Sunday, 1 October 2017

How we (nearly) lost the plot with the Romans

There are a lot of ruins in Crete, Stuart would vouch for that. I like ruins, though I prefer them if there is some shape, structure or identifiable purpose to them, like Minoan palaces, for instance. Stuart withholds his judgement.

And not just ruins. I love tiny Orthodox churches with ancient frescoes. I read somewhere that there were 600 or more of them in Crete, some of them on the tops of perpendicular mountains. No wonder some of the frescoes are mouldering away. Stuart thinks we have already visited 599 of them, but he is wrong. I make it about 13, at most. There are a lot still to go...

I love Cretan monasteries, some of which cling desperately onto rockfaces in an attempt to be as inaccessible as possible. Stuart prefers a good solid Presbyterian church with no fancy stuff about it.

There are Hellenic mosaics and statues. There are Venetian palaces and harbours. There are the shells of Ottoman mosques and rather better preserved fountains, though no one talks about them.

Astonishingly, not one Cretan historical site has been identified as a UNESCO World Heritage site, although three (the five Minoan palaces, the Samaria Gorge and the island of Spinalonga) are on the 'tentative' list. There are 18 UNESCO sites in the rest of Greece.

Oh, and I forgot to mention the Roman sites. Roman, you say? Didn't you mean Greek? Indeed, Roman. The Romans got everywhere, including Crete. Actually, there is a very important Roman site, that of the city of Gortyn (or Gortys or Gortyna) in central Crete. So, off we went to Gortyn.

All boded well. We parked the car. We paid our modest entrance fee. Unlike at the Minoan palaces we had just visited, there was no guide book. However, Gortyn was included in one already I had, so no real problem....we thought. 

It took us a bit of time to locate the actual entrance to the site, but the slight confusion gave us the chance to find some statues carefully hidden behind the cafe. The stern resident on the right did not really have a traffic cone on his head. Neither did he have his arm in a sling, despite appearances. All male Romans in Crete hold their right arm like that, well, the marble ones do anyway. Don't ask me why. There were some rather impressive female statues, which Stuart particularly admired, but they had all been locked away behind bars, with no photos possible.

It did not take us long to retrace our footsteps and, by trial and error, find the proper entrance, where we had our ticket checked. Unnecessary, I thought, but there you are. On reflection there might have been other priorities for the staff to concern themselves with.

On the left was the splendid sixth century Basilica of Hagios Titos. Titus was a disciple of Saint Paul and the first Bishop of Crete. We could only see it from the back and couldn't get in. However, that did not bother me too much. When excavations are going on, at least it looks as if someone cares. My Mediterraneo guide said, "This is without doubt the most imposing and important monument to Christianity on the whole island." That is some claim on an island like Crete. It would have been nice to have learned a little more.

Gortyn was once a very important city state, which predated the Romans. It was here that Zeus, in the form of a bull, brought the Princess Europa and married her beneath a plane tree. Apparently the plane tree is still there, but we never saw it...for reasons you will find out later. Gortyn became a rival to Knossos. It was mentioned by Homer. It was here that Hannibal came after his defeat at Antiochus. Gortyn helped the Romans defeat the rest of Crete, for which it must have been held in considerable affection. It was rewarded by the conquerors by being made capital of both Crete and Cyrene (Libya). It had a huge population of 300,000 people. It survived until 825 AD when it was destroyed by the Arab invasion.

In a nutshell: Gortyn was an unmissable historic site. Umm....

We started off quite well. This is the Odeum, erected in the 1st century AD, a small roofed theatre used for performances of music and poetry. Gortyn being a sizeable city, it had a Praetorium, various temples, two theatres, two fountains, an agora (market place), a stadium, large public baths and Nymphaia (which are, as you  know, shrines to nymphs). So there was a lot to see.

