Your travel guide on Crete

Category Archives: Places to visit

The idyllic scenery of Crete’s Northeast coast

Driving along the North East coast through the gorge of St George we reach the picturesque town of Agios Nikolaos. Here we board a boat and Spinalonga Cruise starts. A Cruise along the Mirabelo gulf. Passing the Kri-Kri Island, the Cave of the pirate Barbarossa and the bird island, we reach the small sandy bay of Kolokitha, where the boat will be anchored. Here you have plenty of time for swimming at the crystal clear water, and a BBQ (optional) will be served on board. We then proceed to the small island of Spinalonga.

Spinalonga the island of Lepra

Island of Spinalonga

Spinalonga has had a very chequered history and today, although uninhabited, still echoes with ghostly reminders of the past. The Venetians constructed a very impressive fortress with 40 cannons which has been guarding the bay since the 15th century. At the beginning of 19th century human pain and sorrow was scattered around this islet. It became a leper colony, the last active leper colony in Europe, and it remained so until 1957, when it was cleared by the Health Authorities, leaving the place uninhabited.

Spinalonga island

Spinalonga

Inside the Island of Spinalonga

Panoramic view from Spinalonga

The route along the northern coast of the island takes us to the small fishing village of Elounda, known to the older of us from the popular 1970s BBC television series “Who pays the ferryman”. The village became also well-known through Belinda Jones’ novel “Out of the Blue” and lately, through Victoria Hislop’s world best-seller “The Island”. Today Elounda is a popular holiday resort, often visited by VIPs for the luxurious beach resorts that are situated in the area.

From there, we take the boat that gets us to the small and sorely tried island of Spinalonga. The history and the culture of the island of Spinalonga became one with human tragedy in the course of time. This small isle carries within the history of Ancient Greece as it served as a natural guard for the ancient city of Olous; the history of the Saracens as a hide-out for their pirates; the history of Venetians as their fortress; the history of Turks as their settlement; and the history of contemporary Greeks as their dwelling, or better, as the place where their leper would be sent into exile until 1957.

We stroll through the village roads, listening –along with our guide’s narration- to the cries and sighs of the diseased exiles, which seem like having been curved on the rocks and the walls of the houses and admiring the exquisite beauty of the area. Finishing our touring on this much afflicted place, we head for the small bay of Kolokitha, one of the most beautiful beaches on Crete. It is a remote beach with white sand and deep blue serene water, side by side with old olive groves, where we can swim and taste the delicious BBQ served on the boat.

After our short respite, we go back to Elounda, and then we move to the picturesque town of Agios Nikolaos, where we have our last stop. Here we have the chance to enjoy our coffee getting a perfect view of the magnificent lake, do our shopping in the traditional local shops and relax for a while before we hit the road for our going back.

We then go to Agios Nikolaos where you have time to look at the shop windows and visit the bottomless lake, where the “Lotus Eaters” the well-known film was shot.

Ag. Nicolaos

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The evidence for a Palace

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Storage magazines

The Minoan site of Petras is situated a couple of kilometres east of the modern town of Siteia and it overlooks the sea from the top of a small plateau. The site has been excavated by Metaxia Tsipopoulou since 1985 and she has also been responsible for extensive work in the bay of Siteia whose aim has been to establish the Minoan settlement patterns in the area.

The Minoan township of Petras, with a central building of a palatial character, was almost certainly the main town in this part of northern Crete. The Minoan town was already large in the Early Minoan IIB period. The houses were built together in small groups, with plastered walls and red clay floors. The processing and weaving of wool seems to have taken place in the settlement as well as the production of obsidian blades.

By the Early Minoan III/Middle Minoan IA period, at the end of the prepalatial period in Crete, larger buildings were being constructed on the hill where the later palace was to be built. The first evidence also began to emerge of elites forming and possibly competing with each other. Unfortunately the levelling of the site for the palace was so extensive that no evidence remains of buildings from the Middle Minoan I period, which saw the end of the prepalatial and the beginning of the protopalatial period on Crete so there is no way of knowing whether some large building with monumental architecture predated the first palace, which was constructed in MM IIA.

The main complex is 2800 square metres in area. The designation “palatial building” is based on finds there which resemble the architectural features of the main Minoan palaces.

Storage

First of all there is evidence that storage of produce was an important aspect of the main complex. The areas devoted to storage grew towards the end of the Neopalatial period and by the end pithoi were even being stored in the courtyard. The magazines were located to the north of the central court on a north-south axis. They were constructed in LM IA during the first phase of the construction of the second palace.

During LM IB two more storage areas were added, giving a total of 214 square metres of storage space. It seems likely that storage capacity exceeded the needs of the complex which suggests an administrative and redistributive role for the complex. The existence of 44 pithoi in the magazine area demonstrates that agricultural produce from the bay of Siteia must have been centralised at Petras rather than at any of the other sites excavated in the area.

The Central Court

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The central court

Secondly, there was a small central court running north-south, with a plaster floor and a drainage system using stone and plaster drains. The Central Court has now been covered with gravel to protect it so it is no longer possible to see or photograph the detail that was uncovered in the original excavation.

A central court is possibly the one essential element in identifying a building as a palace, although not all buildings which have a central court are necessarily palaces. The villa at Makriyialos, for example, has a very small central court but it is not a palace.

