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References to Knossos, its palace and Minos are made by Homer (the list of ships in Ilias mentions that Crete sent 80 ship under the command of the King of Knossos, Idomeneus, the Odyssey, T 178-9), Thucydides (reference to Minos), Isiodus and Herodotus, Bacchylides and Pindarus, Plutarchus and Diodorus the Sicilian. The city flourished in the Minoan Times (2000 – 1350 B.C.), when it was the most important and populated centre of Crete. It also played an important role and was particularly prosperous in later periods, like the Hellenistic Times.
The city of Knossos was constantly populated from the end of the 7th millennium to the Roman Times. In the Neolithic Times there was a stage of technologically developed agricultural life (stone tools and weaving weights). The residents turned from food-collectors into producers (farmers and shepherds) and a there was a trend towards more systematic and permanent settlement. The settlement periods in Knossos succeeded each other and the population of the settlement at the end of the Late Neolithic Period is estimated at 1.000 – 2.000 residents.
In the Bronze Age, which involved the processing of copper, the settlement possibly continued to develop. However, during the construction of the palace many older buildings were destroyed. The settlement is now referred to as Ko-no-so in Linear B texts of the 14th century B.C. Habitation was particularly intense, including the first palace (19th-17th century B.C.), the second palace (16th-14th century B.C.) and the luxurious villas, the guests’ rooms and the Minoan infrastructure works. The palaces were built on sites overlooking plains and having access to the sea, while important settlements were developed around them. The cities and the settlements were not walled, which confirms the so-called Pax Minoica. In around 1700 B.C. a major earthquake probably destroys Knossos and leads to large-scale works in the city and the palace. The city of Knossos was developed in a large area and its population was estimated by Evans at around 80.000 people.
In 1450 B.C., after a partial destruction of Knossos, the Mycenaeans settled in the city, without, however, rebuilding the palace. From the next periods few remnants are preserved, mostly tombs and a small classical temple in the area of the palace. The city experienced great prosperity during the Hellenistic Times (temple of Glaukus, temple of Demetra, chiselled tombs, the use of a northern cemetery, fortifying towers). In 67 B.C. Quintus Caecilius Metellus Creticus conquered Knossos and established a Roman colony with the name Colonia Julia Nobilis. The Villa of Dionysus, with wonderful mosaics, dates back to this period.
In the Byzantine Times Knossos was the seat of the Bishop, while the remains of the 6th century A.D. basilica are still preserved. After the Arab conquest of Crete, the harbour of Heraklion gradually became more important, while Knossos was slowly forgotten. A small settlement was built on the Roman ruins and is referred to as “Makritihos” (=long wall), named after a long wall, which was a remnant of the Roman Knossos. Knossos was spotted in 1878 by Minos Kalokairinos. A. Evans started systematic excavations in 1900, which continued until 1931 (discovery of the palace, a large part of the Minoan city and the cemeteries). Since then excavations are being continued in the wider area of Knossos by the British School of Archaeology and the 23rd Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities.
Necropolis of Armeni
Unworked stones and pyramidal or slab stelae were erected over the tombs as markers. They were all family tombs, containing multiple burials, either placed directly on the floor or inside larnakes. The grave offerings – pottery, weapons, tools and jewellery – provide us with useful information on the art, the religion and the social organization of that period.
In 1969, two pupils gave the Archaeological Museum of Rethymnon two vases they had found at a site called Prinokephalo, in the community of Armenoi. Investigation of the area proved the existence of an extensive Late Minoan cemetery. Since then, the site has been systematically excavated, and more than 220 tombs have been brought to light.
