MIHALIS: THE KEEPER OF THE LOOM
Articles on Greece by AURELIA
In Chania, Crete, directly behind the city's magnificent and usually serene harbor, there is an Aladdin's cave that tantalizes the senses and soothes the soul. The respectful visitor enters quietly and gingerly, as over the threshold of a church, inhaling the perfumes of frankincense and myrrh. His eyes are treated to an explosion of vibrant colors dominated by red, and his hands gently stroke fabrics that were once wool, but are now unique works of art. The rhythms of a loom beat the musk-filled air, and if the visitor listens carefully, the four-hundred-year-old loom tells its story. It tells the history of the ancient art of weaving and of the last male weaver on Crete dedicated to keeping the tradition alive.
Aladdin's magical house is actually called Roka Carpets, nestled in a venerable Venetian home on Zambelioou Street. Holding court there is a handsome man named Mihalis Manousakis, an artisan who has not only mastered the art of weaving, but of living. His work is done in his shop on the ground floor and he lives on the floor above with his beautiful, willowy wife, Anja, and their two children. Roka Carpets is one of Chania's central meeting places where the initiated assemble to socialize, meet new and old friends, share a drink, sing a song, play an instrument, watch Mihalis patiently weave and learn his philosophy of life (life should be lived simply and as close to nature as possible).
As a child of eleven, Mihalis was taught weaving by his grandmother and mother, both of whom knew thousands of ancient patterns. Every house had a loom in those days because weaving was neessary to make clothing, carpets, and dowries for daughters. Everyone was as self-sufficient as possible, making their own bread, growing their own food, buying extra produce not from stores, but from farmers who sold vegetables from baskets carried on the backs of donkeys, and purchasing fish from the fishermen who came to the village directly from their boats.
Mihalis is now the only male weaver in Crete who makes his living at the loom, reproducing the beautiful, intricate patterns from memory. As a young boy, he was a shepherd for a time, and as a young man, he went to Canada and enrolled in a university. Upon graduating as an engineer, he lived there for a number of years working in his profession and, as an aside, becoming fluent in six languages. When his father passed away he returned to Chania to head the household; he does not recall what motivated him, but upon his return to the land where he was born, he put aside his training in engineering and chose to make his living as a weaver. Kriti called him; he came home.
People from all over the world order his handwoven textiles colored with natural dyes; back orders extend over six years. Mihalis was honored by the Greek government when he was asked to make knapsacks as gifts for the Olympics; on short notice, he produced one-hundred and three. When not weaving sixteen hours a day, Mihalis does volunteer work for autistic children in Chania and the UK. A number of years ago he spent a few months in the Sinai Desert teaching Boudians weaving at the request of UNESCO.
Roka Carpets is an Aladdin's cave, a salon for international visitors, a haven, a shrine to the art of weaving, a museum, and a labyrinth. This is where pilgrims go to hear a quiet, relaxed, competent, strong man talk about the dying art of weaving and the wisdom of living a simple, uncomplicated life. This is a sanctuary where one goes to escape the frenzy of modern life and spend precious time with the keeper of the ancient loom, as he weaves his magic with colorful textiles and wise words.
Photo of Chania from MagicalJourneys.com
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