BMCR 2008.08.02

Making a Landscape Sacred. Outlying Churches and Icon Stands in Sphakia, Southwestern Crete

, Making a landscape sacred : outlying churches and icon stands in Sphakia, southwestern Crete. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2006. xi, 180 pages, 21 pages of plates : illustrations (some color), maps (some color) ; 25 cm. ISBN 1842172069 $48.00 (pb).

This book examines the sacred topography of Sphakia, an eparchy in Southwestern Crete, which is already the object of considerable research 1. Nixon (hereafter N.) focuses on two types of religious structures that have been long prominent in this landscape: churches outlying villages ( exokklisia) and icon stands ( eikonostasia). N. diachronically surveys the Sphakiote ‘grammar of location’ (5), of these sacred structures, that is the explanation of their location in purely spatial, ethnoarchaeological terms. Then she compares her own spatial analysis of these locations to the etiological narratives for their construction as provided by local, oral traditions. N. argues that significant conclusions about the phenomenological patterns in Sphakia can be reached through non-oral, archaeological analysis alone and then broadly validated by oral and written sources. N.’s innovative combination of traditional archaeological analysis with ethnography, religious studies, and local history and lore offers an insightful reading of sociohistorical realities in Crete. Moreover, exceeding her modestly stated argument (‘the primary function of outlying churches and icon stands is symbolic,’ 4), N. produces a highly interdisciplinary and original interpretation of landscape as a social construct, with further applications to other localities and periods.

After a brief introduction, N. situates her own work within the existing literature on the subject (Chapter 2 ‘Intellectual Background,’ 7-13). The originality of her contribution lies in two aspects of her work. First, she studies exokklisia and eikonostasia not as individual symbols, but as religious expressions that relate to each other within the eparchy of Sphakia. Second, by studying how the regional layout of sacred structures in Sphakia has evolved from the late Roman era to the 20th century, N. reveals a collective and consistent rationale behind the recurrent land use and land consecration through these sacred structures.

In Chapter 3, ‘Individual Churches and Icon Stands: Description, Location, Explanation’ (14-31), N. tackles the morphology and phenomenology of exokklisia and eikonostasia. She stresses visibility as an important aim for both types of structures (maintained through whitewashing for exokklisia, and a lit lamp inside eikonostasia). The direction they face is important for their function: icon stands especially are situated on routes, as signposts for travelers. Many of these routes belong to the more or less distant past of pedestrians and pack animals, and have today fallen out of use because of car roads. N. reveals four major factors/qualifications in siting both types of structures: first, the presence of important resources (water, arable land) and new economic activity, which includes the reactivation of previously abandoned areas. The influence of European Union subsidies on the revival of such land is an important factor in the building of new churches, which mark the ownership and exploitation of a particular site by the local beneficiaries of these subsidies. A second factor for the location of these structures is visibility by land and sea; a third, the protection of liminal locations, where these sacred structures are positioned at entry points to communities or at intersections. Finally, the presence of earlier significant structures (religious or not), often determines the siting of a later outlying church or icon stand. As N. readily admits, her four spatial explanations for the location of these structures do not converge with the more abstract explanations for their construction provided by the local inhabitants, who instead cite the following four issues as critical factors: first, is what N. terms “human boundaries,” that is people confirming the significance of a church as an unambiguous border between lands that might otherwise be disputed; second, marking of the location of supernatural contact, whether good or malign; third, specific events and places, especially as commemoration of a deceased member of someone’s kin group; fourth, fulfillment of a vow to build [ tasimo ] especially after illness. Naturally, the last two explanations account for the construction, but not the exact location of a church or icon stand. An important difference between the two types of structures is that while exokklisia function more as declaratory markers of useful resources or boundaries in the greater landscape, eikonostasia act more as protective and local markers.

In Chapter 4, ‘Landscape Study of Anopoli and Frangokastello’ (32-59), N. focuses on the churches and icon stands in her designated study area. Many neighborhood churches in Anopoli are conspicuous ‘slope churches,’ built on the highest peak of a settlement. Icon stands mark and protect liminal spaces in this region: just outside the village, between neighborhoods, or on the edge of a neighborhood. N. notes that it is important whether a lit icon stand faces toward or away from the settlement, as it may alert insiders as to where the protective perimeter of the village ends, or welcome newcomers into the safety of its force field. This is particularly significant for Anopoli, since reaching it from the coast involves a dangerous ascent on a ridge that runs north-south. Icon stands inside the village mark the intersection between individual house plots and public thoroughfares.

N. then moves to the Frangokastello plain to the east of Anopoli. A decisive difference between the two areas, which bears on their sacred landscape, is that while the rocky Anopoli is double the size of Frangokastello and lies 600m above sea level (designated as ‘middle altitude’), the flattish Frangokastello, at 200 masl, is ‘low altitude.’ All exokklisia in Frangokastello are along routes and can be found on all four of N.’s categories of spatial explanations. The exokklisia in Frangokastello are older than those of Anopoli, some dating back to the 11th century. By contrast, the five existing eikonostasia were built in the 20th century, long after the outlying churches. The catholic chapel of San Marco, which is inside the Venetian fort of Frangokastello, stands apart from this local narrative of Greek Orthodoxy.

