Excavated by the Italian school, Gortyn was an important center both in archaicGreek times (as a rival to Knossos) and more especially in the Roman period, when having been forgiven for sheltering Hannibal it was made the capital of the province of Crete and Cytenaica (Libya).
The excavations really are worth visiting, particularly the Odeon which was a hall for musical performances with walls made out of the blocks from some public building if the 6th Century BC , one of which is carved with “the queen of inscriptions”, a code of laws still perfectly preserved. Nearby are the remains of the impressive church of Agios Titos, an early – Christian basilica of the 7th Century.
The large surrounding area of the Roman provincial capital (and the later Byzantine additions) is still being excavated, with its aqueducts and hundreds of fountains, praetorian, colonnaded roads, pared squares, and baths, temples to Egyptian deities and to Pythian Apollo, gates and an amphitheater. On the foundations of an archaic temple, and some large Roman cisterns.
Festos and Aghia Triadha
Set in wonderfully scenic location on a ridge at the eastern end of the Messara plain with fine views towards the encircling mountains, the palace of Festos and neighbouring “summer palace “, the charming Agia Triadha, are Minoan sites ranking second only to Knossos on the island.
Bus services to the Festos site are excellent, with some nine a day to and from Iraklion (the last leaves just before the site closes), but rather fewer on Sunday, five of which continue to, or come from Matala; there are also services direct to Agia Galini. All buses stop right by the Festos parking area. If you are arriving in the afternoon, plan to visit Agia Triadha first, as ot closes early. The tourist Pavilion at Festos serves drinks and food and also has a few beds, though these are very rarely available (thanks to advance bookings) and pricey when they are. There are a few more rooms, to be found in the nearby village of Ayios Ioannis, at the picturesque Taverna Ayios Ioannis on the main road , which also makes an excellent lunch – stop, with tables under the trees; kouneli, the house speciality of charcoal- grilled rabbit, is recommended. There are also places offering accommodation along the road towards Matala, or, alternatively, you should be able to find something in the first larger place you strike in almost any direction – Mires, Timbaki or Pitsidhia.
The Palace of FESTOS was excavated by Federico Halbherr (also responsible for the early work on Gortys), at almost exactly the same time as Evans was working at Knossos. The style of the excavations, however, could hardly have been more different. Here, reconstruction has been kept to an absolute minimum, to the approval of most traditional archeologists: It’s all bare foundations, and walls that barely rise above ground level.
As at Knossos, most of what survives is what the excavators termed the Second Palace, rebuilt after the destruction of c. 1700BC and occupied to c. 1450 BC . But at Festos the first palace was used as a foundation for the second, and much of its well –preserved floor plan has been uncovered by the excavations. Fascinating as these superimposed buildings are for the experts, they help make Festos extremely confusing for more casual visitors to interpret. Combined with a distinct lack of elaboration, at least in the decoration of the palace, this adds up to considerable disappointment for many. Since much of the site is also fenced off, it becomes almost impossible to get any sense of the place as it once was.
Only Knossos was more important and although there are major differences between Festos and the other palaces, there are in the end outweighed by the multitude of similarities. The rooms are set about a great central courtyard, with an external court on the west side and a theatral area north of this; the domestic apartments are as usual, slightly apart from the public and formal ones; there are the same lines of storage magazines and pits for grain; and on the east side are workshops for the palace craftsmen. While no traces of frescoes were found, this doesn’t imply that the palace wasn’t luxurious: the materials –marble, alabaster, gypsum- were of the highest quality; there was sophisticated drainage and bathing facilities; and remains suggest a large and airy dining hall on the upper floors overlooking the court. Bear in mind, as you explore, that part of the palace is missing: there must have been more outbuildings on the south side of the site where erosion has worn away the edge of the ridge and a corner of the central court itself has collapsed.
The Palace of Knossos
The Palace of Knossos, located 5km east of Heraklion , is the largest and most impressive Minoan Site on the island , and one of the best known archaeological excavations in the world, an essential port of call for all Mediterranean cruises. Its fame is well deserved, not only because the vast area that has been excavated (the main palace, villas, pared roads, courtyards and collonades) gives the visitor an un forgettable impression of being immersed for a few hours in the ancient world, but also because of its close connection with the deepest roots of Western culture.
