A Day’s Drive through the Mountains of Crete

Phaistos (Festos)

We left Chania reasonably early in the day and headed off on our long drive down the length of Crete to our next night’s stop at Agios Nikolaos. Our morning drive was up hill most of the way with our intended first stop being the site of the ancient palace community at Phaistos. Part of the issue of driving through Crete is understanding that the landscape has been imbued with human stories for many millennia. For example, we passed the tallest mountain in Crete on our left (See above map…Mount Psiloritis), its common name is Mount Ida. In ancient myths, the mountain was sacred to the Goddess Rhea and it was here she gave birth to her baby, Zeus, in a cave. He had to be hidden as his father Cronus was looking for his offspring to kill him off.

The drive to Phaistos took us close to two and a half hours so we were well and truly ready for a break when we arrived. We had basically crossed from the north side of the island of Crete to the south side. This site overlooked the Messara Plains and was not too far from Messara Bay. Today Phaistos is just an archaeological site, there are only traces left in the landscape of the large community that once existed here during eons of pre-history. The site was found in 1853 by surveyor Thomas Spratt who used helpful directions in the work of Strabo (63 BCE- 24 CE), the famous Geographer and Historian from the time of Augustus, that enabled him to pinpoint the location of Phaestos. At the time of discovery there was a village there of 16 houses here but few traces left of the city that once stood here.

Discoveries at Phaistos have shown that people were living here at the end of the Neolithic period. The remains of a Bronze age ‘palace’ built around 2000 BCE was discovered and the archaeological evidence shows that it was destroyed at least three time by earthquake before being rebuilt each time. It was destroyed by invaders from the Greek mainland around 1400 BCE. Whilst the palace wasn’t rebuilt, people continued to live here until local enemies, from Gortyn, destroyed what remained of the town at the end of the third century. On the day we arrived at this beautiful ruin with landscape views to die for, it was hard to imagine that a city existed here three and half thousand years ago.

Visiting the ruins of Phaistos’s Minoan Palace is a challenging exercise if your plan is to come away with a clear view of the nature and layout of the palace. While it is awkward to look for the interpretative rebuilding that Sir Arthur Evans used at the Knossos Palace, every now and then I was wishing for some of the same while walking around Phaistos to give me a stronger sense of what I was actually looking at. The developers of the site have done a good job with the plaques with diagrams and archaeological notes that are placed regularly around the site. However they are often small line drawings that don’t create the shock and awe that the original would have caused for strangers arriving at this amazing palace overlooking the Messara Plains. The image on the right is a suggested view of the palace from the west side. The steps to the theatre area can be seen on the left of the image as well as the steps up to the main entryway that led visitors to the central court.

Even getting a publicly available plan of the Phaistos site is challenging. A more recent one can be found in Appendix 1 but clear detail is lacking. The diagram to the left gives a reasonable layout of the archaeological ruins with labels indicating the key sections of the archaeological site. However, if you enter the site from the West side, this map shows the processional way but not the circular structures nearby that may have been grain silos. Coming from this side you can inspect the steps in the theatrical area and then head toward the Central Court which was the main public open space in the palace.

The main entrance, the Propylaea, to the Palace of Phaistos is considered to be the most impressive entrance to any of the Minoan Palaces around Crete. This entrance replaced an early one so it is part of the ‘New’ Palace that lasted from 1700 to 1450 BCE. The plaque near the entrance reads… “The portico consists of a central column – only the base is preserved today – flanked by pilasters. There followed a solid wall with a double opening and a colonnade of three columns. The floors of the Propylaea complex were paved with gypsum slabs which gave it a sumptuous appearance. The colonnade opens into a large open-air lightwell through which rainwater drained away.”

Not far from the main entrance, the visitor moved into the roofless court-yard where they had the choice (if they were royalty) of entering the royal apartments by turning left or heading the other way towards the Central Court. The associated plaque today reads… “The open peristyle court was one of the most elegant inner courtyards of the New Palace. It consisted of an impressive peristyle with four columns on each side supporting the corresponding colonnades, while the central area remained open. The same construction appears to have continued on the upper floor, with a second row of columns.”

The average visitor to the palace would have turned right from the peristyle hall and made their way to the entrance to the Central Courtyard. Back at the time of the New palace, this way would have included a room covered in impressive frescoes. The archaeologists have found the remains of these wall paintings but they haven’t been restored in any way so their content remains a mystery to modern visitors.

The information board in the Central Court area explains; “The great Central Court is a basic architectural element of Minoan palaces and the core around which the different wings are set. It was the focus of the economic, social and religious activity of the palace, the setting for events which could be watched from the windows and the balconies.” In the recreated image above, the artist depicts groups gathered at windows of the Central Court watching the activities below. Presumably similar activities involving bulls and acrobats took place at Phaistos as at Knossos so a raging bull has been depicted in a corner of the central Court being danced over by a fearless acrobat. Further along there are guards with long spears ready to either rescue their colleague or stop the bull escaping from the central court.

From the west side of the Central Court there are two rectangular rooms that appear to be sitting rooms for spectators to watch events taking place in the open courtyard. As the map of the palace earlier in this article indicates, there are storage magazines on this western side of the palace where food supplies were stored in large clay jars (Pithoi). It was in this area that the ‘Archive Room’ of the Old Palace (1900-1700) was discovered containing 6000 clay sealings which were used to monitor the movement of the goods in these storage areas. The diagram below from the site shows a well-preserved Old Palace magazine under the floor of the lightwell in the Propylaea

Apart from the discovery of the ancient city and palace of Phaistos itself in the southern mountains of Crete, a small discovery in a north-east building on the palace site has become almost as famous as the building itself. The Phaistos Disc is a fired clay disc about 15 cm in diameter that was discovered in 1908 and has 241 tokens pressed into the clay on both sides. There are 45 distinct signs or hieroglyphic seals that make up the 241 total. Archaeologists had not seen the like of it before, they didn’t know whether the signs were an alphabet or a ‘syllabary. It became known as Linear A. A gold ring was found in 1926 with a spiral inscription in Linear A and in 1955 a seal was found with ‘sign 21’ from Linear A on it. A couple of archaeologists had decided that the disc was a forgery, but this discovery of a parallel sign elsewhere has convinced most researchers that the disc is genuine.

The depth of the layer where the Phaistos Disc was discovered suggests a date somewhere between 1850 and 1600 BCE. Many of the ‘syllabic signs’ in Linear A are known from Linear B, a language that is considered a Mycenaean Greek dialect that has been dated from about 1400 BCE. Inscriptions in the Linear B dialect had been found in Crete from the time that the Myceneans had taken over most of the cities on the island.

Perhaps the most famous and oldest books in the world, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, were written around the 8th century BCE and the language Homer used descended from the Linear B script of the Myceneans. Linear B was eventually deciphered as Greek in 1952.

While the Phaistos Linear A script is not as old as the earliest Egyptian inscriptions (3400-3200 BCE), it is evidence of the beginnings of humanity around the Mediterranean discovering the skills to record their oral language, a huge leap for civilization. It could also be said that this written language of the Minoans went on to grow up and become the language of the great literary works gathered together by Homer.

There was a lot to pack into our couple of hours wandering around the Phaistos site and catching the amazing views from this mountain. We still had a fair way to go in the day and I wanted to stop at a place a little further on that I knew both from its historic relationship with Phaistos but also its link with a New Testament figure, Paul of Tarsus. We hit the road for Gortyn.

APPENDIX 1: A more recent image of the layout of Phaistos Palace

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