On the ruins of the ancient castle the Venetians built a strong fortress, which was designed according to the bastion fortification system by Genese Bressani and Latino Orsini. The first construction stage of the fortress lasted from 1579 to 1586. Repairs and alterations to the fortress were also made during the Cretan War (1645-1669). During the Venetian rule the fortress was used for military purposes. The buildings in its interior covered the accommodation needs of the guard. During the Cretan war (1645-1669) Spinalonga offered shelter to refugees and rebels, who harassed the Turks, using the islet as their base. Their action lasted as long as the fortress was occupied by the Venetians. According to the treaty of the surrender of the “Khandax” in 1669, Spinalonga remained under the rule of Venice.
After the island was occupied by the Ottomans in 1715, a purely Ottoman settlement was gradually formed in Spinalonga. During the first two centuries of the Ottoman rule the fortress was marginalised and used as a place of exile and isolation. The situation changed, however, at the end of the 19th century. Its role was upgraded as it obtained an export trade permit. In the middle of the 19th century a large number of inhabitants concentrated on the islet, mostly tradesmen and seamen, who exploited the seaways of the eastern Mediterranean and the advantage of a safe fortified settlement.
The life of this settlement was soon interrupted abruptly due to the political developments that took place in Crete during the last years of the 19th century. Most of the inhabitants of Spinalonga were forced to emigrate, as the revolutionary activity of the Christians spread insecurity among the Ottomans of Crete. From 1897 French military forces settled on the island and stayed there for about one year. The Cretan State established the isolation of the lepers in 1903 and decided to create a leper hospital in Spinalonga, in order for coordinated help to be available to Hansen patients. The hard life of the patients, who lived on the island until 1957, marked the area as a place of martyrdom and heartbreaking memories. (Author: Georgia Moschovi, archeologist)
The Libyan Sea extends in the south. Lithaios surrounds the hill of Phaistos in the east and the north and was a source of water supply for the city. The mild and warm climate of the area made the life of its residents comfortable and pleasant. Phaistos was one of the most important centres of the Minoan civilization, and the most wealthy and powerful city of southern Crete. It is mentioned in the texts of ancient writers (Diodorus, Stravon, Pausanius) and Homer. It is one of the three important cities founded in Crete by Minos. According to mythology, the dynasty of Rodamanthus, the son of Zeus and brother of Minos, reigned in it. Homer refers to its participation in the Trojan War and describes it as a “well populated” city. The period of prosperity in Phaistos began with the coming of the Bronze Age in Crete in the middle of the 3rd millennium B.C., when the foundations of the Minoan civilization were laid.
Habitation in Phaistos started in the Neolithic period, as revealed by the foundations of Neolithic houses, tools, statuettes and potsherds discovered under the palace during the excavations. The Neolithic settlement is believed to have covered the top of the hill and its southwestern slope. In the middle of the 3rd millennium B.C. the use of metals began, which favoured the development of the city.
Development continued until the foundation and consolidation of the Minoan palaces (15th century B.C.). In the beginning of the 2nd millennium kings took the rule and established large palaces. The first palace was built in around 1900 B.C. and along with its surrounding buildings it covered an area of 18.000 m2, a little smaller than that of the palace of Knossos. The major earthquake in around 1700 B.C. was the cause of its destruction and the destruction of Knossos. A new, more imposing one was built in its place. Most of the remnants preserved today belong to it, while some parts of the first palace, mainly in the southeast, have also been discovered. The Minoan city covered a considerable area around the palatial centre.
Phaistos was the seat of the king – ruler who controlled not only the rich plain of Mesara and the settlements in the wider area but also the exit to the sea and the harbours of the gulf of Mesara. After the destruction of the palace (15th century B.C.) the city of Phaistos continued to be inhabited in the Mycenaean and Geometric periods (8th century B.C.). In the following centuries Phaistos experienced a new period of prosperity. The area of the city grew in relation to its area in the Minoan times. It became a rich, strong and densely populated independent city. It minted its own coin and during its period of prosperity, its rule extended from cape Lithino to cape Melissa, including the islets Paksimadia (ancient name: Litoae). The state of Phaistos had two powerful harbours, Matala and Kommo in the southeast.
