On the Gulf of Mirabello, not far from Ayios Nikolaos, is a lesser known Minoan site that is really quite fascinating. Though it is relatively small, Gournia is a fine example of a Minoan town – and that is a rare thing. The more famous excavations on Crete – Knossos, Festos, Zakros and others – all focused on royal palaces, and generally ignored the towns that supported them.
Traveling eastward on the coastal road, we almost miss the Gournia turn-off – a dusty track into an olive grove. The archaeological site itself is easy enough to spot, because it lies on a rocky hill jutting above the trees. We park in the shade of an olive tree and walk to the gated entrance, passing several people who were leaving. At the foot of the acropolis (which means “high town”) we find ourselves quite alone – except for the chirping cicadas.
The acropolis of Gournia
This acropolis is Gournia’s most important neighborhood, with multilevel, flat-roofed houses stacked up like Lego blocks to the top of the hill, where there is a public square and a small palace (or governor’s house). It is probably where the most influential merchants and tradesmen lived (to be close to the seat of power). The rest of the town extended northward down to the waterfront, but this has never been excavated. It remains buried under the olive groves on private property.
Four thousand years ago, Gournia was an important port – not because of its small harbor, but because it controlled a pass through the hills to the larger port of Ierapetra on the south coast of Crete. The overland route avoided a dangerous sea passage around the eastern cape of the island. This was vital in ancient times, particularly during winter, when rough seas blocked shipping and commerce.
Cobbled road to the palace
Two cobbled lanes – built for pack animals rather than carts – encircle the lower and upper parts of the town. We hike up the eastern lane, stopping to inspect the remains of houses and workshops (many craftsmen had shops in their homes). The ancient Minoans built walls of wooden beams and mudbrick, and flat roofs of plastered reeds. Those materials have all disintegrated over time, leaving only the stone.
Stone ground floor walls of Gournia house survive
What we see are the surviving ground floors and basements. In many instances, entry to the houses was by stairs leading up from the street. In old Greek villages, we have often seen homes built in this way – with no windows on the ground floor (to avoid burglary). We enter other houses over large threshold stones at street level. Access to basements would have been down wooden stairs, through a trapdoor inside the house.
Entrance of many houses is at top of stairs
In many homes we saw hollow stone vessels, which are called gourni. The site was named Gournia because of the large number of these vessels found. No one knows the original name of the town.
Stone vessel for which town was named
At the summit, we find a rather large courtyard, where residents would have gathered for important meetings or celebrations. At the north end of the courtyard was a familiar L-shaped staircase leading to a smaller courtyard. This is a miniature version of stairs at the entrances of the great palaces of Knossos, Malia and Festos.
Grand stairs to the palace entrance
Climbing the stairs, we enter another (smaller) courtyard just in front of the palace. The governor may have stood here to address the townspeople gathered below in the big courtyard. It might also have been a place for entertainments and public religious ceremonies. Excavators found what could be a sacrificial stone in the courtyard. Holes drilled in the stone may have held the legs of a tripod offering table, on which a sacrificial animal was tied. Another hole may have been for fixing a religious symbol, such as the double axe (labrys) symbol found throughout Minoan Crete.
Sacrificial altar stone in the palace courtyard
The palace itself is built of cut stone (ashlar) blocks, and remnants of pillars used to build it are still visible. It has the features of the big palaces – a lustral bath at the entrance, storage rooms, light wells to allow air and light into living quarters, and even a small shrine nearby. However, everything is on a much smaller scale.
Ashlar blocks and column remains of Gournia palace
The main thing to remember when looking at ancient ruins is to think in three dimensions. When walls and roofs have collapsed and turned to dust, what remains is a rather two-dimensional foundation and scattered parts of the building. You have to use your imagination to visualize the building as it appeared thousands of years ago. Fortunately, we got a little help from some archaeologists we know. From evidence found at the site, they created a drawing that shows us how the palace looked.
Archaeologists’ view of Gournia palace
While it wasn’t the sort of palace you would find in the great Minoan capitals, it was a large and luxurious building that served many purposes. In addition to providing for the governor and his family, the palace was the main administration and commerce center for the region. The governor met with representatives from other Minoan cities and towns, and probably entertained foreign dignitaries and businessmen.
View from the palace to Gournia harbor
From the upstairs windows in the palace, the governor could see most of the town below and watch shipping activities in the harbor. We sit in the palace for a long while, looking at the same views, before we walk down through the town and into the world again.