After British friends give us a tour of the renovation project at their Latsida home, they suggest a visit to Elounda Bay for a swim. It is a short drive to Ayios Nikolaos and then northward along the coast. Once a quiet fishing village, Elounda is now a resort town – mainly because of its fine beaches.
Sandy beaches at Elounda attract many vacationers
South of our beach is an old bridge to the Kolokytha Peninsula, which the local people call Nissi (meaning “island”). In 1897 the French fleet dug a channel through the narrow isthmus to allow small boats to enter Elounda harbor without having to sail all the way round the peninsula. This, of course, converted the peninsula into a detached island.
Little bridge over the channel through the isthmus of Kolokytha
Nearing the bridge, we pass salt pans built by Venetians in the 13th century to produce salt. In those times salt was essential for preserving foods – and therefore costly. In April or May seawater was let into evaporation reservoirs where the hot Cretan sun reduced it to a concentrated salt solution. This concentrate was then moved to shallow stone crystallization pans where the remaining moisture evaporated, leaving pure salt at the bottom of each pan. At the end of summer, workers collected the salt and shipped it to market on Venetian trading ships.
Venetian salt pans of Elounda produced a valuable product
Crossing over the channel bridge, we can see another stone wall in Poros Bay to the south. At first glance, it appears to be another salt pan enclosure. After inquiries, however, we discover it is a city wall of ancient Olous (see map).
City wall of ancient Olous, the sunken city
We are very familiar with that name. Olous was one of the important Dorian cities of ancient Crete, with more than 30,000 inhabitants. For many generations, it was also the traditional enemy of Lato, another Dorian city we have explored.
The harbor breakwater of ancient Olous is now underwater
For centuries Olous was a powerful city-state with a stable government, its own coinage, industries, temples, harbor, trading partners, and a large army. However, unlike other Dorian cities built upon rocky fortified hills, Olous was built on coastal sands. Therefore, when it was struck by a major earthquake, movements of the sea floor, sediments, and possibly fault lines caused Olous to slip downward as the sea flooded into the city streets. Now it lies at the bottom of Poros Bay.
Coastal towns can slip downward and seaward during earthquakes
This is not the only coastal city to sink beneath the waters of the Mediterranean. We have seen the sunken ruins off the shores of Paros and Naxos. There are ruins beneath the waves on the coast of Turkey. The palace of Cleopatra and a temple complex in Alexandria sank into the sea following earthquakes and tsunamis more than 1,600 years ago. These ruins are still being explored by underwater archaeologists.
Palace of Cleopatra slid underwater during an earthquake
The largest underwater expedition in Greece is at the sunken town of Pavlopetri, near the town of Neapolis at southern tip of the Peloponnesus. The city is about 5,000 years old and its real name has been lost in the currents of time.
Underwater archaeologist explores a Pavlopetri building
Scientists believe the town was submerged around 1000 BCE by the first of three major earthquakes the area suffered. It was discovered in 1967 by a British archaeologist, and mapped the following year. But the underwater investigation continues to this day.
Digital recreation of Pavlopetri is based on high-tech scans of the ruins
Archaeologists used powerful scanning technology to survey the city in three dimensions. This made it possible for them to recreate the city using sonar mapping techniques developed by military and oil prospecting companies (first time the technology was used for this purpose).
To learn more about the efforts of archaeologists to study and preserve this ancient city, see this BBC video:
BBC Presentation on the exploration of Pavlopetri (59 minutes)
A road trip is needed to learn more about an ongoing excavation at Kefali Hill near the village of Sisi. It is not far away, so we set off in the morning to have a look. The only difficulty in the journey is surviving the traffic lunacy of Malia, a town where adolescent tourists run wild.
- Main road through Malia is a traffic nightmare
On the other side of town it is a short drive to the Sisi-Milatos turnoff, and we have no trouble finding the coastal road to Kefali Hill. Sadly, although there are a few researchers at the excavation, the site is fenced and locked.
- Excavation at Kefali Hill is nearly deserted when we arrive
Because the Kefali settlement was associated with the great palace of Malia (only 2 kilometers away), we decide to go there instead. The palace was discovered in 1915 near Malia, and takes its name from the town. No one knows its original name. Suggestions include Setoija (mentioned in ancient tablets), Tarmaros, and Milatos (a place name that survives east of the palace).