The palace at Petras was first erected in MM IIA and was finally destroyed in LM IB. It underwent a number of changes and the neopalatial palace was certainly less important than the protopalatial palace had been. All this was reflected in the history of the Central Court where two different phases have been identified.

The first starts in MM IIA and continues to LM IA. During this period the central court bears a similar resemblance to the central courts of other palaces. It was orientated more or less north to south and measured 17.6 metres by 7.6 metres. A monumental staircase, the remains of which are also covered in gravel today, led up to the north west corner of the Central Court from below. In the north west corner of the court there was a a square room with an entrance to the west which was no doubt used to monitor people entering up the monumental staircase.

The court was covered in a thick layer of fine white plaster and there was a double drainage system. It began at a point on the west wall of the Central Court. One branch passed north along the facade of the west wall, under the central court towards the monumental staircase where there was an outlet. The other branch ran eastwards from the same starting point beneath the central court and out below the east wall.

After the LM IA destruction alterations were made to the central court during the rebuilding of the palace. The monumental staircase was no longer used and the square room used to monitor access also went out of use and was not rebuilt. Although the total area of the court was only slightly reduced, the open part of the central court was greatly reduced in size because the eastern part of the court was covered by a stoa 4.8 metres deep and running the whole length of the court so that it effectively formed the East Wing of the palace.

It seems that the LM IB stoa was most likely an L-shaped building that ran along both the north and east sides of the central court. The east wing stoa had alternating columns and pillars. The stoa was very deep and because it only had one row of columns and pillars it could only have been a single-storey structure. Both the floor covering of the court in this period and the new drainage system were inferior to those that existed before the LM IA destruction.

The hieroglyphic archive

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The area of the archive

Inscriptions are usually associated with an administrative function. In the central building two archive tablets have so far been found. One was inscribed with Linear A while another consisted of hieroglyphic signs. The first was found in the magazine area and the second in the corridor outside the magazine area. There are also other examples of Linear A at Petras but the total number found to date is small.

The hieroglyphic archive itself was found in the west wing. The documents had fallen from the room above onto the floor below by the MM II doorway, which went out of use after the MM II destruction. Pottery found with the archive attests to its MM IIB date and the area was subsequently covered with a deposit from the LM IA period.

The excavator, Metaxia Tsipopoulou, believes that some of the finds indicate that the archive was still in use at the time of its destruction. These finds include a piece of clay the same size as some of the documents but only partly prepared; unfinished noduli of various types with their surface prepared for the impression of a seal; an unfinished medallion and a clay bar which had an uninscribed side.

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West wing from the south

The finds included various kinds of document. Firstly there were two completed four-sided clay bars. They had sign groups and numerals inscribed on them. None of the sign groups have been recognised from previous signs in hieroglyphic script from other sites in Crete.

Eight medallions were also found. All of them were inscribed with a single sign group on one side and dots which seem to represent numbers appear on the reverse side of six of them. Again the sign groups are unknown elsewhere.

Cresents are documents which usually contain inscriptions and a seal impression. One complete example was found, along with fragments of five others. Of these fragments, four had inscriptions and three had seal impressions.

The various nodules and sealings did not have any inscriptions, just seal impressions, although one seal impression might be part of a hieroglyphic inscription. It is thought that as many as 35 different seal impressions may be recorded in the archive. No evidence of Linear A was found at the site of the archive.

Monumental architecture

The architecture of the complex has similarities with palace architecture. These include ashlar masonry, pier-and-door partitions, columns and pillar combinations, particularly in the east wing stoa already described. Other important architectural features that link the complex with palace architecture include double staircases, cut slab pavements, dadoes and frescoes.

Masons’ marks have also been found in great quantities in the central building. Among the marks identified are double axes, stars, branches, Linear A signs and double triangles as well as some lesser signs.


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A Late Minoan town

Gournia: Buildings in the east part of the town
Buildings in the east part of the town

The Late Minoan town of Gournia was excavated by Harriet Boyd in the first years of the 20th century. It is one of the few Minoan towns to have been fully excavated. The original name of the settlement is not known and its present name comes from the hollow vessels found all over the site, many of which can still be seen at the entrances to the rooms.

Gournia lies on a small hill, a few hundred metres from the sea in the Gulf of Mirabello. Its position is important as it lies on the east to west route along the north coast of Crete but also near the main route in this area between the north and south coasts of Crete. This is the point where Crete is at its most narrow and the route from modern day Ierapetra in the south to the village of Pachyamos on the north coast, a few kilometres from Gournia, does not even cross mountains, making the route a very easy one to travel.

A house in Gournia
A house in Gournia

It is thought that the town may have extended down, almost to the seashore, in an area bounded by a steep hill to the east (Sphoungaras) which was used as a cemetery and a river to the west. The remains of the shoreline installations can be seen on a separate page on this website, (link at the bottom of this page).

Early habitation

From pottery finds in the Sphoungaras area it is known that groups of neolithic people were settled in the area around Gournia in the period up to 3000 BCE, that is to say, the Late Neolithic period. The next evidence we have for settlement in the area dates to 2500 BCE in the Early Minoan period. It is almost certain, however, that the area was continuously inhabited during the intervening 500 years; it is just that no finds have been made yet to establish this.

