We have not visited Iraklio for a long while, so we decide to go today. Because it is hot and city parking is awful, we take the bus – comfortable, air conditioned and convenient. Reading about the city during our ride, we are reminded that Iraklio is not as old as most places on Crete – and its origin is rather notorious.
- Rabdh El Khandak (later Iraklio) became a haven for Moorish pirates
The city was founded in 824 by Moors (also called Saracens) exiled from Al-Andalus (a region of Spain) after a failed revolt against their ruler, Al-Hakam I. They seized Crete from the Byzantine Empire and built a refuge – a fortified town with a trench around it – which they named Rabdh El Khandak (“Castle of the Trench”). The harbor became a home port for pirates who raided Byzantine territories and attacked shipping around the Aegean. After enduring many years of piracy, the Empire finally decided to eliminate the pirate base.
- Byzantine soldiers scaling fortress walls (from Skylitzes Chronicle)
A fleet of ships carrying 50,000 soldiers sailed to Crete under the command of Nikephoros Phokas, the Empire’s best general. In 961, after a long siege, the town was burned to the ground and its inhabitants slaughtered. With the island once again under Byzantine rule, the town was rebuilt and renamed Chandax. However, after more than two centuries of decline, partly due to the constant Arab threat from the east, Byzantium sold Crete to the Republic of Venice.
- Venetian Candia is perhaps the best designed walled city in the world
Because Venice thought the town (now renamed Candia) was important to their security, the new rulers turned their attention to strengthening its defenses. Over the next several centuries, they added enormous fortifications around the growing city, including a giant wall with seven bastions, and a fortress guarding the harbor.
- Stone-built bus station below the stone fortress wall of Candia (Iraklio)
We arrive at the port bus station, beneath the fortress wall and the Sampionara bastion. It is not necessary to enter at one of the ancient gates – now there is a road into the city, and a staircase to the top of the wall. Taking the stairs, we are in Platia Eleftherias (Liberty Square) within 15 minutes. There are painted banners and a speaker’s podium from yesterday’s rally by the “Indignant Movement” (citizens protesting government handling of the Greek debt crisis). Except for a few tired activists napping beneath trees, everything seems normal.
- Liberty Square rally the day before we arrived (YouTube photo)
Continuing along Dhikeosinis, we quickly come to Platia Venezelou, with its shaded cafes, city hall (in the old Venetian loggia), and a dozen roads radiating out to every neighborhood. This is our favorite part of the city – the center of everything. We stop for a frappe at the News Café, in nearby El Greco Park, and plan our next move.
- Platia Venezelou is the busiest and most interesting place in town
We walk a few blocks south from Venezelou and turn west on Karterou. This leads us to Platia Ayia Aikaterinis (St. Catherine Square) where the metropolitan church, Ayios Minas, is situated. The church is large and impressive, but not very old – it was built during 1862-1895. It is in the shape of a cross with a dome and four equidistant pillars. The interior has beautiful frescoes and religious adornments, including several venerated icons plated in gold and silver (see the short tour for more photos).
- Ayios Minas is the metropolitan church - largest in the city
On the western corner of the metropolitan church is the small, older church of Ayios Minas, which has ornate wood carvings and icons from the 18th century. No one knows for sure when it was built, but this little structure was the metropolitan church (Ayios Minas being the patron saint of Iraklio) from 1735 until the big church replaced it.
- The earlier church of Ayios Minas is still much loved
The most famous structure on the square is tucked away behind the old Ayios Minas church. This is the Ayia Aikaterinis (St. Catherine) church of the Sinaite monastery. It was established during the second Byzantine period. The church founded a school that operated from the 15th century onwards. After the fall of Byzantium in 1453, there was an influx of artists and scholars to Iraklio. These people taught grammar, logic, rhetoric, math, art and so on at St. Catherine. The school played a key role in the Cretan Renaissance, and many of its graduates distinguished themselves in literature, the arts and the church.
- St. Catherine's school produced some of the finest artists in Europe
Among the most famous graduates of the school were Doménicos Theotokópoulos (better known as El Greco), painter, sculptor, and architect of the Spanish Renaissance, and Michael Damaskenos, painter and main representative of the “Cretan School”. The church on St. Catherine Square now operates a museum, where some of the Damaskinos paintings are exhibited. Sadly, it is closed for renovations today.
