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Heraklion - Agios Nikolaos

 

20. Heraklion - Agios Nikolaos (travelling inland) (see Map1 - Map2)

20.1 The Palace of Knossos 20.2 Archanes - Fourni - Juhtas 20.3 Towards the Lasithi plateau
20.4 The Lasithi plateau    

Archanes - Fourni - Juchtas

After their visit to Knossos, most visitors return to Iraklio (Heraklion), pay a quick visit to the Archaeological Museum and immediately afterwards, make for the tourist resorts on the north coast to enjoy their holidays, feeling that they have seen what there was to be seen of the Minoan civilisation. In reality, however, they have seen few things (and more probably understood even fewer).

Map, Heraklion to Agios Nikolaos

If you are especially interested in the Minoan civilisation and you want to get to know it better, there are, a few kilometres to the south of Knossos, several archaeological sites of exceptional interest, of equal importance with Knossos, and with the advantage that you will probably be alone with the ancient remains (there are not even any attendants). You can visit them any time of day, for no charge, at your leisure and without limitations.

So, after Knossos, continue south on the road to Archanes, but ride very carefully because this is the most slippery and dangerous road in Europe and probably in the world! The criminal contractor who built this road couldn’t have done a better job if he’d tried. Even wet glass has better road-holding. So go very slowly until you reach the village of Patsides and immediately after the village, turn right (there is a Greek/English sign at the junction that reads ‘Kato Archanes’). Go through the small village of Kato Archanes and after a kilometre you will be in Ano Archanes (or just Archanes).

ARCHANES
The name of the Cretan town Archanes appears for the first time in a 5th century inscription which was found at Argos in the Peloponnese. Etymologically, the root ‘ach’ is Indo-European and is associated with water (we meet it in many names of rivers and lakes like Acheloos, Inachos, Acherousia, etc.). Truly, the abundant water which gushes up from the surrounding hills and waters the fertile basin of Archanes was the factor that brought human settlement here, way back in Neolithic times (6000 BC). The first habitations developed in Archanes in that period are lost, and only some sporadic finds (jewellery, stone tools and idols) bear witness to the high level of their civilisation.

When the great palaces of Knossos, Phaestos and Malia were built around 1900 BC, a large palace was also built at Archanes. We still do not know exactly how big it was because today’s village is built right on top of it. Excavations by archaelogists Yiannis and Efi Sakellarakis have been completed only at certain points where expropriations have taken place on open plots or ruined houses, but the trial excavations at various points of the habitation have shown that the Palace of Archanes was equally luxurious and magnificent as the great Minoan palaces.

Archanes, as seen from the Minoan graveyard at Fourni

For the sections and bases of the columns, they used marble in a great variety of colours (white, grey, black, brown) and red or blue slate. Its walls were built of well-shaped limestone and many of them were decorated with frescoes. It can be concluded from their thickness that the palace had three storeys at many points.
What such a big palace was doing so near to the palace of Knossos (just 10 kilometres) has not yet been explained. Evans’ opinion that it was the summer palace of the King of Knossos is completely improbably, anyway. All the archaeological finds reinforce the view that the palace of Archanes was an autonomous and powerful administrative centre around which an extended settlement had developed, but there were also many other settlements and isolated farms scattered all over the Archanes basin, which were dependent on this palace.
The palace of Archanes followed the fate of the other palace centres of Crete. It was destroyed by the strong earthquake of 1700 BC, but it was rebuilt to be even more brilliant. It suffered damage in the earthquake caused by the eruption of the volcano on Santorini in around 1600 BC, but it was immediately repaired and it reached its peak in the period 1600-1450 BC. It was destroyed by some unexplained violent cause in 1450 BC, but it was reconstructed immediately after (like the palace of Knossos) and it became the seat of a Mycenean noble. A new peak period then began which lasted some three hundred years, until 1100 BC when the Dorian invaders captured the whole of Crete. Life in Archanes has continued uninterrupted from ancient times until today. Today, Archanes is a lively town of 4,000 inhabitants that has maintained its traditional character quite well. One of the houses in the village (the old junior school) has housed the Archaeological Museum of Archanes since 1993, where mainly ceramics exclusively from the Archanes area are exhibited. Despite its small size and its humble exhibits (the gold and other valuable finds continue to be ‘buried’ in the Iraklio museum), the Archanes museum offers you the most exciting, comprehensible and relaxing journey into the history of the Minoan civilisation, and from this point of view it is a model museum. If all local authorities were as responsible as the municipality of Archanes, if all Greeks appreciated the cultural treasures of their country as do the inhabitants of Archanes, and if there were more charismatic and dedicated scientists like the archaeologists Yiannis and Efi Sakellarakis, who designed the Archanes museum, then Greece would be much more beautiful.

