Just look at these two sands, and the words ring true – one is from the Greek Ionian Island of Kefalonia – or Cephalonia (or Cephallenia, Cephallonia, Kefallinia, or Kefallonia) – the other from neighbouring Ithaki. The beaches of Kaminia (top, Ithaki)) and Xi (lower, western Kefalonia)) are perhaps thirty kilometres apart, but one faces the mainland, the other the open sea; one is backed by limestone cliffs and mountains, the other by lower agricultural terrain (albeit still built on limestone). And one has red-brown sand, the other whitish grey. Through some conspiracy of microclimate, topography, and geochemistry, the hinterland of the beaches at Xi is covered in lateritic soils, the grains coated in iron minerals, the landscape a patchwork of rust and white. At Kaminia, the more sheltered waters play host to biological activity, and the sands contain abundant shells of foraminifera and other critters.
And, while we’re in this particular part of the world (famous, of course, for Captain Corelli and his mandolin), there’s a bit of a mystery associated with these islands. “Ithaki” – must be the land that featured so prominently in Homer’s Odyssey, surely? But there’s a problem – Homer’s description doesn’t fit with today’s geography. Homer lived far away from, and long after, the locations of the saga of Odysseus; in the Iliad, he described the people of Ithaca as “the gallant Cephallenians,” yet today’s island of Ithiki is distinct from Kefalonia. Furthermore, when Odysseus describes his homeland, he states that, of the group of islands, “Ithaca itself lies low, furthest to sea towards dusk; the rest, apart, face dawn and sun.” A glance at a map shows Ithiki to the east, certainly not furthest to the sea towards dusk – it would seem to be “one of the rest,” facing the dawn.
Now, the fact is that these islands lie in a region of daily tectonic exercise; minor earthquakes are constant, major ones common. Is it possible that thousands of years of this activity have wrought significant changes to the landscapes of the islands? Go to http://www.odysseus-unbound.org/index.html, and you can read the fascinating story of a geological project that attempts to answer this question: “But can earthquakes change the layout of entire islands? That was the challenge facing the exploration team in 2003. It has taken intensive efforts and the advice of experts from all over the world to answer this question. We now know that the answer is a resounding 'yes'.” Specifically, is it possible that the low-lying valley, shown on the map as “Strabo’s Channel,” and which separates the western peninsula of Paliki from the rest of the island, was once a seaway? Have landslides and erosion caused by repeated earthquakes filled in this channel? If this were the case, then Paliki was once an island and fits with Homer’s description of Ithaca. (The map is taken from the website, and the original labels Paliki as “Ithaca” – I removed this in the interests of avoiding prejudice).
The geological and geophysical work on the project has been led by John Underhill, Professor of Geology at the University of Edinburgh and an old friend. The account is fascinating, so have a browse around “Odysseus Unbound” and see what you think.
If only Homer had described the sands of the beaches along which his “gallant Cephallenians” lived, the mystery might be more easily solved.
[Thanks – yet again – to Carla for the sand samples.]