::Stelios Jackson's walks
interkriti:the E4 and other Mythical Trails-by Stelios Jackson
A diary of events of the trials and tribulations
of a lone walker, in his attempt to cross Crete
from Kato Zakros to Kissamos...
History Box Nr. 10
The Sites of Phaistos, Aghia Triadha and Gortys
Thanks to Niki, Aurelia, Mieke, Tom (and Jane), Julie (for whom "Chapter 11" will always have a very different meaning), Kate and Luc and Chilla, for helping me decide which subject to make this history box. Pictures courtesy of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture. Click on them for enlargements.

The Sites of Phaistos, Aghia Triadha and Gortys

If you are ever in the area of the Messara plain, at a loss as to what to do, you should be delighted to learn that you have found yourself amidst three of Greece's (if not the world's) greatest archaeological sites. All extremely important, for different reasons, the "palace" of Phaistos, and the sites of Aghia Triadha and Gortys (Gortyn and Gortyna are alternative spellings), are dotted along a line, between the villages of Tympaki to Aghoii Deka. If you are as foolhardy as I, you can quite easily walk from one to the others, especially in the cases of Phaistos and Aghia Triadha. I shall not attempt to give you a "floor plan" to these sites. Most guide books include these and I would recommend you buy the Rough Guide or the Blue Guide to Crete should you wish to visit a number of sites, or a bespoke guidebook to these sites, which are available on the island. The best modern book on the Bronze Age Cretans, is J Lesley Fitton's imaginatively named 'Minoans'

A few important words on dating. Make sure you take precautions, and never wear red lipstick until you are entirely sure she'll accept you for it...and...oh yes...

Crete's bronze age history can be divided up in a number of ways. Arthur Evans expertly dissected periods according to the evidence of vase painting and the strata within which these and other artefacts were found, into three distinct periods: 'Early Minoan' (EM), 'Middle Minoan' (MM) and 'Late Minoan' (LM). Within each of these time periods, further subdivisions were necessary. This would seem straightforward at first. EMI is earlier than EMII for instance. Now for something a little more confusing: To break down these periods into more distinct timelines, an 'A' or 'B' is added to some of the periods. So, MMIB comes just before MMII and just after MMIA. O.K. Got that? Well, now for a leap into the future: 'Late Minoan' (LM), due to its regular new designs can be divided in the same way as 'Middle Minoan'. but with an extra value- a number - after all of the usual figures, to qualify its date. So: LMIA is before LMIB, as LMIIIA2 comes after LMIIIA1. Thankfully there is a clearer system for the novice, and indeed for me:

Neolithic = c6,000 - 3,000 BC (Neolithic)

Prepalatial = c3,000-2,000 BC (EM1 to MM 1A)

Protopalatial = c2,000-1700 BC (MM 1B to MM II)

Neopalatial = c1700-1450 BC * (MMII cont. to LM IB)

There is a period between the one above, and the one below,  (c1450 - 1375 BC or LM II to LM IIIA1), called the 'final palace' period, which seems to have only affected Knossos, though places - such as Aghia Triadha - appear to have flourished throughout.

Postpalatial = c1375-1000BC (LM IIIA2 to LM IIIC)

* Note. Current scientific theory pushes back the the dates around the Thera eruption, from the archaeologists' preferred 1450 BC to 1550 BC, before arriving back at a consensus, which only goes to prove that none of these dates are as accurate as we'd like to believe they are.

