Gortyna

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Past beautiful rolling hills covered with olive groves, which will soon be picked, I arrived at Gortyna. We are greeted by a number of massive statues in an open-air museum just by a Byzantine basilica which dates back to the fifth century and is dedicated to Agios Titus, the first bishop of the area, and also the addressee of one of the epistles of St Paul which are contained in the New Testament.

There is also a plane tree with a plaque which tells visitors that it was under that very tree that Zeus seduced Europa, and this tree was made to remain forever green to commemmorate their love.

Across the road and past a grove of olive trees are the ruins of what must have been a spectacular city. Archaeologists have established that the site had been inhabited since Neolithic times. Walking along the paths that criscross the site, I can’t help feeling a sense of humble awe, and wanting to tread carefully. There are bits of the excavated ruins all along the path, and I have a sense of my footsteps echoing those of the ancient inhabitants of this city. Excavations continue on the site. In fact, I’m told, just last year archaeologists unearthed a few huge statues, lamps and mable slabs sculpted with scenes of battles and myths just in the Odeon.

Behind the Odeon, there is a very important document preserved in stone. The myth of king Radamanthus and his code of law, which I mentioned in a previous post, becomes a passage of history at Gortyna: on a wall behind the Odeon is an ancient code of law that dates back to the 6th century B.C.

The Gortyna Code displayed behind the theatre is written in Dorian Greek. The text flows from right to left, then the next line from left to right, and so on. Effectively, the reader must read backwards every other line! The code describes family relationships in this society, including marriage, divorce, inheritances, adoptions, and custody rights; it also describes their approach to property (including slavery as a form of property at the time) and contracts. It does not contain any criminal laws or procedures, which has led archaeologists to think that this is but one fraction of a much longer document. It is also interesting because it represents a transitional period from a matriarchal to a patriarchal society, where women’s rights to property and inheritance were changing to a less favourable stance, but still allowed women to hold the right to their share of property after divorce or after being widowed, and recognised women’s right to hold property independently of their husbands.

The code in the tunnel behind the theatre was preserved when the Romans reused stones from previous buildings to build their own. Some parts have been lovingly preserved and restored when found in excavations. A few slabs were found when digging a water-mill, for example.

Roman Gortyna was the most important Cretan city of its time. When the Romans invaded the island, this became the capital of the island. The Roman Ruins are impressive. There is the residence of the Roman governor of Crete and Cyrene, the Praetor, which dates back to the 1st century A.D. There are also baths, a shrine dedicated to Augustus, a court of law, and a temple dedicated to the Nymphs, which judging by the size of its cistern, must have had fabulous fountains. The Roman city must have been very impressive. It was destroyed in 825 when Andalusian invaders took the island and destroyed Gortyna when its leaders refused to surrender.

There is also an Acropolis on Agios Ioannis hill, which is considered part of Gortyna. This seems to have been ‘holy land’ for a long time, as there are evidences of human activities here in the Neolithic period. A temple dedicated to Athena was erected here, and during Byzantine times, a basilica was built on the site. There are also the remains of a Roman fortress, built here in the 7th century.

If you would like to visit these sites, get in touch with Karma Travel to organise your transportation and a guided tour, as well as accommodation in the area. They will be able to advise you as only local experts can!  They can also advise if your tour of this area can be combined with a visit to the neighbouring olive groves when it’s time for the olive harvest.

Phaistos

Phaistos, Crete, Greece

I’ve arrived at Phaistos and I am gobsmacked by the spectacular setting of this site.  It is high on a hil, overlooking a plain framed by mountains, with the sea rolling just below the hills, and towering Mount Psiloritis just north.   My guide explains that the site had many stages, and excavations have revealed strata that goes back up to Neolithic times.  The topmost layer seems to have been the work of a single architect -unusual, I’m told.  The layout is easy to grasp, which is not the case in other palace ruins I visited, like Knossos.   The latest rebuilding of the palace dates ack to 1700 BC, and it’s evident that ruins upon ruins are layered under the surface.  The final architect built on top of the remains of previous buildings, and in some places staircases belonging to different construction stages merge or converge, giving a picture of architectural intricacy.

The description of an architect that took care of creating a functional and yet aesthetically pleasing environment makes me think of an ancient Frank Lloyd Wright, thinking of how to blend his structures with the spectacular views of the hill, planning his courtyards to follow the uneven surfaceof the hill, and walls to almost frame the view of the Messara plain below and Mount Psiloritis.  It seems that the design was such that palace structures were conceived to have one side enclosed by a wall, and the other by a major mountain.

