Located in the valley of Messara, Gortys or Gortyn (GR: Γόρτυς or Γόρτυνα) is a must visit for all visitors to Crete. It was inhabited during Bronze Age times, but its rise to glory came almost a millennium after the downfall of the 'Minoans'. Gortyn was a prosperous city from around the middle of the 5th century BC through to the early 9th century AD, when it was finally destroyed by the Saracens (824AD), never to be rebuilt.
The first habitation of the site dates from the Neolithic and Early Minoan period (3rd millenium B.C.). In the late Classical period (beginning of the 4th century B.C.) the Gortynians established the sanctuary of Asklepios at the harbour. During the tremendous earthquake of 46 B.C. the city was destroyed and subsequently rebuilt. In the Early Christian and Byzantine periods, a small settlement developed and the basilica was erected. The most important monuments of the site are: The Temple of Asklepios., the "Treasury"., the Fountain, a large, three-aisled basilica, an Early Minoan settlement (2600-2000 B.C.), the West Stoa, the North Stoa, the Nymphaion and two large, mud-brick cisterns.
The Roman Odeum at Gortyn is considered one of the best and the most important of its type on Crete. Is has been founded at the North part of the Ancient Agora of the City. This semicircular building consists of three main parts: a. The Cavea, connected with a domed corridor through three wide staircases; b. the Orchestra, which has an internal diameter 8,5 m. and was paved with white and blue marble slabs; c. The Scene, which had two entrances and the paraskenion, with mosaic pavement in geometric pattern. Statues of Muses stood in the niches. Initially the building was a circular Ekklesiasterion founded in the 5th c. BC. In the portico of this public building the Great Inscription with the Law Code of Gortyn dated to the early 5th c., stood. It was destroyed twice: in the 1st century BC, and again in 46 AD. After this last destruction it was reconstructed as an Odeum. The great Inscription is considered to be the largest Greek inscription, the Queen of all Inscriptions. Its first fragments were found by the French travelers and were bought by the Louvre Museum. The most part of the Inscription was found accidentally by local farmers in 1884 and was further explored F. Halbherr. It is a Law Code inscribed in the boustrophedon system of writing. It dates in the 1st half of the 5th c. BC and is the oldest Greek and European Law Code. It consists of twelve Deltoi and was built in the Ekklesiasterion of the 5th c BC. In this Code older laws, regarding the personal and family rights of the citizens of Gortyn, were codified.
According to the myth, Zeus, disguised as a bull, coupled with Europe, whom he had brought from Phoenicia, under a deep- shaded plane tree on the banks of the Lethaios River. The offspring of this union were three sons, Minos, Sarpidon and Radamanthis. Later, the oldest Agora of the city of Gortyn, the Ekklesisterion (Congress hall), and the Roman Odeum were founded on this site. The plane tree was blessed and has remained ever green since that time. As his place of birth, the city was founded by King Minos himelf. According to the myth, it was on the fields of Gortyn that the bull given as a gift to Minos by Poseidon coupled with the Queen Pasiphae and out of this union Minotaur was born.
Saint Titus church at Gortyn bears the name of the Apostle Titus, attendant of Apostle Paul, who was appointed as the first Christian bishop of Crete. It is one of the most important Byzantine monuments in Crete. The name was given to the ruined church by the excavators in the beginning of the 20th c., as they considered it to be the site of the saint’s martyrdom. After the discovery of the new Great Early Byzantine Basilica, just outside the village Mitropolis, its excavators have proposed that as the original bishopric basilica, as it is a century earlier than this, which in the local tradition is named and celebrated after Virgin Mary, “Kera”. The church has the plan of a three aisled inscribed cross with a low vault. It has been built of ashlar limestone. It has a narthex to the west and five entrances three of which form the trivelum with two columns. There were pillars instead of columns. Its architectural features date its foundation in the 2nd half of the 6th c. AD.