- Stairs from the Malia palace courtyard to the royal quarters
Mythology tells us Malia was ruled by Sarpidon (Sarpidonas), brother of Minos, king of all Crete. After he had a dispute with Minos and was exiled, Sarpidon fled to Asia and became king of Lycia (also called Lukka). Later, he was counted one of Troy’s greatest allies and a hero of the Trojan War. But myths are not facts. For example, Minoan culture was demolished by Greek invaders long before the Trojan War. It is unlikely that Sarpidon was Minoan royalty – unless he was a descendant of those driven out by the Greeks.
- Red figure vase depicts the death of Sarpedon during the Trojan War
The first Minoan palaces are dated to around 1900 BCE. These were rebuilt and improved after an earthquake in 1700 BCE, and again around 1600 BCE (after the Theran volcano eruption). However, recent excavations at Malia have shed new light on this timeline. Evidence indicates that parts of the palace and central court go back to the third millennium (around 2500 BCE). This development suggests a remarkable decision to totally transform the existing village. (Click Minoan Civilization for more information .)
- Exploration of palace interior reveals no new excavation work
We find no new excavation activity in the palace itself (click here for a tour of the palace). The only notable changes are in the town surrounding the palace. There has been some recent activity in the agora northwest of the main entrance. This is the ancient market square bordered by the homes and shops of townsfolk. Some older buildings have been revealed here.
- Recent excavation work in the agora section of town
On the west side of the agora we also revisit the “hypostyle crypt,” a strange underground building with seating around the walls. Its purpose is unknown, but some believe it is a vouleuterion (an assembly hall for a citizen council). However, this is a rather democratic view, since townsfolk probably had little political influence. The building might also be an earlier royal building or perhaps a banquet hall.
- "Hypostyle crypt" building may be a public meeting hall
Main elements of the town surrounding the palace developed at the same time as the palace. In other words, it was a planned community. Similarities between the first palace, the hypostyle crypt and the artisan neighborhood (called “Mu Quarter”), suggest a functional relationship of buildings from the same construction period. Excavations have uncovered various official areas, storerooms and workshops. This is also seen in the design of towns built around other Minoan palaces. (See Map)
- Building A in the Mu neighborhood is an impressive structure
In addition to the palace areas set aside for religious purpose, there are some impressive religious sanctuaries in the surrounding town. In Mu Quarter, for example, is an impressive two-story structure (Building A) that went through two main phases of construction. Part of the building was erected with cut stone (ashlar) masonry of the type used in the palace, while mud brick was used in another area.
- Religious ceremonies were conducted in the Building A sanctuary
Inside there is a small paved courtyard and walkways, which is very similar to the west side of the palace. The rooms include a light well, waiting room, and a lustral basin, which is a sunken room thought to be used for ritual purification. The building also appears to have a religious sanctuary.
There are other religious sanctuaries around the town. The most impressive is the Sanctuary of the Horns, south of Mu Quarter. We walk down the road and across a field to reach the building.
- Sanctuary of the Horns
Close to an entrance staircase is an ashlar construction topped by single horns of consecration (a Minoan religious symbol), and a bench provided with such horns (although singular, rather than the usual double horns).
- Various religious artifacts were found in the sanctuary
On the wall of one room archaeologists found a fresco depicting a bucranium. This is the image of an ox skull with garlands of flowers in its horns. It represents animal sacrifices made to the gods. Two animal figurines and clay horns of consecration were found in the sanctuary. These ritual objects and the architectural decorations, suggest this building was an important part of the religious life in Malia.
- Bucranium is an ancient symbol of religious sacrifice
The location of this sanctuary along a urban route suggests it may have served as a station on a ceremonial way towards the palace, where the major rituals took place on the central and west courts.
What does the construction of a town or city involve? How many different things must be considered? Water and food supplies, transportation, housing, administrative offices, religious centers, entertainment … and? How would you design a city?
It is a pleasant day with a moderate temperate (low-80’s) and a nice sea breeze. We decide to visit Krasi, a village near the Lassithi Plateau. Our route is eastward past the beach town of Stalida and then south up a winding, switchback road into the foothills. The view is phenomenal; one can see practically the entire Gulf of Malia, and all its beach towns. But the road edge drops off to a long fall. This is the worst part of the trip for someone with fear of heights.
