A cultural guide to Crete
Cretan history? It’s all Greek to me…
Even though Crete’s history dates back to prehistoric times, when talking about the Cretan culture, it’s hard not to focus on the ancient Greeks who have left their mark so prominently on the island. The rocky Aegean landmass has five major archaeological sites, four of which are the ruins of Greek Minoan palaces. Once the centre of a Minoan society, many of Crete’s historical spots have their origins in Greek times, but there is a lot more to the island’s past. With the Romans, the Venetians and Ottomans all playing their part, it is hard not to run into some fantastic ancient ruins. Here is a walk through our four favourite cultural hot spots that show you that Crete is about more than ancient Greeks. Hire a car in Crete with easyCar to make sure you get round them all in your trip.
Inhabited since 8 BC, the ancient city of Aptera was once an important commercial hub. The site is remarkably well preserved given that it has twice been destroyed – once by an earthquake in 700 AD and once by Arab pirates in 800 AD. Most of the remains, including the amphitheatre, the baths and the magnificently intact cisterns, date from the Roman period (although some Hellenistic traces do remain) making Aptera the largest Roman site on the island. Excellent views over wild flower covered Aptera, the surrounding olive groves and Souda Bay can be found by driving up to the nearby Ottoman fortress of Izzeddin.
The Agia Triada (Holy Trinity) Monastery was constructed 17 AD by two Venetian monks on the site of a former church – monks had lived in the area since 14 AD. Built in the Byzantine style, the peach-hued monastery has Doric columns, three impressive domes and a courtyard with swathes of bougainvillea. The monastery, along with many relics, was partly destroyed by the invading Turks during the Greek War of Independence in 1821, but was restored at the end of the revolution with the addition of a new bell tower. The monastery is still in use and many treasures still remain including rare tomes, icons and codices. The resident monks have won prizes for their home grown produce (including wine, soap, honey and olive oil) which they sell to visitors.
Gortyn was once the Roman Capital of Crete, so it is unsurprising that its sprawling ruins should be so jam-packed with things to see. The Gortyn Law Code, once considered the archaeological discovery of the 19th Century, can be found on the site carved into the curving back wall of the Odeon. The Greek laws in the inscription cover areas as diverse as marriage, property rights and adultery. Part of the Gortyn complex, the Byzantine Basilica of St Titus is an commanding structure that is a must for any culture vulture’s tour. It is thought that the basilica was once the largest church in Greece and elements of the building still stand at full height. Excavation work is still being carried out on the Gortyn site by The Italian School of Archaeology and it is thought that many more treasures from all periods are yet to be uncovered.
After Gortnya, Lissos is the second most important archaeological site in Crete. The majority of the remains in Lissos are not, as you might expect, ancient Greek, but are in fact Roman. In terms of history, Lissos has it all: an aqueduct, a theatre and an early cemetery, but what truly sets it apart is its Asclepion (a Hellenistic temple dedicated to the god of medicine). People from surrounding regions would come to the Asclepion of Lissos to take the thermal water for its healing properties. Of the Asclepion, only the mosaicked floor now remains which is decorated with beautiful animal patterns. Lissos was destroyed by an earthquake in 9 AD and has remained deserted ever since. The goats, the only inhabitants of this ancient city, clamber undisturbed around the Roman necropolises and Byzantine churches. The city remained a powerful centre throughout the Byzantine period (even being declared as the seat of the bishopric) and early Christian remains from this period can also be explored. Access this forgotten city by taking a drive to Sougia and hiking through the rugged Lissos Gorge.