Phaistos

The second largest palace of Crete, Phaistos is located in a spectacular setting. The buildings atop a rocky hill overlook the entire Messara plane and the Asterousia mountains to the South, and the Lasithi mountains to the East. To the west one can see the Messara gulf, while the imposing Mt. Idi or Psiloretis towers over the site to the North.

As spectacular as the scenery is, the palace buildings themselves comprised arguably the most beautiful of all the Minoan palaces. The ruins span several Minoan eras, and one of the most challenging, and interesting activities for the visitor is to explore which parts are from the Proto-Palatial and which walls have stood since the Neo-palatial periods.

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While Phaistos has a main court like every palace of Minoan origin, the area around the West court sets Phaistos apart from the other sites of Crete. Two main staircases, one grander than the other converge on the North end of the West court to complement with their presence the extended step-like design of the theatrical area.

The architecture of Phaistos is more simplified compared with Knossos, and it is built in an orderly arrangement that refers to a single architect. The building outlines and the ground plan is easily deciphered by the visitor at first glance, however further examination reveals the complexity built into the site over hundreds of years of destruction and rebuilding cycles.

The complex of architectural elements is a delightful amalgam of the old and new palace structures. During the rebuilding of the palace in 1700 BC several of the rooms from the old palace were retained in the new building, and archaeologists today have excavated several areas of the new palace to reveal the older structures below. The pavement of the west courtyard along with the few bottom steps of the converging staircases have been exposed during modern excavations, for they were buried one meter deep when the new palace was built.

The site is about one hour drive South of Heraklion, and within easy reach of the famous beach of Matala, and the Roman capital of the island in Gortyn. During our visit, we stayed overnight at the resort town of Agia Galini and we were able to combine archaeology and recreation at the beach.

Phaistos was the last of the palaces I visited during our vacation in 2003, and it was by far the most rewarding experience. I arrived at the low hill just as the site was opening, and for the first time in two weeks I was able to park my car under the shade of a tree! For those who have never visited an archaeological site in Greece during the summer this is a meaningless detail. However, I know too well how the temperatures can work their way up while I wander around the ruins, and how unbearable it can be to get back into the car upon departure.

I promptly bought a guide at the store and armed with a plan of the palace I entered through the upper west court and from there I was confronted with the outline of a splendidly designed structure. The view of the Messara plain to the South, and the imposing mt. Idi to the North provided the perfect frame for the alternating landscape of the palace itself with its tranquil level courts, and the building masses which rose from the ground.

It is as if the architects of the palace were trying to imitate the landscape around them with their design, providing architectural metaphors for the flat plain and the rugged rising mass of mt. Idi. The main court and the west court are separated by the orderly masses of a multitude of rooms which functioned as storage magazines, living quarters, artists' workshops, and shrines. The so called royal quarters were less impressive than the ones found at Knossos, but then again, they have not been subjected to much restoration either.

The plan I followed as I walked around the ruins provided color coding of the different buildings which reflected the different historical eras. The interweaving of Neolithic, Minoan, and Historical structures is the most exciting aspect of the walk through the ruins. The harmonious coexistence of the different historical eras provided a unique perspective of the complexity of human existence through time. Phaistos provides an organic structure of human activity through prehistory. It is not a mere snap-shot of a historical time, but rather it can be perceived as a film with multiple plot twists which constructs a concrete, yet elusive story.

While all archaeological sites can be seen in these terms, Phaistos seemed to me to transcend time in a more unique matter. This is due to the fact that after the palace's destruction in 1700 BCE the rebuilding process took care to preserve as much of the old palace as possible, and all new construction congruously complemented the older structures. This junction of historical period was reflected in my imagination at the point where two grand staircases converged at the edge of the steps of the theatrical area.

This palace was definitely built by people who were well aware of the aesthetic values of people moving through space. I can only imagine the awe of first time visitors during neopalatial times who after entering the palace, descended an imposing staircase to find themselves confronted with a monumental flight of stairs which they had to climb before entering the maze of rooms.

One of the most impressive features of Phaistos for me was the West court which is formed in an almost triangular shape and is framed to the north and southwest by the imposing theatrical area and the mysterious koulouras respectively. But what makes this court so much more exciting is the raised walkways which partition the court roughly through the center. It is tempting to imagine their function, especially since it is next to impossible to know their actual function during Prepalatial times -- and this of course is a main reason for the magnetism they emanate to the visitor.

This was a great visit for me, and I spent about two hours on the palace ruins. The terrain is easily traversed and the scattered pine trees provide enough relief from the sun at regular intervals through the site. This was great during my visit because as the August sun began to rise the temperatures climbed to about 45° C. I had a great morning at the ruins, but when I returned to my car I found out that the shade of the tree had shifted enough to turn its interior into an oven. But that's Greece in August, and I could not let a little heat spoil my perfect morning.

Phaistos Pictures

View of the excavated palace of Phaistos. The roofs visible protect the ongoing excavations at the southwest end. Part of the facade of the second palace. The base of the giant pillar is pictured in the foreground just beyond the grand staircase. In the background the the theatrical area is visible. A dry well at Phaistos.
The theatrical area at the North end of the West court. This public events area has been credited as the first theater in Europe. The raised walkway is visible on the left side, as it ascends and stops abruptly at the retaining wall. The west court with the raised walkway visible. The theatrical area is just below my feet as I shoot this picture looking South towards Messara plain and the Asterousia mountain range on the horizon. The walkway connected the West court with the main court in the first palace, but later it was covered by new construction. The grand staircase of the palace. The smaller staircase to the left on this picture leads up to the upper court. The visistor normaly came down this steps and then ascended the grand staircase to be confronted with facade and monumental column part of which is pictured on the second picture of this group.
 
The royal quarters of Phaistos Corridor with irrigation canal. .

 

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