This was one of three major cities in Crete, and seems to have been an important religious site, as well as a hub of economic activity.  My guide explains that archaeologists have found inscriptions and some records, all in Linear A, which remain undeciphered.  The name of the city, Phaistos, has been confirmed by inscriptions on coins and in Linear B inscriptions referring to this site which have been found in Knossos.  One fine example of ancient scripture is, in fact, the Disc of Phaistos, which I saw in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion.  I am marvelled by the explanation that the spiralling characters carefully engraved on the disc were in fact ‘seals’ pressed on the clay disc, which have been claimed to be the first instance of a printing press featuring interchangeable signs.  It is mindboggling that the technology was first conceived here in the second millenium BC, but only took off in the 15th century AD!

I imagine myself as a spectator sitting in the theatre and marvelling at the view of the landscape surrounding it.  The dwellers of this ancient city must have felt privileged to live here!

The ancient stories seem to confirm the idea that it was a privilege to live here.  It is said that Phaistos was ruled by King Radamanthus, brother of Minos, the king of Knossos.   Radamanthus was  a just and noble king, and gave the island an excellent code of laws, which was copied elsewhere, not least by the Spartans.  Because of his inflexible integrity, this king was made one of the judges of the dead in the underworld.

It is also said that Phaistos was safeguarded by a bronze giant, Talos, who had been made by Daedalus when Zeus ordered him to craft a means to protect his beloved Europa.  So the bronze giant patrolled the shores of Crete and endlessly watched over Phaistos to protect the queen.  He was also famous for throwing boulders at approaching ships.  The bronze giant, forged much like a lost-wax statue, had one vein which went from his neck to his ankle, and was bound shut by just one bronze nail.

When Jason and the Argonauts approached Crete after snatching the Golden Fleece, Talos guarded the island by throwing massive boulders at the Argo.  The sneaky Argonauts called upon Medea to use her powers to drive him mad. The sorceress drugged him and deceived him, saying that she would render him immortal by removing the nail. The giant bled molten lead until he eventually died.

If you want to visit Phaistos and make the most of your time here, contact Karma Travel and arrange your transport and a guided tour of the site.  It will come alive with stories in a way that you could never appreciate just by looking at the ruins!

Matala

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I’ve decided to stake out a base near Matala.

This area retains quite the hippie vibe from the 60’s, and I’m almost tempted to go find flowers to put on my hair.  The general vibe seems to be captured in a phrase painted on a wall ‘today is life, tomorrow never comes.’

What brought me here, though, is not an interest in visiting the old haunts of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Cat Stevens, as much as I like their music for a lazy Saturday morning.  What drew me to Matala is an interest in the caves that dot the cliffs.  You can walk around and explore, which really appealed to me.

I have mentioned cliffs pockmarked with caves in other blog posts. These cliffs are special because they seem to have attracted dwellers since times immemorial.  They appear to have been inhabited in the Neolithic.  Romans possibly used them for shelter (as suggested by carved beds, windows and porches);  early Christians used them as places of worship and also as tombs.  One of the caves, in fact, is called ‘Brutospeliana’.  It is said that Brutus, the Roman General, stayed there.

Nowadays, the Archaeological Service protects the caves, and they are fenced off at night.  Hippies in the 60’s came to live in them, and had to be evicted by both the Orthodox Church and the Police.  I wouldn’t have been tempted to stay overnight in the caves, but was quite glad to shelter myself from the heat during the visit.  Wandering about them was exciting, and the views (both of the caves and of the sea and the port) are stunning.   The carvings are quite interesting; some have carved niches which, when seen from a distance, resemble eyes.

If you are keen on rock climbing, the cliffs in the area are suitable for practicing the sport.  I did not go rock-climbing, but used the time to hike to nearby Red Beach, which was peaceful and beautiful.  There weren’t many people there, whilst Matala itself was quite busy.

The beauty of this area is the subject of a few stories.  An ancient myth says that Zeus fell in love with a beautiful Phoenician Princess, Europa.  He transformed himself into a white bull and mixed with the king’s herds.  The princess was somehow attracted to the bull, and rode it.  She suddenly found herself being carried by this celestial bull to Matala, where Zeus seduced her.  Europa then became the first queen of Crete.

In the next couple of days, I will have an archaeological feast: I’m visiting Roman Gortyna, the Minoan palaces of Phaestos, and Agia Triada.  I’m really looking forward to these visits!

To make the most of your time in Crete and avoid worrying about transport and accommodation, contact the experts at Karma Travel and let them take care of your reservations and make all arrangements for you.  They’re brilliant!

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