Gorge of Samaria National Park
Permanent Delegation of Greece to UNESCO
Region of Crete, Regional Unit of Chania
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The Samaria Gorge is the acknowledged natural site and symbol of the island of Crete. It holds a unique and distinguished position in Cretan, Greek and Mediterranean history, as a place that has served throughout history as an ark for life and a haven of freedom. It is also identified with the unceasing production of the material and immaterial cultural heritage of Crete through the ages.
The Lefka Ori (White Mountains), the largest and westernmost mountain range of Crete, dominate the southwest part of the island, covering almost 7% of the total surface of the fifth-largest island in the Mediterranean. More than 50 peaks of the impressive mountain range exceed 2,000 meters in altitude, while the highest, Pachnes, reaches a height of 2,453 meters above the Libyan Sea to the south and the Sea of Crete to the north of the island. The island of Crete is, justifiably, called a land of gorges, being cut by dozens, mainly running north to south. No other gorge, however, has the glamour and uniqueness of the Samaria Gorge.
The Lefka Ori and the gorges that intersect them are a paradise for biodiversity and form a landscape of unique geological value and beauty. There, isolated from human presence, singular ecosystems have evolved, with dozens of endemic species and subspecies, providing shelter to the famous Cretan Agrimi Goat (Capra aegagrus cretica) and other rare species such as the Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus), the Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), the Cretan Wildcat (Felis silvestris cretensis), Blasius’ Horseshoe Bat (Rhinolophus blasii), as well as the endemic plants Zelkova abelicea and Bupleurum kakiskalae. The Mediterranean Monk Seal (Monachus monachus) is found in the sea caves on the south coast of the National Park.
The Samaria National Park delimits the core of the Lefka Ori, in which all these elements can be found in their full glory. The path of the Samaria Gorge from the north to the south entrance is 13 km long. Visitors set out from Xyloskalo, on the edge of the Omalos Plateau, cross the Cretan countryside vertically, and end up at the village of Agia Roumeli on the Libyan Sea. From there they can make out, on the edge of the horizon, the island of Gavdos, the southernmost point of Europe.
The Samaria Gorge has already been subject to National Park protection status for 50 years. Since its designation as a National park in 1962, people from all over the world have crossed the Gorge and realized why it has been famous since the era of earlier travellers, such as F.W. Sieber, Robert Pashley and Victor Raulin. Today, the Samaria Gorge is one the most important pillars for the sustainable development of the entire island of Crete and is supremely important to the local communities living around the National Park. The Greek State has been responsible for the management of the area through the Forest Directorate of Chania since the National Park was founded. In 2008 the Samaria National Park Management Body was established with European Union funding, participating in the management of the Park while promoting the design and implementation of the Specific Environmental Study and the Management Plan for the area.
The management of the Park aims to become the best example of viable administration in Greece, with the ultimate goal of protecting the integrity of this unique area. Moreover, under the threat of climate change, the role of the Samaria Gorge and the Lefka Ori as a whole as a natural ark for the entire island of Crete will be highlighted further.
Justification of Outstanding Universal Value
The importance of the Lefka Ori to the development and preservation of local biodiversity, and the significance of this biodiversity for Greece and indeed globally, is internationally recognised. Μany rare and important animal and plant species are found in the Lefka Ori, due to the unique and specific natural and geological characteristics of the region.
Approximately 200 bird species, 32 mammals, almost one-third of the known 1,800 species and subspecies of Cretan flora, and a total of 174 endemic Greek taxa are found in the area.
The steep terrain and inaccessibility of the region, combined with the isolation offered by the numerous gorges of the Lefka Ori and the Samaria Gorge in particular, have contributed to the development and preservation of a unique biodiversity. A full list of the species and subspecies found has not yet been compiled, given the particular features of the area, while new species are still being discovered and recorded today, for instance Anthemis samariensis, an endemic perennial chasmophyte plant discovered in 2007.
Due to the specific bioclimatic conditions prevailing in the gorges, these constitute particular climatic and soil micro-environments, making up a mosaic of geoenvironments which subsequently form banks of biogenetic reserves. The steep terrain and constant variation of the landscape is also reflected in the local ecosystems, which present remarkable diversity, while their large number combined with their wealth of dynamics attract the interest of international naturalists and scientific experts.