From the platia we walk north on Sfakion Street, towards the waterfront. We wind up at Dermatas, a small bay west of the main harbor. Here we find the Gate of Dermata, one of the few waterfront entries through the Venetian fortification wall.
- Dermata Gate was one of the few entrances to Candia from the port
Turning eastward along the waterfront, we soon come to Ayios Petros (or, more accurately, Saints Peter and Paul) built in the first years of Venetian rule as a Dominican church and monastery. In the final stages of restoration, it is one of the oldest examples of 12th century Dominican architecture in all of Europe. By the 15th century four chapels had been added to the south side of the church, one of which still contains the only example of 15th century wall painting found in Iraklio. [For a Greek video of the church interior click here.] When the Ottoman Turks took over, the church was converted into a mosque and a minaret was added (but not included in the restoration).
- Ayios Petros is the best of 12th century Dominican architecture
As we walk back towards the main port and the bus station, the great walls rise up on our right. Now the city has been built out to the very edge of the fortifications. These walls proved their strength in a very dramatic way during the Cretan War (1645–1669). The Ottoman Empire besieged Candia for 21 years (1648 to 1669), perhaps the longest siege in history. The walls might have held forever, except for the treason of one man – a Cretan-Venetian builder named Andreas Barotsis. He showed the enemy where the fortification was structurally weak – at its eastern and western corners. The wall was breached at the Bastion of St. Andrews (ironically, San Andreas).
The later history of the fortifications is quite uneventful in comparison with this epic battle. The Turkish overlords had the walls repaired (again with Cretan forced labor). The city was once again was renamed, this time to Kandiye, but informally – in Greek – it was called Megalo Kastro (Great Castle).
- As time passed buildings pushed to the very edge of the fortifications
At the beginning of the 20th century, when Crete was finally free of Turkish rule, the Great Castle was renamed Iraklion (Hercules’ city). It is now the capital of Crete and fourth largest city in Greece – although most of the modern city is outside the walls of the castle.
It has been a long hike around the city in the hot sun, and we are almost back at the place we started. Rather than climb Mirabelou Street into the castle, we decide to continue along the waterfront to the bus station. When the man at the counter hands us the tickets, he says our air-conditioned bus departs in deka lepta (ten minutes). Just in time.
As we noted in an earlier report, excavations are a lot like peeling away the layers of a tall cake – where the newest layers are on top and the oldest on the bottom. You don’t know what is in the layer below until you actually get there. And getting there is a delicate and time-consuming process.
In 2007 we visited Gournia, one of the best known archaeological sites on Crete – and a good example of the layer cake. Harriet Boyd, a pioneering American archaeologist, excavated the center of this Minoan town in 1901 – 1904, revealing a system of cobbled streets, many houses and workshops, a small palace with courtyard, and a cemetery. Of all sites in Crete, Gournia gives one the clearest idea of a town in the Late Minoan period (1700-1450 BCE). However, cemetery artifacts prove the town is much older.
- Road to the palace of Gournia
What might be found in the layers beneath this excavation? Last year we visited at Gournia with an American professor we know from a 2006 survey project. His small team was excavating a few trenches and sifting through the refuse pits left by Harriet Boyd over a hundred years ago.
- Remains of ship shed found at Gournia harbor
He also identified the remains of a ship shed on the beach, and stone fortification walls above the harbor. Bronze Age ship sheds are not uncommon, because wooden vessels had to be hauled out of the water for repairs and to dry out. Fortifications, however, are unusual for Minoan Crete. The discovery goes against the popular notion that Minoans were a peaceful society with no need for defensive structures. Clearly, even an untroubled country felt the need to protect itself.
- Remains of the coastal fortification wall of Gournia
What they found was defensive walls designed to guard the most exposed approaches to the town – areas without natural sea cliffs. At one end of the harbor was heavy wall about 27 meters long, and the remains of a sturdy tower or bastion. On the opposite side of the harbor was another wall running parallel to the beach – to close off access from the sea. For added security, two inland walls were built to repel attackers from the sea. Unfortunately, when the Mycenaean Greeks invaded in about 1450 BCE, they came overland – not from the sea.
