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Greece (Crete) Uncategorized

Phaistos, Crete: The most famous Greek ruins you’ve probably never heard of

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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.
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Kamares ware, including these vessels, were found at the Minoan palaces at Knossos and Phaistos. | Photo: M. Yung

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.

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This photo is taken from the opposite side of the palace grounds.   Jerzy Strzelecki [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D
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.
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Phaistos is found on a hilltop in southern Crete. The valleys on all sides of the hilltop are blanketed with olive trees, grape vineyards, cypress trees, and farms. There are several caves in the surrounding hills also. Many items, including pottery, have been found in these caves. | Photo: M. Yung
  • The first Phaistos Palace was built around 1900 BC.
  • It covered 8,000 square kilometers over three terraces.
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Tickets to the Phaistos site are 8€ each. Getting there is inexpensive, too, via public bus.
  • 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!

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Little at Phaistos seems to have changed since the 1919 photo above. It’s still isolated, quiet, and remote. | Photo: M. Yung
  • 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.
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It’s amazing how little has changed over the years. This photo from 1919 shows the steps leading to the West Court. The theatral area and diagonal wall appear in the lower half of the picture. | Frederic Boissonnas [Public domain]
  • 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.

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Two pithoi appear below a reconstructed walkway. | Photo: M. Yung

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.

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A room with storage jars known as pithoi. | Photo: M. Yung

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.

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Mitch walked as far as he could into the Magazine of the Giant Pithoi, a room that contained  several large pithoi jars. | Photo: M. Yung

In fact, this was our main disappointment with Phaistos:

a good portion of the site was closed.

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The shrines of the West Wing were predominantly small rectangular rooms that contained benches. According to the placard, inside these rooms excavators found ritual vessels, figurines of deities and other cult objects. | Photo: M. Yung

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.

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Photo: M. Yung

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.

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Drainage pipes were used at Phaistos. | M. Yung

 

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This is the Queen’s Megaron (throne room) found at Phaistos. It is covered by a metal shelter on this side…
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…and this side, too. | Photo: M. Yung
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The Phaistos Disk is on display at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. The disk represents one of the greatest mysteries of archaeology. No one knows the meaning of the symbols incised into the clay. It was made between 2000-1000 BC. It measures about six inches in diameter. | Photo: M. Yung
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Photo: M. Yung

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.

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This photo shows the theatral area on the left and stairway to the West Court on the right. | Photo: M. Yung
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Here I am walking near the theatral area in the West Court. The wall to my left can be seen on the left side of the preceding photo.
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Kouloures, large stone-built structures, show time-consuming craftsmanship. | Photo: M. Yung
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Relics from the past are scattered across the grounds. | Photo: M. Yung
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This photos shows the surrounding hillsides. I’ve circled in red additional outlying structures that were subordinate to the palatial hilltop above.  We ate our lunch (that we had packed and brought with us) on benches beneath a pine tree right above this scene. | Photo: M. Yung

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.


Thanks for reading! This post is another installment from our cross-country Greek odyssey last summer. It’s amazing how many more sights I have yet to write about. Follow my blog for more travel posts, including this one from our final day in Greece when we visited the site of Paul’s To an Unknown God sermon.

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Greece (Peloponnese) Uncategorized

Visit Mycenae: Feel the quiet power of the Lion Gate

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No, this isn’t our photo, but we did take the next one below. The photo above, however, shows more of the famous Lion Gate at Mycenae. Credit: Andreas Trepte [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D

What you can expect to see at Mycenae

Ask an art historian about Mycenae and they will likely mention the Lion Gate, the monumental sculptures carved at the entrance to the citadel at the Mycenaean acropolis.  While the Mycenaean civilization they guarded through the millennia was buried and ravaged by time and destruction, the lions remained quietly standing, sentinels that protected the inhabitants within.

Today, Mycenae is still a protected site. Mycenae and the nearby Tyrins were inscribed upon the UNESCO World Heritage Liston December 4, 1999.

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According to a placard at the entrance to the site, “Inscription on this list confirms the outstanding universal value of a cultural or natural property which deserves protection for the benefit of all humanity. The two most important centers of the Mycenaean culture dominated the Eastern Mediterranean from the 15th to the 12th centuries B.C. and played a vital role in the development of the culture of Classical Greece.  The two citadels are indissolubly linked with the Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, that affected European art and literature for more than three millennia.”

 

This isn’t the first post I’ve written about Mycenae. My first post was written on the road during  the middle of our cross-country six-week Greek odyssey last summer. That post was much more concise; it included a handful of photos, but nowhere near the number of photos in this post.

Enjoy these photos and if you have a visit to Mycenae in your future or if you’ve been there already, please leave a comment and share your thoughts.

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Tickets are 12€ each and include entrance to the archaeological site, the museum and the Treasury of Atreus.

After purchasing your ticket, you’ll walk on grounds that surround the hillside below the citadel on the acropolis, the uppermost part of the site. Beehive tombs and other city structures can be seen around you.

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The latest “funerary monument” beehive tomb is on the hillside below the acropolis. It was discovered by chance by villagers during the time of Ottoman rule.
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The same tomb… just a little closer.
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And closer still. Here, I’m standing in the doorway where apparently some scaffolding is used to bolster the heavy stones. My husband, Mitch, is standing along the far wall, to show the size of the tomb.
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And… looking up at the ceiling of the beehive tomb.
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Outside the tomb, you can see theater seating (circled above in red) put in place by Greeks in Hellenistic times.

