My favourite Cretan sites where ancient civilisations come alive
A Traveller's Tale by Ollie Wells
Being the birthplace of Zeus and the setting of the famous legend of Theseus and the Minotaur, Crete is well known for its impressive ancient archaeological sites. But, visiting some of the sites this summer, I was shocked by the fact the only other group of people I met at one of them, were classicists from the private school in my home town. At that point, I realised that these fascinating and magical sites deserve more exposure to a wider audience.
I visited many ancient sites in Crete including Matala with its Roman cemetery, the famous palace at Knossos, and mount Ida - the mythological birth-place of Zeus. However, the ones that interested me most were Phaistos, Gortyn and Aptera. The way the different layers of archaeology at these sites portray the societies that inhabited them through time is something quite unique and captivating.
Phaistos, despite being largely dependent on Knossos, was a significant Minoan city due to its large population and administrative power. The Phaistos Disc, which is now on display at the Museum of Heraklion, is a remarkable relic from its history that can be seen at the site. However, during the later Helenistic period, Gortyn took over as one of the most influential city on Crete. Having been praised by Plato for its legislative practices, during its heyday Gortyn held power over the whole of the Messara Plain which were subject to its laws. Later in Roman times, Aptera went through its golden age, and the site now displays the amazing shift from the architecture of the Helenistic population to the mark made on it by the higher demands of the subsequent Roman inhabitants.
The Central Court of The Palace of Phaistos (picture was taken from its south-east corner). All images © Ollie Wells.
This compelling economic and cultural centre of the Minoan world has its foundations in myth. Its legendary king, Rhadamathes, was believed to be descended from Zeus and Europa - a famous tale of desire and abduction told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The site can be found in south-central Crete in the municipality of Faistos and has beautiful views to Mount Ida and its foothills. It is easy to access by car or by bus and there is a large car park.
Rectangular houses, obsidian blades, pyrgos ware and clay tripod pots are all remnants of an early Minoan civilisation in the area, though the impressive structures of the archaeological site are all remains of inhabitants from the Protopalatial period (c. 1900 BCE until 1750 BCE) up until the Hellenistic era. Centred around an expansive central court, the site of the palace features royal apartments, a theatre, work-rooms, the archive that housed the famous Phaistos disc and much more.
The west court and theatrical area of the Palace of Phaistos
When visiting Phaistos, I found the theatre, which looks out over the west court with its processional pathways, to be one of the most striking attractions of the site. The theatrical area was constructed in the era of the old palace and was used for gatherings, religious occasions and celebrations. Events happening at the theatre could be viewed, not only from the theatre steps, but from the inhabitants’ balconies and windows and the upper court, which made this part of the palace a real thriving hub of the community.
The Queen's Hall of the Palace of Phaistos
The majestic Queen's Hall at the Palace is certainly another wonderful example of the Minoan architecture at the site. With a lightwell bordered by two colonnades, this space would have been bright and luxurious. The gypsum paving and benches would have made this room the perfect place for ancient royalty to relax in the shade whilst still being able to make the most of the Cretan sun.
A door on the northern wall leads to the King's Hall, which would have been just as beautiful in its heyday. Again, gypsum slabs were used to pave the floor, only this time set out in bands with lines of red plaster between each one. Fragments of frescos found in the King's Hall also suggest that floral designs adorned the walls.
The designs of these halls are an indication of how wealthy Phaistos was during the first two Palatial eras (c.1750- 1360 BCE), and, even though the Protopalatial palace was destroyed by an earthquake, the Phaistian state had enough funds to rebuild and make repairs. The different layers of archaeology that you can see at the site make it an even more interesting and worthwhile visit.
A collection of statues at Gortyn archaeological site
Said to have been founded by King Minos himself, Gortyn is not only a fascinating archaeological site, which is just a short car journey out of Agioi Deka, but it is also the home of the largest ancient Greek inscription ever found: the Law Code of Gortyn (500-450 BCE). The inscription covers the laws on issues including inheritance, the rights of citizens and slaves, as well as divorce and confirms that Gortyn was a major cultural and economic centre in the Minoan period and beyond.
An impressive Minoan neopalatial country house, a temple to Athena from the Geometric period and a Roman Odeon are among the other structures found at Gortyn. They show that, like Phaistos, the site has many rich layers of history that show the rise and decline of a once-powerful civilisation.