When you enter the village of Ano Archanes, you will notice on your right, just before the central square, a big stone building which is the junior school. Immediately before the school, you will see a narrow street going off to the right (there is an English sign at the junction that says ‘Ancient Fourni’). Follow this road to its end (it stops 400 metres along, outside a sheepfold), leave your motorcycle and climb up the slope, following the easily distinguishable path to the top of the hill which the locals call Fourni, where the Minoan graveyard of Archanes is situated. The archaeological site is fenced in, but the fence has fallen down at many points and you can easily get inside. There is an attendant’s kiosk but no attendant, so you must undertake his role, i.e. you must be careful not to walk on the walls of the ruins, not to drop litter and, of course, not to move even the smallest thing.

 

THE MINOAN GRAVEYARD AT FOURNI
From the time of Venetian Rule and perhaps even before, the farmers of Archanes had planted vineyards on the slopes of the low hill north of their village. They called this hill Fourni because on the top there was a vaulted stone building like a village baker’s oven (fournos), which the vinegrowers used as a storehouse for their tools. Nobody remembered when this stone hut was built, neither did they ever attach any significance to its strange shape. When the archaeologist Yiannis Sakellarakis ascended this hill in 1964, he realised immediately that this hut was a vaulted Mycenaean grave! What the villagers used as a door was the hole which had been made by grave-robbers (probably in Roman times), near to the roof of the grave. Earth had fallen inside through this hole, and a new floor had been formed over the years, some metres higher than the original floor of the grave.

When the excavating workmen had taken away all the earth from the inside of the grave, Yiannis Sakellarakis ascertained that the grave had been looted. In one corner, he found the bones of a horse which had been sacrificed in honour of the dead person, a fact indicating that it must have been some prominent person. The experienced eye of the archaeologist (more experienced than that of the ancient grave-robbers) noticed a peculiarity in the structure of the wall on the south side of the grave, which made him suspect that perhaps there was a side room behind, as was well-known in similar vaulted graves in Mycenae and Orchomenos.

The vaulted tomb at Fourni where the first unlooted royal burial in Crete was found

Taking away the stones carefully, he made the first important find, the head of a bull that had been sacrificed in honour of the dead person, a find interpreting the bull sacrifice scene in the famous sarcophagus of Aghia Triada - bull sacrifices in Minoan Crete were solemnisations not only in honour of the gods but also in honour of dead kings and priests. The decay of the monument did not allow him to take away any more stones and so he continued the external excavations. Before his astonished eyes, the first unlooted royal grave in Crete was revealed!

The jewellery made of gold and precious stones which was found in that grave was more than all that found in all the vaulted graves in Crete put together! They also found ten bronze vessels of excellent quality, the ivory decoration on a wooden chest, eight earthenware pots, and of course the earthenware sarcophagus with the remains of the dead person who was certainly a royal figure. The most valuable of these finds are on display at the Archaeological Museum of Iraklio, while most of them remain buried in its warehouse. Ordinarily, they should be transferred from this wretched museum to their natural place, the brand new Museum of Archanes.

After 17 years of excavations, Yiannis Sakellarakis has uncovered the majority of this Minoan necropolis which was in use for more than 1400 years, from 2400 BC until 1000 BC approximately. North of the vaulted grave with the unlooted royal burial chamber (1), he discovered a Mycenaean burial enclosure (2) with seven dug graves, in which he found burial chambers with rich funeral gifts (stone pots, seals, bronze vessels and decorative artefacts made of ivory). On the south side of the necropolis, he found another unlooted vaulted grave from 1350-1300 BC (3), where a young woman was buried with all her jewellery made of gold and precious stones, while in her left hand, she was still holding her mirror. Three more vaulted graves, one from 2100-2000 BC (4), one from 2200-2100 BC (5) and one from 2400-2300 BC (6), held dozens of well-protected burials in sarcophagi, earthen casks, or free in the ground, with rich funeral gifts that demonstrate the high cultural and living standards of Archanes.

