The capital of the Crete region during the Neolithic era was Phaestos. But the small settlement of Gortyn grew and grew, until it eventually became a city that eclipsed Phaestos. During the Roman era, in the first century, it became capital of Crete. The remains of this time, the city’s apogee, can be seen and studied today in archaeological excavations that have led to some of the most important discoveries in Europe.
The excavations began in 1884, leaving the workers themselves amazed. As the works progressed, different buildings appeared, such as the Saint Titus Church, whose main structure is preserved. This temple was built in honor of the apostle Titus and another 10 saints who preached Christianity in the city and were persecuted by the Roman emperor.
Remains were also found of the Roman Odeon and Theater, circular-shaped with rows of seats and a stage, which was built by Emperor Trajan. To the north east, on the Agios Ioannis hill, are the remains of the Gortyn acropolis and its walls, as well as a Christian church and the Temple of Athena.
However, among the most important finds were the inscriptions of the Gortyn Code, a dozen columns of legal code engraved on the walls inside the Odeon. It is the oldest compendium of norms and laws in the western world, carved in the fifth century B.C. and made up of some six hundred lines. Each column of text contains between 53 and 66 lines, written in the Dorian dialect of Crete. It is a collection of laws constituting a civil code covering family law, adoption laws, inheritance and women’s rights. It also makes reference to crimes against morality, rape, adultery and slave rights.
But Gortyn is not just rich in culture and politics; it is also steeped in legend and mystery. It is said that the caverns found nearby were in fact the Minotaur’s Labyrinth mentioned in Greek legend. In the area surrounding Gortyn is a cavern covering more than 9000 square meters, which has 3 kilometers of maze-like passages in which it is very easy to get lost. It has been plundered many times by treasure hunters and was used as a munitions dump by the Nazis during the Second World War. Legend has it that King Minos ordered the labyrinth to be built in order to trap the Minotaur, a monstrous beast born of the union between the king’s wife Pasiphae and a bull with which she had fallen in love due to a plot hatched by Poseidon, who had fallen out with the king for not wanting to sacrifice an animal in his honor.
The municipality of Gortyn is a must for all lovers of the history of civilization, as well as the mystery and adventure of legend.
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