There is evidence of continued occupation through EM II and EM III, with both pottery finds and burials. At Sphoungaras, where there are rock overhangs, the settlers built walls to create small covered areas where the dead were buried.

The first palace period

A gourna, from which the name of Gournia is derived
Gournia took its modern name from the large number of these objects found on the site

Much of what existed on the site of Gournia during this period was levelled and built over during later building phases. It is thought, however, that the basic lay-out of the town was established at this time, although no palace appears to have been constructed at this stage. It has been argued that the size of the population reached 400 people. A few buildings survived the levelling of the area which took place at the end of the first palace period around 1700. Among these was House Aa, a large two-storied house in the north east part of the town.

New forms of burial are introduced in this period. In the first type the dead are buried in inverted pythoi which are placed in pits in the ground. (Pythoi are enormous clay vessels, more commonly used for storing and transporting foodstuffs). The other new type of burial is in house tombs. These consisted of one or two small rooms in which the dead and their grave goods were placed. Similar house tombs have been found at Mochlos, some kilometres further east along the north coast.

The new palace period

Around 1700 BCE parts of the top of the town were levelled off and a new stage of building began, giving us the town as we see it today. A palace is built for the first time, and this represents a major change in the way society in the Gournia area is organised. As happened previously in other parts of Crete when a palace was built, the surrounding villages were abandoned as the population was presumably incorporated into the new town.

The palace itself is squeezed into the southern part of the town. The most dense concentrations of buildings lie to the north and east of the palace as the gorge which the river flows through approaches quite close to the west side of the hill.

The Late Minoan palace

Gournia: The palace
The Palace

The palace building measured 50 metres by 37 metres and faced south across the courtyard, which was approximately 40 metres by 15 metres. Consequently it was much smaller than the main palaces like Knossos, Phaistos and Malia. Moreover, the courtyard had to be placed outside the palace whereas normally it would be surrounded by the four wings of the palace. There is no real West Court at Gournia like there is at the palaces. The road leading past the West Facade was simply widened at this point.

Visiting the site today, it is very difficult to make out the actual dimensions of what remains of the palace. Because it was built on a hill, levelling the ground before building seems to have been ruled out and the palace was built on three terraces. The bottom terrace, the West facade, was made up of storerooms on the west side of the structure, running on a north-south axis. This follows the traditional design for the palaces. The second level originally started above these storerooms and continued east onto the solid rock of the hill.

That part of the second level which was built above the western storerooms no longer exists so what we see today is the remains of the storerooms to the West which seem to merge into what was originally the second level of the palace where this was built on the hill itself and so its ruins have survived. The top floor would have collapsed during the destruction of the palace.

Gournia: The theatral area
The small theatral area

The palace also contained a lustral basin and light well. There were three entrances to the palace, from the south, west and northeast. Because the palace was so small, the “central court” was placed outside to the south. Built into the structure of the palace at the north end of the “central court” are two sets of four steps, placed at right angles to each other. These steps resemble the theatral areas of the main palaces. They also formed the south entrance to the palace. Unlike the other theatral areas, however, this one faces the central court, rather than the west court. It is also on a considerably more modest scale than other theatral areas.

At the top of the set of steps that run north-south, there is what might be a sacrificial stone. It has been suggested that holes carved in the stone may have enabled a table to be slotted in, on which the animal to be sacrificed was tied. Objections have been raised however that the location of the holes would not allow for a table large enough to hold an animal for sacrifice and that the stone slab itself may have served as the sacrificial spot. Another hole in the stone slab may have been used for fixing a religious symbol, for example a double axe.

The palace, together with the surrounding town, was destroyed by fire around 1450 BCE, at a time when every major Minoan settlement on the island was also either destroyed by fire or abandoned.

To the north of the palace, and separate from it, a small civic shrine was found, dating to the LM I period. This small shrine was 3 metres by 4 metres and approached up three steps. It had a ledge on the south side for the placing of cult objects. In the shrine, the finds themselves dated from a much later period and included idols of a goddess with raised arms and a clay vessel with handles on either side in the form of snakes and a relief of horns of consecration.

The Late Minoan town

Gournia: Steps leading up through the town
Steps lead up through the industrial town to the Palace area at the top of the hill.

The town which grew up in Late Minoan IA covered an area of 25,000 square metres. It can be divided into seven separate quarters. Two roads encircled the lower and upper parts of the town, joined together by steps at various points. The estimated population of the town was 4,000.

The numerous houses are small and tightly packed together. Many of the surviving rooms were most likely basements used for storage and entry to the houses would, in many cases, have been by steps leading up from the street. Some of these steps can still be seen.

Other houses were entered directly at street level and large threshold stones can still be seen at the entrance to many of these houses. Access to the basements would have been down wooden stairs or ladders, through a trapdoor from inside the houses.

Among the finds on the site are potters’ wheels, a carpenter’s workshop complete with saws and other tools, a coppersmith’s forge and an oil press.

Minoan houses

Gournia: Possible sacrifice stone
Flat stone probably used for blood sacrifice. A table may have been inserted in the holes, and an animal sacrificed on the table.

An idea of what Minoan houses looked like can be gained from the ivory and faience plaques discovered in the East wing of Knossos. These plaques show what houses in the town of Knossos looked like in the 17th century BCE.

