Phaistos palace in south Crete and Messara plain
Phaistos palace in south Crete and Messara plain
Phaistos archaeological site in south Crete, at the background Messara plain

Phaistos: A Concise History

Phaistos, situated on a low hill (about 100 meters above sea level) south of the River Geropotamos (ancient Lethaeus), dominated the fertile valley of the Lower Mesara, surrounded by imposing mountains (Psiloritis, Asterousia, Lasithi Mountains). To the south lies the Libyan Sea. The Lethaeus surrounds the Phaistos hill from the east and north and was the city’s water source. The mild and warm climate of the area made life comfortable and pleasant for its inhabitants.

Minoan Palace Complex

Phaistos was one of the most important centers of Minoan civilization and the most wealthy and powerful city in southern Crete. It is mentioned in the texts of ancient authors (Diodorus, Strabo, Pausanias) and is also mentioned by Homer. It belongs to the three important cities founded by Minos in Crete. According to mythology, the dynasty of Radamanthys, son of Zeus and brother of Minos, ruled in Phaistos. Homer mentions its participation in the Trojan War and describes it as a “well-populated city”. The period of Phaistos’s acme begins with the entry of Crete into the Bronze Age in the middle of the 3rd millennium BC, when the foundations for Minoan civilization were laid.

The Lethaeus surrounds the Phaistos hill from the east and north and was the city’s water source. The mild and warm climate of the area made life comfortable and pleasant for its inhabitants.

History

Habitation in Phaistos began in the Neolithic period, as evidenced by the foundations of Neolithic houses, tools, idols, and pottery fragments that were uncovered under the palace during excavations. The Neolithic settlement must have spread over the top of the hill and its southwestern slope. In the middle of the 3rd millennium BC, the use of metals began, which favored the development of the city. Development continued until the foundation and establishment of the Minoan palaces (15th century BC). At the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC, power passed into the hands of kings, who founded large palaces. The first palace was built around 1900 BC and together with the other surrounding buildings had an area of 18,000 square meters, slightly smaller than that of the Knossos palace. The great earthquake that occurred around 1700 BC was the cause of its destruction, as well as that of Knossos. On its site, a new, more imposing one was built, to which most of the restored remains today belong, while several sections of the first palace have also been uncovered, mainly in the southwest. The Minoan city developed around the palace center over a large area. Phaistos was the seat of the ruler-king who controlled not only the rich plain of the Mesara but also the settlements in the wider area, as well as the exit to the sea and the harbors of the Mesara bay. After the destruction of the palace (15th century BC), the city of Phaistos continued to be inhabited in the Mycenaean and Geometric periods (8th century BC).

In the following centuries, Phaistos experienced a new period of prosperity. The extent of the city increased in relation to that of the Minoan. It was a rich, powerful, populous, and independent city. It minted its own coins and during its heyday, its dominion extended from Cape Lithino to Cape Melissa and included the Paximadia islets with the ancient name Letoai. The state of Phaistos had two strong ports, Matala and Kommos to the southwest.

During the historical period, the temple of Rhea was built, south of the old palace. A chronological gap is observed in the classical period, from which no architectural remains have yet been uncovered. On the contrary, the Hellenistic city was extremely prosperous. A sample of houses from this era can be seen in the western courtyard (upper terrace) of the palace. In the middle of the 2nd century BC (around 160 BC), the city was destroyed and enslaved by neighboring Gortyn. Although it was not immediately abandoned, the position of Phaistos, now loses its power. Traces of habitation from the Venetian period are scattered throughout the area. The present-day village of Agios Ioannis on the southern fringes of the ancient city is the poor remnant of a glorious past.

Minoan period
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