The Cretan Diaries of Colonel Émile-Honoré Destelle (1897-1898)Posted: September 3, 2021
Following the Cretan revolt of 1896, six Great Powers (Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and England) sent a squadron of warships to Crete in early 1897 to maintain the fragile peace between the Muslim and the Christian communities. France appointed Admiral Édouard Pottier (1839-1903) to lead her naval forces. The French division included Colonel Émile-Honoré Destelle (1856-1944), who brought previous experience in the colonies of New Calydonia and Madagascar. The Colonel disembarked on Crete in February of 1897 to supervise the administration of the eastern part of the island.
I would not have known about Destelle had I not come across the publication of his military diaries from 1897 and 1898 on a recent visit to the Historical Museum in Herakleion (a must for anyone visiting Crete). Edited by his grandson Jean-Pierre Destelle and translated into Greek by Emmanuela Tzedaki with a thorough commentary by Maria Sorou, and published by the Society of Cretan Historical Studies in 2018-2019, Destelle’s diaries document in great detail his administrative activities, as well as everyday life in East Crete just before the island was declared an autonomous state under the protection of the Great Powers. For me, after excavating and traveling in the regions of Siteia and Ierapetra for the past three decades, Destelle’s descriptions offered unique glimpses into Crete’s pre-industrial past. (The Destelle family maintains an excellent web page.)
Destelle’s diaries became my evening companion during my six weeks on Crete this summer, while participating in the Mochlos excavations. I was digging a Hellenistic fort on the summit of Mochlos, trying to understand how it functioned and which city it served, and Destelle was describing the daily activities of an army camp in the same region more than a hundred years ago. I mined the pair of books for ethnographic information, especially communications, since transportation on Crete before the early 20th century was hardly any different from that of ancient times.
Destelle was originally stationed in Siteia before transferring his headquarters to Ierapetra. After the Italian squadron dissolved in early 1898, the French took over administration of all of East Crete including the eparchy of Viannos. From the beginning of his service, Destelle aimed at improving the region’s infrastructure. He recorded in minute detail departure and arrival times during his travels by horse or by boat. He also noted other people’s traveling times.
The publication of his diaries does not include any maps, which would have been very useful to the reader. Upon my return to Athens, however, I was fortunate to find in the Stephanos Dragoumis papers (Dragoumis served as General Commissioner of Crete and Macedonia in 1912-1913) at the Archives of the American School of Classical Studies three leaves of a French map of the Lasithi region from 1907, documenting the road system. This allowed me to follow and understand Destelle’s travels. (These maps are now digitized and available online in high resolution.)
While stationed in Siteia, Destelle preferred to travel to Agios Nikolaos by boat, almost never by land, although there was a road connecting Siteia with Candia (Herakleion). The boat ride varied from three to five hours depending on weather and winds (1897, 178). In one case it took them 6 ½ hours to cover the shorter distance from Spinalonga to Pacheia Ammos because of adverse winds (1898, 102). He and the other officers traveled by warships, either protected cruisers, such as the Galilée (with a length of 100.63 m and top speed of 20.5 knots or 38.0 km/h) and the Suchet (of similar length and speed), or armored ones, such as the Amiral Charner (length 110.2m and top speed 17 knots or 31km/h), or torpedo cruisers such as the Vautour, all built in the 1890s, when France invested heavily in its navy to keep pace with the increasing size of Italian and German fleets. These ships traversed the north cost of Crete on a daily basis carrying soldiers, supplies, and mail. In Siteia, Destelle hardly felt disconnected from the rest of Crete and or from his family at Toulon in Southern France. However, he was somewhat disappointed by the irregularity of boat traffic when he moved to Ierapetra, since fewer ships braved the long and rough route from Siteia to Ierapetra.
For comparison, one notes that in antiquity merchant boats such as the Kyreneia (4th century B.C.) did not reach speeds higher than 3-4 knots. Even faster Roman boats would not travel faster than 6 knots. In addition, most seafaring stopped all together during the winter months.
Destelle moved to Ierapetra on April 22, 1898. The Galillee departed from Siteia at 9pm, arriving at Ierapetra eight hours later at 6am. From the boat Destelle found Ierapetra impressive with her castle, the glittering minarets, and the high mountains in the background (1898, 70-71). What he could not see was the malarial swamp lurking at the eastern edge of the city. Destelle received the city from the Italians and paid his respects to the Turkish commander.