Of all the sites on Crete, Phaistos (occ. Festos, Faistos, Phaestos), in my view, is the most impressive, to the modern day visitor. This may have much to do with the site's geographic situation; though, for me, it's more likely a matter of Phaistos' relative calm, compared to Knossos. Originally excavated at the beginning of the 20th century, by my old mate, Fredrico Halbherr for the Italian School of Archaeology, (though in the mid 18th century, Captain T.A.B. Spratt,  makes mention of it, having discovered its whereabouts from Strabo's 1st century AD description), between 1900 and 1914 (having already reconnoitred the site in the 1880s), and then by Doro Levi from 1950 to the mid 1970s. This is a "must visit" site. The cosmetic changes to Knossos, undertaken by Arthur Evans, early last century, only add to the air of mystique and majesty surrounding that site's smaller cousin) the central court is around 50 metres long,and 24 metres wide; five metres narrower than that at Knossos, whilst the overall area of the site, at 8,400 sq. metres, is quite a bit smaller than that at Knossos, 20,000 sq. metres). Having said that, I'd definitely recommend a visit to Knossos before, rather than after, visiting Phaistos, as it might help one to make head or tail of Phaistos' complex make-up. All of the 'palaces' share the common theme of a 'central court'; Zakros' is far shorter than those at Knossos, Malia and Phaestos, but is, nonetheless there. It would seem very likely, that the architectural style, was borrowed from the Near East, but there is one important difference. Wherein the Near East buildings, the central courts defined the shape of their cities, in Crete, the environs worked outwards, and grew to whatever size was deemed necessary, which is why these ancient Cretan cities have such a "sprawling" appearance.   The major problem here, is attempting to extrapolate the evidence that is before your eyes. Remains of far later 'Sub-Minoan' and Greek sites vie for attention with the "pre-", "proto-" and "neo-" "palatial" , which can make viewing, somewhat confusing, especially when compared to the 20th century face-lift which Knossos underwent. The Italian School did a far better job, in preserving the ambience of this great site. Certain aspects have been altered, but sympathetically, leaving the infrastructure of the original to ones imagination. This is a "spirit of place" site, with wonderful views across the plain of Messara, to greet the visitor.  In Greek myth, this was the home of Radamanthys, legendary brother of King Minos (the other brother, Sarpedon, was a later interpolated addition by the Greeks; more of the three of them, and other strange happenings, in a mythological history box, in a later chapter), and, for me, he got the far better deal as far as choice of accommodation was concerned. Phaistos was settled in Neolithic times (pre 3,000 BC) and rose to prominence in the next thousand years or so, eventually becoming one of the five known (Knossos, Malia, Zakros and Petras; though we can surely add Kydonia - probably hiding beneath modern-day Chania - to that list, and there may have been more) proto-palatial 'palaces', which were built in, or around, 2,000 BC. It would seem certain that the devastation of the island's two primary centres, was caused by island-wide earthquakes, around 300 or so years after being built.  Not easily put-off, the island's architects rebuilt on the same sites, and created what we see today, which dates back to the early part of the 18th century BC. A future "history box" will discuss the various forms of writing on Crete, but one that immediately grabs the imagination, is the 'Phaistos disk (pictured, below), which was discovered here, in 1908 AD, and dates back to either between1650 BC - 1200 BC or 1908 AD! As I say, more of that conundrum in a later chapter. The largest collection of, as yet, undecephired protopalatial 'Linear A' tablets were also unearthed at Phaistos, but very little in the way of works of art; Aghia Triadha (see below), has proven an exponentially richer source for these, leading to suggestions that as Phaistos waned, Aghia Triadha grew in influence. Other than parts of the the central court and the south-east quarter, which have collapsed (a problem of building upon a hill), Phaistos is superbly preserved. A jaunt over to the west side will reveal the original palace; this is a jaunt, well worth your while. Curiously, Phaistos was downsized after the protopalatial period, whilst its "summer palace" down the road, went from strength to strength. Phaistos, of course, was looted, while Aghia Triadha was not, so we'll never know what treasures the people of the former, left behind. Thankfully, thieves weren't greatly interested in pottery or other earthenware objects, and quite a number of these can be found in the Herakleion Archaeological Museum. As at Knossos, a western obsession with royalty, has unfortunately scarred the terminology of some of the rooms' names: The "Queen's Megaron" and The "King's Megaron" for instance, are ludicrously dubbed, as we have little idea what these were used for, and 'Megaron' (great hall), is a term more easily applied to Mycenaean remains, which these are most certainly not. Later, from Geometric times (c 8th century BC) Phaistos continued as a city, though in a much down-graded way, from Mycenaean times, all the way through to its final collapse, at the hands of those from Gortys, in the 2nd century BC. Hellenistic finds are especially interesting, and quite a number of post-bronze-age dwellings, can still be seen.

The tourist kiosk sells quite a number of guide books to the site, and if you haven't already been wise enough to purchase a copy of the wonderful 'Blue Guide to Crete', prior to your arrival on the island, you could do worse than buy the Ekdotike Athenon guide to the site. 

