December 8, 2016
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.
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
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
The 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
Usually 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.