Yes, we started off well, at the Odeum, but this is also where everything began to go wrong. The one thing you should see at Gortyn, if nothing else, is the famous Code of Gortyn: the first codified legislation in Europe and the most complete to survive. Well, we saw a sign in front of a seemingly blank wall, with bars on each side. The trouble was, we didn't know what we were looking for. I stupidly assumed - and Stuart didn't really care - that the Code, given that we couldn't see it, was a piece of parchment or plaque locked up in a museum somewhere. So, after a look around, we gave up and thought that the next time we went to the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, we would go in search of it. We left the Odeum.

There were no guides, no maps of the site, no information boards, absolutely no indication as to where anything was located. Oh, Historic Scotland, how we missed you! And not just for the obligatory lavender bags. We had a map in our guide book but as we didn't know which way was north, it was totally useless. I knew I should have paid more attention at Guide camp but that was a long time ago. Where on earth was the rest of the site? This was once one of the biggest cities in the Roman world!

We found a woman in a booth looking as if she might be selling icecreams. She was quite helpful in that she pointed out the Acropolis on the top of the hill (too far, too high) and an invisible aqueduct also a long way up. But where oh where was the city? She gave instructions: cross the car park, follow the main road and turn right after 200 metres. There was a sign. We couldn't miss it.

So, we crossed the car park, followed the main road and.... Where on earth was the right turn? Where on earth was the sign? There were odd bits of rubble on the right but nothing which looked like a capital city. We turned back. Stuart was all for giving up, but I had got the bit between my teeth. I left Stuart in the shade of a bus stop and walked back to the main entrance. Did I forget to mention that it was about 34 degrees?

The woman selling tickets sighed wearily. Cross the car park, follow the main road and then follow a side road to the right. Ah! That was it.

I went back, picked up Stuart and we plodded down the road again. 200 metres, 300 metres, 400 metres. No side road. I left him by the side of the road under a sparsely-leafed tree and trudged further, then back, then turned and went on again. Eventually, this is what I saw.

There was a side road. This was not a footpath. It was the 'side road'! I had been expecting something tarmacked, with a proper sign and a museum-type entrance. Was it a Roman road? Indeed, was this the main thorough fare leading to Gortyn? I still have no idea. I tried to imagine Roman soldiers marching down it. Mmm, not so sure. On balance, I think it probably was, but it would have been nice to have had a sign. Oh, Historic Scotland!

The road went on for some time through olive trees and prickly brush.

'Let's turn back,' said long-suffering Stuart. 'This is going nowhere.'

And then it did.

There before us, among the trees, was a high wire fence, with no gate in it. There was, however, a sign: Temple of Egyptian Gods. Hurray! There was no information about these gods, or why or how they were being worshipped in Crete. Nothing to tell us how old the site was, or which was the 'holy bit'. However, we were getting somewhere. I balanced some stones on top of each other, wobbled my way on top and pointed my camera through a lozenge of the rusty wire fencing. At least I got two crooked pictures.

My appetite was now whetted. I was determined to find the rest of Gortyn. Stuart felt that enough was enough, so I left him under another sparsely-leafed tree.

Some more struggling through prickly bushes, now no longer on the relative comfort of the Roman road. Another high wire fence. Another sign. It was the Praetorium! This was where the Governor had his residence and ruled the whole of Crete and Libya. Somebody had already made a rough pyramid of stones to balance on and in other places had even had the temerity to bend the fencing down so that obstinate inconvenient sightseers like me could hold their cameras above their heads, rest them on the wire and get some sort of picture.

I could see roads and pillars. Once upon a time, they might have been lined with statues like those hidden behind the cafeteria.

We had also seen other statues as well as smaller figurines and plaques in Heraklion's Archaeological Museum, of whose purpose I was unclear. In fact, I have forgotten which of them came from Gortyn and which from some other Roman sites. Still, I can't waste an opportunity to impress you with them. I thought they were wonderful.

To one side of the Praetorium, I followed a rough track and found another site: the Temple of Apollo. By now I knew the routine: find some stones, pile them up, stand on top and raise the camera as high as I could.

I knew there were other areas to explore but I couldn't see how to get to them. It was time to return to my long-suffering husband. Fortunately he hadn't collapsed from heat stroke.

