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Olympos, Karpathos: Traditions Steeped in History

A secluded place on a secluded Greek island. One of the reasons that this place still keeps most of its traditions alive. That, and the richness of these traditions. A matrilocal 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 in Olympos, Karpathos.

As a photographer interested in Greek culture and traditions, I very much wanted to capture Easter in Olympos. Olympos is a somewhat secluded place, located on the island of Karpathos, where traditions are still strong. Situated 40 km from Pigadia, the capital of the island, Olympos is reached by a tricky road that was asphalted only as late as the 2010s. The people of Olympos regard themselves as descendants of the Byzantine Empire and are one of the few places in the world where a visitor can experience authentic Byzantine tradition, although other traditions are involved, too. This method of celebration has been registered in the UNESCO Archive of Worldwide Intangible Cultural Heritage.

A woman decorating the Epitaphios in the main square of Olympos on the island of Karpathos, Greece
Decorating the Epitaphios

I wanted to experience the customs of Olympos in-depth and get to know the people living there. And so I travelled to the island early in the season, when the village was still empty. I had found a place to stay in the village of Diafani, a nearby coastal settlement that serves as a port. In the past, people from Olympos involved in maritime matters would stay in this spot, so that houses eventually appeared and a village grew up. Today, Diafani is the second harbour of the island.


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Olympos, Karpathos. Collection of prints in a room. By photographer George Tatakis

Olympos is probably the most interesting spot on the island. It possesses beautiful architecture and stands on a hilltop set between two mountains. One can easily lose oneself in the narrow alleys and travel back in time.

A group of men discussing at the central café of Olympos, on the island of Karpathos, Greece
People chatting at the café at the main square

The first few days of Holy Week are devoted to preparations for Easter, which consist mostly of baking. Around the village of Olympos, the community has built many wood-burning ovens. These can be used by anyone, as long as they use their wood and keep the ovens clean and tidy. During these days of Holy Week, traditional recipes are used for baking bread and cakes.

Two women in the traditional local costumes, lighting up the wood-burning oven. Olympos, Karpathos, Greece
Papa Yannis’ wife Irene with her friend, lighting the wood-burning oven

Notable religious rituals regarding Easter commence on the Wednesday of Holy Week, after Tuesday night’s Hymn to Kassiani. On Wednesday, the priest blesses those visiting the church, so they are ready to receive Holy Communion on Thursday. This is, however, not a busy day at the church and only a few people come for the blessing, since the priest also bestows it on Thursday, too, just before Communion.

The local priest, performing a liturgy at the main church on Holy Wednesday. Olympos, Karpathos, Greece
Papa Yannis performing the liturgy by himself

I enjoyed my time in the village. Everybody I met was most hospitable. I learned a lot about the community simply through conversation with most of the inhabitants and through striking up friendships.

Kalliopi owns the local bakery and makes excellent traditional pies and bread in her wood-burning oven. She frequently gave me coffee during my stay and I even had the chance to visit her house, built in the traditional style of Olympos.

A local baker, in her traditional costume, inside her traditional home. Olympos, Karpathos, Greece
Kalliope at home

On Thursday, after churchgoers have received Communion, the Litany of Christ on the Cross is performed. The church becomes busier and the following days until Tuesday after Easter will be the busiest. Papa Yannis is the local priest. He is a very kind man with great pose and style. He is very funny and one can spot him most afternoons sitting on a chair in the central square, talking with his fellow Olympians and even cracking risqué jokes. One simply needs to get to know him somewhat before he loosens up.

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, where the icons are mounted in the church are covered with black embroidery as a sign of mourning.

The local priest, carrying the cross on Holy Thursday, inside the main church. Olympos, Karpathos, Greece
Papa Yannis holding a crucifix. He is careful to place his hand on the Cross, rather than on Christ’s body

Good Friday, the day of the Epitaphios, follows. The Epitaphios itself is a wooden representation of the bier of Christ, which the women of Karpathos decorate with flowers on the morning of Good Friday. Most of the women wear traditional local clothing. The older women of Olympos have no other type of clothes and call our clothing ‘European’.

An important difference between the Epitaphios of Olympos compared to the ceremony as it is held in the rest of Greece lies in the fact that pictures of the recently deceased are pasted to the bier and their relatives mourn for them during the service that takes place later, inside the church.

I considered the possibility of taking photos during the process of mourning in the church, as it seemed to me likely to be a powerful moment. It was so powerful, that it would have been disrespectful to take pictures during the proceedings. Indeed, so overwhelming were the emotions generated, that I soon left the church.

A woman in traditional black clothes, entering the main church. Olympos, Karpathos, Greece
A woman entering the church

On Friday night, the Litany of the Epitaphios takes place in the streets of Olympos. During this fascinating ceremony, the streets are radiant with beauty. Those following the procession hold candles and chant the lovely Good Friday hymns. I had not been round the village previously and was intrigued by its architecture and location.

