Sitting out in the Mediterranean Sea is the quaint, historic Greek island of Crete. This mountainous land surrounded by azure waters is a place of great cultural heritage and history, and among the many important sites here is a castle in the Sfakia region on the relatively remote south coast of the island. Along the inviting, sandy sloping beaches here is an old castle that was first erected by the Venetians in 1371 as a deterrent to the many pirates that prowled the region, and which is referred to by locals as the Castle of St. Nikitas and also as Frangokastello, meaning the Castle of the Franks. It is here where every year a ghostly phenomenon supposedly plays out, which is not fully explained and is tied to the castle’s rather violent and tumultuous history.
In May of 1828, this beachside fortress was the scene of a vicious battle during the Greek War of Independence against the Turks. On this occasion, thousands of Turkish forces held the castle under siege, with hundreds of Sfakiots and Epirotes led by the Greek patriot and revolutionary hero Hatzimichalis Dalianis taking refuge within. The Greeks were wildly outnumbered, with fewer than 600 of them versus the massive, 8000 strong army of the Turks outside their walls, yet they put up a valiant fight for a full week before succumbing to the relentless force of the never-ending Turkish onslaught on May 17, 1828. According to the tale, all of the Greek resistors were slaughtered, including Dalianis himself, and the bodies then unceremoniously dumped out in the open at the Orthi Ammos beach to rot under the Mediterranean sun and be slowly covered by wind driven sands, the blood-soaked ground slowly buried along with the forgotten warriors. It was a major and dark event in the Greek War of Independence yet, according to legend these soldiers are perhaps not really gone at all.
According to locals, every May on the eve of this catastrophic battle, something very strange happens around Frangokastello. It is said that on this morning, before the sun has barely risen above the horizon and when the sea is calm and the atmosphere is moist, an army of shadows will start to congeal out of the gloom and begin to march from the monastery of Agios Charalambos directly towards the castle. Locals claim that these phantoms will take the shape of marching men and even riders on horseback, with many of them holding weapons and with inscrutable expressions on their faces. Sometimes this army of wraiths is completely silent, while at others people swear to be able to hear voices and the sounds of horses and footsteps, and it is believed that this is the restless army that perished at that castle during that long-ago bloodbath. The shadows can apparently be seen from up to 1000 meters away, and will apparently march on for around 10 minutes before fading away back to from whence they came, where they will lie in wait until the following year to try again. On some occasions, several years will pass before they make an appearance, depending on the conditions at the time.
The Greeks call these ghostly apparitions the Drosoulites, meaning “dew shadows,” and far from merely a spooky story, this has been a well-documented phenomenon from way back. In 1890 a passing Turkish troop supposedly saw the phantoms and fled, and the Germans reported seeing these specters during World War II, apparently even opening fire on the ghosts thinking they were real enemy troops, and several prominent witnesses have claimed to have seen the apparitions over the years. What are these entities? Are they really the ghosts of these fallen warriors long ago? Or is there something else at work?
The main scientific theory is that these are nothing but some sort of atmospheric phenomenon, possibly some sort of Fata Morgana illusion. This optical phenomenon happens when faraway objects are projected and distorted over large distances due to rays of light bending through different temperatures in a steep thermal inversion, in this case compounded by moisture in the air and the heat of the sand. During Fata Morgana instances, objects many miles away can be projected to another place to create very realistic looking specters, in this case theorized to be from Libyan troops training on a far away shore. Making the search for answers more difficult is the fact that the Drosoulites have never been properly photographed or videotaped, making it that much harder to come to a consensus on what could be going on here.
To this day, the phantom army of Frangokastello attracts crowds of visitors every year hoping to catch a glimpse of it all, and locals will excitedly tell of their experiences with it. The phenomenon has still never been adequately explained and manages to baffle and perplex. What is going on at this otherwise quaint island paradise? Do the ghosts of the dead wander these sands, or is this something more mundane? Whatever the case may be, the ghostly warriors of Crete have apparently not found rest yet, and if you feel so inclined to make a visit in May you may even see them for yourself.