Twenty six buildings in total have come to light so far at Fourni, some of which are not graves as, for example, the big rectangular building (7) in the centre of the graveyard. This must have been a workshop where they made the artefacts necessary for funeral ceremonies. Other finds include the weaving weights of the looms on which they probably wove the materials worn by the dead, a ‘tortoise’ (i.e. a solid piece of bronze) which was the raw material for the manufacture of bronze objects, numerous pots in which food must have been stored, stone colanders, whetstones and other tools. One of the rooms (7a) was a wine-press, where they made the wine they used in the funeral libations. You can still see the special formation of the ground for treading grapes and for collecting the must.
If, during your tour of Unexplored Crete, you notice some strange stone hut poking out of the bushes, inform the archaeological department immediately. One of the dozens of unknown Minoan cities and graveyards might come to light thanks to your being observant!

 

THE SACRED MOUNTAIN OF JUHTAS
Just five kilometres south of Knossos is a large limestone rock 811 metres high, which to the eyes of the ancient Cretans looked like the figure of Zeus lying on the ground. Juhtas, as it is called today, was the sacred mountain of the Minoans where they founded four temples. On its western slope, at a height of 720 metres, is the small cave of Chosto Nero (Deep Water) which was a place of worship back as far as the Prepalatial Period. On the south-west slope, at a height of 400 metres, is the Cave of Stravomyti, which was in use (initially as a habitation and later as a graveyard and a place of worship) since the Neolithic Period. Both these caves were known to travellers (from the 15th century onwards) who were searching here for the Grave of Zeus, according to the rumours of the impious Cretans who dared to maintain that the king of the gods had died and was indeed buried on their island!
At the beginning of the century, Sir Arthur Evans pointed out and excavated a Peak Sanctuary on the top of the highest summit of Juhtas, where he found bronze double-headed axes and a multitude of earthenware votive idols of animals and humans.
But the most important discovery at Juhtas and one of the most important in the whole of Crete, which caused a commotion among archaeologists and archaeophiles throughout the world was the Temple of Anemospilia, located in 1979 by the archaeologists Efi Sapouna-Sakellarakis and Yiannis Sakellarakis. Excavations began in the summer of the same year and brought to light a rectangular building with four rooms - three of these were next to each other and in front of them was an oblong ante-chamber. In this ante-chamber, excavations uncovered a multitude of pots (around 150) and the skeleton of a man who had fallen head down to the ground, having been hit by the stones that fell from the roof during the very strong earthquake which destroyed not only that temple but also all the palace centres of Crete in around 1700 BC. From his position and from the fractures in his bones, it seems obvious that he tried to run out of the temple when he felt the earthquake, but he did not have time. Next to the man was found the pot he had been carrying (broken), a typical ceremonial pot which the Minoans used in their bull sacrifices to collect the blood of the sacrificial animal. A lot of ceremonial vessels were found in the east room, and in the central room, apart from the vessels, were found two earthenware legs which obviously belonged to the wooden statue of the deity that was worshipped here. Advancing the excavations into the west room, the two experienced archaeologists were certain, from the evidence in front of them, that they would find the bones of the bull being sacrificed at the time of the destruction of the temple. Astonished, however, they found three human skeletons. One belonged to a man aged approximately 37 years, who had on his left hand a very valuable ring and a cameo made of agate. Next to him was the skeleton of a woman approximately 28 years old. And in approximately the centre of the room, on a stone altar, was the skeleton of a young man, approximately 18 years old, turned over on his right side in a position that strengthens the supposition that he was bound, with a big ceremonial knife resting in his stomach. The most probable interpretation of all these findings is that it is a case of human sacrifice, which the priests of the temple carried out in a final attempt at atonement to the deity when the preseismic tremors threw the island into confusion, just before the manifestation of the big earthquake in 1700 BC
To visit the ruins of this temple, follow the sign that says Anemospilia, immediately after the Junior School, in the central square of Archanes (it is the next road after the one which leads to the graveyard at Fourni). Of course, all the finds have been moved to the Iraklio museum and the site is fenced off, but even from a distance it is worth seeing the building where this prehistoric drama unfolded. And if you come up here in the afternoon, you can enjoy the superb view towards Knossos and Iraklio.
The asphalt road (A3) which continues south from Archanes passes through well-cared for vineyards and olive groves which covering these low hills. The landscape you see around you cannot have changed much since Minoan times. Even the cultivation was the same! Among the vineyards, on a hill a little farther north of the abandoned village of Vathypetro, the archaeologist Spyros Marinatos discovered a big Minoan villa dating back to 1600 BC, in which there was an intact wine-press and olive-press (there is a Greek/English sign on the main road which will direct you to the archaeological site). All the relevant equipment was also found in its place in such good condition that you think the farmer is about to come in with his grapes and make must! Unfortunately, the excavator gave in to the temptation and restored and roofed the two most important rooms in the villa with a cement ceiling. There is no attendant at the site, and the gate in the fence has fallen down, but unfortunately the two rooms with the wine-press and olive-press are permanently locked.

