From Phaistos it is about 23 Km to our next stop at the archaeological site at Gortyn. Like a number of these famous sites from the ancient history of Crete, time has moved on from Gortyn and all that is left for visitors to view is a dusty, ancient set of ruins which on the day we passed by, we could only examine through the chain wire fence as the site closed at 2pm. Like sites in the rest of Greece, humanity has been living in this area since about 7000 BCE; at times, the citizens of this town grew in power and wealth and other times faded into defeat and poverty. Despite its varied fortunes, Gortyn is a place that has housed many different variants of culture, both civil and religious ever since the Minoan period and the arrival of Christianity. Gortyn is on the Messara Plains and has been a city served by harbours on the south coast of Crete such as Matala and Lebena, given that so much of its history arrives by sea from the south. (See map above.)
Attempting to get a map of the layout of Gortyn from the internet failed to come up with anything particularly illuminating. The map below of the Gortyn area today comes from Google (Thank You Google!) that assisted in pin-pointing the major sites around old Gortyn. It shows a wide area where at different time periods, different monuments, religious sites and community buildings were erected to serve the citizens of Gortyn. If you decided to do a chronological tour of the old town, you would start with the Acropolis which is located towards the top of the map. It was at the Acropolis that Bronze age settlers gathered when the old palace of Phaistos was functioning and its administrators dominated this area of Crete.
Unlike Phaistos, Gortyn got some significant mentions in Greece’s foundational documents from the Archaic period. For example, Gortyn gets a mention in the works of Homer, particularly when the Greeks were returning from Troy and were having great trouble making landfall due to storms on the southern coast of Crete. Even before the tragic war against Troy, the old Fables about Zeus told the story of his liaison with the maiden Europa which apparently happened under a tree at Gortyn. We will encounter a memorial statue to this event at our next overnight stopping point at Agios Nikolaos.
The main in-ground monument from the Archaic period of Gortyn is the Temple of Apollo Pythios. There are many famous temples to Apollo around Greece; the ‘Pythios’ attached to his name at Gortyn indicates his famous defeat of the great Python at the site of Delphi. Apollo has many jobs in his role in the Pantheon of Greek Gods which include archery, music, dance, healing, prophecy and many more. In the images below, the remains of an altar to Apollo can be seen outside the main foundations of its walls.
We know that the golden age of peace and prosperity arrived for Athens from around 449 BCE when it had defeated the Persians and began its advance in developing its legal structures to govern the emerging democracy of the city and inspiring the great playwrights, scientists and doctors that marked the age. However, it is at Gortyn that the earliest surviving legal inscription from anywhere in Europe can be found. The Odeion is the most significant building remnant to be found in the archaeological area of Gortyn and the Gortyn Law Code survives in a structure behind the Odeion. It is a complete code of law, based on Minoan tradition, and is dated to around 450 BCE.
The last three centuries of the millennium before the Common Era are described as the Hellenistic period as the Greek world felt the effects of Alexander’s widespread conquests but by the second century BCE, Rome was starting to have a great influence in the Aegean sea. In a minor footnote to the history of the period, it is said that the great enemy of Rome, the Carthaginian general, Hannibal, spent some exile time in Gortyn before fleeing back to Persia.
By the first century BCE, the leaders of Gortyn had changed sides and became an ally of Rome and by 27 BCE their city was granted the title of the capital of the Roman province of Crete and Cyrene. The Odeion, built in the first century BCE, is a typical Roman theatre of the time. At Gortyn can be seen the remains of the Praetorium where the Roman consul adjudicated; these ruins date to the second century CE. Surprisingly as part of the Roman remains here is an Isieion, a Roman construction of a sanctuary/temple dedicated to the cult of many Egyptian Gods (Isis, Serapis-Zeus and Anubis-Hermes) which had become quite the rage amongst Romans before the Christians came and swept away both the Roman and Greek divinities. The image to the left shows the preserved remains of this temple.
One of the new technologies that the Romans brought to Gortyn is their system of providing water to their cities even though the source of the water is a long distance away. There are still remnants of the aqueducts that survive in this landscape that were built to bring water to Gortyn. Not far from the Gortyn Praetorium, a cistern was built to receive the water and over this storage was built a Nymphaeum. These originally were monuments consecrated to Nymphs of a natural water source, but they were eventually built over artificially delivered water cisterns. The image on the left below is an archaeologist’s drawing of what the Nymphaeum at Gortyn would have looked like.
In the Google map above of the site of Gortyn, there is a small village on the right-hand side of the image called Agioi Dekka which translated from Greek means ‘Ten Martyrs’. The name of the village comes from a story that speaks of events that marked the end of the Roman period in Crete and the beginning of the Christian period. This was a tale of ten Christian men, mainly from Gortyn, who refused to worship the old Gods of Rome and thus were beheaded for their adherence to the new faith. However, the major building on the Gortyn site that we were able to get a good luck at through the fence was the remnants of the Church of St Titus. It was built in the 7th century, well after the Romans had departed Gortyn ; it was built to celebrate the first bishop of Crete, St Titus. Titus was a first century companion of St Paul and there is even a letter in the New Testament addressed to Titus who he apparently left behind in Crete at some point in his many journeys. Paul had been arrested in Jerusalem for religious errors and as he was a Roman citizen, demanded to be tried in Rome. It was on this complex trip by boat (note illustration below) where he was shipwrecked off the south coast of Crete and he made it to one the harbours that served Gortyn. The general consensus of Pauline History is that Paul didn’t survive Rome, presumably he died amongst the many Christians blamed for the great fire of Rome in 64 CE. How Titus ended up in Crete is not clear as is the dating of the ‘Letter to Titus’ is still debated by scholars. While the link with Titus and Gortyn is a little tenuous, there was certainly a church named after him built here which was destroyed by an Arab invasion in the 824.
My trip to Crete encouraged me to read St Paul’s Letter to Titus on my return home and I was struck by St Paul’s (or the Pauline writer’s) opinion of the Cretans that Titus had to work with. “One of them, a prophet of their own, said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, and idle gluttons.’ This testimony is true.” (Titus 1:12-13). Apart from becoming the source of a famous logic problem (If a liar says that he is lying, is he telling the truth….?), Paul’s opinion of Cretans was no indicator of the wonderful hospitality we received during our travels around the towns of Crete.
Appendix 1: Another Plan of Gortyn