On the roof there was a small room. This may have been used for sleeping in during the hot summer months. The rooms on the first floor had windows, but those on the ground floor did not, although some of them had doors on the ground floor. It may be that windows on the ground floor were avoided for simple reasons of security — to avoid burglary.

The houses were built around a wooden frame — wooden beams ran horizontally and were linked to upright beams. The most likely reason for the use of these beams was as protection against earthquake damage.

The post palatial period

The area around Gournia suffered depopulation in the ensuing period, represented by the rule of the Mycenaeans in the centre and west of the island. It is not known if Gournia itself was completely abandoned, but this seems unlikely as attested by the fact that one house was clearly occupied throughout this period and the cult objects in the shrine date from LM III. Burials from this period have also been unearthed in the area. It is thought that the site was finally abandoned around 1200 BCE

The site is open to the public from 8.30-3.00 (entrance 2 euros in 2012). Very few tourists visit the site which means you can enjoy the remains of this Minoan town at your leisure. A good view of the whole of the east part of the the town can be had from the main Agios Nikolaos-Siteia road. To reach the harbour installations (link to page on the right) walk down the dirt track from the entrance to Gournia archaeological site until you reach the main road. Cross the main road and turn left. Walk a hundred metres or so until just before the bridge over the ravine. Turn right down the track here and walk down to the shoreline.


The settlement is located in the north corner of the village of Tylisos (also Tylissos), south-west of Heraklion on the road to Anoyeia and Mount Psiloritis.

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Although the site of the Minoan town was known early in the 19th Century, it was finally excavated by Hadzidakis from 1909-1913. Further excavations were carried out by N. Platon in 1953-55 and by A. Kanta in 1971.

The Minoan town occupied a large area and there are traces of houses from earlier periods (EM II to MM II) scattered throughout the site. Hadzidakis excavated only three of the main buildings and the two most important of these, Houses A and C, date from the very end of MM III (around 1600 BCE in the neopalatial period). They were destroyed by fire in LM IB (around 1450 BCE) when all the major sites in Crete apart from Knossos were either damaged, destroyed or abandoned. The site was later reoccupied early in LM IIIA.

Tylisos was clearly a very important site in Minoan times. Although no palace has been discovered here, much of the architecture was palatial in nature and according to Antonis Vasilakis, more impressive than the architecture of some of the palaces. The miniature frescoes are similar both in style and subject matter to those found at Knossos and may have been produced by the same painters. They make up the second largest group of miniature frescoes in Minoan Crete. The huge size of the three cauldrons found on the site not only attests to the numbers living in the mansions but also to the ability of the inhabitants to obtain large amounts of copper, the supply of which would have been centrally controlled at Knossos. The presence of Linear A inscriptions also points to the importance of Tylisos.

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Room 2 in House C

House A is a large mansion which was originally a two storey building. The ground floor alone had 24 rooms. The walls were built of ashlar masonry. The mansion was entered from the east through a pillared court. There are two parts to the building. The northern part was the storage area, and two magazines were located here. A number of large pithoi were discovered here, and over 50 were found throughout the building. The southern part was a residential area, with a number of rooms organised around a Minoan Hall. In one of these rooms a tripod cooking pot was found. In the centre of the living quarters there was a light well.

The Minoan Hall is room 6. Its west wall is the pier-and-door partition outside which is a small, narrow forehall and a light well with columns that form a small portico. Driessen believes the house may have been altered in order to incorporate the Minoan Hall system. Unusually access to twelve of the fourteen rooms in the south wing is gained through the Minoan Hall since by closing the partitions the forehall becomes part of a corridor. This has also been observed at other sites including the palace at Zakros and the Little Palace at Knossos. Room 6 together with the rooms to the east and south of it form a square within a square pattern, which was used in Minoan architecture long before the Neopalatial “villas” were built. Given the number of rooms that lead directly off the Minoan Hall, it would not have been a very peaceful place, certainly during the day, though in the evenings it may have returned to what is considered one of the main roles of the Minoan Hall, as a gathering place.

The rooms to the west of the light well produced the best finds. Room 3, the most northerly of the three rooms contained jars, vases, loomweights and a bronze figurine which had almost certainly fallen from the floor above. Room 4, to the south, contained many small jars and Room 5 originally contained four large bronze cauldrons which were found by a peasant before the excavations began. Two Linear A tablets and some clay sealings were also recovered from the room. The Minoan Hall with its paved floor did not itself yield up anything significant. To the north-east of the Hall there was a lustral basin. A staircase led to the upper floor.

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View of House B

House B has a much simpler design than House A and may have been an annexe although it might actually have predated House A. The building seems to have contained storage rooms, but little was found apart from a large collection of LM I vases in one of the rooms. The building was destroyed by fire.

House C is in fact two buildings. The first was built at the same time as Houses A and B, that is to say in the neopalatial period. After the general destruction of 1450 BCE the remains of the neopalatial mansion were covered with earth and consequently was found to be in quite good condition when it was excavated.

As with House A, the entrance to House C is to be found on the east side of the building. The rooms on the ground floor were connected by a series of four corridors. These linked a possible shrine in the southern part of the building to the store rooms in the western part of the building and finally the residential area in the northern part of the building. There were three staircases leading to the upper floor and in the northern part of the building a lustral basin was found. As well as jars and clay vases, fragments of frescos which had fallen from the upper floor were also discovered in House C.

