Most of us know Crete simply as a great holiday destination – a place where you can experience the traditional Greek mix of sun, sea and sand at a bargain price. But there’s more to this iconic island than beautiful beaches and cheap holidays. In ancient times it was known as one of the cradles of civilisation, and you can still see the ruins of that past greatness today. These stunning sites are the best places to see the bones of ancient Crete and to learn about the island’s history.
Knossos: Most people know the legend of the Minotaur – the mythical beast with the body of a man and the head of a bull, which was supposed to live underneath the palace of king Minos and spent it’s time devouring innocent maidens. Historians suspect that the palace at Knossos, a colossal and splendid construction that was the seat of Minoan civilisation in around 1600BC, was at the centre of the myth. Whether you believe that or not, the palace is undoubtedly one of the most important archaeological sites in Greece and is well worth a visit. It is said to have housed more than 100,000 people at its peak, and there are well-preserved examples of friezes, statues and art throughout the site.
Phaestos: Another large Minoan palace, Phaestos is significant not only as a well-preserved ancient site but also because it was the location of an important find – a clay tablet that represents one of the oldest examples of hieroglyphic writing ever found. The city itself was probably inhabited from as early as 4000BC, and is described by Homer as taking part in the famous Trojan War.
Aptera: This powerful city was occupied from Minoan times all the way through to the 7th century AD, when it fell into a decline and was eventually deserted, save a 12th century monastery. The most prominent and exciting archaeology here dates from Roman times – sophisticated baths have been found, as well as a three-vaulted Roman cistern, several temples and an ancient theatre.
Gortyn: Gortyn was the Roman capital of Crete, although there is evidence that it was inhabited as far back as 7000BC. It is the site of finds from the Minoan and Dorian periods, as well as Roman pottery and buildings. It’s an easy drive from the modern capital, Heraklion, and is popular among tourists for its magnificent ruins. The site was also mentioned in ancient Greek literature – Plato complimented the city, and Homer described how Menelaus was blown off course to the Gortyn coastline on their return from the battle of Troy.
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