Maze of underground caves could be the original site of the Labyrinth

An elaborate network of underground tunnels topped by a stone quarry on the Greek island of Crete may be the original site of the ancient Labyrinth – the mythical maze where the half-bull, half-man Minotaur lived. The site, located near the town of Gortyn in the south of the island, is believed to have as much claim to be the Labyrinth as the Minoan palace at Knossos, 20 miles away.

Knossos, which was excavated a century ago had largely been heralded as the home of the legendary King Minos, who commissioned the Labyrinth to contain the Minotaur, a terrifying hybrid born of a union between his wife and a bull. Wealthy English archaeologist Arthur Evans, who excavated the site between 1900 and 1935 had keenly encouraged this belief. But scholars say that this site is an equally plausible setting for the legend.

labyrinth plan

An 1821 plan of the Labyrinth at Gortyn

The Gortyn site, known locally as Labyrinthos Caves, is made up of nearly three miles of interlocking tunnels with widened areas and dead end rooms. They have been visited since medieval times by travellers looking for the Labyrinth, but since the rediscovery of Knossos at the end of the 19th century, the site has been neglected by travelers searching for the Labyrinth, and was even used as a Nazi ammunition dump during World War II.

The cave complex at Gortyn had been visited recently by archaeological thieves who were preparing to dynamite one of the inner chambers in the hope of discovering a hidden treasure room.

Nicolas Howarth, an Oxford University geographer, said: ‘Going into the Labyrinthos Caves at Gortyn it’s easy to feel this is a dark and dangerous place where it is easy to get lost.

‘Evans’s hypothesis that the palace of Knossos is also the Labyrinth must be treated skeptically. The fact that this idea prevails so strongly in the popular imagination seems more to do with our romantic yearning to believe in the stories of the past, coupled with the power of Evans’s personality and privileged position.’

A third contender for the site of the Labyrinth exists at Skotino on the Greek mainland.

Mr Howarth added: ‘If we look at the archaeological facts, it is extremely difficult to say that a Labyrinth ever existed … I think that each site has its claim to the mystery of the Labyrinth, but in the end there are questions that neither archaeology nor mythology can ever completely hope to answer.’

The Magical Mesara Plain.

In the whole of the island of Crete, one area that is still magical today as well as being vitally important to the history of Crete, is the Mesara Plain. The  Mesara is in southern central Crete in the south of the Nomos of Iraklion. It is the biggest plain in Crete and very important for the extensive agriculture that is produced there both now and around five thousand years ago.

The name ‘Mesara’ comes from the Greek for ‘between mountains.’ Mesos – between, oros – mountains, which becomes Mesaoria or the modern word, Mesara. In the north are the southern foothills of the Psiloritis or Ida mountain range and in the south are the Asterousian mountains between the Mesara and the Libyan Sea. The coastline of the Mesara faces west almost from Agia Galini in the north to Matala in the south. Between the two is one of the most perfect and extensive beaches in Crete, mostly with hardly a soul to be seen.

Two rivers flow through the Mesara and both have their source near to the village of Asimi. From there they flow in opposite directions. Geropotamos, known in ancient times as Lethaios, flows westwards to the sea and out into the Gulf of Mesara. Anapodaris, ancient name Katarhaktes, flows into the bay of Derma, east of the village of Tsoutsouros.

Here in the Mesara in ancient times, civilisation grew from Neolithic (5th Century BC) to the modern day. During the Minoan Prepalatial period growth was amazing (4th & 3rd centuries BC) where huge leaps forward were taken in architecture, pottery, the incredible circular tholos tombs, Agios Onoufrios and Kamares ware, countless figurines, seals and jewelry were produced.

In the first Palace period we see the palace at Festos being built (1900 – 1700 BC). The second Palace period was centered around the later palace at Festos, the palatial buildings at Agia Triada and at the port of Kommos just north of Matala near Pitsidia (1700 – 1300 BC).

Later the came Gortyn, the magnificent city that dominated the Mesara for sixteen centuries, from 800BC to 800AD. Gortyn is situated just west of Agioi Deka and covered a diameter of ten kilometres. It is said that in its greatest years over 80,000 people lived in Gortyn and in Roman times it became not only the capital of Crete but the Capital of Cyrene as well (North Africa).

There is still a plane tree in the ruins of Gortyn that keeps its leaves all year. Under that tree Zeus made love to Europa and the children that they produced were Minos, the king at Knossos and his brother Rhadamantys, King of Festos.

Agioi Deka, the ten saints of Crete.

The road from Iraklion winds south through the town of Agia Barbara and descends to the Mesara Plain at a small village which is still called, to this day, Agioi Deka. Agioi Deka is built on the eastern part of the ancient city of Gortyn. Gortyn is one of my favourite sites in Crete and more will be written of this exciting city of Crete which was the capital for many centuries of Crete and north Africa.

