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Phaistos: The Palatial Mountain Fortress of Crete

Phaistos Crete
Credit: Jerzy Strzelecki , CC BY-SA 3.0/Wikipedia Commons

The magnificent archaeological site of Phaistos where an imposing palace stood overlooking the Mediterranean for thousands of years is perhaps not as well known as the palace of Knossos, but it was a focal point in the long and illustrious history of Crete.

It is the second-largest Cretan palace founded by the legendary King Minos of Knossos, but it does not face the Peloponnese mainland like Kydonia does, but rather southward and outward, toward the Mediterranean.

The palatial fortress, located in a seismically active zone, was rebuilt twice after it was first constructed in the Late Bronze Age.

Later, the palatial city, which archaeologists believe was a dependency of Knossos, was tragically destroyed a third time by the nearby Minoan people known as the Gortynians.

Phaistos site of Minoan-era palace with rooms made of alabaster

Located 62 km (38 miles) from Heraklion, Crete, the Bronze Age site lies on the outskirts of the modern-day city of Faistos.

Unlike the more well-known and visited site of Knossos, which sees many thousands of visitors every year, Phaistos is more difficult to reach, accessed by grand stairs; but its mountain fastness, with its commanding views over the Mediterranean, is especially impressive because of its location.

The grand staircases at Phaistos hint at its former grandeur. There is evidence of an amphitheater, and basins used for religious rituals still dot the site. Visitors to Phaistos can still take in the views from its courtyards and terraces.

A closer look at its ruins reveals reconstruction repairs over the three phases of destruction, while the tombs of rulers are located a respectful distance from the palaces.

The Bronze Age ruins of Phaistos were first described in the modern era by Thomas Abel Brimage Spratt, as part of the Mediterranean Survey of 1853, which included the topography, settlements and monuments of Crete. But of course the once-elegant city was well known by the ancients; the Greek geographer Strabo, who lived from 64 BC to 24 AD, stated:

“Of the three cities that were united under one metropolis by Minos, the third, which was Phaestus, was razed to the ground by the Gortynians; it is sixty stadia distant from Gortyn, twenty from the sea, and forty from the seaport Matalum; and the country is held by those who razed it.”

The entryway to the palace. Credit: CC BY 2.5/Wikipedia Commons

The first settlements at Phaistos have been dated back to the Late Neolithic Age, in approximately 4,000 BC. The first palace at Phaistos was constructed in approximately 1,700 BC.

The hill upon which it was built, above the Messara Plain, was called Kastri, meaning “small castle” according to Strabo.

The original palace at Phaistos, dating from the middle Bronze Age, was destroyed by the same earthquake that also damaged or destroyed the other palaces on Crete, including the spectacular Palace of Knossos. As happened at the Palace of Zominthos and many other sites, however, new structures were rebuilt atop the ruins of the old at Phaistos.

The ruins of the Palace of Phaistos include basins which many have been baths used in cleansing for religious rituals. Credit: Jebulon, CC0/Wikipedia Commons

Extensive palace complex contained theater, grand staircases, rooms with views of Mt. Psiloritis

Spratt and his crew found homes at the site that have since been removed, as well as the fortification walls of the palatial city.

Federico Halbherr later began to uncover the remains of an extensive palace complex at  Phaistos. However, since he had begun excavations before Arthur Evans did at Knossos in 1900, Halbherr did not have the advantage of Evans’ concepts of Minoan civilization nor the knowledge acquired after the decipherment of the Linear B syllabary by Michael Ventris.

Several artifacts with Linear A inscriptions were excavated at Phaistos and its name also appears in partially-deciphered Linear A texts. Experts believe it is most likely similar to the Mycenaean ‘PA-I-TO’ as written in Linear B.

After 1955 this name, written as 𐀞𐀂𐀵, began to turn up in the Linear B tablets at Knossos. There was every reason to think that pa-i-to indeed the settlement at Kastri. No Linear B has been found at Phaistos, however.

Several pits known as koulouras were found there; archaeologists believe they could have been ritual baths used in religious rites. Scotia Aphrodite and goddess Leto, who was also called Phytia, were worshiped in the city.

Pottery unearthed at Phaistos dates back to the Middle and Late Minoan periods, including polychrome items and embossing in imitation of metal work. Bronze Age works from Phaistos include bridge spouted bowls, eggshell cups, tall jars and large pithoi.

The levels of the theater area, flanked by two splendid staircases, made for a grand entrance to the main hall of the propylaea through tall doors. A twin gate led directly to the central courtyard through a wide street.

The upper floors of the west sector had spacious ceremonial rooms, although their exact restoration has not been possible.

The spectacular entrance from the central courtyard led to the royal apartments in the north part of the palace, with a view of the tops of Psiloritis. The rooms were constructed from alabaster and other materials. The rooms for princes were smaller and less luxurious than the rooms of the royal apartments, however.

The invading Achaeans destroyed Phaistos — as well as Knossos — in approximately 1400 BC. The palace appears to have been unused for a time, as evidence from the Mycenaean era has not been found.

The site was reinhabited during the Geometric Age, during the 8th century BC. Phaistos minted its own currency and had created an alliance with other autonomous Cretan cities, as well as with the king of Pergamon, Eumenes II.

Epimenides, the man invited by the Athenians to clean the city after the Cylonian affair in the 6th century BC, was of Phaistian descent.

Phaistos’ final denouement came at the end of the 3rd century BC, when it was destroyed by the Gortynians. After that time it dropped out of all recorded history.

The Phaistos Disc

Phaistos Disc
Phaistos Disc. Credit: C. Messier/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA-4.0

However, one of the most remarkable artifacts in Greek history was found at Phaistos in 1908, when Luigi Pernier, an Italian archaeologist and academic working with the Italian School of Archaeology in Athens discovered the Phaistos Disc in a basement in the northernmost ruins of the palace complex.

The disc features symbols stamped in clay; measuring 15 cm (5.9 in), its hieroglyphic script has been dated to between 1950 and 1400 BC.

One of the most striking displays at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, its 241 tokens with 45 symbols, or characters, are arranged in a clockwise spiral. One guess is that it is a recording of military or hunting exploits.

However, most academic attempts to decipher a syllabary or logogram for the Disc have had disappointing results; it is generally agreed that more examples are needed to break its code.

Gareth Owens, who has studied Classics & Ancient History at University College London, and who earned his Phd from EKPA on the Structure of the Minoan Language, has been studying the Phaistos Disk for six years. He now believes that 90% of the Disc can be understood and that it is a Minoan religious inscription dedicated to the Mother goddess.

“There is no doubt that we are talking about a religious text. This is clear from a comparison made with other religious words from other inscriptions from the holy mountains of Crete. We have words that are exactly the same,” Owens said in July of 2021.

“I suspect that the Phaistos Disc is a hymn before Astarte, the goddess of love. Words such as those mentioned on the disc have been found on Minoan offerings,” the scholar continued.

“As with today’s offerings, people pray when they are troubled, because of health problems or personal reasons. Man doesn’t change, after all.”

The archaeologist said he actually believes that one side of the Phaistos Disc is dedicated to a pregnant mother goddess and the other to the Minoan goddess Astarte.

On the importance of the figure, Owens noted that Astarte was the goddess of love, war and the mountains and her origin lies in the east. The goddess’s roots are “from ancient Mesopotamia, located in today’s Turkey; Astarte went to Cyprus and became Venus,” he explained.

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