A few days later (April 28, 1898) he traveled to Pacheia Ammos (where Harriet Boyd would pitch her tent in 1900 to excavate the Minoan town of Gournia and where INSTAP built the Study Center for East Crete in 1997), to visit the family of Andreas Vourdoubakis who worked for the French as a translator. Destelle described the road as flat and vehicular, surrounded by olive groves. It took him 2 ½ hours to cross the Ierapetra Isthmus by horse. By early November of 1889 the French had built a new road, decreasing the distance between the two places by an hour (always by horse). The French also favored local horses for their travels, since their military horses struggled for footing on the rough Cretan paths. “My little Cretan horse treads like a goat with an incredible, safe foothold” Destell scribbled with pride in his diary (1898, 188).
In addition to improving the infrastructure of the Lasithi region by building or repairing roads and bridges, the French undertook a more ambitious project: the construction of a canal at Elounda, which would shorten the boat ride from Spinalonga to Agios Nikolaos by an hour. Canal building became the hallmark of engineering in the 19th century, offering tremendous improvements in navigation and long distance trade. In the Mediterranean two of the most important canals, the Suez (1869) and Corinth (1893) canals, had already been opened by French companies.
The guiding spirit for the construction of the Elounda canal was Émile Dupourqué (1859-1939), commander of Spinalonga and first lieutenant of the Amiral Charner. During the excavations for the canal, which lasted a year (1897-1898), the French army discovered the ruins of ancient Olous, including an early Christian basilica with a beautiful mosaic. According to oral testimonies, when the French found the mosaic they fired 21 canons out of joy (Makrakis 2017). In February 1898, Destelle paid a visit to the small museum in Spinalonga that the French army had built in order to house the finds from the excavation of the canal. He had heard about a large (H. 1.25; L. 0.45; 0.19 thickness) and important inscription which was about to be taken to the Louvre (1898, 54-55). The inscription, first published by Joseph Demargne (1870-1912) in the Bulletin Correspondance Hellenique (1900, 222-246) and later included by Margherita Guarducci in Inscriptiones Creticae I, preserves a proxeny decree recording names of people who were granted proxeneia, including that of a Macedonian, Patroclus, son of Patron. He was later identified as stratêgos Patroclus, the one who led the Ptolemaic fleet against the Macedonian king Antigonus Gonatas in the 260s B.C. As part of his Aegean campaign, Patroclus secured a number of bases in Attica and on Crete, Kea, and Thera.
Tasting the Local Culture
Destelle had to procure meat for his soldiers. On May 10, 1897, he described the arrival of a small procession consisting of six calves, several donkeys loaded with suckling pigs (each donkey carried three on a side) and soldiers holding live chickens in their hands (1897, p. 122). Although today the sight of a cow is a rare spectacle in Crete, there was an abundance of bovines on the island before WW II, used mostly for agricultural work and less for food. (See also Rackham and Moody, The Making of the Cretan Landscape, Manchester 1996, Chapter 7, Domestic Animals and Plants: “Cattle appear sporadically in Venetian records… In 1579 the Governor Foscarini reported a shortage of plough oxen, because many had been eaten or plundered in the recent Turkish war; he forbade any more to be slaughtered… Raulin in 1847 estimated that there were 65,000 cattle in the island, but very few of these small, thin, brown animals are left…”.)
On his travels through the Cretan countryside, Destelle took the opportunity to taste the local food, which he admired and described in detail in his diaries. On his first visit to Moni Toplou in June 1897, he was offered raki, fresh artichokes cut into slices, and fresh almonds. To this repast, the French contributed their own supplies: kavourmas, sardines, foie-gras and bread. The abbot further supplied the meal with an offer of rum (“to soften the stomach”), a milk soup garnished with lemon, chicken with rice, and a green salad made of onions, peppers, cucumbers, and purslane. All of this was consumed with Cretan wine made at the monastery (today the monastery continues to bottle its own wine). At the end of the meal, the monks brought out a selection of locally made cheeses, fresh almonds, raki, rum with sugar, and fresh lemonade (1897, 158-159).
Destelle returned to Toplou in early October of the same year to attend the celebrations for St. John the Theologian. (All of Destelle’s dates follow the Gregorian calendar; Greece until 1923 followed the Old Calendar.) Once again he describes in detail the meal that followed the mass and the celebratory dances: pork (suckling pig) ragu, fried fish, hare in wine stew, pork in the oven, and lamb stew. “Everything is well cooked, but, as in the cuisine of Southern France, very spicy, which would not please a Northern European” (1897, 334). For dessert they were served watermelon, grapes, pomegranates, almonds, and loukoumi and Turkish coffee). The wine reminded him of “very good Madeira wine.” Destelle consistently praised the quality of the Cretan wine (which is notable given his background).