Aghia Triadha
Aghia Triadha Despite the fact that Aghia Triadha (Holy Trinity) is one of the most important archaeological sites in Greece, there is a fair chance, that you'll be close to alone, should you choose to visit (especially outside July and August); and choose to visit, you should. Aghia Triadha is, of course, the modern name for the site; nobody is quite sure what it was called in 'Minoan' times, which is somewhat surprising, given the wealth of material found here (The 'Blue Guide to Crete' suggests that it may have been the 'Da-Wo', found on Linear B tablets.) Excavated by the Italian School of Archaeology, at about the same time as Phaistos, work continues to this day at Aghia Triadha. The site is named after a 14th century (AD) church, and dates back to around the middle of the 16th century BC; i.e. it's 'Neopalatial'. Not that this was the first era that Aghia Triadha was occupied. Far from it. We know, for instance, that a tholos tomb (Tholos tomb A), found there, uncovered artefacts dating back to the 3rd millennium BC. It is almost certain that Aghia Triadha had a market place with proper shops, rather than temporary stalls, which would make this Europe's earliest shopping arcade. The sites proximity to Phaistos (3kms west), is curious. What was its function? A 'Minoan' road, quite clearly links the two sites, so in what way were they affiliated? It would seem certain that both used Kommos as their port.  That old chestnut, the "summer palace" theory has often been quoted, but Aghia Triadha, appears to have been too "busy" to have been used merely as a "royal" recluse. The fact that 'Linear A'  tablets were found here, within their own archive (a gypsum - there's a gypsum quarry a short distance from the site - chest containing 200 or so, clay seals were also found in this room), suggests a far more established site, than previously thought. As mentioned, above, it would seem possible that during the Bronze Age, Aghia Triadha grew in importance at the same time as Phaistos' began to wane. Finds from the 'neopalatial' period, include 146 linear A tablets, compared to a mere four found at Phaistos, from the same period. O.K., that doesn't prove anything other than Aghia Triadha went up in flames during this period, as these tablets were rather ephemeral, and were never 'fired' for posterity, in a kiln, but sun-dried. Any evidence on clay tablets of  'Linear A' and the later 'Linear B' - found mostly at Knossos - is as a result of our luck and the ancient Cretans lack thereof, though, according to the 'Blue Guide to Crete'. other than Linear A appearing on vases, there is also some "graffiti" found on the walls of a light well, in that script. That Aghia Triadha was burned is self evident - parts of the site are scarred by evidence of fire, probably exacerbated by the storage vases containing olive oil - but it continued to thrive as a community, later than even the mighty Knossos. Aghia Triadha, is shaped not unlike an 'L', making it extremely easy to get one's bearings, if one is prescient enough to have brought a map of the site; each of the 'residences' within, had their own storeroom, which, again, suggests, to me, a community rather than an out of town residency, though, of course, the whole site may have been used, solely, for the storekeeping. The Drainage system, is a rather late addition to the site, and is post-palatial. One of the major problems one encounters visiting any archaeological site, is the artefacts that piece the history together, are usually in a museum, some way away from the site itself. Aghia Triadha is no exception. Artefacts such as the 'Aghia Triadha Sarcophagus' - made of limestone, and beautifully decorated - the 'chieftain's cup' the 'harvester's vase', and the 'boxer vase' (all pictured below) as well as some of the finest examples of 'Minoan' frescoes (including the famous "cat fresco"), seal stones, 19 bronze ingots (weighing in at 556 Kgs!), were all discovered here, and can now be found in the Herakleion archaeological museum, but that shouldn't detract from one's enjoyment of this fabulous little site.