Later on a LM III building was built on top of House C and even later still a Greek sanctuary covered the northern part of the building. Little remains of the LM III building. A pithos found in the storage area was inscribed in Linear A.

The cistern also dates from the later LM III period. Like the cistern at Zakros it can be entered by steps. An aqueduct with clay pipes can also still be seen. The name Tylisos is to be found in the Linear B tablets from Knossos and is a pre-Greek name. A peak sanctuary which remained in use until at least LM IA is located on the Pyrgos hill above the site.

The site is open to the public and a small admission charge is made.

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East entrance to House A
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Room 15, House A
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Room 18, House A, from the north
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Room 18, House A, from the south
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Room 17, House A, from the south
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Room 6, House A
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Room 11, House A
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Room 3, House A
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Room 6, House A, from above
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Lustral basin, house C
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Room 15, House C
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Room 15 and channel to cistern, House C

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LM III cistern

The Palace of Phaistos lies on the East end of Kastri hill at the end of the Mesara plain in Central Southern Crete. To the north lies Psiloritis, the highest mountain in Crete.

Phaistos

To the north lies Psiloritis, the highest mountain in Crete. On the slopes of Psiloritis is the Kamares cave, probably a religious or cult centre for Phaistos and the Mesara plain. In this cave a very fine pottery style was discovered from the Middle Minoan period, which has been named Kamares Ware after the cave in which it was found. Kamares ware has only been found at Palace sites like Phaistos and Knossos, suggesting that it was specially produced for whatever elite was based in the Palaces.

A couple of kilometres to the west of Phaistos is the important Minoan site of Ayia Triadha. To the south of Phaistos are the Asterousia mountains beyond which lies the Libyan Sea. To the south west is Kommos, the ancient port of Phaistos and to the east, the vast Mesara plain, the single largest fertile area in Crete, which in Minoan times was populated with small settlements with their distinctive tholos tombs.

The Old Palace

Phaistos: The theatral area, with the West Court and raised walkway
The theatral area, with the West Court and raised walkway

The Palace was excavated by the Italian archaeologist Halbherr at the beginning of the 20th century. The earliest settlements on the site, which lies close to the Yeropotamos, one of the few rivers in Crete to flow all year round, date from the Neolothic Period (c.4000 BCE) . It is likely that in the Early Minoan period small settlements were scattered over the hill on which the Palace later stood. Dark on light pottery (Agios Onouphrios ware) has been found in the prepalatial levels on the hill, but no Vasiliki ware from the Early Minoan II period has been found on the site.

The Old Palace was built on the site at the beginning of the Second Millenium, known as the Protopalatial Period (c.1900-1700 BCE). It required an enormous amount of work to build the palace. First of all three huge terraces were levelled. The palace was then constructed on two of these terraces, the Theatral Terrace and the Lower Terrace.

Very thick ground floor walls were built running east-west along the contour of hill, while less important walls and the walls of the upper floor rooms were orientated north-south. The walls were plastered and painted and in some rooms gypsum dados lined the lower part of the walls. In many rooms benches were built along some of the walls and niches were included in the walls themselves for storing small objects.

Phaistos: Part of the old palace east of the New Palace
Part of the old palace east
of the New Palace

Each of the three terraces would have had its own courtyard crossed by raised walkways to the west of the palace. The palace was built on two levels with the third floor of the wing on the lower terrace rising to the same height as the ground floor on the upper terrace.

The main entrance to the Palace, Room II, which to the modern eye looking at the remains of the neopalatial palace seems strangely located at the south end of the building, was in fact placed in a central position between the two wings of the Old Palace. Now blocked by structures from the New Palace, it would originally have led straight to the Central Court. Various other symmetrical architectural features were built into the West Facade, which would, to the Minoan visitor, have been one of the most impressive parts of the whole building.

There was a total of six entrances into the palace from the west court. Apart from the direct access through room II, the others would have gone through a maze of small rooms, some really very small, and made to seem smaller still by the benches lining some of the walls. The benches were covered with plaster similar to that used for buildings from the same period at Malia. The plaster covered the entire room.

Getting from room to room was not easy. Sharp turns would suddenly appear or one would be forced to change floor level. The orientation changed from east-west to north-south on the upper floor. Rooms in the West Wing were used among other things for storing pottery or agricultural produce, while others were used to prepare food and one group has been identified as a shrine, although the evidence cited may not be sufficient for a definite identification.

Phaistos: storage jar
Storage Jar

Twice it was severely damaged by earthquakes and rebuilt so three distinct phases are visible to archaeologists. Levi, who excavated here from 1950 to 1971 believed that the first two phases of the Old Palace of Phaistos constitute the oldest Palatial buildings in Crete. Finds at the site, apart from the Phaistos Disc, include thousands of seal impressions and some tablets containing the Linear A script from Middle Minoan II.

When the Old Palace was finally destroyed, almost certainly by an earthquake, a new palace was built on the site. Fortunately for us, the builders of the new palace did not destroy almost all traces of the old as they did at other sites. In fact much of the old palace was covered over at the time of the building of the new palace in order to level the ground. Some of the old palace can still be seen by visitors, especially the original West Facade and in the north-east corner, where the Phaistos disc was discovered. However, the remains of the West Wing of the Old Palace on the lower terrace are closed to the public. (But see link to photos of this area at the bottom of the page). In recent years Italian archaeologists have been taking a closer look at the Old Palace which should provide us with more information about this period of Minoan Crete at Phaistos.

