The archaeological site of Gortyn (or Gortyna), 45 km away from Heraklion, is the largest in Crete and one of the most fascinating. The ancient city was an important settlement throughout antiquity and became the capital of the Roman Province Creta et Cyrenaica in the late 1st century BC. Gortyn is located in the middle of the Mesara plain in south central Crete. According to tradition, it is where Zeus, in the guise of a bull, brought the princess Europa from her home in Phoenicia. Homer mentions Gortyn in the Iliad as “having walls” and in the Odyssey as the place where Menelaus and his fleet of ships, returning home from the Trojan War, were blown off course to the Cretan coastline. Nowadays, Gortyn is particularly well known for its Law Code, the longest extant ancient Greek stone inscription in Greece.
Coordinates: 35° 3′ 45.46″ N, 24° 56′ 48.52″ E
The region of Gortyn has been continuously occupied from the Neolithic era (5000-3300 BC) to this day. During the Minoan period, a small settlement established itself under the control of the Minoan palace of nearby Phaistos. Gortyn later developed around a fortified acropolis surrounding the Temple of Athena Poliouchos (city protector), as shown on a clay idol of the armed goddess found on the site. From the 8th century BC, the city expanded towards the south and began to spread to the foot of the hill and along the banks of the Lethaios river where, in the 6th century BC, the agora was laid down. At the same time, other small settlements started to appear further down the plain like the site of the Temple of Apollo Pythios. In the Archaic era, a second centre was added to the city around the Temple of Apollo which became the new official temple of the town.
During the Classical period, Gortyn continued to grew and to prosper but very little remains of this period except for the twelve stone blocks carrying the famous law code discovered in 1884. The 600 lines written in a Dorian dialect and dating to the first half of the 5th century BC were the earliest law code in the Greek world. The inscription, inscribed in the boustrophedon system of writing (alternate lines in opposite directions), provides important information on the laws of the city and specifically its civil law. The code deals with matters surrounding the family and inheritance laws, adoptions, divorces as well as with crimes against morals (rapes, adultery) and the rights of women and slaves.
When the Romans invaded Crete, Gortyn sided with the conquerors and the city became the island’s capital. It enjoyed great prosperity and was endowed with lavish public buildings including a majestic praetorium, an amphitheatre, a hippodrome (unique in Greece), a third agora, baths and temples. At its peak, over 100,000 people are believed to have lived here.
From the 3rd century AD, during the early Christian years, Gortyn was the first Cretan city to welcome the new religion. The nearby village of Agii Deka (Ten Saints) was named after the ten Christian martyrs who were killed in the amphitheatre in AD 249. One of the first Christian churches was built at Gortyn, and the remains of an important 6th-century Byzantine church can still be seen today. It was dedicated to St. Titus, the first Bishop of Crete who was appointed by the Apostle Paul and who undertook the task of disseminating the Christian religion throughout the island. The city was finally destroyed by the Saracens in AD 824.
The ruins of Gortyn occupy a two-kilometre long square area, making this archaeological site the largest in Crete and one of the biggest in the whole of Greece. Sadly most of the buildings are not easily explored and have been fenced off. The only structure fully accessible is the Odeum with the Law Code. Finds from the site are on display in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum and the Sculpture Gallery at the site.
SCULPTURES found at gortyn