The project obtained a government permit to expand excavations for two more years. When we arrive at Gournia, the first thing we see is a man with surveying equipment near the top of the acropolis. We soon discover that fifty students and supervisors are divided into crews working at several locations around the town.
- Trench supervisor explains excavation of a Minoan building
We walk to the spot where a foundation wall was barely exposed last year in a shallow trench. Now there is a full-blown excavation of an ancient building. The archaeologist in change of this trench, is happy to discuss his progress. He says the dig has taken them from the Late Minoan level down to the Middle Minoan period, with some very interesting discoveries. He steps into the trench and points out a cut-away section where layers of history are labeled with small tags. These layers indicate what changes to the building were made by its occupants over the centuries.
- Archaeologist points out excavated layers revealing history
The most exciting artifacts his team found were ten “conical vessels” filled with pumice and ash from the volcanic eruption of Thera, which devastated the Minoan world around 1625 BCE. Similar ash-filled containers have been uncovered at other Minoan sites, usually near altars. Such vessels, ranging in size from cups to large jugs (rhytons), were used to pour ceremonial “libations” for the gods. Maybe these were votive offerings used when entreating the gods to avert another Thera-type disaster in the future.
- Conical vessels were used for pouring libations to the gods
We hike to the top of the hill, where another team is excavating around the palace. We are following a stone paved lane on the southern side of the palace when we encounter a large boulder that seems to have been intentionally planted there. A nearby sign says this may be a sacred stone, which is a non-figurative representation of a deity. Minoan seals depict worshipers kneeling before such stones. As we pass by, Duane touches the boulder for luck.
- Sacred stone in the middle of the lane near palace
The trench supervisor for this area of excavations tells us his crew has recovered over a hundred conical vessels filled with Theran ash from a small room in the palace complex. If it is true that these were offerings to appease the gods, the fearful memory of the great volcanic disaster must have persisted for hundreds of years.
- A hundred conical vessels were found in this small room
To the south and southwest of the palace, trench teams are busily inching their way through layers of history using small spades and brushes to remove the earth, and carefully marking and removing each small artifact uncovered. The supervisors are busy with their notebooks, examining and recording the finds. The soil removed from each trench is heaped near a large sifting screen, and then shoveled onto the screen by a student whose job is to find any tiny pottery sherd or bone fragment overlooked by the diggers.
All of the artifacts (categorized, bagged and labeled) are transported to the research center, which is several kilometers away from the Gournia site. We drive there to connect with Sabine, an archaeologist we have known for several years. She is in charge of the cleaning crew – the people responsible for carefully removing the millennia of dirt encrusted on artifacts found at the excavation site.
- Archaeologist in charge of artifact cleaning operations
Sabine shows us how pottery sherds are soaked in a mild acid solution to dissolve the alkali crust that forms on buried objects. The pieces (still grouped according to where they were excavated), are then turned over to cleaners for the next step. The cleaners sit in the shade with water-filled plastic basins on their laps, using soft toothbrushes to carefully remove the dirt from artifacts.
- Pottery sherds spread out on drying tables
When the pieces are cleaned and rinsed, they are placed on large drying tables (according to coded excavation locations), and later categorized by experts. Sabine shows us a large array of pottery sherds, some with intricate designs of the Middle Minoan period.
- Pottery sherds from Middle Minoan excavations
With many more finds to be uncovered, sorted, identified and analyzed, we are sure that the new Gournia excavations will reveal much more about the history and culture of this small town.
After exploring modern Arxanes, we decide to look into nearby archaeological sites uncovered during the past several decades. These might shed more light on the culture of ancient Arxanes, and help us understand why this palace was built so near Knossos.
We have found that experts disagree about using the word “palace” to describe the great Minoan complexes, because this implies a king’s home. Some propose that, rather than serving as a royal residence, these complexes may have actually been built for religious purposes – worship, sacred ceremonies, community festivals, and such. Facts support this view.
- Before palaces, ceremonies and celebrations were held in the open air
Long before the first palace was built, religious rituals were conducted in open air courtyards – and everyone in town attended. At some later time enclosed courts were constructed. This effectively restricted participation in certain rituals to a smaller group of people – perhaps a rising class of elite religious leaders. The enclosed court was expanded to include cult rooms (with altars for worship), reception halls, residential quarters (perhaps for chief priests and priestesses), workshops, support facilities, and a theatrical area outside the complex – where the common folk could gather for public events.
