Crete: Phaistos

Stairs to the western gate of Phaistos.

Stairs to the western gate of Phaistos.

Comparing the palace complexes of Knossos and Phaistos is like comparing day and night. Visiting Phaistos is a completely different experience. Phaistos is about half as famous as Knossos, it is much smaller, does not draw huge crowds and little to no restoration work has been carried out here. The visitor can see what archaeologists truly found here, not what they imagined it was like thousands of years ago.

History of the palace

Phaistos is situated on the western edge of the fertile Messara Plain. Its location was identified in 1853 by Thomas Abel Brimage Spratt, and Italian archaeologist Federico Halbherr started excavations at the site some 50 years later. The site of Phaistos, on a hill overlooking the plain, was already inhabited during the prepalatial period (3650-1900 BCE), but the first true palace seems to have been built around 1900 BCE, during the Old Palace period. This palace was damaged and restored on two occasions. A new palace was built over the remains of the old palace after a third destruction around 1700 BCE, and this palace continued to be used during the New Palace period (1700-1450 BCE).

Messara Plain.

The New Palace period was followed by invasions by first the Mycenaeans from mainland Greece and then the Dorians. I have discussed this previously. After 800 BCE, city states began to emerge on Crete and Phaistos was one of them. The city vied with its neighbour and rival to the east Gortys over control over the Messara Plain. The conflict ended with the destruction of the former by the latter in the second century BCE. Strabo wrote that “Phaestus (…) was razed to the ground by the Gortynians”. Gortys ended up as the most powerful city state on Crete and, because of its early submission to Rome, it later became the capital of the Roman province of Creta et Cyrenaica. But that is a different story.

Exploring Phaistos

Western courtyard with seats.

A visit usually starts at the western courtyard, which dates back to Old Palace period. The steps here are not stairs, but seats for people attending religious ceremonies and – perhaps – theatrical performances. To the east is a set of stairs leading to the gate or propylon of the palace complex (see above). This was the main entrance to the palace and it must have been grand 3.500 years ago.

A little further to the east is the large central courtyard from the Old Palace period. The royal quarters are to the north of the square. You really have to use your imagination a lot here and read all the signs to get an idea of what the palace might have looked like long ago. The only artefacts that are left at Phaistos are the large pithoi – vases used for storing goods – that have been placed here and there.

Phaistos disc.

Phaistos disc.

The most famous archaeological find from Phaistos is arguably the Phaistos disc. It was discovered in 1908 by Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier and is now in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. It is by all means a small artefact, with a diameter of some 15 centimetres. The disc is about 1 centimetre thick and covered with symbols spiralling inwards.

No one has yet managed to decipher the symbols on the disc. A lot of the symbols are easily recognisable and some are military in nature. For instance, we see shields and clubs, as well as human heads with what appear to be crested helmets. Also on the disc are animals and plants. I must admit I initially thought the disc resembled a goose game, and apparently I was not the only one.

Matala

Caves of Matala.

Caves of Matala.

South of the ruins of Phaistos is the lovely village of Matala. It served as the port of Phaistos until the latter was destroyed by Gortys. Gortys then took control of Matala as well. It was a sleepy fishing village until the 1960s when hippies began to settle here. They lived and slept in the caves that were cut into the rocks thousands of years ago and were used as tombs during the Roman period. Although Matala is mainly a tourist destination now and draws mostly mainstream tourists, there is still a special hippie atmosphere here. Expect to find Volkswagen Beatles covered with flowers and peace signs, as well as banners with texts like “Today is life, tomorrow never comes”.

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