We spent most of the 14th trying to find the archaeological museum of Iraklio. We found it on the 15th only to discover it is closed long-term for renovations. Major bummer! This museum has every important find regarding the Minoan Civilization. I guess I’ll buy the book. So for the next day we set out for the south side of the island to Gortyna and Phaestos. These are Minoan settlements, smaller than Knossos and unrestored. We were hopeful to find something but unsure of just what it would be. We were familiar with Egyptian ruins and archaeology; everything was well preserved and tastefully restored. Today turned out to be an awkward awakening to what archaeology is like in the rest of the world.
After a very pleasant drive through vineyards and olive groves and then over a small mountain pass, we descended into the beautiful plain of Mesara to Gortyna. We were glad for the free admission and the kind woman (Evie) who gave us a brief tour of the site. We first stopped at the ruins of the 6th century church of Agias Titus (Saint Titus). All that remains are the front altar areas and a side room of the old church. Evie described how Christianity was brought to Crete by Saint Paul and Saint Titus around AD 49 and how the early Christians converted the “old temple” into this church which was, in turn, later destroyed by Turkish Muslims. In Roman times (2nd century AD) this site served as the residence (praetorium) for the local governor. There are ruins for an extensive home, court, and theater. Many Roman statues were found here. Most are Roman copies of Classical Greek art.
Two things immediately stood out to me. First, Evie never once mentioned the Minoans. Yes, the original structure here that became a Roman shrine, then a church and then the ruins we see today, was Minoan, but Evie seemed much more interested in preserving the memory of the Agia Titus. It is, after all, the most recent antiquity that was “ruined” on the site, but to not even mention the Minoans seemed a bit odd.
Second, these are real ruins. Egypt’s ruins looked new in comparison. Here, nothing original stood upright. Even substantial foundation blocks were pieces of rubble that had been painstakingly reconstructed. A few columns and two stone sarcophagi were the only recognizable items. It would take a lot of imagination to visualize this Minoan palace.
We drove down the road to Phaestos. Here we were rewarded with a view. This palace and city were second only to Knossos in size and importance. Very little of this area has been reconstructed, but preservation of the ruins continues. Here there is evidence of a central court surrounded by many smaller rooms. A royal residence sidles up next to this area. We also saw several huge pithoi. They are ceramic jars, some standing over six feet tall, used for storing oil, water, wine and grains. And while it was much easier here to make out rooms and hallways, we again needed a lot of imagination to fill in the balance of the picture of what once made up a grand palace. The rain started and we wove our way back home.
Today our apologies go out to Crete and the Minoan culture. There is a rich history here that, for us, remained a bit hidden due to a closed museum and the shadow of Egypt’s grandeur. It was refreshing though, to be the only visitors at each site and to enjoy it in the rain! Something that almost never happens in Egypt.