The New Palace

It is very easy to get the impression that at the beginning of the Protopalatial period the Minoans built a number of palaces which continued unchanged for two hundred years and were then suddenly destroyed and immediately replaced by the New Palaces. But the history of the palaces is far more complex than that. We have already seen that the Old Palace at Phaistos suffered so much from earthquake damage that distinct rebuilding phases during its 200-year history are visible to archaeologists.

The New Palace is no more straightforward than the Old Palace. One of the excavators, F. Carinci, believes that although an attempt was made to rebuild the Palace at the beginning of the Neopalatial period in MM III, these efforts ground to a halt and that during the period MM IIIB-LM IA, the Palace was effectively abandoned. According to Carinci, construction of the New Palace did not finally begin until well into LM IA, possibly after the Thera eruption and that the New Palace was not completed until LM IB, right at the end of the Neopalatial period.

The New Palace covers a smaller area than the old. However, excavators were surprised by the lack of finds that one would expect at a Minoan Palace. No frescoes have been found in the New Palace and there is a complete absence of sealings and tablets. One view suggests that in the New Palace period the importance of Phaistos decreased while that of Agia Triada nearby continued to grow and that the two settlements complemented each other in some way.

A tour of the site

The site is entered at the level of the Upper West Court, which was used by both the old and the new palace. The Upper West Court is joined to the Lower West Court by a staircase which was built at the time of the upper court and was in use at the time of the Old Palace.

At the north end of the Lower West Court is a very high wall and in front of this wall is the theatral area (see photo above). There are nine steps where spectators either sat or stood to watch religious rites, ceremonies or whatever else took place there. Unlike the theatral area at Knossos which looks towards the Royal Road, the theatral area at Phaistos looks down onto the West Court. The West Court itself has raised walkways leading across it, one of which leads from the theatral area to the main entrance to the Old Palace.

Phaistos: The Magnificent Staircase
The Magnificent Staircase

The West Court and the theatral area date from the Old Palace period and after the destruction of the Old Palace at the end of MM IIB the west court was covered over to a depth of 1.3 metres as part of the reconstruction. Consequently the raised walkways disappeared and they were not replaced at the new, raised level. Moreover, only four steps remained of the nine rows of steps that were created in the Old Palace period. The west facade of the New Palace was located seven metres further east than the facade of the old palace. By covering the remains of the old West Facade, the size of the West Court was greatly increased. It has been suggested by Preziosi that the Grand Staircase from the Second Palace period was not an entrance to the palace at all, but a new theatral area. Palyvou rejects this interpretation on the grounds that the wings of the Palace on either side of the staircase would have obstructed the view of anyone seated on the staircase. Just how much the spectators’ view would have been restricted is contested, but even if the steps were used as a theatral area, this does not necessarily exclude their use as an entrance to the palace as well. The theatral steps at Knossos were almost certainly used for access to the area north of the Palace behind them.

Phaistos: The Monumental Propylaia
The Monumental Propylaia

The Palace of Phaistos, like all the other palaces except for Zakros, is oriented north-south. It is commonly accepted that the main entrance to the New Palace was from the West Court, up the dozen steps of the 14 metre wide Magnificent Staircase, at the top of which is an equally wide landing, behind which stood the Monumental Propylaia. This structure is the forerunner of the Propylaia of Classical Greek times.

Between the landing and the actual entrance itself, were two porticos. Hutchinson points out that if the West entrance to palaces was direct, then it was small, but if it was indirect then it was grand. Here, the main entrance does not lead directly into the Central Court and is very grand. It is, nonetheless, unusual for the main entrance to a palace to be in the west. Although there is a west entrance into the palace of Knossos, the main entrance was thought to be from the south.

Phaistos: The storage magazines
The Magazines where olive oil, wine
and wheat were stored

To the south of the Propylaia are to be found the Palace magazines or storage area. As at other Minoan palaces, including Knossos, the ground floor of the west wing was the main storage area. At Phaistos, the magazine consisted of ten rooms, five on each side, opening onto an east-west corridor, which at its east end opened out into a two-columned hall with a portico facing the Central Court. One storage room remains intact with a number of pithoi inside (see photo above).

South of the storage magazines was another, direct entrance into the Central Court (corridor 7). This corridor was originally sealed by two sets of double doors, one at the east end of the corridor and one at the west. Corridor 12 turned south from corridor seven into the heart of the south west wing of the Palace. Room 31 of the storage magazine block, on the north side of corridor 7 had a window, through which goods could presumably have been passed.

Hitchcock suggests that there may have been a south entrance to Phaistos like the Corridor of the Processions at Knossos. Unfortunately in this part of the south wing, only foundations survive. But there is a corridor shaped area (97) which leads towards the south end of the Central Court.

Phaistos: The Central Court
The Central Court

The Central Court lies to the east of the magazines. It measured 55 metres by 25 metres. The South East part of the Central Court is now missing. Given the large number of corridors which lead to the Central Court, it must have been central to the life of the Palace itself. It was lined on two sides by porticos with alternating columns and pillars.