In historical times the temple of Rhea was built south of the old palace. A time gap is observed in the classical period, from which no architectural remnants have been discovered yet. In contrast, the Hellenistic city was extremely prosperous. Houses of that period can be seen in the west yard (upper terrace) of the palace. In the middle of the 2nd century B.C. (around 1600 B.C.) the city was destroyed and occupied by the neighbouring city of Gortys. Even though it was not immediately abandoned, Phaistos lost its power. Traces of habitation dating from the Venetian period are scattered in the whole area. The modern village of Agios Ioannis on the southern fringe of the ancient city is the modest remainder of a glorious past.
From archaeological view, Phaistos is the second in importance Minoan city after Knossos. The site of Knossos was first identified by British captain H. Spratt. The archaeological research of Phaistos was started in 1884 by F. Halbherr and continued by the Italian School of Archaeology (Halbherr and L. Pernier, 1900-1904) and by Doro Levi (1950-1971). Restoration works were conducted during the excavations by the Italian School of Archaeology. Some spaces, mainly the old palace and the royal rooms of the new palace were covered with plastic shelters, while others, such as the storehouses of the new palace, were covered with concrete slabs.
The palace was a center of administration, religion and trade. It was surrounded by the city. No new buildings were built in the area and it was only used for farming. The “Gorge of the Dead”, the Gorge between Pano Zakros and Kato Zakros, revealed burials in caves on its sides. The finds of Zakros are exhibited in the Museum of Heraklion and some of them are in the Museums of Siteia and Agios Nikolaos.
The palace of Zakros has two main building stages: The old palace was built in c. 1900 B.C., and the new one in c. 1600 B.C., but was destroyed in 1450 B.C. along with the other centres of Minoan Crete.
The city’s excavated remains belong to various periods. The city was allegedly named after Elefthereas, one of the Kourites, or after Demeter Elefthous. A thriving Hellenistic settlement has been identified on the “Nisi” hill, which was one of the city’s nuclei, along with the “Pyrgi” hill.
Eleftherna fought against Rhodes and its ally, Knossos, in the third century BC, but sided with Knossos against other Cretan cities in 220 BC. It was besieged and conquered, however, so it was forced out of the alliance. Thanks to its naturally fortified position, the city successfully resisted Quintus Caecilius Metellus’ attack in 68 BC, until betrayal led to its conquest.
Eleftherna was the birthplace of poet Linos, philosopher Diogenes, lyric poet Ametor and sculptor Timochares. Humphrey Payne of the British School of Athens conducted excavations at Eleftherna in 1929 for a short time. Systematic excavations by the University of Crete began in 1985, revealing important archaeological remains dating from the Geometric until the Early Byzantine period as well as evidence of the continuous use of the site from the Early Minoan period to the modern times.
(Authors: Vanna Niniou – Kindeli, Aggeliki Tsingou, Eleni Mathioudaki, archaeologists)
In the Hellenistic times it played an important role as a member of the Federation of the Mountains, which consisted of Elyros, Yrtakina, Tarra and Poikilassion. It was a famous worship centre already in the Hellenistic times and until the end of the antiquity. In 183 B.C. it signed, along with other cities of the “Alliance of the Cretans”, a treaty with Eumenes II of Pergamo. After its destruction in the 9th century, it was not inhabited again.
From the Byzantine times to the present day it has been a local, agricultural and religious centre, with the churches of Ai-Kirkos and Panagia built on the ruins of Paleochristian basilicas. With financing from the community program LEADER 1 – OADYK (West Crete Development Organization) being the implementation contractor-, a project of cleaning, path formation, surface research and mapping of ancient Lissos was conducted. A large part of the valley has already been expropriated.
