 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 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 with 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 look odd at this whole thing.


Don't get me wrong with 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, loads of whisky are 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 and 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, the scarf and a lot of jewellery. She gets help from her relatives. The girls are 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.


A bit later the groom will arrive accompanied by musical instrument players and a crowd behind him. He will of course be holding a flower bouquet in his hands, to offer to the bride.



A traditional engagement in Olympos, Karpathos
The bride-to-be waiting for the groom


The ceremony takes place inside the house with the local priest. Every significant member will make a small speech and there will be a lot of emotion as with all Olympian customs. The couple will change the rings.



A traditional engagement in Olympos, Karpathos
Inside a traditional Olympian house

The couple will be taken with instruments and music to the place where the reception will take place. The best man/woman will lead the parade, holding an Icon. People are gathering around to see them.


The reception took place in the Megaron, the reception hall of the church with a lot of food, drinking, and dancing. After some time, the bride-to-be changed her dress to a modern one so that she was more comfortable.


The interesting part was that this celebration was not the same as all the rest described here. There was not the ritualistic order of things as with the traditional Olympian celebrations, but it was rather a celebration with more music, even not from Karpathos, and more dancing. I learned that this was the case because the bride was not an Olympian, but rather from another place in Karpathos.






A traditional wedding



Dowry transportation


This takes place a couple of days before marriage and has to do with the transportation of the groom's dowry to the bride's place, where they are going to live their new life as a couple.


Since Olympos is a matriarchal community, the tradition dictates that the groom will move to the bride's house after the wedding. This is traditionally different from most places in Greece, especially the mainland.


Dowry transportation before the wedding in Olympos, Karpathos
Transporting the groom's dowry across the village

Ownership is taken very seriously in Olympos since apart from the money, there is a material fortune to be distributed to descendants. There are the houses of Olympos which are of traditional architecture, the costumes, and the jewellery of the costumes. This fortune may be of significant value but is not meant to be sold, but rather pass on to the next generation. So to achieve that, they are very careful about how to distribute this fortune. Tradition dictates that ALL of the fortunes of the family will be transferred to the firstborn girl of the family. All other siblings will inherit nothing. In that way, the fortune is never split, and also the lucky girl is also in a way bound to the island, to take care of her inheritance.


Girls are selected because men usually migrate away from the island. If the family has more than one girl, the younger ones are either married and go away from the island, or, since Olympians are not usually married to non-Olympians, they stay unmarried on the island to help their older sister in her work. This tradition is slowly changing nowadays and some families I know of, prefer to equally distribute the family fortune to their children.


Like everything in Olympos, the event starts with music in both places. Traditional music and on-the-spot-made lyrics, known as 'Mantinades' praise both families. The instruments are the lyre, drum, and bagpipe.


Guests arrive and enjoy several treats, made by the family, usually sweet ones, and take a look at the dowry.



When everything is ready and everyone has arrived, they prepare to start moving the dowry. The women that are about to help carry the dowry are dressed up in their traditional dresses. Each woman picks up a part of the dowry and carries it on her head. They start the way across the village, so everyone can check out the dowry passing through.


They make a quick stop at the central square of Olympos (Selai) for some music and singing.


 


 

On this specific occasion, the dowry has to be transported to another village, Diafani, which is the port of Olympos. The dowry is taken to the parking lot of the village to be put on trucks and make its way to Diafani.


The same takes place at Diafani, at the bride's home. The dowry is taken through Diafani village as well, before going to the place where the wedding reception is to take place.


There, more women take out all the dowry and decorate with it all the room of the reception, so that the guests can see the dowry during the reception.



Dowry transportation before the wedding in Olympos, Karpathos
Inside the Local Megaron (reception hall) of Diafani



The wedding day


Traditional weddings are also not common in Olympos, due to the difficulty in their preparation. I was told that there hasn't been another wedding for 8-9 years! So I was kind of lucky to be there.


The bride-to-be is getting ready inside her home which takes a few hours similar to the engagement. The scarf goes off and on many times. She is getting help from her party and they too, are getting ready. They also wear the unmarried traditional costume, Sakofoustano, but since everyone has so many of those, it's a new one every time.


The wedding day in Diafani, Olympos, Karpathos
The bride is ready in her traditional costume (Sakofoustano)

The groom is getting dressed up in his place and gets a lot to drink from his friends and family. In both houses, there is a lot of music and singing, which is not always happy. There will be a lot of emotion and tears as with all Olympian customs.


When the bride has got ready, she will go to the room where all the men are, singing "Mantinades", songs with on-the-spot made lyrics praising members of the family and remembering passed away relatives. The musicians will escort the groom to the church and then leave to go and pick up the bride.


This wedding was performed by two priests, as the groom came from Olympos and the bride from Diafani village.


After the wedding, the couple was taken back to the home to leave the wreaths and then go to the reception.


The wedding day in Diafani, Olympos, Karpathos
Escorting the groom to the church



Traditional Christening


Christenings in Olympos is no lesser of a task, as very similar preparations need to be done, compared to an engagement or a wedding. This Christening I experienced, took place in a church called St. Minas, which stands inside the community of Olympos, but is located around 12km away from the village.


The road to the church is rather tricky as you have to travel about 7km away from the village and then take an Indiana Jones-style of dirt road for another 5km. However, the church is located at an incredible spot, overseeing the tropical beach of St. Minas.


Traditional Christening in St. Minas, Olympos, Karpathos
Filling in the christening pot with water

Not only the Christening ceremony but also the reception will take place in the same spot as the church, as there is a reception hall built next to this church, a Megaron as it is called, especially for such a purpose.


The cooks are there in the morning and several other guests will arrive early afternoon to give a hand with preparations.


Our familiar Papa-Yannis is assigned to this church as well, so he will be performing the christening ceremony. After the end of the christening, everyone will enter the reception hall to dine with plenty of food and wine, and then the celebration will begin in the traditional Olympian manner, similar to the other events.


Traditional Christening in St. Minas, Olympos, Karpathos
Papa-Yannis inside St. Minas performing the Christ