- Some say Knossos palace was built to enclose the ceremonial courtyard
The first palaces rose during the Middle Minoan period, around 2000 BCE, at about the same time writing, colorful wheel-made pottery, and other arts and inventions were introduced (maybe due to the influence of trade contacts with Egypt and the Near East). Arxanes was built during this period.
- Altar at the Mt. Iouktas sanctuary overlooks Arxanes
What makes Arxanes unique? As we said in the previous report, the palace at Knossos appears to be sited for optimum viewing of the most important peak sanctuary in the Minoan world, the one at the top of Mt. Iouktas. Built at the foot of the sacred mountain, Arxanes has the only road leading directly to the peak sanctuary. This suggests Arxanes had a close connection to the sanctuary. Perhaps it was responsible for the upkeep and religious functions of the mountain temple. That would give the town enormous prestige throughout the land.
- The Mt. Iouktas sanctuary is larger and more complex than others.
Near the junior high school, we find a road sign indicating “Ancient Fourni” and drive up. We don’t get far before we must park and climb a hill. The archaeological site is fenced, but we managed to get in through one of several large gaps. The local people called this hill Fourni because of a stone hut shaped like a baker’s oven (fournos). Farmers used it to store their tools. When the archaeologist Yiannis Sakellarakis climbed this hill in 1964, he instantly recognized this hut as a vaulted tholos tomb. What the farmers used as a door was a hole in the roof, made by ancient grave-robbers. Dirt falling through this hole had created a new floor several meters higher than the original one.
- Archaeologists found the first unlooted Minoan tomb at ancient Fourni
After removing the rubble inside the tomb, it appeared the grave had indeed been looted. However, Sakellarakis noticed a structural oddity in the wall, which made him suspect there was a hidden chamber behind. After carefully removing the stones, he found the head of a bull that had been sacrificed in honor of the dead person. Such bull sacrifices were major religious events in Minoan times. Sakellarakis found he had uncovered the first unlooted royal grave in Crete.
The jewelry of gold and precious stones in that one grave was a bigger hoard than all the jewelry found in all the ancient graves in Crete put together! They also found ten bronze vessels of excellent quality, an ivory inlaid wooden chest, eight ceramic pots, and of course an earthenware larnax (see photo below) containing the royal dead person.
- Minoans used the cemetery at Fourni for 140 centuries
Most of this Minoan cemetery, which was used for more than 1400 years, has now been excavated. North of the unlooted royal burial chamber, is a Mycenaean burial enclosure with burial chambers containing rich funeral gifts (stone pots, seals, bronze vessels and decorative artifacts made of ivory). On the south side, Sakellarakis found another unlooted vaulted grave from 1350-1300 BCE, where a young woman was buried with all her jewelry, still holding her mirror. There are 26 buildings here, and numerous graves with rich funeral gifts that exhibit the high cultural and living standards of Arxanes.
- Those buried at Fourni were very important people
After returning to our car, we drive to another important site excavated by Sakellarakis – the Temple of Anemospilia at the base of Mt. Iouktas. This temple is probably the most controversial Minoan discovery ever. Yiannis and Efi Sakellarakis began excavations in the summer of 1979 and uncovered a rectangular building with four rooms (three side-by-side and one ante-chamber in front). In this ante-chamber, excavations uncovered 150 pots and the skeleton of a man who died when the temple collapsed during an earthquake. Next to the man was the pot he had been carrying (broken), a typical ceremonial pot which Minoan priests used in their bull sacrifices to collect the blood of the sacrificial animal.
- Amenospilia temple at the foot of Mt. Iouktas is controversial
The two archaeologists thought they would find the bones of the bull being sacrificed at the time of the earthquake. They were amazed when they unearthed human skeletons near the temple altar. One was a man wearing valuable jewelry, and next to him was the skeleton of a woman. In the center of the room, on a stone altar, was the skeleton of a young man, lying in a position indicating he was tied-up, with a big ceremonial knife stuck in his stomach. These findings suggest a case of human sacrifice, by which the priests were trying to appease the deity who had inflicted seismic tremors on their island. It didn’t work. When the main earthquake arrived it destroyed all the palace centers of Crete.