At the end of the second century AD, Christianity was spreading across Crete thanks to the earlier work of the Apostle Titus, a Cretan who was student to the Apostle Paul who landed on the island around 62AD.  Titus became the Patron Saint of Crete and a huge Basilica with five aisles has now been discovered west of the centre of Gortyn near the village of Metropolis, which is called the church of St Titus. The old church of St Titus in the public area of the Gortyn site was not the original church by any means. It was just called that by an archeologist in the last century.

By the end of the second century AD Christianity was an important religion in Gortyn. Circa 170 to 190AD Gortyn had a very active Christian bishop called Philip who is today held as a saint in the Roman Catholic church. Every day we learn more about these times in Crete but the information is still pretty scarce. At least until the year 249AD. Within the Roman Empire that year was a leader called Emperor Decius who was deified as were all Roman leaders. Decius though, wanted the whole of the Roman Empire to worship his name and this happened in Gortyn. A shrine was set up and a great celebration declared to worship the Emperor Decius, god of Rome.

Although Gortyn was by now becoming a Christian city, no one argued with the Emperor of Rome. So everyone in Gortyn went through the motions watched by the Romans. All except ten men who used the moment to protest saying that no one should be worshipped except the true god, Jesus Christ. Consequently all ten were arrested.

It is interesting though that this protest seemed to have been a planned protest. Although five of the men, Theodoulos, Satornilos, Euporos, Gelasios and Eunikianos came from Gortyn, the other five came from other cities such as: Pompios from Lebena, Agathapos from Panormos, Basiliedes from Kydonia (Hania), Zotikos from Knossos and Euarestos from Iraklion. The men were held in prison and tortured for one month. But they failed to change their opinions and so they were sentenced to death by the governor of Crete. The executions took place in Alonion, a part of Gortyn now known to be the main amphitheatre of Gortyn. Later in the reign of Constantine the Great of Eastern Rome now called Byzantium governed from Constantinopolis (Istanbul), permission was given to raise the bodies of the ten men, now sanctified as saints, and rebury them in holy ground in sarcophogi. No one knows exactly where they are buried for there is still so very much of Gortyn to discover.

The graves of the martyrs of Alonion, Gortyn may be the sarcophogi discovered during a rescue excavation in 1981. There was a low enclosure where stone sarcophogi were seen at the centre of which was a small votive pit. The site was then recovered and is now, apparently, no longer accessible. We just don’t know.

However the ten saints of Crete are still celebrated today for their courage and their sanctity and the previous centre of the amphitheatre Alonion now holds the church of the ten saints in the village of Agioi Deka, just south of the main road through the village. The church stands in the original oval of the centre of the amphitheatre and is dated to the late twelfth or early thirteenth century. It has a fine icon to the saints as well as wall paintings that depict the ten saints. It is well worth a look.

It is also worth remembering that the ten saints came from cities in central and western Crete suggesting that even in the third century AD, Christianity had not yet penetrated the east of the island.

Island with a Hundred Cities

After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and the foundation of the new Greek Kingdoms, mostly in the east, the island of Crete rose in importance. Hellenistic Greece was a real bed of influence and threat as well as downright attacks on each other, kingdom verses kingdom, state against state.

The only way that these kingdoms could become stronger was to form alliances with each other. Many mainland states forged such alliances with Cretan cities and so Crete became much more powerful by influence and the fact that they had some of the best mercenary soldiers anywhere.

Crete became known to ancient writers as the ‘Island with a hundred cities’ (ekatompolis). And truly it had perhaps even more than one hundred. It is believed that there were more than a million people on the island serving all of these cities and there was very little land that was not tilled to grow food. Back then Crete also had huge forested areas right up to the mountain’s tree line and there was much fruit gathered from these forests. There was also plenty of wild game and there were many hunters.

The cities of Crete were often large cities, like Gortyn for example, with a diameter of six miles – ten kilometres. Other notable cities were of course Knossos, Lappa, Kydonia, Aptera and many more. The two most powerful of the cities were considered to be Gortyn on the Messara Plain and Knossos near to modern Iraklion. These two cities were often in dispute with each other, at other times they combined to attack another city. The city of Lyttos was destroyed by them. (220 BC).

Like many other parts of Greece though, Crete had a Koinon. This could be translated as a sort of parliament. The function and make up of this ‘parliament is hardly known, but it was thought to be a place where differences between city states could be discussed and decisions made. Although some of the Cretan cities had alliances with other parts of Greece and with Egypt under Ptolemy (who married his sister), the Koinon also had the function of gathering all the cities of Crete into a major alliance if ever they were attacked by foreigners. It could be said that this could happen at any time since many of the pirate ships that scourged the eastern Mediterranean operated out of Crete. The major seafarers of the time where the people of the island of Rhodes and they were constantly angry with the Cretan pirates. The origin of the word ‘syncretism’ started because of the Cretan Koinon. It means that although the Cretan cities might fight with one another, under an outside threat they became as one force.

The ‘island of a hundred cities’ must have been a wonderful place to see. Today it seems hard to imagine ten cities on Crete, never mind a hundred.