The Aghia Triadha Sarcophagus

The 'Chieftain's Cup'

The 'Harvester's Vase'

The 'Boxer's Vase'

(I prefer the older spelling, Gortyn, but have decided to stick with the modern name, for the sake of consistency)
There is something utterly compelling about this site. Three times I have visited, and three times I have found something new to see; or at least a new angle in which to view the multifarious exhibits, which make Gortys (ancient Gortyn) a kind of al-fresco museum. Whilst it is certain that Gortys was inhabited during Bronze Age times, its rise to glory came almost a millennium after the downfall of those most famous of Cretans, the 'Minoans'. Gortys 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. All of those periods are evident here, with Greek, Roman and Byzantine remains in abundance. It's very easy to get carried away with the age of a site. We all want to see remains of proto-palatial palaces dating back almost four thousand years, and it's very easy to ignore places such as Gortys, whilst visiting earlier, inferior sites, scattered elsewhere on the island. Do not ignore Gortys! What we have here, ranges from an inscribed 5th century "law code", Roman remains of staggering beauty and importance, and a 6th Century AD church, built upon the site where St Paul visited Titos, some 500 years earlier. Other early Christians were the "Aghoii Deka" (ten saints), who were martyred in 250 AD by Decius; a village named after these prior-day martyrs, lies just east of the site. All in all, Gortys  makes for a heady combination, and there are quite a few other interesting features here, allowing one to while away half a day, with a few other aficionados of Ancient history. If you like your history more aged than this, you can be sated by the mythology, where Zeus (disguised as a bull) brought Europa, and conceived a son. His name? Minos. Crete has had some notable visitors in its time - Napoleon Bonaparte, stayed the night at Ierapetra, for instance - and this site can boast appearances by such luminaries as St Paul and the Carthaganian general, Hannibal. According to the renowned and expert archaeologist, Costis Davaras (quite probably my favourite living archaeologist), the population of Gortys, was around 300,000, at its pomp. This is an oft quoted figure, but one that, personally, I cannot believe. Yes, it was a very large and wealthy city; yes people would have gravitated there from all over the island and beyond. But 300,000? That would equate to over half the current population of the whole of the island - and twice that of the city of Herakleion (currently Greece's 5th most densely populated city) - all in a city with a diameter, of under 10kms. Not impossible, I suppose, but, to me, highly unlikely. Some of the sites are inaccessible to the public at present, but what can be seen is mightily impressive. The road running from to (or from) Aghoii Deka, nicely dissects the site, with the three sites listed below, all to its north along with a theatre and the Roman aqueduct, which carried water here from Zaros, but a trip to the "acropolis of Gortys" is well worth a visit, enabling one to get a panoramic look at the enormity of this ancient city. To the south of this road, there is an amphitheatre and a stadium, the "praetorium" (the seat of the Roman governor who would have overseen the whole of Crete and Libya too!)  and a temple to Pythian Apollo. There are other places of interest, but these - almost on top of each other - illustrate the great depths of archaeological importance of sites that make up the wonderful world of Gortys. 

Pictures from Gortys:

The OdeumThe Odeum: This is one of five theatres, amphitheatres and stadia found at Gortys. The odeum, as the name suggests, was Roman, and was a covered theatral area, used for performances and games. What you see now, dates back to the cusp of the second century AD, and was rebuilt by the emperor Trajan, on a previous site.

The Basilica of Aghios TitosThe Basilica of Aghios Titos. This is the first site you'll see when entering Gortys from the road. Built in the 6th century AD, on an earlier site where Saint Titos was said to have been martyred, this is one of the earliest Christian churches anywhere in the world. In the capitals, you'll be able to make out the monogram inscription to the emperor Justinian.

The Gortys Law CodeThe Gortys Law Code. Discovered by none other than Fredrico Halbherr in the 1880s, this is Europe's oldest written law-code; and in fact the only Ancient Greek one to survive intact. Engraved onto rock in a form of Doric Greek, the script has 12 columns, with a total of over 600 lines, and is written in "Boustrephedon" (as the ox ploughs) style (i.e. the script runs alternately left-to-right, then right-to-left). The Gortyns law dates back to the first quarter of the 5th century BC, though it includes laws which go back a couple of centuries prior to its writing; these slabs of stone were - and are - very publicly displayed and include all sorts of fascinating details. The rights of slaves to marry, the rather disturbing "fine" for rape, which depended on how wealthy the victim was(!) laws on adoption, divorce property etc., all  from a time (early 5th century BC), contemporaneous with the beginnings of the Athenian Parthenon and the battle of Marathon.

Aphrodite becomes VenusAphrodite becomes Venus. Roman Copy of a Greek original sculpture found at Gortys, and currently residing in the Herakleion archaeological museum.

Stelios Jackson 2005
© Stelios Jackson & interkriti
Contact Us
© 2024 interkriti.org