N.’s comparison between exokklisia and eikonostasia in Anopoli and Frangokastello shows that these structures are used similarly in both areas, but in different proportions and with different priorities. The exokklisia in Frangokastello are older than those in Anopoli. Conversely, many eikonostasia in Anopoli are a century older than those in Frangokastello. N. accounts for these differences on the basis of the different terrain and resources of the two communities. The mountain plains consisting of alluvial basins punctuated by rocky outcrops (Anopoli) are more likely to have non-nucleated settlements with churches placed on the rocky outcrops. These churches demarcate the external boundaries of the village but not the alluvial basins which are already protected by the village itself. Instead, the multiple, widely-spread, and rocky neighborhoods of Anopoli have internal, liminal spaces requiring marking and protection by eikonostasia. On the other hand, larger plains with uninterrupted stretches of arable land (Frangokastello) are more likely to have nucleated villages with more exokklisia marking the land resources outside the village. Conversely, they have fewer protective eikonostasia, since there are fewer liminal or dangerous locations on the plain.

In Chapter 5, ‘Chronological Evolution of the Sacred Landscape of Sphakia, Late Roman-20th Century’ (60-91), N. surveys diachronically the layout of both types of structures. The proliferation of basilicas in the 5th and 6th centuries C.E. marks the transition of Crete from Greco-Roman Paganism to Byzantine Christianity. The period between the 7th and 12th centuries is characterized by a cultural preoccupation with icons and borders. Specifically, the emergence of icons is a turning point for Greek Church architecture. As N. argues, after iconoclasm, the major function of the Hellenic church is to act as container of icons, not as congregational space (such as the previous basilicas). Moreover, the popularity of Dhigenis Akritis (a Byzantine epic about a heroic warrior of ‘double descent’ on the frontiers between Byzantine and Arab territory in Asia Minor) signifies an anxiety over the borders between the Christian and Muslim worlds in the 11th-12th centuries. The frontier issue becomes particularly urgent in Crete, which was occupied by the Arabs from the mid-ninth to the mid-tenth centuries.

N. illustrates the increasing importance of churches in the landscape of medieval Sphakia through a careful reading of two documents. The first of these is a perambulation of the area (dated to 1184). In this document, a grant of the charter of Sphakia by the Byzantine emperor, the place names of the landscape are natural features, and there is scarce mention of villages or churches. This document suggests that the territory is still in development and largely unmarked. The second is a pasturage treaty (dated to 1435) recording how a land dispute was resolved through marriage and designating boundaries for the land in question. Here, nearly all the place names used to mark the land are settlements and churches. This document confirms that, already in the 15th century, as the modern Sphakiote landscape begins to take shape, churches are used and accepted as definitive boundary markers.

Moving into the Venetian period, N. argues that the churches of this era bear marks of Greek Orthodox resistance to Venetian rule, mainly through the incorporation of earlier Christian architecture (basilicas and marble spolia) into the new churches. The reuse of spolia is an explicit parading of authentic paleo-Christian elements in the new churches of the Venetian occupation. This incorporation of earlier sites and materials is dedicated to defensive autochthony, proclaiming that a native Christianity had already existed in this area long before the Venetians. N. also discusses the importance of willful ‘blindness’ to the landscape as it changed under the Turkish occupation of Crete. Taking to task the local legend that ‘the Turks never set foot in Sphakia’ (n. 127) N. stresses that many Turkish forts in the area are still not mentioned, or they are dubbed ‘Venetian’ by the locals.

Reaching the 20th century, N. demonstrates that the Sphakiote religious landscape reveals clearly the rise of individualism and secularization in Greece, as well as the economic consequences of Greece’s entry into the EU: rural emigration has resulted in the death of the summer/winter village system; road building has destroyed old links between villages and created new ones; the old pastoral system of summer pastures ‘up’ in the White Mountains is dying out; and the advent of tourism in Sphakia has revitalized the coast. As the spatial rationale of sacred structures in Sphakia adapts to modernity, so does their social explanation by the local inhabitants. For example, N. observes, younger people do not cite supernatural contact as an explanation for eikonostasia, which now mark ever smaller boundaries between the private and public domains (e.g. front yards). The placement of Greek national government signs marking the beginning and end of villages is another material sign of this secularization of the landscape. N. astutely observes that these signs are never sacralized by icon stands, because they are perceived as boundaries imposed by the powerful outsiders of the centralized Greek government. The diminishing local responsibility for the material and metaphysical maintenance of churches can be observed physically in the dilapidation and ruin of certain ones, some of which are important historically (e.g., Ag. Apostoloi, mentioned in the pasturage treaty of 1435, but now sliding into ruin). N. accepts that the archaeological or artistic significance of a church does not guarantee its survival, if the church is not tied in the local consciousness to some meaningful resource or economic activity. This chapter concludes with a discussion on the complete absence of sacred structures in the summer pastures [ Madhares ]. N. argues that the prohibitive natural environment of the ‘up’ altitudes in the Madhares is considered too poor to be properly marked and sacralized by cultural features. This unmarked and unsanctified ‘up’ is contrasted to the warmer, more fertile, and human altitudes of ‘middle’ and ‘down,’ which are home to women, children, and proper homes, and therefore worthy of the sacred designation provided by exokklisia and eikonostasia.