THE ROUTES THE ROUTES

Routes starting from Hania

Hania
1. Hania - Akrotiri
2. Hania - Paleochora
3. Hania - Sameria
4. Hania - Hora Sfakion (Sfakia)
5. Hania - Kissamos (Kasteli)

Routes starting from Kissamos
Kissamos (Kasteli)
6. Kissamos - Gramvoussa
7. Kissamos - Elafonissos
8. Kissamos - Paleochora (through the Topolian Gorge)
9. Kissamos - Paleochora (through Episkopi)
10. Kissamos - Sirikari

Routes starting from Hora Sfakion (Sfakia)
11. Hora Sfakion - Rethimno (Rethymnon) (travelling inland)
12. Hora Sfakion - Rethimno (Rethymnon) (following the coast)

Routes starting from Rethimno (Rethymnon)
Rethimno (Rethymnon)
13. Rethimno - Ierapetra (following the south coast)
14. Rethimno - Ierapetra (travelling inland)

Routes starting from Ierapetra
Ierapetra
15. Ierapetra - Zakros (coastal road)
16. Ierapetra - Zakros (inland route)

Routes starting from Iraklio (Heraklion)
Iraklio (Heraklion)
17. Heraklion - Rethymnon (coastal road)
18. Heraklion - Rethymnon (travelling inland)
19.Heraklioon - Agios Nikolaos (coastal road)
20. Heraklioon - Agios Nikolaos (travelling inland)

Routes starting from Agios Nikolaos
Agios Nikolaos
21. Agios Nikolaos - Zakros


Source of the information on this page : “Unexplored Crete”, Road Editions. For more guidebooks and maps of Greece, click here.

 

 

Tip of the day

Numerous thematic museums show Crete’s glorious past and modern cultural life:
Heráklion Archaeological Museum exhibits significant findings of the Minoan Civilisation and is considered to be one of the most important museums of its kind in the world. Thousands excavation finds, from the Disc of Phaestos to the gold pendant of Mália and the clay dancers from Kamilári reveal an ancient-old illustrious past.
• Heráklion Historical Museum presents the evolution of the city during the centuries; among the exhibits stand out three paintings by El Greco and manuscripts of the famous author Nikos Kazantzakis.
• Cretan Ethnology Museum at Vóri reveals the island’s folk life.
• Natural History Museum at Dermatás Bay promotes the unique habitats in Crete and the Mediterranean.
Traditional settlements and historic villages built on mountain slopes and valleys are often surrounded by vineyards and olive groves. Discover the local architecture and spirit of Crete at Arhánes, where neoclassic nobility coexists with rural simplicity, or visit Episkopí with its Byzantine churches. Áno Hersónissos is a picturesque hamlet with Byzantine churches, old wells and stone ovens.

 

 

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