The local vegetation is the result of the simultaneous effect of various parameters, particularly the flora, the bioclimatic conditions, the orographic formation, the petrological-geological composition, the soil and the impact of human activity during the historical development of the area up to the present day. The flora of Crete has a special place in the Mediterranean region and is a distinct example of island ecology and biogeography. The presence of this rich flora and the conservation of many endemic species is mostly due to Crete’s geographical position between three continents, its connection to and isolation from these during the Pliocene period, the geological evolution which followed that isolation, geo-historical events, the great mountain ranges, the wide variety of vertical and horizontal disintegration, the presence of a broad range of climatic conditions and microenvironments, and the wide variety of geotopes and ecotopes.
The wild nature and steep terrain of Samaria form an attractive landscape but constitute a rather “hostile” environment for the establishment of human settlements. This, however, has not prevented the organized habitation of the area since at least the Early Iron Age, while recent finds suggest colonization by Paleolithic humans. Permanent settlement within the Gorge was perhaps initiated by people seeking shelter and/or water. The ancient city of Kaino, located within the Samaria Gorge, was considered the birthplace of the goddess Britomartis, an earlier incarnation of Artemis. Tarra was a small but autonomous city founded in the Early Archaic period, at the south exit of the Samaria National Park, on either side of the mouth of the river running through the Gorge. Tarra minted its own coins in the Hellenistic period, featuring a bee on one side and the head of a Cretan wild goat on the other.
In subsequent historical periods and during the numerous risings of the Cretan people, the Gorge was a refuge for non-combatants as well as a hiding place for revolutionaries.
The Gorge of Samaria was declared a National Park in 1962, and is open to the public from May to October each year.
Criterion (vii): The Lefka Ori are the largest and westernmost mountain range of Crete. They are intersected by several gorges (Samaria being the most impressive) which are distinctive for their number, length and narrowness. The massif is highly karstified, forming sinkholes, caves, dolines, poljes and screes.
The singular landscapes of the Lefka Ori form a rare ensemble landscapes, a single unique picture of wilderness. The steep terrain and constant variations in the landscape are reflected in the local ecosystems which contain remarkable diversity, attracting international naturalists and scientific experts.
The Lefka Ori host some of the deepest caves in Greece, including the two deepest (over 1,000 m deep). There are over 1,400 confirmed cave entrances in the massif.In some of the very few studied caves there is evidence of stenoendemic species.
The highest part of the Lefka Ori (over 50 peaks over 2,000 m asl) constitutes a very unusual landscape, the “High Desert”. This beautiful, sinister landscape is full of rugged detail: abrupt little cliffs, jagged depressions, sudden headlong shafts with ice at the bottom, and crevasse-like fissures. There are no similar landscapes elsewhere in the northern hemisphere. Almost half of the flora species of the High Desert are not met elsewhere, demonstrating that this desert or a similar landscape existed for at least the largest part of the Pleistocene.
The following parts of the Lefka Ori: (i) Chora Sfakion, Fraggokastello-Loutro, (ii) Imbros and (iii) Tarra-Gorge of Samaria-Omalos Plateau, have been designated Areas of Exceptional Natural Beauty.
Criterion (viii): The geology of the Lefka Ori could have been monotonous, given the lack of mineral diversity compared to the rest of Crete. However, the processes that acted on the rocks were so variable and intense that their final result, the current terrain, is impressive.
The core of the Lefka Ori mountain range is comprised primarily of marble, limestone and dolomites which date from the Mesozoic period (225-140 Mya), when Greece formed a section of the bed of an ocean known as the Tethys Sea. It gradually rose due to tectonic movements, causing a southwards expansion and uplifting of the Aegean. During the Miocene (ca 25 Mya), Crete and mainland Greece formed a unified land mass (Ägäis). Crete’s separate history began after the Messinian Salinity crisis (ca 5.3 Mya). From then until the Pliocene, Crete consisted of several islands corresponding to the present major mountain peaks, whereas in the Pleistocene these islands formed a united landmass. The Lefka Ori uplift, an ongoing procedure, was dramatic during the last 1 million years, gaining approximately 1,000 metres in altitude.