The most important part of N.’s ‘Conclusions’ (92-116), is her lucid, honest, and often humorous discussion of the discrepancy between her own spatial survey of location of sacred structures and the local inhabitants’ socio-religious explanation of the same. Initially frustrated that the explanations of the locals indicated to her that they could not ‘see’ the symbolical system in the midst of which they were living, N. quickly reformulated her perspective to combine the spatial and social views of the sacred landscape. She now argues against the idea of a precise and detailed convergence between the two, identifying instead a more general and abstract overlap in the spatial and social explanation for these structures. Finally, N. raises new and exciting questions by charting a comparison of the sacred landscape of four, largely unrelated, religious systems: the Minoan palatial religion, classical Greek religion, Modern Greek Orthodoxy, and Northwestern France since Christianization. This brief comparison tentatively supports her claim that widely divergent religious systems use similar types of spatial and social explanations to construct and account for their sacred landscapes.

The next 69 pages (117-180) are taken up by detailed appendices including information about N.’s recording methods, the altitude and site trajectories, the dissected terrain of Sphakia, previous scholarly work on eikonostasia, the correlation of exokklisia with pre-existing sites in that location, a complete catalogue of exokklisia and eikonostasia used in the book, and an index of proper names, toponyms, and key terms. Following these, 16 unnumbered pages feature colored plates of exokklisia and eikonostasia, which complement the many maps, aerial photographs, and statistical tables throughout the work. The book is well produced and aesthetically pleasing, with the glossy pages and vivid colors that are a trademark of Oxbow Books.

This is, by all counts, an excellent study. N.’s deep understanding of the Cretan dialects, history, and traditions, is evidenced in her many personal communications with the Sphakiotes and in her inclusion of highly idiomatic Cretan expressions, which she cites both in Greek and transcribed (e.g. p. 18, 46, 48; 78, 106, nn. 10, 44, 96, 106, 110, 126, 131, 134). With equal ease and sensitivity, she draws from diverse sources, such as literature (the epic Dhigenis Akritis, 63-64; the Song of Dhaskalogianni, 74; the novels Patouchas, n. 90, Astradheni, 12-13), medieval archives (65-73), and Greco-Roman and Prehistoric archaeological materials (123-126). Through her focus on sacred structures, N. exposes clearly the rough terrain and culture of Sphakia (which are considered idiosyncratic even among Cretans), the deeply national character of Cretan Orthodoxy, the trauma of Tourkokratia in the Cretan imagination, the Cretans’ wishful yet elusive links with the Greco-Roman past, their emotionally conflicted relationship with the Venetian occupation, and the effects of modernity on the changing social landscape of Crete.

Finally, if this reviewer is allowed a Cretan ‘insider’s’ perspective on this work, I wish to comment on a point of N.’s analysis that I find particularly brilliant. Her discussion on the lack of sacral marking on the government signs (78-79), which are perceived to be imposed from the outside, touches upon a major political debate of the late nineties. The so called ‘ Kapodhistrias Plan,’ imposed by the Public Administration and Decentralization Ministry, requested village mayors to work for the mandatory merger of local government entities into larger municipalities around the nation. Even though N. does not mention this political event, the public outcry that followed until its implementation is aligned with what she suggests is a collective refusal to sacralize government signs by icon stands. Indeed, throughout Crete, these same government signs bear multiple bullet holes, signaling the hostility of many to what they perceive as an unreliable and Athens-based kratos. Finally, I believe I could account partly for the divergence N. identifies between the spatial and social explanation for certain outlying churches. One of N.’s spatial explanations is what she terms ‘new economic activity,’ which she rightly links with EU subsidies. However, few Cretans would explain the location of these new sacred monuments in these terms, both because EU subsidies are embroiled in various (real and imagined) embezzlements and misuses, and because explicit references to tourist-earned income belie the Cretan self-perception of independence from outsiders.

In sum, N. provides a vigorous and influential reading of the physical, metaphysical, and social landscape of Crete, with far-reaching applications. Her sound methodology, clear and compelling arguments, and versatility in the use and interpretation of her sources make this a first-rate book for anyone interested in how humans construct, perceive, and articulate their ‘natural’ environment.


1. On the project of the Sphakia Survey, see