This isn't the first time we have had frustrating experiences like this in Crete. Last year we spent a fruitless afternoon wandering through an olive grove near Kissamos in the north west, having followed a sign to a Minoan Cemetary . Stuart was thrilled, as you can imagine (not). "Looking for rubble," is how he describes wasting swimming time like this. Quite possibly the farmer and his friends and relations had planted their crops right across this pre-historic site. It also happens in Scotland: think of the number of neolithic cairns destroyed by forestry.

Eleftherna (or Eleutherna) was another site, not far from Panormo in the north, where we nearly lost the plot searching for Roman and Hellenistic ruins. Eleftherna was a significant city which declared war on Rhodes in 220 BC. First it allied with Knossus and Gortyn and then changed sides and joined Philip of Macedonia. After the Romans conquered Crete in 68 BC, they developed Eleftherna into a wealthy city with villas, baths and all the trappings of prosperity. It declined centuries later, after several earthqakes and the Arab invasion of 825 AD.
So, lots of interesting ruins to explore. Well, there probably were, but we didn't find them, or not many. We didn't get to the Hellenistic bridge, still in use during Byzantine times, as we didn't know how far it was from where we parked. We walked for some time under a scorching sun and then gave up. 

We eventually arrived at a huge site, surrounded by high metal fences. Peering through the wire, we  saw information boards and what could be a proper entrance, but all closed. We could see the usual shelters protecting archaeological finds, but were unable to get in to investigate.

We could see a tower on the top of a hill and started driving towards it, not really knowing where we were going.

Stuart sensibly decided to stay by the car while I got out in attempt to track down something vaguely Roman. I followed a ridge above a cemetary and reached the acropolis and the paved road leading to it.

There was no information board or official guide, though an unofficial guide attached himself to me. While it meant that I saw more than I might have done otherwise, the situation got increasingly tricky.

However, without my unwelcome shadow, I would have seen nothing. As it was my appetite was whetted.

I think these are the remains of buildings, with some mosaic flooring, a cistern and water pipes. However, I am really not too sure. What I would have given for a printed guide book or information board rather than an enthusiastic if rather over-familiar local amateur.

Stuart was so worried by my long absence and the presence of my unrequested escort that he left the precious shade where he had taken refuge and selflessly started to plod through the  ruins, expecting any minute to trip over my lifeless body.

In fact, it had been an enjoyable afternoon, after all, but it could have been a great deal better. Such mildly irritating experiences make me think about how lucky we are in the UK to have organisations such as Historic Scotland, the National Trust and English Heritage to provide access to historic monuments, and well-informed guides to tell visitors about them. I wonder whether in Crete, which has so many historical sites from so many different eras, the Romans are just not sufficiently glamorous - or ancient. What would be remarkable in our own country is just another 'pile of rubble', in Stuart's words.

However, I think the real answer lies in economics. We are a rich country. Greece is a poor country. Although we are proud of our own historic heritage, it is nowhere near as extensive as that of Crete or the rest of Greece. For the Greek government and Cretan archaeological authorities to excavate, preserve and display the full wealth of their heritage would be extremely challenging. The problem is exacerbated by current economic conditions and the degree of austerity under which the Greek people are living. It is all about priorities. At the end of the day, living people are more important than historical artefacts.

Yet, when we get it right, effective communication about historical sites can bring to life people from thousands of years ago, who shared similar problems, experienced similar joys and faced similar challenges to ourselves. Look at these faces, all that is left of what must have been wonderful sculptures from the Roman-Hellenistic era. How human. How like us. How humbling.

As for the Code of Gortyn. We eventually tracked down a photograph on Wikipedia. Thank you AFrank99. The inscription is 1.5 metres in height and is recorded in 12 columns of text on a curved wall. It is written in the boustrophedon form: right to left and then the next line left to right, and so on.

Twelve columns! How could we have missed it? Well, it gives us a very good reason to go back next year! [The sound you heard just then was Stuart sighing.....]

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