The north-east wing of the palace is considered to have consisted of artisans’ workshops and the remains of a furnace for smelting metal can still be seen in the courtyard. The south-east wing collapsed some time in the past and the hill has eroded to beyond the point where it would have stood.

Phaistos: room with benches on west side of central court
First room (23) with benches on west
side of Central Court

Much of the West wing of the central court, south of the magazines, was used for religious purposes. It contained a number of rooms which opened directly onto the Central Court. Just south of the corridor of the magazines, in the West Wing, there are two pairs of rooms (8 and 9, 10 and 11) which Gessell calls the West Bench Sanctuary complex. In her view rooms 8 and 9 are respectively a preparation room and storeroom, while room 10 is a bench sanctuary and room 11 is a storeroom. Finds in rooms 8 and 9 include vases, conical cups and possible mortars or offering tables. In rooms 10 and 11, in addition to vases, storage jars and conical cups, there were also found a libation table, a female figurine and fragments of other figurines.

To the south of this group of rooms in the West Stoa facing directly onto the west court there are two rooms with benches lining the north and west walls (rooms 23 and 24) In room 24 the bench also lines the north east wall of the room. These benches were covered with gypsum, a material used extensively at Phaistos. Both these rooms open directly onto the west court. In room 23 there is a central pillar while in room 24 a low table is located in the centre of the room. While at first glance both rooms appear similar there are some differences. The entrance to room 23 is wider than entrance 24 which means anyone sitting there would have had a better view of the central court. Room 23 was without doors so access to the room could not be barred, while room 24 could be closed by a door. The differences between the two rooms suggest that they had different uses. Although it is hard to say what those uses may have been, clearly a room with no door would have been a much more public area than a room that could be closed off. Hitchcock suggests that the people sitting in room 23 were not only there to watch what was going on in the central court but were also there to be seen. She feels that members of some sort of council may have used the room.

Phaistos: second room with benches
Second room (24) with benches on West
side of the Central Court

Gesell suggests that room 24 may have been a bench sanctuary since she interprets the object in the centre of the room as an offering table. Certainly the benches lining the north and west walls imply some sort of ceremony taking place in the room. Hitchcock suggests that the benches may have been occupied by high status people before whom others entered the room and placed offerings or poured libations on the small table.

Further south there is a pillar crypt (room 22) similar to those found at other Palaces and also in the remains of the old palace at Phaistos, but this one is on a rather more modest scale than, for example, the one at Malia.

Trees and pillars seem to have been worshipped by the Minoans and more than 25 pillar crypts have been located at Minoan sites. Questions have been raised as to whether the pillars really were objects of devotion for the Minoans, but it is certain that in many of the small pillar crypts the pillars would not have been necessary to support the roof. An alternative explanation therefore has to be sought and there is evidence of pillar worship from other sources.

Phaistos: Pillar Crypt
Pillar Crypt (room 22)

The area also contained two lustral basins. Cult vases and figurines were found in this part of the West Wing, and the shapes of double axes were incised on the stone, all adding to evidence of a religious use for the building. The conventional view is that whereas the West Wing of the palaces was used for religious and administrative purposes, the East Wing contained the domestic apartments of the royal family.

However, a lustral basin was originally situated in the East Wing and if the purpose of the lustral basin was religious rather than hygenic, that would tell against the theory that the East Wing comprised domestic quarters.

At Phaistos, the so-called Royal Apartments are in fact in the north part of the Palace, to the East of the Monumental Propylaia. The smaller “Queen’s Megaron” lies to the south of the larger “King’s Megaron”. These rooms would have had light wells, porticos and pier-and-door partitions which would have enabled sections of the room to be closed off. The lower walls and floors were lined with slabs of alabaster (gypsum). To the west of the King’s room is possibly the best-preserved Lustral Basin in Crete.

A more intimate experience than Knossos

Phaistos: The Queen's Megaron
The “Queen’s Megaron”

On the slopes of the hill to the south of Phaistos and on level ground below the hill stood the Minoan town. This is still being excavated though part of it can be seen below from the perimeter of the Palace site.

There are many reasons why a visitor to Crete should make the effort to visit Phaistos. With the Messara plain to the east and the Ida mountain to the north, Phaistos has the most beautiful setting of any of the Minoan Palaces.

Another major advantage is the fact that it does not get quite so crowded as Knossos and even in the summer it is possible to have the site almost to oneself provided one arrives at opening time or alternatively an hour or two before closing time. Finally, it is a much more intimate site than Knossos where walkways of scaffolding scar the Palace and so much of Knossos has been roped off, preventing access to visitors, who must look from a distance. At Phaistos, everything can be seen easily and close up.

No doubt these measures were necessary to protect the Palace of Knossos from the hundreds of thousands of tourists who swarm all over the site from April to October each year. Similar measures may one day be necessary at Phaistos. Until then, an early morning or early evening visit will allow you to wander round the site in a way that simply isn’t possible at Knossos and to break off from looking at the ruins to view some of the most spectacular scenery that Crete has to offer.

Phaistos: The King's Megaron from the east
The “King’s Megaron” from the East

Phaistos: The King's Megaron
The “King’s Megaron”

Phaistos: The King's Megaron
The “king’s Megaron”

Phaistos: Lustral Basin
Lustral basin behind the “King’s Megaron”


Gortys, also known as Gortyn or Gortyna is one of the most important cities in Crete with an unbroken history of 6,000 years and one of the most extensive archaeological sites in Greece. It lies in south central Crete in the fertile Mesara plain, the site of the first human habitation of Crete at the end of the Neolithic period (5th millennium BC).