- Reconstruction of the temple at the time of the earthquake
Archaeology tells us the fate of Arxanes followed that of other Minoan palaces. It was destroyed by the huge earthquake in 1700 BCE, but was restored in grand style. Around 1625 BCE the volcanic eruption of Thira caused more damage (earthquake, coastal flooding and ash-fall). This was also repaired and the palace reached its peak in the period 1625-1450 BCE. It was then destroyed by some violent cause in 1450 BCE (possibly invasion by mainland Greeks), but was reconstructed (like the palace of Knossos) to serve as a Mycenaean administrative center. This began a Greek age that lasted about three hundred years, until Dorian invaders conquered the island in 1100 BCE. Life in Arxanes has continued uninterrupted from those ancient times until today.
- Chapel on Mt. Iouktas, not far from the Minoan sanctuary
Mt. Iouktas remained important in the religious life of local people up to this day – a Greek Orthodox chapel is located not far from the Minoan temple at the top of the mountain. Every year, people from towns below bring flowers in procession to the chapel.
Our thanks again to Ian Swindale (Minoan Crete) for sharing his photos.
Setting off on another random expedition, we drive westward on the national highway. When the traffic becomes intolerable in Iraklion, we take the Knossos exit – although we do not plan to stop there. Passing the entrance to ancient Knossos, jammed with tourists, we soon emerge into farmland. We drop down into the gorge of Ayia Irini, where we stop to view the now familiar aqueduct built during Egyptian occupation (in the Roman style) to provide water to the city of Iraklion. Judging from the gorge itself – where a stream still flows in mid-summer – it is clear that this is a well watered region.
- Ottoman era aqueduct in the gorge at Ayia Irini
We decide to continue to southward through kilometers of vineyards in one of Crete’s most important wine-growing areas. The famed “rozaki” grapes are grown here, and excellent wines have been produced here since Minoan times. We turn off the road at Kato (lower) Arxanes (a farming village) and shortly arrive at Arxanes itself.
- The town of Arxanes sits on a hill surrounded by vineyards
Arxanes (pronounced “ArHAnes” in Greek) is a town built on the slopes of a low hill in the middle of the wine region. Inhabited in the late Stone Age (6,000 BCE), it has retained its current name for thousands of years. When the Minoan palaces of Knossos, Phaestos and Malia were constructed around 1900 BCE, a palace was also built at Arxanes. No one knows exactly how big it was because the modern town of Arxanes was built right on top of the Minoan palace and town. Archaeologists have been unable to excavate the buried treasure trove, because this would involve demolition of the entire town.
- The road to the main square (platia) of Arxanes
After parking at the edge of town, we walk to the main platia – a tree-shaded square surrounded by small cafes, tavernas and shops. We are the only foreigners here, and this it is quite unique in our experience. During the summer season in a town like this, one usually finds many tourists.
- Arxanes platia is always busy with town folks
We are pleased by the absence of multilingual chatter one normally hears in such a place. We find a small table under a tree, order in Greek, relax and watch the town unfold around us. There are children riding their bicycles under the watchful eyes of parents. Old men – friends for decades – are drinking Greek coffee from tiny cups and discussing the state of politics. Several businessmen huddle over paperwork on their table. A battered pickup truck loaded with produce wheels slowly around the platia as the driver calls through a loudspeaker system “fresko karpousia!” (fresh watermelons) to everyone within hearing distance.
- A typical street in Arxanes
After refreshments and more people watching, we walk through the neighborhoods. The town combines the effects of renovated Venetian, neoclassical and local architecture. Most of the houses are stone-built, with sloping tile roofs. Arxanes has won prestigious EU awards – 1st in long term development prospects and 2nd best restored village in Europe.
Narrow roads are laid with natural slabs, while bougainvillea, jasmine and carefully nurtured flowerbeds offer colors and perfumes. There is much to admire, including several attractive Byzantine churches. The church of Panagia has a beautiful bell-tower and a fine collection of icons dating from the 16th century. Agia Triada (Holy Trinity) on the edge of the town offers wonderful Byzantine frescoes from the 14th century.
- Byzantine church of Panagia
There are other religions – much more ancient – that make Arxanes unique. These may reveal more about the purposes of Arxanes. The palace and town are situated at the foot of Mount Juktas (Iouktas in Greek). At the top of Iouktas is the most important and probably the first “peak sanctuary” in the Minoan world. This sanctuary (an open air temple) is where religious leaders performed rites and made offerings to the ancient gods.
