Gortys or Gortyn in Crete

Gortys or Gortyn is one of the most important cities in Crete with an unbroken history of 6,000 years and one of the most extensive archaeological sites in Greece. Gortys lies in south-central Crete in the fertile Messara plain, the site of the first human habitation of Crete at the end of the Neolithic period (5th millennium BC).

map of Gortys in Crete

Gortys is about 40 minutes drive south of Heraklion, on the same road that will take us to Phaistos and Matala. It is about 1 km past the village of Agioi Deka, at the side of the main road.

The name Gortys or Gortyna

  • According to one tradition, Gortys was named after its founder, the son of Radamanthys, king of Phaistos and brother of King Minos.
  • Another story is that it was founded by Gortys from Tegea, a town in the Arcadian Gortynia in Peloponnese.
  • A third variation on the same myth has Gortys founded by Queen Gortyna of Crete, mother of King Taurus.

Excavations at Gortys

Gortys was one of the first areas of Crete to attract the attention of researchers and archaeologists as early as the period of Turkish occupation in the late 19th century, when Minoan civilisation was still a matter of conjecture and myth.

In 1884 the discovery and preservation of the Great Inscription by Iosif Hatzidakis, Stefanos Xanthoudides and Italian Federico Halbherr led to excavations in the Gortys area.

excavations at Gortys
Federico Halbherr is studying the Laws of Gortys, SOURCE: http://www.scuoladiatene.it/

Excavations were undertaken by the Italian Archaeological Mission in collaboration with the Archaeological Service after Crete became an autonomous state in 1898, and lasted until 1940.

Excavations in the wider area of Gortys brought important buildings and finds to light, although a large part of the Roman city still remains unexplored today. The most important finds are displayed in Heraklion Archaeological Museum, while some will be housed in the Mesara Archaeological Museum once this is built in a few years time.

History of Gortyna

The area has been inhabited since the end of the Neolithic period. Habitation continued in Minoan times, a fact proven by the Minoan country villa found in the Kannia area near Mitropolis village, not far from Gortys.

Agioi Deka near Gortys
Agioi Deka town near Gortys

From the middle of the 1st millennium BC, Gortys replaced Phaistos as the chief power in the Mesara, centred around the fortified acropolis with the temple of Athena Poliouchos (Protector of the City).

After the Roman conquest of Crete in 67 BC, Gortys, which was well disposed towards Rome, became capital of Crete, replacing Knossos. Gortys was declared the capital of the Roman province of Crete and Cyrenaica, a position it held until the Arab conquest of Crete in 828 AD.

Gortys reached the peak of its power in the 2nd century AD, while its final period of glory was in the early Christian period (until the 7th century AD).

It is believed that Gortys expanded across a wide area and had a large population. It may have been built using stone from the nearby Roman quarry in the village of Ambelouzos, known in Crete as the Labyrinth of Mesara.

In 796 AD the city was hit by an earthquake which almost destroyed it. After the Andalusian Arabs conquered Crete in 828 AD, the capital was transferred to Chandax, modern-day Heraklion.

The archaeological site of Gortys

Usually a visit to Gortys is limited to the archaeological site open to the public: the church of St Titus, the Odeon and the famous Plane Tree. But how representative is the picture the visitor gains of the grandeur of this city, once the capital of Crete?

The church of Saint Titus in Gortys in Crete
The church of Saint Titus in Gortys

The city of Gortys used to cover a large area, but unfortunately only a small part of it has been excavated. What the uninformed visitor sees is only the tip of the iceberg.

Stand at the entrance to the archaeological site and look across the road. You will see some blue signs which are usually ignored, but those curious enough to follow them will be amazed at what they see.

In the next few pages, we will take you on a virtual tour of the whole archaeological site of Gortys. We will visit the church of St Titus, the Odeon, the room of the Law Code of Gortys and of course the plane tree of Zeus and Europa.

When we finish our tour of this area, will cross the road to Phaistos and walk along the road to Mitropolis. A little further on we will admire the largest Early Christian church in Crete, whose splendour is still evident despite its ruined state.

Then, following the path through the olive trees, we will reach the heart of Roman Gortys, the Praetorium, the seat of the Roman Governor of Crete.

Gortys archaeological site, Roman ruins

The Praetorium is a huge and luxurious building. Unfortunately none of these areas is open to the public, but you’ll be impressed even gazing at them through the wire fencing and enjoy every moment of your visit.

Let’s begin our tour of Gortys:

We leave the car in the car park and buy a ticket (4 in 2007) before entering the archaeological site. On our left is part of the church of St Titus.

We pass by the church and cross the square with its old olive trees with their time-knotted trunks. These trees look as though they have been here hundreds of years, further evidence of the history of Gortys down the ages.

Gortys, the old olive trees

We continue straight on and admire the evergreen plane tree of Gortys, said to have shaded the wedding celebrations of Zeus and Europa.

  • Start here: The plane tree of Gortys(1)
  • The Great Inscription with the Law Code of Gortys (2) – The Odeon
  • The church of St Titus (3)
  • The statues display
  • The Great Basilica (4)
  • The Temple of Apollo and the Temple of the Egyptian Gods
  • The Roman baths (5)
  • The Praetorium of Gortys (6)
  • The Nymphaeum of Gortys (7)
  • The Acropolis of Gortys
map of Gortys archaeological site

* Article by Maria Kivernitaki – Photos by Yannis Samatas

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