Traveling Classroom Foundation
Thursday June 8th 2023

Gortys – A City for the Ages

To avoid the heat, we begin our journey to Gortys very early.  There are several winding country roads through the mountains. However, the best route is from Iraklio to the highway that leads directly to the south coast. Despite driving the mountain pass behind a large truck hauling construction equipment, we arrive in Gortys before 9:00 AM.  Unfortunately, it is already getting hot.

Messara has the richest farming land on the island of Crete

Gortys is located in the Messara Plain, the richest agricultural area on Crete. For a long time it was just a small Minoan village on a hill near the Lithaios river, under the power of the nearby palace of Phaestos and (later) Mycenaean conquerors. With the arrival of the Dorian Greeks, it began to develop into a powerful city in its own right.

All of the Dorians seemed to build their settlements in the same way: heavily fortified on top of a defensible hill (see Dreros). That makes sense when you are an intruder surrounded by real or imagined enemies. Gortys was no exception. We start our investigation at the old acropolis on Ayios Ioannis (St. John) hill, northwest of the public archaeological site. The Dorians built their fortress here during the Geometric period (10th – 7th century BCE), after taking over the walled Minoan village that had stood for over 600 years.

Remains of the fortified acropolis on Ayios Ioannis hill

There isn’t much here to see, just a few surviving fortifications and the remains of a small temple dedicated to Athina Poliouchos (Athena, Builder of Fortresses), a favorite goddess of warriors. The real growth of Gortys occurred below the acropolis, on the Messara Plain. As years passed, the town grew rich and powerful, and it spread over a large part of the plain.  By the end of the 7th century BCE, Gortys replaced Phaestos as the regional capital.

In the 5th century BCE, Gortys was the largest and richest city in the region. But if you think its wealth came from cultivating the land (as in Minoan times), you are mistaken. Instead of working in their olive groves and vineyards, many citizens of Gortys pursued more lucrative ventures: shipping and piracy. They operated out of the harbor towns of Matala and Leviena (modern Lentas), and their territory included the entire south coast of Crete.

Ruins at Leviena, the ancient port of Gortys

Despite some of its more nefarious activities – from piracy to warring with other city-states on Crete – governance and law were serious business in Gortys. The city’s Law Code, written in the Dorian dialect, is carved in stone using a form called “ox-plow turn”, running right to left in the first line and left to right in the next, and so on (resembling the way an ox turns when plowing a field). These carved stones were originally mounted in the vouleuterion (meeting-place of the citizens’ assembly) of Gortys, so that everyone could see what the law required.

The city's Law Code, carved in stone for public viewing

In addition to civil administration, the leaders of Gortys excelled in politics and foreign relations. They had excellent relations with Ptolemy IV of Egypt (also a Dorian), and experienced a new period of prosperity during the Roman period. As it had allied with Rome, Gortys avoided the disaster that befell the rest of Crete when Roman legions invaded in 68 BCE. Ironically, one of the chief reasons for the Roman campaign was to put down Cretan piracy on the high seas (a specialty of Gortys).

We have to drive slowly along a rutted dirt track through an olive grove to reach the center of the Roman city. Even if we didn’t know what we were looking for, the monumental ruins clearly mark this as the main administration hub.

Praetorium of Gortys, palace of the Roman governor

Here are the Praetorium (the seat of the Roman governor of Crete), several other administrative and decorative municipal structures, and the Nymphaion sanctuary, consecrated to water nymphs (also a reservoir and assembly chambers). An aqueduct into the city center supplied plenty of water for the lavish waterworks.

Beyond the Praetorium is the Temple of Pythian Apollo, the religious center of the city before the establishment of Christianity. The original building is dated to the 7th century BCE. Some inscriptions originally set in the outer walls of the temple have been preserved from this phase. The substantial remains of the stepped altar to the east, in front of the entrance, are also impressive.

Temple of Pythian Apollo was the most important in the city

Thirteen centuries of continuous worship in the same spot brought about architectural modifications to the first temple, so what we see is not the same as the original building.

In the precinct of the temple, we find an SAIA team (Scuola Archeologica Italiana di Atene) working a new dig. The Italians were the first to explore this city in the late 19th century, and they still run the excavation programs here.

Italian archaeologists conduct a new excavation near the temple

Not far from the temple are the Roman baths, which is where we want to be at this moment.  Unfortunately, these extensive baths haven’t been functional for many centuries, so we take another drink from our water bottle and continue onward.

Hot day, but no water in the ancient Roman Baths

We finally return to the public exhibit near the road – not so much to revisit the site, but to use the rest rooms to splash water on our faces and cool down. However, we must take a quick walk around the site.

Church of Ayios Titos is one of the oldest in the world

The two important features are the church of Ayios Titos (St. Titus) and the Roman Odeon (theater). The church is an imposing monument of Byzantine architecture dedicated to St. Titus, a disciple of the Apostle Paul and the first bishop of Crete. The church was built in the mid-6th to early 7th century.

The architectural type is a three-aisle basilica with a transept and dome. The church was built of dressed poros stone by master craftsmen and the interior must have been richly painted. Unfortunately the paintings have disappeared over the centuries.

Roman Odeon of Gortys

Only a short walk from this Byzantine church is a Roman theater. The Dorian town hall (vouleuterion) was converted into an odeon in the 1st century CE. The odeon was used for musical events, plays and recitals. This is the most important ancient odeon in Crete and one of the best of its type.

Of particular note: when the Roman builders had the old town hall dismantled, they preserved the Dorian Law Code. It is now mounted on a wall in the brick enclosure behind the odeon’s audience seating.

Gortys was declared the capital of the Roman province of Crete and Cyrenaica (northern Africa), and continued to grow and expand its influence through the fall of Rome and rise of the Byzantine Empire. It grew from village to city-state to empire over a period of 2,000 years.

Then, with the Arab conquest of Crete in 828 CE, it vanished … never to be rebuilt.

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2 Comments for “Gortys – A City for the Ages”

  • Tom says:

    Wow! This is pretty mind-boggling. I know the Romans weren’t perhaps so altruistic, yet the beauty of what remains is nothing short of inspiring. Tom

  • Olivia says:

    I have always been interested in ancient Greece and Rome. I am really excited to be learning more about it in 5th grade!

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