At Males, a village high up to the northwest of Ierapetra, they were served food that was simply cooked but very tasty: lamb and pork in the oven, hare in wine stew, cucumber salad and anthogalo (a creamy cheese made of sheep and goat milk), and “a wonderful local wine.”
Most of this good wine was produced in vineyards on the slopes of the Thrypte Plateau, northeast of Ierapetra. The harvest began in early September and lasted for about 20 days. The grapes were laid out in the sun for two-three days before treading. That process explained their slight sweetness, according to Destelle. He asked his local friends why all the vineyards of Ierapetra were concentrated in this area. Good soil and frequent rains favored the growth of vineyards, as well as pear and apple trees (1898, 210-212).
During his many trips in the Lasithi region, Destelle also noted repeatedly the sad spectacle of uprooted olive groves and orchards around the abandoned Muslim villages (1898, 47). The Greek revolutionaries had forced the Ottoman population to flee the country, and, in order to make sure that they would not return, the Greeks destroyed their houses and uprooted their olive trees. Since olive trees take years to become productive, their destruction was a terrible blow to the Ottoman farmers.
During his administration Destelle would also take measures against the removal of bark (πίτυκας) from the pine trees, which was used in leather-making. The export of bark to Egypt was a profitable business that resulted, however, in the destruction of large pine forests (1898, 124).
In order to avoid paying export taxes to the Turks, Cretans often traded their products illegally on remote beaches and in coves. During this transitional period with an on-going revolution and with the Turks confined to the urban centers (because they no longer felt safe living in the countryside), the Cretans felt no obligation to pay custom duties either to the Turkish authorities or to the supervising powers.
In one case, while visiting the Monastery of Faneromeni, west of Siteia, the French spotted a number of huts at the end of a ravine near the beach. The Cretans used the huts while preparing citrons for (illegal) exportation. The citrons were kept in barrels full of sea water that was replenished frequently (1897, 352). Although now largely abandoned on Crete, the cultivation of citrons was popular in the 19th and the early decades of the 20th century. According to Michalis Frangiadakis (father of the current owner of Kochylia restaurant at Mochlos, George), whom I interviewed a few years ago, citron was one of the main commodities exported from the little harbor of Mochlos in the 1940s and 1950s. They were stored in barrels, which made it easy to roll them down to Mochlos! (While searching for more about the trade of citrons in Crete, I discovered that the Megaron Hotel in Herakleion originally belonged to the Fytakis-Kassapakis family, which made its money from growing citrons and trading in them. Read “Το Μέγαρο Φυτάκη και τα κίτρα στο Ηράκλειο.”)
A Memorable Feast
On October 13, 1897, Destelle, doctor Barthélemy, and a Greek by the name of Tsambarlakis left at 4:40 am from Siteia to go by horses and mules to the village of Tourloti at the invitation of Emmanouel Phoundalides (1850-1909), an important Cretan who had held several political appointments on the island, and who, in 1897, was representing the revolutionary Cretans in the area. At about 6.30 am they passed the village of Chamaizi, and at 7.30 they were at Exo Mouliana. Destelle noted that Turkish houses in the village were abandoned and destroyed. But the deep valley in front of them was full of orchards and a few walnut trees. They met Phoundalidis near the village of Mouliana, and, as they entered the village they heard welcoming bells tolling as a welcome sign.
The entire village, as well a large body of armed Cretans who were firing their guns (μπαλωθιές) in all directions, was out to receive the French with flowers as they cheered “Vive la France” (Ζήτω η Γαλλία). After five hours of traveling they finally entered Tourloti. After inspecting the village and the surrounding area, Destelle and his company sat down at Phoundalidis’s house for lunch. He was impressed by the setting: starched white tablecloth, clean plates and glasses, and carafes full of rosé wine. They started the meal with a chicken soup, followed by boiled chicken garnished with thick salt, and a suckling pig baked in the oven. For dessert they were served grapes, a tasty local cheese, and little cheese pies. As a departing gift Madame Phoundalides offered them a large bouquet made of basil, orange leaves, and marigold. While there, Doctor Barthelemy inspected a number of patients. “It is the practical aspect of our mission” Destelle noted (1897, 340-350).
I left for last Destelle’s archaeological expeditions in East Crete. In the French tradition of combining imperial expansion with scientific research, Destelle made an effort to visit many archaeological sites and old churches in East Crete, received and entertained archaeologists, and also collected specimens of geological, and, occasionally, of archaeological interest.
