Giorgos Koutentakis could never have imagined that one day he’d be able to return to his family home. It was, after all, in complete ruins. The roof had collapsed into a pile of tiles and the walls had become home to dozens of crows. Like every other family in the village of Ethia on the Asterousia Mountains in Iraklio, Crete, his had left decades ago. Over the years, their houses started to crumble and the village population, which had once numbered in the hundreds, dwindled to single digits.
You can’t count on signposts to find Ethia – there are none. The first traces of the village lie some 50 kilometers outside Iraklio, over a freshly tarred road leading from the hamlet of Rotasi. Ethia is one of Greece’s southernmost settlements and just above it, the hills overlook the Libyan Sea.
Ethia is much like other villages strewn across the country. According to a survey conducted in 2011 by the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA), there are 6,356 villages around the country with populations ranging between one and 100 residents. NTUA professor Sofia Avgerinou-Kolonia, of the School of Architectural Engineering, explains how during the Turkish occupation, Christian settlements were gradually pushed toward the mountains. So Ethia was built largely by Cretans from Sfakia fleeing the Turks. Later it became a refuge for families looking to hide away from the vicious cycle of Crete’s blood feuds.
Following two world wars and successive waves of mass migration, the desertion of Greece’s highland settlements was completed with the exodus from rural communities to the country’s cities in the late 1950s and 60s. The same happened in Ethia, which from the mid-60s onward saw its residents gradually leave, relocating to get an education or work. It seems that the village did produce olive oil and sultanas at one point but it never appears to have had a secondary school.
“Ethia had 300 residents, 70 of whom were children in elementary school. Their thirst for an education compelled their families to move,” Nikos Mathioudakis, who left the village when he was 13, tells Kathimerini. The residents scattered mainly to larger nearby villages and to Iraklio, while some went overseas. The few permanent residents that remain there today have framed photographs of relatives that now live abroad, mainly in Toronto.
Maria Kakoudaki still lives in the village even though her husband used to complain that he had no friends.
“I was born here, was raised here, got married here and had two girls,” says the 85-year-old. Her home now serves as the village museum, adorned with old tools she used to weave fabrics with. “At one point the village sort of fell apart. I didn’t know what to do either, but I stayed,” she says.
In 1994, a civil engineer and former resident of Ethia, Yiannis Androulakis, called on his fellow villagers to help him rebuilt the place. “My reasons were sentimental. I wanted to bring some life back to Ethia,” he tells Kathimerini. “I contacted my fellow villagers in Iraklio and informed them of my intention to rebuild the village with their help. I told them that we would just plant some trees at first because I didn’t want to scare them off by revealing my entire plan.”
Without any money from the state or the European Union, they managed to slowly rebuild the road network and pave Ethia’s streets by collecting donations at funerals and memorial services.
“We told people to donate money instead of funeral wreaths. Many also donated their time and labor,” says Androulakis, adding that he cannot estimate how much money has been spent so far nor how much it will cost to complete the project. “We started from nothing and built it day by day,” says Koutentakis, whom we met in his rebuilt home. He is sitting in the same spot in the house where he was born 65 years ago. He moved back to Ethia in 2012, after living in Athens and Iraklio. He is also the most recent resident to move back here, and the youngest.
Some 50 families went to the expense of having their old homes rebuilt in the traditional style. More than 30 residences still remain in ruins.
Marios Stogianis, a stone mason from Albania, is now Ethia’s master builder. He has already rebuilt two churches and half a dozen houses. We met him while he was putting the finishing touches to one more.
“The only craftsmen who still live in the area and know how to work the stone are from Albania,” says Mathioudakis, who is also president of the Association for the Reconstruction of Ethia.
About a dozen residents live in the village all year round, while the construction continues and evidence of the work that has been done so far hangs on the walls of the old school together with the portraits of bygone residents.
“I don’t get lonely here. I have so many memories and so many stories to tell everywhere I go,” says Koutentakis.