The Law Code of Gortyn
Found by Italian archaeologist Frederico Halbherr, The Law Code of Gortyn is without a doubt the star attraction of this site. Gortyn’s laws are famed for adopting a spirit of freedom, though some of the inscriptions are important in the fact they clearly show the sad inequalities that existed at the time between slaves and citizens.
Most of the punishments for crimes such as rape, adultery and stealing, were carried out in the form of imprisonment until a fine was paid. As might be expected, the fines for crimes against slaves were far lower than those against citizens. For example, if a freeborn person raped another citizen, they had to pay a hundred staters, but if a freeborn person raped a slave, they were only made to pay five staters.
The Roman Odeon of Gortyn
A few metres away from The Law Code is a fine example of a Roman Odeon. This space would have once been roofed and used for music and theatre, and with the seating, stage and orchestra still in place it is easy to get a feel for how important this structure was, not only to the Roman community at Gortyn, but also to the ancient Cretan civilisations before who most likely used this area as an agora or assembly meeting place. Remnants of opulent blue and white marble paving have been found at the site, which helps to illustrate Gortyn’s position as a powerful political and cultural presence in ancient Crete.
Exterior view of the Roman Cisterns at Aptera
With a name that originates from the mythological defeat of the Sirens at the hands of the Muses, Aptera (derived from the word ‘apteres’, ‘featherless’) is now home to a remarkable archaeological site with beautiful views to the coast. Founded in the Geometric era, Aptera has a long and rich history, particularly from Minoan to Hellenistic times, when it was a city-state with a powerful political position.
The city also went through an impressive golden age after Roman occupation in the first to second century CE, which is when the majority of the structures still standing at the site originate from. Some of the best archaeological attractions at Aptera include the Roman Cisterns, its two cemeteries, the baths, a temple and theatre. The site is a 25 minute car journey from Chania.
Inside the Roman Cistern at Aptera
The impeccable example of a Roman cistern is, without a doubt, what impressed me most about this site. The fact that you are able to go inside the cistern gives you the valuable opportunity to see the huge scale of the structure, which is hard to imagine from above the ground. The cistern would have been used by the city from the first century BCE to the fourth century CE to supply the two baths, which you can also see at the site. Inside the cistern, you can also see where rainwater would have been directed through openings in the roof to stock it. Water from wells channelled through ducts would have also been used for this purpose. As there is a complete absence of water sources on the hill of Paliokastro, where Aptera is based, this cistern would have been absolutely fundamental to the inhabitants of the city.
The remains of the theatre at Aptera
With outstanding views over the White Mountains, this political, religious and cultural centre of ancient times is another great reason to visit Aptera. The theatre was originally constructed in the Hellenistic era, but most of the impressive structure that can still be seen today is from the city’s period of Roman occupation. It is thought that the adaptations the Romans made to the theatre to fit the growing needs of the population were even bigger than the massive set of stone seating that can be seen at the site.
The stage, however, is in good condition and would have been made up of a wooden floor that the actors would have used to perform on as well as a building at the back on which the backdrop would have been displayed. You can also clearly see the circular base of the altar in the middle of the theatre, which is a nod to the site's Hellenistic origins and religious importance.
These three sites truly take you on a journey through ancient Cretan civilization, it’s different inhabitants and the ways they shaped the island into what it is today. With all of the sites easily accessible by car or bus, they are definitely worth a trip for anyone with an interest in history. Phaistos and Goryn also have cafés, providing plenty of shade and cold refreshments that make visiting these sites a family-friendly day out. In addition to the sites I’ve explored in detail above, Knossos and Matala’s Roman Cemetery are also very accessible by private or public transport. Though for the latter I would definitely recommend good footwear as seeing some of the tombs requires climbing up the rocks!
About the Author
Ollie is an Ancient History enthusiast and freelance journalist based in the UK who hopes to pursue Archaeology and Ancient History at university in 2021. Her interest in history was first sparked at age four by frequent fossil hunting trips to the Jurassic Coast in Dorset and she has since fallen in love with the subject.
Ollie is also a passionate advocate for equality for people with learning difficulties in the education system as she suffers from dyslexia. Ollie has written articles for multiple English education magazines on the topic, as well as for the British Dyslexia Association.