- View of Stalida from the winding road leading up to Moxos
We arrive in Moxos (pronounced Mohos) and make our way to the cobblestone platia (town square), surrounded by cafés and dominated by the largest church in town. We look to see if our Scots friend is waiting tables at the café where he works. He is not there, so we continue driving towards the plateau.
- The main platia in Moxos is surrounded by cafes
The road crosses the rich Moxos farmland and then rises again towards the high plateau. We turn left to follow the road sign to Krasi, which is 8 km beyond Moxos. It is a pretty village (altitude over 600 meters) tucked in among hills. We wind through the narrow streets until we reach the platia on a hillside overlooking the village.
- The highland village of Krasi
The word Krasi means wine, but the village does not produce notable wines. Krasi is best known for its water, which is quite obvious at the platia. On one side of the square is the Megali Vrisi (Great Fountain), embedded in the hillside. This is an ancient public water system filled by local springs that also fed the Roman waterworks over 2000 years ago.
- The "Great Fountain" waterworks of Krasi
The aqueduct that supplied the Roman city of Lyttos (about 20 km from here) had its main source on the west side of Oropedio Nissimou, which looms above Krasi. As it descended from the mountain, the aqueduct collected water at several locations – including the springs around Krasi. The Roman water channel at Krasi was nearly half a meter wide. For more on this see: Aqueduct.
- Pure spring water pours from a spout at the public fountain
There are different water stations at the public fountain. One provides a stone basin and spout from which one might fill containers to carry home. Several people stop here to drink the water, which is pure and very cold. Above the spout is a sort of portal, through which we can see water flowing through a stone channel that extends deep into the stone aqueduct.
- A view into the aqueduct interior
A few meters away is a public laundry with a row of stone basins, where village folk could wash their clothes and talk about current events.
- One station provides a public laundry for village residents
Beyond the wash basins, we can see a large chamber supported by Roman arches and a broad stream of water flowing endlessly from the source springs.
- Water flows continuously under the Roman arches
The abundant water in Krasi is important to the plant life in this valley, especially the platanos (plane or sycamore) trees, which need a lot of water. In the platia across the street from the public fountain is an enormous plane tree, with massive branches and dense foliage covering the entire square. The circumference of the trunk is about 24 meters (over 78 feet). Based on this, the tree is estimated to be 2400 years old (each meter represents a century of growth).
- Gigantic platanos tree in the Krasi town square
It is the largest tree on Crete, and was providing shade when the Romans built their waterworks on the island. Over its long life, the tree has witnessed countless events in the rise and fall of empires. It was a meeting place and the center of social and intellectual life in the area. Nikos Kazantzakis, the most famous Greek writer, spent summers in Krasi (where his wife was born) and sat in the shade of this tree with his friends and family.
- Plaque with an old rhyme about life and the great tree of Krasi
On the fountain wall there is an old plaque bearing little verse about the ancient tree: “Thinking, Knowledge and Beauty met together many years ago in the many leaves of the platanos tree in Krasi. Humanity, Prosperity, Justice and Freedom were moving like wild branches inside those leaves.”
We decide to revisit the city of Rethymno, which is about 100 kilometers from where we live. Several years ago we investigated the Fortezza (pronounced “fortedza”) – a huge Venetian castle that looms over the city. Now our goal is to explore palia poli, the historic “old town” built around the harbor.
- It can be dangerous to drive the E75 Highway
This is not a pleasant journey. From Iraklio to Rethymno, highway E75 is ranked as the most dangerous road in all of Greece, and for good reason. Although it is a two-lane road in rural areas, many motorists drive on the paved shoulder — allowing speeders to pass. This effectively turns a nice two-lane road into a four- or five-lane free-for-all. Speeders habitually cross the double lines on blind curves, and oncoming cars do the same. It is scary.
- Missed exit to Rethymno
We are relieved to reach our destination without incident, but we miss the exit sign and must continue to the west end of Rethymno for the next off-ramp. This takes us uphill, providing a terrific view of the huge fortezza with old town wrapped around the outer walls and the harbor.
- The old town of Rethymno wraps around the Fortezza and its harbor
Rethymno has a rich and varied history from the late Stone Age through the Minoan period (when it was called Rithymna), and into Greek, Roman and Byzantine times. However, today we are exploring the impact of shifting cultures over the past several centuries. Driving into the city, we pause at the Veli Pasha Mosque, which is thought to be built on top of the Venetian Church of Saint Onophrio. It is a good example of how a dominant group alters its surroundings to its fit its own cultural and religious customs.
