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Ancient Eleutherna on Crete Reveals Story of the Dawn of Greek Civilization

Ancient Eleutherna Crete
The archaeological site of Ancient Eleutherna on Crete. Credit: Ministry of Culture

Ancient Eleutherna, located on the northwest foot of Mount Ida on Crete, has been revealing archaeological treasures from the dawn of Greek civilization.

At 380 meters above sea level, south of the city of Rethymnon, Eleutherna, also called “Apollonia” at one time, is the birthplace of the poet Linos, the philosopher Diogenes, the tragic poet Ametor, and the sculptor Timochares.

The ancient Greek city-state is being viewed the “heart” of Crete” not least by archaeologist Nikos Stampolidis who remarked recently that it now stands as the second major pillar of ancient Cretan civilization, after Knossos and Phaistos.

He stressed that it tells the story of the dawn of Greek civilization, of the post-Minoan era against the counterweight of Knossos and the one-sidedness of Crete’s Minoan past.

Ancient Eleutherna Crete
The “Acropolis Tower” and quarrying in Eleutherna, Crete. Credit: Ministry of Culture

Surveys and systematic excavations under Stampolidis have revealed the city’s settlement patterns, sanctuaries and necropoleis, and even stone quarries in the surroundings of the hill. The discovery of the remains of four females was declared one of the top 10 discoveries of 2009 by the Archaeological Institute of America.

During the ninth century BC, in sub-Mycenaean times, in the Geometric Period of the later Greek Dark Ages, Dorians colonized the city.

In 220 BC the city of Eleutherna triggered the outbreak of the Lyttian War by accusing the Rhodians of the assassination of their leader Timarchus. The Eleuthernans eventually declared war on Rhodes.

During the following conflict, Eleutherna was at first allied with Knossos and Gortys, but later they were compelled to change sides by the Polyrrhenians and joined the opposite coalition led by the Macedonian king Philip V.

Ancient Eleutherna becomes a prosperous center on Crete

With the Roman conquest of Crete in 68/67 BC, luxurious villas, baths, and other public buildings demonstrate that Eleutherna was a prosperous center through the Imperial period, until the catastrophic earthquake of 365 AD.

Stampolidis and his team also discovered two Christian basilicas in Eleftherna adding yet another new aspect to the area’s cultural profile, which had previously solely been identified with the heroes of Homeric times.

Ancient Eleutherna Crete
The Hellenistic Bridge near the ancient city. Credit: Petr Novak, CC BY-SA 3.0/Wikipedia Commons

Stampolidis said that archaeologists are examining whether these two churches were built by Christians by destroying intact pagan monuments and buildings or if they repurposed already-abandoned monuments of the ancient world.

“Did the Christians act as jihadists or simply peacefully write their own story?” asked the professor.

The museum of Eleftherna welcomes hundreds of visitors a day during the summer period. The most innovative feature of the museum is perhaps that all its exhibits will be periodically renewed with new finds from the ongoing excavations.

The museum believes it will always be able to keep interest in its collections fresh since its exhibits will continue to be updated with the most recent revelations from the ongoing work at the archaeological site.

Related: Zominthos: The Ancient Minoan Palace on Crete’s Highest Mountain

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