And another tomb…

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Another beehive tomb we encountered on our way up to the acropolis.
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I took this shot inside the tomb. The stonework is unbelievable.
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Get a load of those lintels above!
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Here’s a shot looking straight up at the underside of those mammoth lintel stones.

 

 

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There’s more than one acropolis in Greece. This is the acropolis –the highest place — at Mycenae. It is also referred to as the citadel and was the home of the palace, House of Columns, grave circles, and other structures. If you tap the photo and zoom in you can see tiny figures walking along the very uppermost edge. The walking tour takes you from the edge of this parking lot up to the various sights on the acropolis and the surrounding hillsides.
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This is Grave Circle A, part of “an extensive cemetery” at Mycenae, according to a placard at the spot. “It was used exclusively for royal burials during the 1500s BC. The shafts, which you can walk down (see below), were near graves that held the bodies of royal family members and grave goods. Those goods can be found at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Here’s my post on that museum.
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This circular enclosure was an updated feature added to enhance the royal burial ground. When was the updating done? 1250 BC.
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A view from the citadel at the acropolis. The hillside is filled with myriad structures, foundations, and remains.  According to a nearby placard, most of the ruins visible today date to the 13th century B.C., but there is evidence that use of the site began in the Early Helladic period (3000-2000 BC.) 
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This is another photo from the citadel. Some of the structures on the acropolis include a large court complete with porticoes and antechamber, and the megaron, a political hub with administrative and military functions.
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We marveled at the size of this lintel piece on the citadel. 

There’s much more on the acropolis at Mycenae. Click here to see my other post about Mycenae that includes more photos from the top, including the House of Columns.

But for now, on to the museum…

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The sign at the entrance  to the museum reads in Greek “Archaeological Museum Mykines,” which English speakers say Mycenae.
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The cup looks very contemporary; however, it was made from 1350-1300 BC. The deep bowl in the back was made 1250-1150 BC.
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This ivory Mycenaean sculpture was made between 1250-1180 BC. It stands between only 3-4″ h. Read this post for more information about this little number.
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These “anthropomorphic figure” sculptures captivated me. I still am surprised at how contemporary the expressions and poses appear. These were made about 3,200 years ago… 1250-1180 BC! Simply stunning. 
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This anthropomorphic figure appears at the far right in the photo above.
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The spiral motif is timeless. This stairstep was decorated with a repeating pattern. 1450-1350 BC.
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A variety of personal items were excavated from the sites at Mycenae. These combs are dated 1300-1180 BC. The colorful faience and glass necklace at left? 1400-1040 BC.
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This large storage jar is overwhelming in its size. 

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This photo, found on Creative Commons, shows the back side of the museum. When you visit the museum, you enter on the opposite side and and unable to see the various levels of the museum that descend down the mountain slope. Photo Credit: George E. Koronaios [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D
After touring the museum, we decided to leave the main site and walk back down the highway to bring our Mycenaean odyssey to a close. The sun was out in full force and we felt the pull of a mid-afternoon nap in our comfortable AirBnB. Here’s a post about our wonderful hosts.

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By the time we left, the crowds were increasing. Even so, the park wasn’t especially crowded. No lines. No waiting. No hassle.

But before that, we knew we wanted to check out the Treasury of Atreus, also known as the  Tomb of Agamemnon. One arrives at it when you head back down the highway toward the town of Mycenae. We had noticed it on our way up earlier that morning.

The Treasury of Atreus isn’t an afterthought… it’s a must-see.

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Just outside the main site, your ticket will allow you into the Treasury of Atreus. Here, you’ll find a guard station, a park bench or two under some pine trees, and, if I remember correctly, a vending machine. There are no facilities. 

But why is it called a treasury?

It’s called a treasury — and not a tomb — because treasures were placed inside to commemorate the ruler buried within.

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This is the Treasury of Atreus, also known as the Tomb of Agamemnon. It’s a large “tholos,” or beehive tomb on Panagitsa Hill at Mycenae. It was built in 1250 BC.

Just so you know…

The Treasury of Atreus has no real connection to Agamemnon. The Mycenae archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann named it thus and the popular name persisted. According to this article, the royal buried here would have ruled at an earlier date than Agamemnon.

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I took this picture looking back from the entrance to the Treasury of Atreus.
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That lintel above the entrance to the tomb weighs 120 tons!
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This is a more accurate picture of the inside of the Treasury of Atreus. It’s dark inside… and nice and cool, too.
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We walked along an asphalt highway up to the Mycenae Archaeological Site. It was a sunny and breezy day. 

I hope you enjoyed this photo essay about Mycenae. It’s a lonely yet so important archaeological site.

Greece, including the Peloponnese region (that part of Greece connected to the mainland by the land bridge at Corinth), offers a plethora of ancient sites. It’s truly difficult to visit them all. In fact, we already are making a list for sites to see when we return someday.

But in the meantime, if Greece is in your future, make time for Mycenae.


Thanks for reading! Make sure to leave a comment or share a thought about this post or to share news about your own visit to Greece. I’m looking forward to hearing from you.