(Authors: Vanna Niniou – Kindeli, Aggeliki Tsingou, archaeologists)
The area of Gortys was inhabited already in the Neolithic Times, as finds from this period have been spotted in the plain and the hills, few of which of Minoan origin. At the site Kania, south of the village Metropolis, a late Minoan country villa with remarkable finds has been excavated. In the Geometric Period (1.100 – 700 B.C.) the settlement was built on the acropolis and villages were built at the foot of the hills. In the Archaic Times (700 – 500 B.C.) the city was extended into the area of the later Conservatory and the plain, in the place of the later temple of “Pythian” Apollo. From the city of the classical period the remains of the synagogue in the place of today’s Conservatory have been spotted, the most important monument being the Great Inscription in the northern circular wall of the Conservatory.
In the Hellenistic Times (end of the 4th century B.C. – 67 B.C.) Gortys was one of the largest cities of Crete. In the beginning of the 3rd century B.C. it was the head of one of the three city unions and in the 2nd century B.C., when Rome intervened in the internal affairs of Crete, Gortys took the side of the Romans. After the Roman conquest it became the capital of the Roman province of Crete and the Cyrene and experienced great building development. In the early Byzantine period the administrative and urban centre of the city was transferred to the Christian neighbourhood in the modern village Metropolis, while a second centre of the early Byzantine city was located at the church of Agioi Deka. After the Arab conquest, Gortys was ruined.
(Author: Maria Egglezou)
The houses of a Pre- palatial settlement (2500-2000 B.C.) have been found under the palace, and graves of the same period are located near the sea. The first palace was built in around 2000-1900 B.C. The already existing significant settlement, parts of which are preserved around the palace, was then converted into a palatial centre-city. The palace was destroyed in around 1700 B.C. and rebuilt in 1650 B.C. at the same site, following the plan of the older palace, while a few changes were made 50 years later. The new palace was destroyed in c. 1450 B.C., along with the other Minoan palatial centres. The site was reoccupied for a short period in the 14th-13th century B.C. Remains of a Roman settlement cover an extensive area at a site called “Marmara”, where a basilica of the 6th century is also preserved.
The English admiral Th. Spratt, who travelled to Crete in the middle of the 19th century, reports the finding of gold sheets at the site “”Helleniko Livadi” “. In 1915, Iosif Hatzidakis started a probe excavation on the hill called “”Azymo”” and brought to light the southern half of the west wing of the palace, as well as the tombs by the sea, but he stopped the research. Finally, the French School of Archaeology at Athens resumed the excavations, which are being continued until presently with intervals, at the palace, the sectors of the town and the cemeteries on the coast. The results have been published in the series Etudes Cretoises since 1928, and in the works of H. Van Effenterre and O. Pelon. The finds are exhibited in the Museum of Heraklion, and some of them in the Museum of Agios Nikolaos.
Its excellent position on an extensive flat area of the hill, dominating the southeastern side of Souda Bay and controlling at the same time the greater area around it, proved to be ideal for the development of the city into a strong commercial and cultural centre. With its two harbours, Minoa (modern Marathi) and Kissamos, at the entrance of Souda Bay, it ensured control of every activity at sea.
The written sources and the results of the excavation research until now have shown that the period of the city’s greatest prosperity were the early Hellenistic times (end of 4th – 3rd century B.C..), when it was financially and politically powerful and started minting its own currency. In the Roman times, with the introduction of the “Pax Romana”, the city declined financially and politically. However, the agricultural production was developed, following the plan of the Roman authority. Habitation continued until the Byzantine times, without, however, any particular prosperity.
In the centre of the ancient city, the Monastery of Agios Ioannis the Theologian was built, which was already mentioned in an 1181 A.D. Chronicle. It belonged to the Monastery of Patmos and functioned until the mid-1960s. During the years 1866-69 a castle was built by the Ottoman conquerors, in order to suppress the Cretan Revolution. In recent years, the 25th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities conducted systematic excavation research in the archaeological site of Aptera and rescue excavations in the greater area. Important works to enhance the archaeological site were realised by the Community Support Framework II.
(Authors: Vanna Niniou – Kindeli, Aggeliki Tsingou, archaeologists)
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