Eleutherna, the heart of Crete
Margarita Pournara, eKathimerini, 20-09-2013
“If you were to imagine Crete as a human being, Eleutherna would be its heart.” I am standing with Nicholas Stampolidis, a professor of history and archaeology at the University of Crete, on a small hill overlooking the archaeological site of Eleutherna, some 30 kilometers from Rethymno. From this rise, we can see the entire area of the university’s excavation of the site, which began in 1985. The view is breathtaking, with swaths of olives trees, carobs, oaks, plane trees, laurel bushes and walnut trees across the terraces of the hilly landscape. It is the horizon especially that is most striking.
The archaeologist takes me by the arm and turns me 360 degrees so that I can take in the majesty of the peaks of Psiloreitis, Talaia, Aravanes and Tympanatoras, the latter of which took its name from the myth according to which local tribesmen would beat their shields with sticks, making a drumming sound that would cover the sobs of young Zeus so that Cronus would not hear him and devour him as he did his other children. Further away, on the horizon, I can see the sea shimmering in black-and-white tones under the hot, bright sun. I am standing on ground under which one of the island’s most important city-states is buried, between ancient Knossos and Cydonia.
The heart of Eleutherna beat for a very long time, from the Neolithic era to the Byzantine period, when it vanished from the map. When the Culture Ministry granted the University of Crete permission to excavate the site, no one could have imagined that it would uncover a palimpsest showing a constant human presence that dates back to 3000 BC, architecture from the late Minoan period, prosperity in Homeric times and a great burst of growth in the Roman era. The decline of Eleutherna was gradual, starting in the 8th century AD and culminating in the 13th century. In the 14th century, the Venetians prohibited the unruly Cretans from living in the fortified city due to fears they would create a rebel stronghold.