While on one of his frequent visits to Spinalonga, Destelle met Victor Bérard (1864-1931), an enlightened professor at the École des Hautes Études and former student of the French School in Athens (1887-1890), who, according to a recent article, “was also passionate about the Eastern Question and campaigned for the peoples subject to the Ottoman Empire” (Basch 2015). A few days later Bérard would join Destelle on an excursion to the Toplou Monastery (1897, 310-314). Bérard explained to his companions the content of the large inscription at the entrance to the church. Found by Admiral Spratt in 1853, it was brought to the church and immured there on Spratt’s initiative. This (now famous) inscription of the late 2nd century B.C. preserves the largest part of an arbitration of the conflict between the cities of Hierapytna and Itanos over the control of the Sanctuary of Zeus Dictaeus and the island of Leuke. (On the inscription, content, and copies, see Ager 1996, 431, no. 158.)
On January 3, 1898, Destelle organized a trip to the cave of Peristeras on the peak of Mount Modi near Siteia (1898, 19-20). He described it as a labyrinth with rooms full of large stalactites, and diligently noted that the Cretans who had accompanied them were collecting the pointiest ones: “they pierce them from one side to the other, and use them as pipes for smoking.”
At ancient Itanos (Erimoupolis) Destelle stumbled on a partially exposed female statue missing head and hands, looted sarcophagoi, and fragments of pottery. One local showed them a large and intact amphora of “museum quality” (1898, 33-34).
In the spring of 1898 Destelle came across Arthur Evans in Siteia. Evans, who was touring the island looking for sites to excavate, gladly accepted Destelle’s invitation to stay with the French. He shared with them his interest in prehistory and ancient scripts, and told them about his large collections of seals. When Destelle showed him the figurines he had collected from Praisos, Evans explained that they were votives dedicated to Kore-Persephone (1898, 67).
While stationed in Ierapetra, the French would stage theatrical performances for the entertainment of the soldiers, which Destelle always enjoyed. One of them was staged “at the ancient Greek theater which is in perfect condition,” noted Destelle on May 12, 1898 (1898, 108). Which of the three theaters of ancient Hierapytna was Destelle referring to? It is also strange that he is referring to a well preserved theater, when until recently the archaeologists could not locate any one of the three theaters. Since 2012, Chrysa Sofianou and the Ephorate of Lasithi in collaboration with the city’s municipalities has brought to light one of the three theaters at the site of Viglia, at the western edge of the city (Sofianou and Gallimore 2019, 13-15). But it appears likely that the French were using a theater within the city, either the large theater to the north of the Plastiras square or the Roman amphitheater which was probably located in the area of the now demolished old soap/oil factory Minos.
The Cretan State
On December 21 1898, Destelle travelled to Chania to participate in the celebrations for the declaration of Crete as an autonomous state (still under the Ottoman Empire but without any Ottoman troops on the island) and the arrival of Prince George, second son of King George of Greece, who would become the first governor of the new state. He described Prince George as a tall, impressive man with delicate features: blue eyes, a thin mustache, thin hair, and fair skin. But he also found him a bit cold and aloof. Somehow, Destelle had already sensed that the new leader would have a hard time bonding with his people (1898, 329-330).
Destelle stayed on Crete until 1899 when he returned to France for health reasons. He would return two years later in June 1901, as High Commander of the International Army, bringing with him his family. However, continuous health problems forced him to leave Crete in 1904, this time for good. He would miss the Revolt of Therisos in 1905 and the replacement of Prince George, who, as Destelle predicted, had managed to alienate himself from the Cretan people.
1897: Émile-Honoré Destelle: Ημερολόγιο 1897 (Εταιρεία Κρητικών Ιστορικών Μελετών, Μαρτυρίες 10), Herakeion 2018.
1898: Émile–Honoré Destelle: Ημερολόγιο 1898 (Εταιρεία Κρητικών Ιστορικών Μελετών, Μαρτυρίες 111), Herakeion 2019.
Ager, S. 1996. Interstate Arbitrations in the Greek World, 337–90 B.C. Berkeley
Basch, Sophie (ed.), 2015. Portraits de Victor Bérard: Actes du colloque international organisé à l’École française d’Athènes (5-6 avril 2013). Athens (https://books.openedition.org/efa/3948#tocto1n7 )
Betancourt, P.P. 2003. Greece and Her Neighbors in Historic Postcards: 1895-1920, Athens.
Makrakis, M. 2017. “Το χρονικό της διάνοιξης του καναλιού στην Ελούντα 1897-1898,” (https://fonien.gr/ το-χρονικό-της-διάνοιξης-του-καναλιού/) – Accessed Sept. 1, 2021
Sofianou, Ch. and S. Gallimore 2019. “Recent Excavations at the Small Theater of Ierapetra,” Kentro 22, pp. 13-15.