- The Veli Pasha Mosque was built over a Christian church
We twist through narrow streets until we reach Venizelou Boulevard on the waterfront, and then quickly find a parking lot beside the marina. Happy to be walking after a long car ride, we plunge directly into old town by turning down an alley that leads us to Arkadiou, a market street displaying a peculiar blend of modern, Venetian and Ottoman architecture. (see Old Town Map)
- Arkadiou has mix of Venetian, Ottoman and modern architecture
The history of this cultural mix began long ago, and in the middle of it were the Cretan people. They were subjugated by different conquering armies for thousands of years. During the Roman period (69 BCE – 395 CE) Rethymno became a Roman province and sank into decay, which continued through the first Byzantine period (395 – 824 CE). The most notable cultural development during Roman and Byzantine times was the spread of Orthodox Christianity throughout the island. There are over 300 Byzantine churches in and around Rethymno.
- Aghios Evtichios, a Byzantine era church, is just outside the city
The island was controlled by Moorish corsairs (pirates) for 137 years, until a Byzantine general, Nikephoros Phokas, destroyed them in 961 CE and restored Byzantine rule (see The Great Castle). However, the Byzantines neglected Crete for another 200 years, and finally sold the island to Venice at a bargain price.
When the Venetians were masters of the island (1204 – 1664) there was a cultural revival. A massive building program was started, art and literature flourished, and Rethymno prospered. The Venetians imported architects and builders who worked with Cretans to strengthen and reinvent the town. They built extensive fortifications (including the gigantic Fortezza) created a new harbor, and basically remade Rethymno into a defensible Venetian-style town with many opportunities for trade and profit.
- Porta Guora is the last surviving fortified city gate built by the Venetians
Continuing along Arkadiou, we reach Paliaologou street and find the Loggia, the Venetian government center of Rethymno for 400 years. It is a smaller version of the one in Iraklio. When the Ottoman Turks conquered the island, it was converted into a mosque. After the Turks left, the minaret was demolished and the building was restored to its original design. Now the Greek Ministry of Culture uses it as a shop, where copies of ancient artifacts are sold.
- Town leaders met at the Loggia to discuss administrative matters
From here we walk to the old harbor and out onto the 13th century Venetian mole that protected the harbor. This breakwater with its high, thick wall protected ships and boats from the ravages of the Cretan Sea and survived intact. It is in amazingly good condition after so many centuries. At the end is an imposing lighthouse. It looks as if it is part of the mole, but it was built by the Turks after the 17th century. Today there is a much larger breakwater outside the Venetian mole, and a new port for modern ships and ferries.
- Turkish lighthouse blends perfectly with Venetian breakwater
Looking back to the shore, we can see many tavernas and cafes crowded along the quayside. The row of similar frontages blends in with the Venetian buildings and later Turkish additions to form a charming scene. We are also reminded that we are very thirsty, so we return to quay in search of a coffee frappe with a side of iced water.
- The quay of the Venetian harbor is lined with old cafes and tavernas
After refreshments in the shade, we plunge back into old town history, stopping first at Rimondi Fountain in the center of old town. The Venetian governor (Rimondi) started work on this fountain in 1626. It was an important project because Crete suffered severe water shortages during the Venetian Period. Cretans in rural areas solved this problem by collecting rain water in cisterns or by digging wells. However, town folks got their drinking water from public fountains. The Rimondi Fountain still provides clean drinking water from lion head spouts. After the city was captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1646, the fountain was walled in and domed over for a time – closing it off from local inhabitants.
- Boy armed with a toy sword prepares to attack the lion head spout
This was the beginning of a dark age for Crete (and for Greece in general). All of Crete fell to the Ottoman Empire within the next few decades. The Cretan Renaissance ended abruptly, and many Cretans who worked with Venetians fled to other countries. Those who remained came under the strict (and often merciless) rule of Ottoman governors. For nearly 300 years the Turks worked to remake Rethymno and other sea ports into Turkish towns. Churches were replaced with mosques and minarets. The Turks also modified Venetian houses – most notably by adding sachnisia, or wooden balconies, to the buildings — making them seem more like home. The distinctive mix of Venetian and Turkish architecture is seen everywhere in old town.
