Traveling Classroom Foundation
Thursday June 8th 2023

A Palace Beneath the Vineyards

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.



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One Comment for “A Palace Beneath the Vineyards”

  • Michael says:

    How can you tell when something ancient is buried under the ground if you can’t see it?

    Good question! Actually,there are several ways to locate a buried site. The first uses “survey and deduction.” For example, if you locate archaeological remains extending towards a mound of earth, you might reasonably deduce that there are more remains under the mound. Another simple method is to use slender metal rods to probe the earth in an area where you think there might be some remains. This uses one’s sense of touch to “feel” stone structures beneath the ground. A much more modern method is to use Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) to actually “see” buried structures. For more information on this, see the excavation report.

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