In the Samaria Gorge, the fossils of the vertical side surfaces reveal its geological history and adorn the surfaces of rocks in different places. An experienced eye can distinguish organisms such as diatoms and sponges and “read” what was happening across the Mediterranean 180 million years ago.
Criterion (ix): The existence of a rich mosaic of ecosystems is mostly due to Crete’s geographical position between three continents, its initial connection to and isolation from these, major tectonic events, the volume and the size of the mountain range, the particular climatic conditions, and the geological composition combined with the animal impact and that of human activity.
The local flora presents both a wide variety of plant species and many endemics. In a future scenario of a temperature increase and rainfall decrease, species will tend to move to colder, wetter areas to ensure their survival. For Crete, this means that the species will move from east to west and from the lowlands to the highlands, rendering the Lefka Ori an “Ark” for the biodiversity of the island once again.
Criterion (x): The vegetation of the Lefka Ori is characterized by relatively high diversity of habitat types, two of which are prioritised under Directive 92/43/EEC.
The long-term isolation of the area has led to the evolution of several endemic species. Some have even managed to survive and evolve in extreme conditions, with little space and almost a complete lack of water, e.g. the chasmophytes, plants which grow in the tiny cracks of usually vertical rocks.
In the Lefka Ori, 24 stenotype endemic plant species have been recorded, as well as approximately 50% of the endemic plants of Crete, 12 endemic taxa of Crete-Karpathos, and 41 endemic taxa found in other parts of Greece. Sixty-one plant species are on the IUCN List, designated endangered, vulnerable or rare. Of the 32 mammal species of the Lefka Ori, 7 subspecies are endemic, the most distinctive being the Cretan Agrimi, Capra aegagrus cretica - the animal symbol of the Lefka Ori - while 17 are under strict protection (Annex IV of Directive 92/43/EEC). The endemism of the terrestrial molluscs in the SW part of Lefka Ori is 33%, while the Orthoptera and Coleoptera also present high levels of endemism. Two species of amphibian and 10 species of reptile (one endemic) have been documented. Finally, 60 of the bird species of the Lefka Ori are included in Annex I of Directive 79/409/EEC, while 148 are included in Annex II (strictly protected), and 37 in Annex III (protected) of the Bern Convention.
Statements of authenticity and/or integrity
The island of Crete, with its unique geomorphological features, is the result of tectonic activity and geological changes lost in the mists of time. For millions of years it was inhabited only by prehistoric plants and animals, humans making their first appearance on the island just 12,000 years ago (a view that has recently been challenged, as humans are suggested to have arrived 100 Ky earlier). Throughout the time that human activity has coexisted with the forces of nature on the island, the interaction of humans with their environment has been constant.
Humans and Samaria have a special relationship. The Samaria Gorge, despite its wildness, is not inaccessible. It is the only gorge in Chania to have been continuously inhabited. Within this closely intertwined relationship, the natural environment of Samaria has had a decisive influence in many ways on the lives of the people and the shaping of their culture. In turn, humans, through their activities in various historical periods, have left and continue to leave their traces upon it, from antiquity to the present day. These bonds have entered into a new period since the second half of the 20th century, due to two important events: the designation of the Gorge as a National Park, prohibiting permanent residence within the core of the Gorge, and the growth of tourism.
The Samaria Gorge today, more than half a century after its proclamation as a National Park, remains a living example of a special and unique relationship between humans and nature. The special protection regime of the Gorge, and of the wider area of the Lefka Ori, ensures that the Greek state provides for this great monument of our natural heritage. All the elements that define the area of Outstanding Universal Value fall within the protection zones, while the management of this area aims not only to protect and promote it, but also to control the number of visitors so there will be no impact due to the international recognition of the Gorge and its crossing by tens of thousands of visitors each year.