The main acropolis of Gortyna was located on Agios Ioannis hill, to the northwest of the Agora. Acropolis can be accessed from its west side driving through Ambelouzos village to the direction of Gergeri. At a spot around 1.6 kms from Gortyna parking there is a footpath (not clearly signposted and maintained) that leads to the top of the hill. Once at the top you'll be rewarded by the magnificent view to the whole area and the archaeological site itself. The site was first inhabited in the Neolithic era and again at the end of Minoan times (1200 BC). Since then it was continuously inhabited until the Middle Byzantine period. From the first settlement only parts of walls, floors and hearths were preserved. In the 10th century BC a Geometric settlement was established fortified by a polygonal wall with towers at the corners. At the end of the 7th c. A.D., a small tripartite temple, dedicated to Athena Poliouchos was founded at the south side of the hill. From this temple some very important architectural sculptures were excavated. During the Early Byzantine period (5 - 6th century AD), a basilica was erected over the ruins of the geometric/archaic temple and, in the time of the emperor Heraclios (7th century A.D.) the last fortification with a castle in the center was built which still survives but in a very poor condition.
The Temple of Apollo Pythios (Pythian Apollo) located in the center of the ancient Agora, was excavated in 1887 and was the largest temple and the religious center of ancient Gortyn until the introduction of Christianity and the founding of the basilica of St. Titus around 500 AD. The first building of the seventh century. BC was a four-sided enclosure with four wooden pillars in the center to support the roof. The exterior walls and stairs of the crepis were covered with archaic inscriptions. In the Hellenistic period a monumental anteroom was added while columns with inscriptions were placed between the pillars. Alterations and additions were made during the Roman period. Outside the temple was built a magnificent altar on a stepped base while in the west of the temple was built a small theatre. In the middle Byzantine period in the vicinity of the temple, which had been abandoned, were built houses and aqueducts. Many finds have been made in the temple among which the colossal statue of Apollo Pythios and many inscriptions with administrative and law content of the Archaic and Hellenistic period. Dates: 7th c BC; Hellenistic; 2nd c AD.
The Praetorium was the seat and residence of the proconsul of Crete. It is divided into two parts: the administrative section, in which the central building is the basilica, and the more "private" sector. The preserved ruins are dated to the 2nd century A.D. and seem to have been repaired in the 4th century A.D. This totally excavated building is the largest in the whole City of Gortyn. The earliest constructions have suffered successive alterations in a long period of eight centuries. New structures were erected on the ruins of the earlier sometimes incorporating parts of them. In the 1st c AD the Praetorium consisted of a peristyle court 1000 sq.m. and large halls to the north and west. This first Praetorium was destroyed by an earthquake in the time of the Emperor Trajan (early 2nd c AD). It was reconstructed and a large Thermai complex was built at its east side. Some years later a large temple dedicated to the Augusts was built further at the east part. To the west of the Thermai the juridical basilica continued to function under a judge’s responsibility according to the inscriptions found there, and statues of the emperors and other officers were still standing there. All these famous buildings were destroyed by the large earthquake in 365 AD. In 383 the consul Oecumenius Asclepiodotus Dositheus, agreeing with the capital of the empire, took care of the construction of the new Praetorium.
The sanctuary of the Egyptian deities (1st-2nd centuries A.D.) is the only one, in the whole island, which is dedicated to the Egyptian gods Isis, Serapis and Anubis - Hermes although it is known that those gods are worshiped in other cities. The sanctuary consists of quadrilateral nave, arcade on the west, underground crypt in the south and a cistern outside east of nave. In the central alcove stood the statue of Serapis and the side statues of Isis and Hermes - Anubis. In the southern part of the temple was oblong space, underground crypt purification and a small cictern. The final construction phase of the temple dates to the 1st / 2nd century. AD, in accordance with dedicatory inscription.
The oldest theater of Gortyna was on the south slope of the Profitis Ilias hill (Acropolis), opposite to the Odeum. Its cavea was partly cut into the rock and partly built. Its scene was built at the west side of the large court of the Agora, which covered the river Lethaios with a flat bridge. This scene, which H. Belli saw in the 16th c AD, was 120 m long and was already destroyed in 19th c. AD. On the proscenium there was an inscription of Julia Augusta and it was decorated with statues and relies, among which there was the statue of Europe on the Bull, with broken legs and head.This statue, as described by Admiral Spratt, is now kept in the British Museum and is dated to the 2nd c BC.