The procession of the Epitaphios on Good Friday. Carrying a large wooden cross. Olympos, Karpathos, Greece
The Epitaphios is carried in procession around the streets of Olympos

On Easter Saturday, all the village inhabitants prepare for the Easter cooking. The goats are slain in the morning and prepared by the village women. They stuff them with rice and seal them inside wood-burning ovens. There the goat will stay and be slowly cooked overnight. The women will lift it out of the oven just before Sunday luncheon. During the night, everyone attends church for the Liturgy of the Resurrection and at midnight, Papa Yannis will proclaim the Resurrection. This part of the service also differs from the service held elsewhere, since in Olympos the announcement is made in the women’s part of the church (the gynaikonitis in Greek) inside the church, rather than being made in the church courtyard, as is the habit elsewhere. In traditional Orthodox religious life, men and women occupy separate parts of the church and may even have separate entrances. The custom in Olympos, however, is a conscious reference to Mary Magdalene who was the first to see Jesus after His Resurrection.

The proclamation of the Resurrection inside the local church. A group of women and a boy behind lit candles. Olympos, Karpathos, Greece.
The proclamation of the Resurrection

On Easter Sunday, a second Resurrection liturgy takes place at noon, which is also something unique to Olympos. For the people of Olympos, this second liturgy is the most important. The girls of the village wear their traditional dresses and necklaces of gold coins (kolaina), as they stand in lines outside the church. After the liturgy, everyone takes their place in a queue to receive some of the Communion bread and loukoumades, a doughnut-like confection containing honey and cinnamon. Yet more firecrackers are let off. Ouzo, an alcoholic Greek drink flavoured with aniseed and similar to Italian sambuca, is distributed. The table is prepared for the Easter meal and the goat is taken out of the oven.

The family of the local priest inside their traditional home. Olympos, Karpathos, Greece.
Papa Yannis with his wife, their daughter, her husband and their grand-daughter, Irene

Easter Tuesday Litany

The traditional Easter in Olympos culminates on the Tuesday after Easter. The most important icons of the central church are removed and taken in procession round the village to visit every other church, where services are performed. To celebrate the Resurrection, the icons are adorned with scarves of a local pattern. The iconostasis, where the icons stand in church, lost its black embroidery on the day of the Resurrection and it is now time to celebrate.

A man carrying a heavy wooden Orthodox Icon across the village on Easter Tuesday. Olympos, Karpathos, Greece.
Carrying the icons through the village

In Olympos, these are four icons painted on wood, each of which weighs around twenty kilograms. The route is approximately eight to nine kilometres, most of it being uphill, downhill and off-road. Papa Yannis, who is now over eighty years old, leads the procession. He makes it look very easy. I asked him to stop at one point when he did not appear to be very well, but he continued. The first major stop, lasting a couple of hours, occurs at the village cemetery, where Papa Yiannis performs an individual memorial service at each grave.

The priest with two local women in their traditional attire, performing a memorial service at the local cemetery, overlooking the village. Olympos, Karpathos, Greece.
A memorial for each grave in the cemetery

The relatives of the deceased have pieces of confectionary, such as chocolate, candy or local delicacies, that they offer to anyone attending. The correct response on being offered this is not ‘Thank you’, but ‘Theos s’horeston’ (‘May God forgive him’). A memorial service is also held at the ossuary in the cemetery. Anybody with relatives whose bones lie in the ossuary gives their names to Papa Yiannis beforehand.

The litany continues and the second stop is at a spring where the participants can obtain water. Papa Yiannis also dips a bunch of basil in the water and sprinkles it in blessing over those present. He also wets a corner of the icon of the Virgin Mary, to refresh her during the tiring litany. The procession continues. Anybody bearing one of the icons who is fatigued is relieved by somebody else. The procession even attracts tourists, who regularly attend the ceremony and are so familiar with the route that they point it out to anybody who forgets.

Two men carrying heavy Orthodox Icons, overlooking the village. Easter Tuesday. Olympos, Karpathos, Greece.
Taking the long way round the village

Young ladies wear their colourful traditional costume (sakofoustano), which is set off by a necklace of golden coins. Such dress is only worn by younger, unmarried women. It is made by the girl’s family and is not cheap. More than three generations may have worked on each dress, as each generation must maintain or, preferably, improve the costume, before passing it on to the next generation. These dresses, along with the jewellery that goes with them, indicate the financial status of the family. I was told by one girl that she owns 37 such dresses.

After marriage, the women will wear their other costume, whose chief colour is black. This is the kava’e (which comes from the word kavathe, although the ‘th’ is silent in the local dialect). As the woman ages, the costume becomes gradually less ornate. The kava’e of women over a certain age is almost completely black.

The litany procession returns to the village via a very steep slope, from which there is a beautiful view far out to sea. The procession returns to the central square, where the icons are placed in a particular spot, in readiness for the next step of the ceremony.

A young woman, wearing the local traditional costume. Olympos, Karpathos, Greece.
Unmarried girl in the traditional costume (sakofoustano)

All unmarried girls stand clothed in traditional dress in front of the steps of the church, while an auction takes place, as families make bids for the privilege of carrying an icon back into the church, where it is put back in its place in the iconostasis. Finally, the families who have made the highest bid and won the auction will be entertained to dinner, which will be offered by the church and served in the women’s section (gynaikonitis) of the church. This, too, is a tradition that I have never met in any other place in Greece. Never have I ever seen anyone eating at a table inside a church for any reason whatsoever.

