Heraklion Phaistos Palace

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Location: Mires

Built on Kastri Hill, the Palace of Phaistos dominates the fertile Messara Plain, 62 kilometers south of Heraklion Town. Enclosed by the imposing Mount Ida and the mountain ranges of Asterousia and Dicte, it is located in an area of stunning natural beauty, and it is considered one of the finest of all Minoan palaces.


The first traces of human settlement in Phaistos date back to the Neolithic times, while the use of metals started around the middle of the 3rd millennium BC, facilitating its further development. At the beginning of the 2nd millennium, power passed to the hands of kings, who then built great palatial centers.

The original palace was constructed around 1900 BC, a time which is also known as the Protopalatial period. Along with the buildings that surrounded it, it covered an area of 18,000 square meters, being a little smaller than the Palace of Knossos. It was destroyed twice by tremendous earthquakes over a period of about three centuries, and, eventually, a new, even more majestic palace was erected in its stead. As a result, archaeologists can see three distinct construction phases.

Phaistos was the seat of the Anax (king), who controlled not only the Messara plain but the whole wider area as well, including the ports of Messara Bay. It was destroyed again in the mid-15th century BC, after which, only some parts of the palace continued to be occupied throughout the Mycenean and the Archaic eras. Over the following centuries, the town of Phaistos flourished once more, becoming a powerful center that minted its own coin and boasted two ports, Matala and Kommos. A temple dedicated to the goddess Rhea, the mother of the oldest Olympian gods, was built to the south of the old palace. Strangely enough, no remnants from the Classical era have been spotted to this day, but, during the Hellenistic times, Phaistos was still a prosperous center.

The city was finally destroyed and subjugated by the neighboring Gortyn around 160 BC. The present-day village of Agios Ioannis, which stands to the south of the ancient city, is all that remains of the area’s glorious past during the Venetian era.


The entrance to the site is through the northwest court. From there, a staircase leads to the west court, the sanctuary and a small theater with eight rows, where spectators sat or stood to watch ceremonies, plays and religious rites. From the theater area, two splendid staircases gave direct access to the impressive propylaea, while a twin gate led to the central courtyard, which measured 55 by 25 meters, and featured porticos supported by columns on two sides.

Walking around the central courtyard, visitors can see a Neolithic kiln and the Temple of Rhea on the south side, while the palace of the Prince lies to the east. The royal apartments were located in the northern part of the palace, offering magnificent views of the mountaintops of Psiloritis, and were constructed with alabaster and other materials. They also boasted light wells, porticos, as well as pier-and-door partitions, and were decorated with marvelous frescoes. It is in this palace that the famous Phaistos Disk was discovered in 1908. The disk is about 15 centimeters wide in diameter, and each side is inscribed with a spiral text consisting of 241 occurrences of 45 distinct signs. This mysterious disk has captured the imagination of paleographers, and numerous attempts have been made to decipher the code, though none of them has proved successful to this day.

To the west of the king's room is a lustral basin which is probably the best-preserved one on the entire island. The northeast wing of the palace is assumed to have consisted of artisans’ workshops and the remains of a furnace that was once used for smelting metal can still be seen in the courtyard. Cult vases and figurines have been found in the west wing, along with double axes incised on the stone, suggesting that this part of the palace was used for religious ceremonies.

Other findings include intricate bridge-spouted bowls, eggshell cups, large pithoi, thousands of seal impressions and a large collection of tablets in Linear A. Today, all these findings can be found at the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion.

In literature and myth

In his epics, Homer describes Phaistos as a "well-populated" city, reflecting the importance it still had at the time. At the same time, in Greek mythology, the city is associated with Rhadamanthys, a legendary king of Crete who was said to be one of the sons of Zeus and Europa. Renowned for his wisdom and fairness, he was considered to have written the Cretan Code, the first legal system which was later adopted by the Spartans. After he died, he was believed to have been made one of the judges of the dead on account of his inflexible integrity.



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