The name Knossos inevitably evokes the idea of the labyrinth (which probably had its origins in the elaborate and complex plan of this very palace), recalling the sanguinary myth of king Minos and his son the Minotaur, the enslavement of the Athenians youths and maidens, the heroic deeds of Theseus and the pathetic love of Ariadne, who betrayed the trust of her father the King in order to save the stranger whom she adored.
Discovered and identified on the evidence of the ancient sources by the great German archaeologist Heinrich Schlienmann (using the same methods as for the discovery of Troy), the palace of the kings of Crete was excavated by Sir Arthur Evans from 1900 onwards.
Knossos had been inhabited since Neolithic times by a flourishing community, and the first palace was built there around 2000 BC. The kings who lived there exercised absolute power over a large territory and over the lives of the inhabitants as appears from archaeological evidence and from a comparison with similar sites in the near East; the riches and produce of the Land were concentrated the palace.
Incoming goods were recorded on clay tablets (with regular updating of the “balance”), and whenever fire broke out these tablets were baked so have lasted down to our own days. The centralized authority also saw to the redistribution of goods, perhaps in proportion to production.
The economic, political and cultural activity of the lords of Knossos was fed by maritime traffic, fishing, and commercial contacts with the East, with Cyprus, with the Phoenicians and the Egyptians.
Destroyed by an earthquake in about 1570 BC(like Malia and Phaistos), it was rebuilt on the same site and prospered for another 300 years, until the arrival of the Achaean people (from the Peloponnese), and especial by the eruption of Santorini, in about 1450- 1400B.C. From then on Knossos shared the fortune of the whole Mycenaean world, the fertile humus from which the civilization of classical Greece was to grow.
The Myth of Minotaur
King Minos of Crete invoked the wrath of Poseidon when he fated to sacrifice a magnificent white bull sent to him for that purpose. Poseidon’s revenge was to Pasiphae, King Minos’ wife to fall in love with the animal. In order to attract the bull, Pasiphae asked Daedalus, chief architect at Knossos and all- round handyman, to make her a hollow wooden cow structure. When she concealed herself inside, the bull found her irresistible. The outcome of their bizarre association was the minotaur: hideous monster who was half – man and half-bull.
King Minos asked Daedalus to build labyrinth in which to confine Minotaur and demanded the Athens to pay an annual tribute of seven youths and seven maidens to satisfy the monster’ s appetite.
Mino’s eventually found out that Daedalus has been instrumental in bringing about the union between his wife and the bull, and threw the architect and his son Icarus into the labyrinth. Daedalus made wings from feathers struck together with wax and, wearing these, father and son made their getaway. As everyone knows, Ikarus flew too close to the sun, the wax on his wings melted, and he plummeted into the sea off the island of Ikaria.
Athenians, meanwhile were enraged by the tribute demanded by Minos. The Athenian hero, Theseus, vowed to kill the Minotaur, and sailed off to Crete posing as ome the sacrificial youths. On arrival, he fell in love with Ariadne, the daughter of king Minos, and she promised to help him if he would take her away with him afterwards. She provided him with the ball of twine that he unwound on his way into the labyrinth and used to retrace his steps after staying the monster.
Theseus left Crete with Ariadne. The two got married, but Theseus abandoned Ariadne on the island of Naxos on his way back to Athens. On his return to Athens, Theseus forgot to unfurl the white sail that he had promised to display to announce that he was still alive. This prompted his distraught father, Aegeus, to hurl himself to his death from the Sunio to the Sea. This, incidentally, is how the Aegean sea got its name.
The picturesque fishing port of Matala, on the South Coast of the island, is near the ancient site of kommos, the Minoan Port of Phaistos and of Greek Gortyn, where the Canadian school has been excavating for years and has discovered a small but important Minoan and Mycenean residence, which seems to have lasted into Greek times.
Matala is separated from Kommos attractive sandstone rock into whose geological strata a great number of small tombs have been cut, some with carve arched niches. These tombs formed a necropolis in Roman and early- Christian times, part of which is now under water with the rise in the level of the sea. According to Homer, who describes Matala accurately, Manelaus was shipwrecked on this coast as he was returning to Sparta from Troy.
Nowadays Matala is a place ideal for swimming, on its beautiful bay, and for a romantic night dinner to one of the taverns by the sea.