Gortys is about 40 minutes drive south of Heraklion, on the same road that will take us to Phaistos and Matala. Gortys is about 1 km past the village of Agii Deka, at the side of the main road.

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The name Gortys or Gortyna

According to one tradition, Gortys was named after its founder Gortys, the son of Radamanthys, king of Phaistos and brother of Minos.

Another story is that it was founded by Gortys from Tegea in Arcadian Gortynia.

A third variation on the same myth has Gortys founded by Queen Gortyna of Crete, mother of King Taurus.

Excavations at Gortys

excavations at Gortys

Gortys was one of the first areas of Crete to attract the attention of researchers and archaeologists as early as the period of Turkish occupation in the late 19th century, when Minoan civilisation was still a matter of conjecture and myth.

In 1884 the discovery and preservation of the Great Inscription by Iosif Hatzidakis, Stefanos Xanthoudides and Italian Federico Halbherr led to excavations in the Gortys area. Excavations were undertaken by the Italian Archaeological Mission in collaboration with the Archaeological Service after Crete became an autonomous state in 1898, and lasted until 1940.

Excavations in the wider area of Gortys brought important buildings and finds to light, although a large part of the Roman city still remains unexplored today. The most important finds are displayed in Heraklion Archaeological Museum, while some will be housed in the Mesara Archaeological Museum once this is built in a few years time.

History of Gortys

goertys180x130The area has been inhabited since the end of the Neolithic period. Habitation continued in Minoan times, a fact proven by the Minoan country villa found in the Kannia area near Mitropolis village, not far from Gortys.

From the middle of the 1st millennium BC, Gortys replaced Phaistos as the chief power in the Mesara, centred around the fortified acropolis with the temple of Athena Poliouchos (Protector of the City).

After the Roman conquest of Crete in 67 BC, Gortys, which was well disposed towards Rome, became capital of Crete, replacing Knossos. Gortys was declared the capital of the Roman province of Crete and Cyrenaica, a position it held until the Arab conquest of Crete in 828 AD.

Gortys reached the peak of its power in the 2nd century AD, while its final period of glory was in the early Christian period (until the 7th century AD).

It is believed that Gortys expanded across a wide area and had a large population. It may have been built using stone from the nearby Roman quarry in the village of Ambelouzos, known in Crete as the Labyrinth of Mesara.

In 796 AD the city was hit by an earthquake which almost destroyed it. After the Andalusian Arabs conquered Crete in 828 AD, the capital was transferred to Chandax, modern-day Heraklion.

Gortys archaeological site

gortys-4-180x130Usually a visit to Gortys is limited to the archaeological site open to the public: the church of St Titus, the Odeon and the famous Plane Tree. But how representative is the picture the visitor gains of the grandeur of this city, once the capital of Crete?

The city of Gortys extended across a wide area, but unfortunately only a small part of it has been excavated. What the uninformed (and guided) visitor sees is only the tip of the iceberg.

Stand at the entrance to the archaeological site and look across the road. You will see some blue signs which are usually ignored, but those curious enough to follow them will be amazed at what they see.

In the next few pages we will take you on a virtual tour of the whole archaeological site of Gortys. We will visit the church of St Titus, the Odeon, the room of the Law Code of Gortys and of course the plane tree of Zeus and Europa.

When we finish our tour of this area, well cross the road to Phaistos and walk along the road to Mitropolis. A little further on we will admire the largest Early Christian church in Crete, whose splendour is still evident in spite of its ruined state.

Then, following the path through the olive trees, we will reach the heart of Roman Gortys, the Praetorium, the seat of the Roman Governor of Crete. The Praetorium is huge and obviously luxurious building. Unfortunately none of these areas is open to the public, but youll be impressed even gazing at them through the wire fencing and enjoy every moment of your visit.

 


 After 25 years, Kissamos in western Crete has finally found a place to house its archaeological treasures. The Kissamos Archaeological Museum is housed in the town’s Venetian Residence.

archaeological museum of kissamos

The exhibits provide a view of local history through the ages, from prehistoric times to late antiquity and the Early Christian period.

The exhibition starts in Room 1 on the ground floor, with a general chronological table and map of local archaeological sites represented by the artefacts. This is followed by a presentation of the Minoan Period with finds from ancient Mithymna.

Room 2 opens with the Geometric Period, focussing on the historical development of the most important city-states in the area, Polyrrhenia and Falassarna. These two cities flourished in the Hellenistic Period, the former as a land and the latter as a sea power. Room 3 continues the presentation of Hellenistic times, with ceramic finds from dependent towns and settlements of the region.

The whole of the first floor is devoted to the town of Kissamos. The mosaic floors and marble statues of the Greco-Roman city are preserved in the museum.

Room 4, the largest in the museum, contains mosaic floors, wall paintings, a sundial, reliefs and statues from Greco-Roman Kissamos. Room 5 houses ancient coins and amphoras, while Room 6 contains clay, metal, bone and ceramic objects. The grave goods are displayed in the final room, where there are Christian tomb inscriptions, jewellery and other materials, a female figure of the 4th century BC and grave goods from the Roman Period.