The ancient town of Aptera lies on the northwest coast of the Greek island of Crete, on a low hill dominating the Souda Bay. Archaeological findings suggest that Aptera was founded in the Geometric period (8th century BC) and reached its peak during the Hellenistic period as one of the most important and powerful city-states of ancient Crete. With its two ports, Minoa and Kastelli, Aptera continued to be an important city during the Roman period and the early days of the Byzantine Empire before being destroyed by two earthquakes in the 4th and 7th centuries and then by the Saracens in AD 823.
Coordinates: 35° 27′ 46.44″ N, 24° 8′ 31.2″ E
Comforted by the finding of coins bearing the legend APT, the 19th-century English traveller Robert Pashley was the first to establish a link between the remains discovered on the hill of Paliokastro and the city of Aptera. The name “Aptera” might have been linked to the cult of Artemis Aptera since it was not uncommon for a city to derived its name from a god or a goddess. At Aptera, the city might have, rather unusually, chosen the goddess’ epiclesis (epithet) rather than the actual name of the goddess. However, according to Pausanias, Pteras, the founder of the second temple of Apollo at Delphi, gave its name to the city. Aptera is also mentioned in Greek mythology. It was the site of a contest between the Sirens and the Muses. The Sirens were defeated and as a result, lost their feathers and cast themselves into the sea. Aptera means “without wings”.
Given the lack of texts mentioning Aptera, what is known of the town mainly comes from excavations. Pausanias tells us that hundreds of skilled archers from Aptera were fighting as mercenaries in various places outside Crete, bringing wealth in their home city. Silver, imported from Egypt and Cyrenaica, allowed the city to mint its own coins and thus strengthened its independence and economic power. In the 5th century BC, like all Cretan cities, Aptera did not take part in the Persian wars, and the city prospered. During the Cretan civil wars of the 3rd century BC, Aptera became a great ally of Knossos.
During the conquest of Crete by Metellus, Aptera surrendered without a fight as did Kydonia and Gortyn. This act enabled the city to get the favours of the Romans who lowered the taxes it had to pay. Aptera experienced a new period of peak during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, according to the impressive public and private buildings that have come to light. From the 3rd century AD, the city’s influence started to fade away, its decline being accelerated by the earthquake of AD 365 that destroyed several cities in Crete. A second earthquake in the 7th century, along with the invasions of the Saracen pirates, marked the abandonment of the city. A Late Byzantine monastery dedicated to St. John the Theologian was built amidst the ruins and continued in operation until 1964.
The most impressive of the preserved ancient buildings are the two Roman cisterns that served the needs of the city and supplied the facilities of the public and private baths. The city walls still standing are made of large polygonal stones and echo the walls of Tiryns and Mycenae. One can also see the remains of a small 5th century BC Doric temple dedicated to Artemis and his brother Apollo as well as the preserved ruins of a small theatre. Excavations at the site are still ongoing.