- Turks added wooden "sachnisia" to Venetian buildings
We walk a short distance from the Rimondi Fountain to Mikrasiaton Square, where the great Nerantze Mosque (formerly the Church of Santa Maria) stands. When the church was converted into a mosque, three domes were added to the building although it retained its original elaborate entrance. At the same time, the Chapel of Corpus Christi to the west of the church was turned into a library and a madrassa or Islamic religious school. The minaret (now under repair) is the tallest one in town.
- Neratze Mosque had the tallest minaret in town
Rethymno has more minarets than any other town in Crete. Wherever we look, we can usually see a minaret poking up above the houses in old town. It is a constant reminder that this was a Turkish town for a very long time.
- Minarets can be seen everywhere in old town
The other – less obvious – signs are the smells and sounds of the town. Walking through the narrow alleys at midday, we can smell the wonderful odor of cooking foods – dishes that originated in Turkey and were adopted by Greeks. Also, some of the favorite traditional music of Crete and Greece has a Middle Eastern ring to it – a constant reminder of how cultures influence one another over the years.
- Many traditional Greek foods are identical to Turkish foods
Although the Cretans revolted against Turkish rule, and won their freedom after a long and painful war, the influence of the foreign populations remains.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
If you think of how people from foreign lands or different backgrounds have influenced your own town, you may begin to appreciate how this phenomenon works in different cultures everywhere on the planet.
Once again, the fabled Argo has sailed from the port of Volos (called Iolkos in ancient times). It is a replica of the ship that carried Jason and the Argonauts on their quest for the Golden Fleece (a golden ram’s hide with magical powers). This event interested us because we visited Volos years ago – and even stayed at the Hotel Iason (Jason in Greek) on the waterfront. After more than 3,000 years, the Argonauts are not forgotten by the people of Volos.
- Argo monument on the Volos waterfront near Hotel Iason
The original Argo sailed from Iolkos to the faraway kingdom of Colchis (in what is now Georgia) on the easternmost shore of the Euxine (Black Sea). It was here that Jason faced a series of challenges set by the local king, and ultimately stole the Golden Fleece with the help of Medea, the king’s daughter (and also a witch). Medea gave a sleeping potion to a monster snake that guarded the fleece, allowing Jason an opportunity to snatch the prize and run away.
- Medea diverts the guardian serpent, feeding it a sleeping potion, while Jason steals the Golden Fleece from nearby branch (4th century BCE)
The modern Argo is a 93.5-foot (28.5-meter) reconstruction of an ancient Greek penteconter, a wooden ship with 50 oarsmen. It was built in the ancient manner, with whole trees positioned in the hull, and more than 5,000 wooden pegs and wedges used to hold the ship’s frame and planks in place. A big difference from the original ship: the replica was built wider to accommodate modern rowers – who are much larger than ancient Greek heroes.
- Modern Argonauts prepare the Argo for its departure from Volos
The modern Argonauts (representing the 27 countries of the European Union) were preparing the Argo for its voyage when they ran into a serious problem. Turkey (which is not a member of the EU) said the Argo would not be allowed into the congested shipping lanes of the Bosporus. Since this is the only route from the Aegean into the Black Sea, changes had to be made.
- Argonauts planned to row through the Bosporus, the only sea route from the Aegean to the Black Sea, but Turkish officials banned their ship
According to one version of the legend, while fleeing from the king of Colchis (who wanted to recover the Golden Fleece), Jason and the Argonauts sailed from the Black Sea up the Danube river and then (by some mysterious route) across the Balkan Peninsula to the Adriatic and Aegean seas.
- Fans on the dock cheer as Argo departs for the long voyage
The organizers of the modern Argo expedition decided to take the return route, except in reverse – rowing and sailing from the Aegean to the Adriatic Sea, and anchoring at 23 cities, many of which are in modern-day Albania, Croatia, Slovenia and Italy. There will be 50 oarsmen and 22 on standby, rowing an exhausting 10 to 15 hours each day. The modern Argonauts will need all the rest they can get at the ports they visit along the way.
- Argonauts row into a new adventure (photo by Mikis Rio)
After traveling a total of 2,000 nautical miles during its voyage, the Argo will arrive at the port of Venice on August 11.
To read about the mythical adventure of Jason, the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece, go to MythWeb.