A family gathered around a table, waiting for lunch, inside the main church. Olympos, Karpathos, Greece.
The highest icon bidders taking a meal inside the church


The Transfiguration of the Saviour

This Transfiguration of the Saviour, a feast smaller in scale than others, takes place on 6 August in a beautiful, but diminutive church in Olympos that hangs on a cliff to the west of the village and has a stunning view, particularly at sunset, over the village to the sea beyond. Most of the village windmills stand in the western part of Olympos and can be seen from the church. As for the church itself, it is privately owned and one of the reputedly 300 churches of Olympos. This large number is accounted for by the fact that most families own a private church and Olympos is justly famous for its churches.

To reach the church, one takes the road out of the village towards the west, before turning to the right up a steep road that leads to the church. The feast is attended by village women dressed in traditional costumes. The morning liturgy starts at 8 a.m. and ends between 10 and 11. During the liturgy, Papa Yannis blesses bread made by local women, who use sourdough and add spices, such as cumin, anise, mastic, sesame or cloves.

After the liturgy and the blessing, are finished, the congregation gathers around to praise the icon of the church, to give Papa Yannis their good wishes, to obtain his blessing and to receive their sweetmeats. These consist of communion bread and loukoumades. They also include watermelon and ouzo.

It is now the time to catch up on news and gossip, as by now most visitors to Olympos have arrived. These come during August and, since the Feast of the Transfiguration is held in early August, most visitors have been around for only a few days and naturally want to catch up with old friends and relatives.

The Transfiguration of the Saviour in Olympos, Karpathos, by photographer George Tatakis
Papa-Yannis blessing the bread, made by local women

The Dormition of the Virgin

The Dormition of the Virgin is celebrated on 15 August throughout Greece. The weather is always beautiful and it is the favourite time for Greeks to take their annual holidays. It is therefore naturally a very important date for Olympos, particularly since the main church of the village is dedicated to the Virgin.

The girls of Olympos prepare themselves for the big day. Their sisters and mothers dress them in their colourful traditional dress and place necklaces of gold around their necks. The village, especially the main square where the church is located, is packed with tourists. As soon as the morning liturgy ends, the girls, now dressed in their traditional costumes, go through the narrow village streets to the church to pay their respects to the Virgin, convey their good wishes to their relatives and friends and, of course, to show off their finery.

The older women enjoy some local gossip. In contrast to the situation in the winter months, Olympos now seethes with life during August. Natives of Olympos or those who claim descent from the village and now live on Rhodes or in the Piraeus in Athens or further afield, in the USA or Australia, gather on the island at this time. There are tourists, too, who watch the proceedings and want to blend in so they buy accessories or items of local clothing to wear. Everything looks striking, new and fresh.

After the liturgy is over, people move towards the spot where the table is set to feed anyone who cares to sit down. Tourists are usually too shy to do this, so most of the people at the table are locals. Sometimes, if the weather allows, the table is set up outside, on the main square. Usually, however, the table stands in the megaron (church hall).

A second festival, the night after…

On 15 August, the day of the Dormition, Olympos is extremely full. In the evening, a dance is held, which is very crowded, too. And so the locals hold a more private celebration the day after. If you want to attend this, it helps to have been to Olympos several times already, so that the locals know you and understand why you are here.

A second festival, the night after, Olympos, Karpathos, by photographer George Tatakis
Olympos during August is sometimes covered by clouds known by the people of Olympos as Pounentes (‘west wind’)

The inhabitants of Olympos are certainly hospitable and certainly do not mind outsiders watching them dance, although they would prefer to dance with each other only. This initially seemed odd to me, but I came to see that, in contrast to celebrations in other areas, the festivities of the people of Olympos are mingled with melancholy and sadness. Sometimes one spots somebody in tears because something has been sung about the good old days or some relative, now deceased. Besides this, friends or members of a family do not get many opportunities to see each other, since many live so far away and the presence of a stranger who does not belong might spoil the atmosphere.

Lastly, at such gatherings, the people of Olympos maintain their old traditions, which means that men may dance with their sisters, other female relatives, their fiancés or wives, which means that they normally cannot dance with their girlfriends. Here the line of dancers consists of groups of female relatives led by a male relative. At the end of each round, the last group in the line moves to the front and the dance begins again, once more led by a man. This is confusing even for Greeks, who are familiar with folk dances, let alone for a tourist.

A second festival, the night after, Olympos, Karpathos, by photographer George Tatakis
Dancing the ecstatic pano choros, around glentista’es

The celebration takes place in the central square (the selai), if the weather allows. The event is usually hosted by the Parthenon Café, which supplies the food and drink, including much whisky, which is omnipresent at all festivals at Olympos. Village women offer sweetmeats consisting of monkey nuts and sweets among other items, which they hold in large baskets. Women and girls in traditional dress and conspicuous in their gold necklaces appear.

As is the case with all feasts and festivals at Olympos, the dancing continues until morning the next day.