When I go to the centre of Iraklio, I like walking through Lakkos, a poor area just inside the city walls by the Bethlehem Gate, by the Kommeno Bendeni area. The gate is actually seldom referred to by its name; people just call it Kommeno Bendeni. During the Ottoman Occupation it was also known as the Dark Gate (Σκοτεινή Πύλη), or Karanlik Kapi in Turkish. The traditional centre of Iraklio is a large fort or citadel, and the walls are still up.
Lakkos was traditionally a red-light district and a neighbourhood for refugees from Asia Minor, at least in the early twentieth century. N. gave me a book about the area written by someone she knows, and it has some pictures too. I haven’t read it yet. I can only imagine what the area was like even ten years ago, perhaps even five years ago. A lot of the low houses are being torn down and apartment buildings being put up in their place.
One thing I like about Lakkos is that it gives you a glimpse of a Greece that is vanishing. A lot of the people who live in the area seem to be gypsies and immigrants, but they’ll be gone soon too. I’m talking about a way of life that’s vanishing: the little courtyards with flowerpots or basil planted in large olive oil containers; the smoke that rises from a small stove in the house, out through a tin pipe that emerges from a window; the laundry that hangs out to dry in the courtyard, or even in the street; the way people sweep up and wash down the little bit of pavement outside their house; the little rugs made of rags that they leave outside their door. Sometimes you smell delicious food. You look around to see which open window it’s coming from, but you can’t tell where.
For the past year, I’ve been thinking a lot about destruction and decay, the cycle of the rise and fall of cities that Herodotus mentions at the beginning of the Histories. I think about this as I walk through Lakkos — how the new buildings that are going up will end up, sooner than we think, like the old ones that are abandoned or being pulled down.
Already the ones that were built ten to twenty years ago are decaying more than we thought they would when we built them. We cover the walls with cement or stucco and paint over them, but the wind and rain beat down against them. Moisture gets into the walls, and mould begins to grow out. We paint over it again, but the rot within seeps through soon enough. The weather will have its way.
When you leave Lakkos and enter the rest of Iraklio, you see, to some extent, the same struggle with decay.
People use brick or concrete blocks nowadays. The old buildings made of heavy, hewn stone will still be standing when the new ones have tumbled, if we don’t pull them down. But soon enough, they will tumble down too.
Up on Wuthering Heights, the weather will do its best. The windows will rattle. They do already. I’m sure it won’t be long before people cut down the olive orchards around our house, tear down the abandoned ruins we can see from our balcony. The monastery down the street will be surrounded, and cease, really, to be a monastery. I’m sure the whole area will be developed soon enough, and tall buildings will go up all around, as the city continues its sprawl. And soon enough, these too will fall.
For many cities that were once great have now become small; and those that were great in my time were small before. Knowing therefore that human prosperity never continues in the same place, I shall mention both alike.