13. RETHYMNON - IERAPETRA (Following the
south coast) (see Map
1 - Map
2 - Map
The Town of Gortina (Gortyna or Gortys)
(Guarded archaeological site, open daily from 8:30 a.m. till
As King of the Gods, Zeus had everything in the world that he
needed, and he had it just for the asking: plenty of ambrosia
and nectar for his feasts, wonderful smells from the sacrifices
offered in his countless sanctuaries on earth, a whole bunch
of previously mortal friends who were given immortality and
taken to Olympus because he enjoyed their company
(Hercules and Ganymedes being two prime examples), an inexhaustible
stock of thunderbolts to throw on the heads of his enemies,
and a lovely and faithful wife called Hera. Yet he also had
a weakness that tortured him, because it was not as easy to
deal with as everything else: he liked women!
First of all, he had to steal away from his wife, who knew
what an incorrigible womaniser he was and always kept a watchful
eye on him. (In fact, she often caught him in the act). Then
he had to fool the lovely chosen one, so that she would not
realise who he was and would not spoil everything with her screams.
But he was so resourceful and obstinate that he always found
a way to achieve his goal.
One day he spotted Europe, a lovely princess who was playing
with her friends at the beach of Sidona in what today is Lebanon.
(Imagine the range of his vision; nothing got away!) He appeared
in front of her as a harmless white bull and started rolling
on the sand like a playing kitten. When Europe went near him
and sat on his back, the bull started walking around carefully
and quietly, because he did not want to scare the lady. Then,
at the right moment, he plunged into the sea, and started swimming
off the shore with great speed.
The poor girl apparently didn’t know how to swim, so
the only thing she could do was to hold on tightly and cry her
heart out. The cruise ended a few hours later on the empty Cretan
beach that today belongs to Lendas.
Zeus changed his form (though in his heat he was still like
a bull), and he took the girl to the most idyllic place of Crete.
(And when Zeus chose a love nest he knew what he was doing,
especially on this island that was also his birthplace!) The
place he chose was near a small creek by the bank of the Litheos
river and it was covered with plane trees. Some years later
Gortina was built on this same site.
If this was Zeus’ first choice for a love nest, imagine
how beautiful the now ugly valley must once have been. This
fact also explains why Gortina never suffered any great catastrophe
during its long history - its end excepted - but was instead
such a prosperous town. As a token of gratitude and respect,
the Gortinians established a yearly celebration in honour of
Europe, the Ellotia, and they put on their coins the picture
of the princess as she sat on the bull.
It is true, of course, that Gortina was not a great town from
the start. At the time of the Minoan palaces (2000 - 1400 BC),
it was only a small village on a hill by the west bank of the
Litheos that was under the power of Faistos. As the years passed,
however, the town
grew quite rich and powerful, and it spread
over a large part of the valley at the foot of the hill. What
remained on the hill, protected behind walls, was the town’s
acropolis, but its religious or military significance was rather
By the 5th century, Gortina was the largest and richest town
in the valley. But if you think that its wealth came from cultivating
it, think again! Instead of growing cucumbers or getting all
muddy trying to make vases, the Gortinians preferred to practise
another fascinating trade: piracy! Their base of operations
was the harbour town of Levin (the modern Lendas) and their
territory included the entire south coast of Crete.
The main rivals of Gortina were Knossos in the north and Littos
in the east. On the other hand, Kidonia, which lay west of Gortina,
was also a powerful town, but it was too far away to be any
kind of threat.
What is certain is that these powerful Cretan towns must have
had their share of fighting over the years. However, we do not
have much information on the subject, because the great historians
of Greece (Thucydides, Xenophon etc) did not write much about
Crete as it never played a part in the developments on the mainland.
As for the local historians, they had the unfortunate idea of
writing their works on... palm leaves, which some years later
fertilised the soil under the Cretans’ flowers. The only
thing we know is that the Gortinians and the Knossians were
alternatively at war or allied against other common enemies.
