The Windmills of Lasithi Plateau

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The Lasithi Plateau in eastern Crete, Greece, is situated 800 meters above sea level. Despite the high altitude, the water table here is extremely shallow —so shallow that the dead can’t be buried, instead they are placed in stone mausoleums above ground. The easy access to water and the fertile soil has attracted inhabitants since Neolithic times. Dozens of villages now lie scattered around the oval-shaped plateau, surrounded by mountains. This 11 km by 6 km plain is covered with fields of grain and plots of vegetables such as potatoes, cabbage, cucumbers, beans and onions, which are irrigated by means of thousands of windmills with white sails.


Photo credit: Europa Nostra/Flickr

Lasithi Plateau has been continuously inhabited since at least the Bronze Age, some 5,600 years ago, up until the 13th century. After the Fourth Crusade and the conquest of Constantinople in 1204, the island of Crete fell into the possession of the Republic of Venice. Over the next two centuries, the Cretan populace repeatedly rose up in rebellion against the Venetian, who reacted by expelling the inhabitants of Lasithi and destroying their villages and crops.

Later, in the early 15th century, Venetian rulers allowed refugees from the Greek mainland to settle in the plain and cultivate the land again. Cultivating the land, however, proved to be difficult. There was disease but the major problem was annual flooding. Every winter the rainfall ran off the surrounding mountain slopes onto the plain and caused the banks of the river to overflow and destroy crops. To fix this, Venetians dug a big network of drainage ditches that are still in use today.

The windmills didn’t appear until the early 20th century. These stone structures fitted with white sails turned with the wind and drew water from the ground to irrigate the crops. During its heydays, Lasithi Plateau had over 10,000 windmills —some say 20,000. Fewer than 5,000 stand today. Most of them have been abandoned and replaced by modern diesel and electrical pumps.

Before there were windmills, the major agricultural products of Lasithi were dry crops such as wheat and legumes. With the coming of windmills and motor power to pump water, cultivators began to grow a wide variety of crops. Today, the potato is the most important and thirsty cash crop in Lasithi.


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Sources: Wikipedia / Lasithi: A History of Settlement on a Highland Plain in Crete / Lonely Planet

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