Heraklion Gortyn Ancient Site

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Location: Kasteli

The Archaeological Site of Gortyn lies about 49 km south of Heraklion Town. Evidence shows that the area was first inhabited in the Neolithic period, while, during the Minoan times (between 1600 and 1100 BC), it emerged as a flourishing center.

During the first millennium BC, the city of Gortyn became so prosperous that it even managed to overshadow Phaistos, which used to be the second most important center on the entire island of Crete. It reached its peak during the Roman occupation in the 1st century BC, when it became the capital of the Roman province of Crete and Cyrenaica. Much of the town was damaged by earthquakes on at least four occasions, and it was finally abandoned after being destroyed by the Arabs in 828 AD.

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Excavations at the site began in 1884 by the Italian School of Archaeology at Athens. Even today, much of the vast city remains unexplored below ground. The excavations have unearthed many marvelous buildings, like the Roman Odeon, a circular theater built by the emperor Trajan, the nearby Agora and the Asclepieion. Another magnificent monument is a church dedicated to Agios Titos (Saint Titus), the first bishop of Crete, which was built around the 6th or the 7th century AD.

The famous Gortyn code, the oldest and most complete ancient Greek legal code, was found right here, on the stones of the circular walls behind the Odeon. The stones were actually part of an earlier inscribed wall containing the complete law, but they were removed and reused for the construction of the Odeon. Today, a modern structure at the site houses many of the stones bearing the famous law code. Often called “the queen of inscriptions,” it reveals the existence of a highly advanced legal and administrative system at a very early period in history. It is impressive that the rules are general, abstract and impersonal, and cover a broad range of aspects of criminal, civil and procedural law.

To the north of the Odeon, there is a tall plane tree which is extremely rare in that it is evergreen instead of shedding its leaves like most plane trees. According to the myth, this was the spot where Zeus mated with Princess Europa after abducting her, disguised as a bull. The fruit of this union were Minos, Rhadamanthys and Sarpedon, who later became the kings of the three major Minoan palaces.

The Roman Praetorium, built in the 1st century AD, sits in the center of the site. It was a luxurious and imposing edifice adorned with marble floors, columns and statues, and it served as the seat and residence of the Roman governor. It is surrounded by the remains of the marble cistern of the Nymphaeum, the Roman bath complex and the temple of the Pythian Apollo, which dates back to the 7th century BC. Beside it stands another temple dedicated to Isis, Sarapis and Anubis, which was the only ancient Cretan temple dedicated to Egyptian deities.

To the northwest of Gortyn, on Agios Ioannis Hill, there are extensive remains of the Gortyn Acropolis. Its fortifications were strengthened during the 7th century AD under the threat of pirate raids; nevertheless, they were not enough to prevent the Arabs from conquering the city. It is still possible to see parts of the walls, as well as the foundations of the temple of Athena Poliouchos and a 6th-century Christian basilica. The hill offers a great view of the Messara Plain.

This important archaeological site can be reached following the National Road southwest of Heraklion in the direction of Phaistos and Matala. It is just 1 km from the village of Agioi Deka.



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