In 220 BC, during one of the periods when they were allies,
they conquered and burned Littos, the No 3 powerful town in
the region, and they turned it into... No 0 for ever!
But before the inevitable showdown between Knossos and Gortina
another enemy appeared on the horizon: the Romans. Now, the
Knossians joined forces with other Cretan towns to deal with
the enemy, but the shrewd Gortinians immediately realised the
hopelessness of the situation and, instead, they chose to become
Rome’s allies. Not that they didn’t mind having
a “boss” over them, but since the Romans were
there to stay they thought it would be best to be on their good
side. Indeed, in 68 BC the Romans conquered Crete without much
difficulty, and they destroyed Knossos along with many other towns
that resisted them. But for their ally, Gortina, they reserved
special treatment. Not only did they not touch anything, but they
even made the town the capital of their new province, and they
set about adorning it with beautiful - and needed - public buildings.
Of course, they started with a very luxurious Praetorium for
the needs of the Roman praetor (the governor of the province);
fancy offices and conference rooms, comfortable bedrooms and
a spa were all thought to be indispensable parts of it. Then
they built an Amphitheatre in which to enjoy their... graceful
shows that ended with the loser’s death (beast and gladiator
fights). But to these they added two Theatres,
School, a Stadium (6), a large Public Bath, and many temples,
including the one of Isis and Serapis, two imported deities
that were “made in Egypt.”
From the pre-Roman Gortina we have the splendid temple of the
Pythian Apollo (9), one of the most important temples of the
town, dating from the 7th century BC. On the base of it the
Gortinians carved their laws and the treaties they signed, because
they wanted to place them under the protection of the god. The
large blocks of stone at the Music School which are inscribed
Laws of Gortina must in all likelihood have come from this temple.
No other Greek inscription has been saved that is that big:
in 12 columns,
600 lines, and a total of 17,000 letters - carved
one very close to the other and forming lines that are alternatively
read from left to right and vice versa - is the longest and
most difficult legal text we have in the ancient Cretan dialect.
It dates from the 5th century BC, and... no matter how good
your ancient Greek, you will have a hard time reading it! After
years of study, the experts inform us that it is a kind of civil
code, dealing with matters of property, dowry, inheritance,
marriage, divorce, adoption etc., as well as with the rights
and obligations of slaves.
A second temple of the 7th century BC is the temple of Athena
(10) on the acropolis. Here you will see traces of the wall
that protected the first settlement, as well as the foundations
of a Roman building of unknown use which is known as “Kastro”
When the Christian religion started spreading in Crete, Gortina,
following its standard policy of going along with the nation
or trend that seemed strongest, was the first town to adopt
it. As a result, the archbishop of Crete and student of Paul,
Titos, had his base in Gortina. The Metropolis, dedicated to
Aghios Titos, was built much later (around 500 AD), and it has
been preserved in pretty good condition. However, Christianity
did not win immediately. The Romans did not like the new religion,
and at first they reacted with violence. During the reign of
Emperor Decius (249 - 251 AD), ten young Christians were put
to death here. In their memory, the modern village that was
built near the ancient town was named “Agii Deka”
(The Holy Ten). To honour the ten martyrs, let us also mention
their names: Saturninos, Efporos, Gelassios, Theodoulos, Evnikianos,
Zotikos, Pompios, Agathopous, Evarestos and Vassiliades.
But apart from the Romans, there was somebody else who was
mighty displeased with the Gortinians’ change of religion:
Zeus Himself. After giving them a grace period of six to seven
centuries in which to repent, he sent them a huge Thunderbolt
(with a capital T) and laid everything waste. The thunderbolt
came in the form of the Saracens in 828 AD. The town could not
resist the Arabian attack and it disappeared from the face of
the earth for ever. Its glory and splendour were gone, and its
shattered pieces can be seen today scattered all over the fields
and olive groves surrounding it...
of the information on this page : “Unexplored
Crete”, Road Editions. For more
guidebooks and maps of Greece, click here.