Easter in Heraklion

There's a true odor of sanctity as rosewater washes the streets

Good Friday at St. Minas' Cathedral

The heat of the slim beeswax candles and the press of people surrounded us as we slowly made our way closer to the decorated epitaphos, or bier of Christ. In the Greek Orthodox cathedral of St. Minas in Heraklion, Crete, no one was checking religious affiliations. Curious tourist or faithful, the beauty of the cathedral and the sound of the resonant chanting was touching everyone present.

But then we were halted. A group of exquisitely dressed men and women were allowed to proceed forward. And the television cameras followed them as they approached the decorated wooden canopy which was the focus of everyone else's attention.

"It's a big deal here, to come here to see the epitaphos." photographer and "Explore Crete" webmaster Yannis Samatas told me. "There are some politicians coming, that's why there are all the soldiers outside - and why they're holding us back to let the important people approach before it is time for the procession."

Rites of Reverence

As we waited, people around us lit candles and kissed the icons of Christ and St. Minas, the patron saint of Heraklion. By the golden candle holder, a determined-looking attendant let the candles burn for just a few moments, then harvested them, spinning the candle table and plucking them out, constantly making room for more offerings.

With a lemon-scented cloth, she also cleared the glassed-in icon of Christ of any lipstick marks.


Easter Scents of Sanctity

Thwarted in our effort to reach the epitaphios, we finally stepped aside and out into the cool, fragrant evening. "Smell that? It's rose water. They've washed the streets with it." The fragrant liquid had left a sheen on the dark pavement.

It was strange to want to bend down to the street to smell it. In most times and places, I don't recommend sniffing the city streets. But here, in Heraklion, it was irresistible. Little children "accidentally" slid in the liquid, to the dismay of their parents. One child simply flung himself face down onto the pavement, scrambling up laughing and smelling his clothes.

The air was also fragrant with livani, the church incense made from frankincense. And all around was the sound of slow bells tolling, lamenting the death of Christ. At one ancient church, a serious young Rom boy was employed to pull the bellcord, over and over, as the procession returned through the gate.

After the adoration of the bier, the epitaphios were carried through the streets in processions which meet at the main crossroad of central Heraklion.


Another Good Friday Tradition - Dinner

Then, at about 11pm, the restaurants filled up suddenly as everyone rushed to break their fasting in a traditional, Lent-friendly meal of seafood - grilled vinegared octopodi, calamari rings, giant prawns served with their heads intact, and other items bring the evening to a close.

But in the morning, with the streets filled once again with buses and cars and shoppers, the heat of the April sun reawakened the scent of roses.

For one night and the following day, the streets of Heraklion are paths in an invisible and unforgettable garden.

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