- From Iraklion one can see the face of Zeus in the shape of Mt. Juktas
The importance of Mount Iouktas is confirmed at Knossos, where the palace was oriented such that the main courtyard (where religious ceremonies were held) is aligned with the mountaintop temple. Above the palace courtyard, the ‘horns of consecration’ (a religious symbol in the form of upraised arms or a bull’s horns) are aligned so they focus on the Iouktas peak sanctuary.
- "Horns of Consecration" above the main courtyard at Knossos
The location of ‘horns of consecration’ on the top of buildings not only point to their function as symbols of mountain peaks, but also to their use for the measurement of time and the calendar derived by astronomical observations. This is particularly true at Knossos, where studies have shown the throne room features summer and winter solstice alignments.
Considering all this, and the fact that Minoans were a very religious people, the construction of a great palace at Arxanes begins to make sense. Arxanes is located at the foot of a sacred mountain, and it was possibly responsible for the care and maintenance of the temples and other religious buildings on the mountain. It may even have been the home of the high priests and priestesses who performed the ceremonies that were so important in Minoan life. Religious leaders lived in great luxury during that time.
We decide to investigate further at some of the nearby excavations of religious sites.
Visiting Greece over the past fourteen years, we have always been impressed by the hot water heating systems installed on the roofs of nearly every building. These are solar water heaters.
- Rooftop solar water systems at our apartment complex
In a country with so much sunshine, it makes perfect sense to use solar energy to heat water. More recently, we have also seen the emergence of other earth friendly technologies powered by the sun and wind power.
- Old windmills on a mountain ridge in Crete
Wind energy has been around since the middle of the 1800’s in the form of windmills. Most of the Aegean islands built windmills to mill grains into flour. We have seen abandoned windmills lined up along Crete’s mountain ridges and places the wind blows all the time.
- Some wind-powered water pumps are still in use
On the Lasithi plateau, high in the mountains, small antique windmills pump water to irrigate the lush farmlands. There were many hundreds of these wind-powered machines fifty years ago, but they were replaced by new technology – electric and diesel pumps. However, with the rising cost of energy (electricity and petroleum), more farmers have returned to clean, reliable wind.
Large wind turbines now line the ridges where old windmills once stood. These turbines generate electricity that powers towns and villages across the island.
- Wind turbines convert the mountain winds into energy
Although Greece has tremendous solar potential, it has been criticized for bureaucratic hurdles that may be holding back development of the renewable resource. The government recently enacted legislation to encourage development of environmentally friendly technology, particularly photovoltaic (PV) energy systems.
The new PV law offers tax advantages to persuade business and individual investment in clean, renewable energy. Just since last year, we see evidence that this law is working. We watched from our balcony as a new PV solar array was installed on the roof of a small apartment building across the lane. The job was done in little more than a week. Mihalis and his wife Ioanna, the building owners, say the PV system will provide all their electrical needs – plus they will sell surplus energy to the state-owned electric company.
- New photovoltaic array on our neighbor's roof
Not far from here, in Neapoli, we recently spotted a solar array spread across a hillside. It is many times larger than the one on our neighbor’s roof. Whether it powers municipal or private business needs, we do not know. However, it appears to be big enough to provide electricity for a small town.
- Commercial photovoltaic array in Neapoli
The Greek government recently revealed a plan for the world’s largest solar park. It will be built on over 520 hectares (1,285 acres) of depleted lignite mines owned by the state-run power company (lignite coal is still the main fuel for power plants in Greece). When operational, the photovoltaic system will be capable of producing 200 megawatts (MW) of clean electricity – more than any other solar park in the world.
To translate that number into something understandable, assume a photovoltaic array only works when the sun is shining. Greece has 3,000 hours of sunshine per year. Multiply this times system capacity (3,000 x 200) and you get working energy output: 600,000 megawatt hours (MWh) or 600,000,000 kilowatt hours (kWh) per year. Divide this number by the amount of electricity used by the average Greek (5,723 kWh per year) and you find out how many people can be served by the new solar park: 108,840. That amounts to 34,840 homes using electricity made from sunlight.