A peek into the past in the hills of southern Crete
Phaistos. Phaestos. Festos. Faistos. And then in Greek, it’s spelled Φαιστός. No matter how you spell it, each name refers to Phaistos Minoan Palace, the second most important site (after Knossos Palace in Heraklion) of the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete.
We visited Phaistos last summer in late June. After touring the archaeological sites at Athens, Mycenae, Delphi, Olympia, and Knossos, we made a final stop at Phaistos. After a confusing morning journey by public bus from Heraklion, we made it to Phaistos in plenty of time to take a leisurely self-guided tour, eat a small lunch beneath a pine tree, and have a cold drink and ice cream in the small, on-site gift shop before hopping on a bus back to Heraklion. Here’s my post about how to get from Heraklion to Phaistos, click here.
If Minoans are new to you, here are a few facts about the culture from my husband:
- The Minoans, named for their ruler, the mythical King Minos, are known for their advanced civilization that settled the island of Crete and other surrounding islands.
- The Minoans were great sea travelers.
- They built enormously sophisticated palaces for their royalty. The palaces were very “high tech” for the time period and exhibited a distinctive and advanced architectural style.
- Phaistos was the region that produced Kamares ware, a pottery style dating from the 1800-1700 BC. Kamares ware, named for the nearby cave where it was found, is known for its dark background and white brushwork. Kamares wares were considered luxurious to own and were exported throughout the Mediterranean to Cyprus, Egypt and Palestine.
A self-guided tour of Phaistos is relaxing and quiet. Unlike Knossos, there are no guides-for-hire who approach you as you enter offering to walk you through the site for a fee.
While these guides are likely very helpful for many tourists, we doubted that they were truly needed, considering the large number of detailed placards placed throughout the site. Granted, that assumes one doesn’t mind reading.
When you do stop to read the signs, you can learn a lot. Here are some basic facts taken from a placard found at the entry to the main site:
- The hill of Phaistos was inhabited as early as 4500-3200 BC in the Final Neolithic Age.
- The first palace of Phaistos was active from 1900-1700 BC. The palace controlled the plains and valleys found below the palace hilltop.
- The city of Phaistos — and Minoan culture in general — flourished until 323-367 BC.
- The Phaistos Palace grounds included a central court, surrounding wings, multi-story buildings (similar to Knossos), gateways and open balconies.
- More facts follow the next few photos.
- The first Phaistos Palace was built around 1900 BC.
- It covered 8,000 square kilometers over three terraces.
- The original palace was inhabited for 250 years and destroyed and rebuilt three times.
- It was destroyed the last time by an earthquake around 1700 BC.
It’s amazing that visitors are allowed to walk on stones laid nearly 3,700 years ago!
- After the earthquake, the ruins were covered and a new palace was constructed on that.
- This last palatial site was smaller, but according to the placard, “more monumental.”
- This last Phaistos Palace was destroyed in 1450 BC, but not rebuilt.
- Two more facts follow below.
- The city of Phaistos continued to be inhabited and thrived in Hellenistic times from 323-367 BC.
- In 150 BC, Phaistos was finally destroyed by Gortys. When Rome conquered Crete in 67 BC, Gortys became the capital, replacing Knossos.
But back to our tour…
The main reason we wanted to visit Phaistos: the pithoi.
These pithoi (the singular word is pithois) are well-known in art history circles and Phaistos is considered the premier site for this particular kind of storage vessel. In fact, my husband hoped the site would have more available to see, as he had seen photos of many more pithoi on display here.
Still, it was fun to wander the grounds and find a pithois tucked away here and there. There were more to see in an area of the grounds covered with metal shelters; however, these shelters were in large areas closed off to visitors.
In fact, this was our main disappointment with Phaistos:
a good portion of the site was closed.
There was definitely a feeling that Phaistos is overlooked and forgotten.
- a few signs were missing
- some barriers were broken
- a wooden observation deck had missing boards
Generally, Phaistos seemed neglected. And this isn’t really surprising, considering Greece’s other economic priorities.
True, due to its location, Phaistos sees fewer visitors than other more popular Greek archaeological sites. In fact, Phaistos doesn’t even make this Top 20 list of Greek ruins.
Still, Phaistos is a valuable peek into the past, and among art historians, it’s well-known and revered.
The Phaistos Minoan Palace reminds us that we shouldn’t underestimate the abilities and ingenuity of ancient cultures. For example, precisely placed stairs and drainage pipes made of solid stone show us the resourcefulness of the Minoans.
It was a beautiful sunny day when we visited Phaistos. In fact, by early afternoon, we were ready to hop on an air-conditioned bus and make the trip back to Heraklion.
Mysteriously, no one knows for sure the reasons for the collapse of Minoan culture, including the civilization at Phaistos.
Perhaps that’s a fitting conclusion for this archaeological site that today is still out-of-the-way, obscure, and famous.