13 May 2024

Memories of a day
on Dia, a legendary
and mythical island off
the north coast of Crete

The small island of Dia can be seen clearly from the road between Iraklion and Hersónissos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024; click on images for full-screen view)

Patrick Comerford

Some people count sheep or make lists to help themselves go to sleep. In recent nights, I’ve been making lists of the islands in Greece I have visited over the past 35-40 years, sometimes narrowing it down to even Crete and the islands off Crete.

Crete is the largest island in Greece. But, unlike the well-known clusters of Greek islands – the Ionian, Soranic, Sporadic, Cycladic, Aegean and Dodecanese islands – Crete is hardly an ideal base for the backpackers’ dream summer of ‘island hopping.’

The principal inhabited islands close to Crete are Karpathos, which I have never visited, and Santorini, which – as I have found in the past – can take from 2 or 3 hours to even 4½ hours to reach. There are day trips to Santorini, but they are often expensive and time-consuming, particularly for tourists on a short holiday with a limited budget.

Yet, Crete has its own, small, off-shore islands and islets, and I have visited many of these since the 1980s, including Agria Gramvousa and Imeri Gramvousa, Agios Nikolaos at the end of a spit off the beach in Georgopouli, Dia, Elafonisi and Kalydon, better known as Spinalonga and for Victoria Hislop’s televised novel The Island.

Almost 30 years ago, in the midst of the Imia crisis in 1996 that brought Greece and Turkey close to war over some rocky islets in the Aegean, someone cleverly gave the name Imia to some rocky islets that I paddled out to off the coast of Hersónissos.

On the bus between Iraklion and Hersónissos on a recent weekend, I had a clear view for much of the journey of the small island of Dia, which I visited back in 2001. People in Crete say that when you look at Dia from Iraklion the island looks like a giant lizard.

Dia (Δία or Ντία) is an uninhabited island off the north coast of Crete that is known for its rich history, mythical legends, breathtaking attractions and its unspoilt beaches. The island is 5 km long, 3 km wide, and an area of about 12 sq km and is about 13 km north of Iraklion.

Greek mythology tells of a giant lizard or dragon that tried to destroy the island of Crete. However, Zeus turned it into stone with a thunderbolt, and created the island of Dia. The legends say Zeus was born in a cave in Crete, and that he also created the island of Dia as a stepping stone for his lover, the goddess Europa, during her abduction to Crete.

Dia is also associated with the goddess Artemis, who is said to have made the island her home. Other legends says that after Theseus killed the Minotaur in the labyrinth in Knossos he fled to Dia with Ariadne.

Dia played a significant part in maritime trade routes in ancient times. The island’s ancient settlements, dating back to the Neolithic period, are evidence of its enduring heritage.

Dia may have been the principal port of Crete for centuries, and since the Minoan period the four quiet bays or coves along its south coast have provided safe anchorages. These four coves, from west to east, are: Agios Georgios, which has the only port on the island, the cove of Kapari, and the bays of Panagia and Agrielia; there is a fifth cove, Aginara, to the east. To the east and to the west of Dia are two smaller islets: Paximadi and Petalidi.

The peak of Vardia, at 220 metres, is the highest point on the island. The landscape is marked by stones and shrubs and by rocky cliffs as high as 60 metres. Scientists believe the island was full of forests 5,000 years ago and once had many springs. However, the forests disappeared because the wood was used for shipbuilding and the springs may have dried up about 1,000 years ago.

Dia once played an important role in navigation, particularly in the Minoan and mediaeval times. For the seamen who sailed in the Cretan Seas, it marked the best possible natural ‘signal’, indicating the approach of the Cretan coast with its natural harbours, while at the same time it allowed safe anchorage for their ships, blocking the strong northern winds.

During Minoan times, the island was populated and a harbour settlement developed near the bay of Agios Georgios.