At the same time, the borders and size of the protected area, the fact that within its boundaries are interwoven all the factors that comprise and determine the Outstanding Universal Value of the Samaria Gorge with regard to all four proposed criteria, and its management methods, ensure the present and future integrity of the monument to the greatest possible level.
Ever since the Samaria Gorge was designated a National Park, the responsibility for the management of the area has been borne by the Forest Directorate of Chania. Since 2008, with EU co-funding, there has also been the Samaria National Park Management Body: this deals with the design and realization of environmental studies and projects, within the framework of the implementation of the Specific Environmental Study and the Management Plan for the area.
The outstanding universal value of the Samaria National Park and of the wider area of the Lefka Ori is also reflected by the fact that it is the natural site in Greece awarded the greatest number of important international distinctions:
- European Diploma of Protected Areas, awarded by the Council of Europe;
- UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Reserve;
- European Biogenetic Reserve of the Council of Europe;
- Important Bird Areas of Birdlife International;
- NATURA 2000 protected area under code GR4340014 (Zone of Special Protection: ZSP).
The wider area of the Lefka Ori is also part of the Natura 2000 European Network of Protected Areas under Code GR4340008 and is certified as a Place of Universal Importance (PUI).
As a direct consequence of these management methods, the international distinctions and the obligations arising from them, as well as the establishment of areas and species to be protected, the Samaria Gorge, from its designation as a National Park to the present, has attracted the necessary national and international attention in such a way as to ensure the correct management of the area and the recognition of its unique value. Looking to the future, and via inscription on the World Heritage List, the further improvement of the management of the Samaria National Park and the wider area of the Lefka Ori must be ensured by integrating international best practices and adapting them to the unique situation of Samaria. Meanwhile, the management of the National Park should continue to aim for sustainable development, by producing a standard adapted to the particular needs of the area, especially facing the imminent consequences of climate change.
Comparison with other similar properties
Greece has no inscriptions of natural sites on the World Heritage List. On a national level, therefore, the Samaria Natural Park can be compared to the Olympus National Park, which is also included on the Greek Tentative List and which, with Samaria, is the only Greek natural site included in the UNESCO Man and Biosphere network. Mount Olympus also features imposing landscapes and a rich biodiversity of plant species. Located in central Greece, it is a mountain range with high peaks, ravines and alpine meadows. The Lefka Ori, on the other hand, are an insular mountainous area, lacking the typical zonation of vegetation found in central Greece; there are no alpine meadows, for example. Their main characteristic is the numerous gorges that intersect the mountains, creating unique ecosystems. Biodiversity is very important to both areas but with different results, since they both host several steno-endemic species.
In the Balkans, a site inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List is the Pirin National Park in Bulgaria. The Pirin Mountains feature a diversity of landscapes including, among forests and cirque valleys, 180 glacial lakes. The Lefka Ori are the main watershed of their region, with an average annual precipitation of 3000mm at higher altitudes, and include different water landscapes (springs, seasonal ponds and streams). The interaction of water with limestone has led to high karstification, rendering the presence of water localized and temporary, so the landscapes of the two areas are different.
Although the size scale is not comparable, it is worth noting that the Grand Canyon National Park hosts a dozen endemic plants, whereas the Lefka Ori boast 24 stenotype endemics.
Finally, the Dolomites in Italy are a World Heritage site with nine component parts, recognized for their significance for geomorphology and their attractive mountain landscapes, including a wide range of limestone formations, which cover an area of 141,903 ha. The Lefka Ori are also comprised of limestone (marble, limestone and dolomites). Limestone in the “plattenkalk” form dominates. The presence of limestone and dolomite in the Lefka Ori dates from the Mesozoic period (225-140 Mya). The karstic character of the area is responsible for the creation of the most characteristic geomorphological formations of the region – 50 peaks above 2,000 m, screes, approximately 20 gorges and 100 plateaux, and over 1,400 confirmed cave entrances, including the two deepest caves in Greece (over 1,000 m deep). This landscape is on an island, concentrated in a single area of just 58, 400 ha.
In brief, the Lefka Ori concentrate in a very small area many important biological and geological features, in a diverse landscape of high aesthetic value. This totality has a profound effect on the culture of the local people and the island as a whole.