Jacques Cousteau carried out underwater exploration around Dia in the mid 1970s, while he was searching for the lost Atlantis between Crete and Santorini, destroyed by the volcano eruption on Santorini in 1450 BCE, He and found the remains of an ancient port in the waters between Iraklion and Dia and seven shipwrecks were found on Dia. In 1976, Cousteau discovered some squared and rectangular rocks in the seabed that made up an artificial breakwater that researchers have named Cyclopean Walls.

Cousteau suggested that the port on Dia was once one of the biggest and most important ports for Crete. Aerial photographs also indicated traces of settlements, confirming the hypothesis that the island was populated before the Santorini volcano.

Until 1937, the island had a small area where vines were cultivated.

Today, Dia is part of the European Network of Nature (Natura 2000) and is a protected hunting ground. As part of the Natura 2000 programme, Dia is crucial because of its unique wildlife, including the Kri-Kri or Crean ibex, an endangered species of wild goat that is native to Crete.

The island is an important refuge for native plants, animals and protected species that are unique to the southern Aegean and it is an area for nesting falcons, with 300-400 pairs of Eleonora falcons (Falco eleanorae), known in Greek as mavropetritis.

Boats offer day trips to Dia from Gouves, Hersonissos and Iraklion every day. But no cars are allowed on the island, no camping is permitted, and there are no facilities or electricity. Swimming, snorkelling and walking along the beach are popular activities.

A stone paved path from the port leads to the northern side of the island and the forestry shelter, and another path leads to the beautiful church of Analipsis (the Ascension), with views back the Bay of Iraklion and Crete. Although there is no electricity, it is possible to stay overnight on Dia in the main shelter beside the chapel by making arrangements with the Port Office in Heraklion.

Boats offer day trips to Dia from Gouves, Hersonissos and Iraklion every day (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024; click on images for full-screen view)

Daily prayer in Easter 2024:
44, 13 May 2024

A moment of prayer in the Church of the Four Martyrs in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Easter is a 50-day season that continues until the Day of Pentecost next Sunday (19 May 2024). We are in an in-between time in the Season of Easter, between Ascension Day and the Day of Pentecost, and yesterday was the Seventh Sunday of Easter (Easter VII), or the Sunday after Ascension Day.

Throughout this Season of Easter, my morning reflections each day include the daily Gospel reading, the prayer in the USPG prayer diary, and the prayers in the Collects and Post-Communion Prayer of the day.

Later this morning, I hope to be singing with the choir at the Parish Eucharist in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford. But, before this day begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

3, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

A moment of prayer in the Cathedral in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

John 16: 29-33 (NRSVA):

29 His disciples said, ‘Yes, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure of speech! 30 Now we know that you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you; by this we believe that you came from God.’ 31 Jesus answered them, ‘Do you now believe? 32 The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. 33 I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!’

A moment of prayer in Saint Nektarios Church in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Today’s Prayers (Monday 13 May 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Triangle of Hope.’ This theme was introduced yesterday with a programme update.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (13 May 2024) invites us to pray:

We pray for all those caught up in injustice. We pray that they may know your compassion and your love. Grant them dignity and strength. Give us the wisdom and courage to recognise injustice in all its forms and help us to be quick to challenge.

The Collect:

O God the King of glory,
you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ
with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven:
we beseech you, leave us not comfortless,
but send your Holy Spirit to strengthen us
and exalt us to the place where our Saviour Christ is gone before,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Eternal God, giver of love and power,
your Son Jesus Christ has sent us into all the world
to preach the gospel of his kingdom:
confirm us in this mission,
and help us to live the good news we proclaim;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Additional Collect:

Risen, ascended Lord,
as we rejoice at your triumph,
fill your Church on earth with power and compassion,
that all who are estranged by sin
may find forgiveness and know your peace,
to the glory of God the Father.

Collect on the Eve of Saint Matthias:

Almighty God,
who in the place of the traitor Judas
chose your faithful servant Matthias
to be of the number of the Twelve:
preserve your Church from false apostles
and, by the ministry of faithful pastors and teachers,
keep us steadfast in your truth;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

A moment of prayer in Saint George’s Church in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org