Roman Cistern at Aptera, Crete

Roman Cistern at Aptera, Crete

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Ancient City Aptera – Theatre, Monastery St. John Theologos, Koules Fortress

The theatre of the ancient city Aptera was opened to the public after the completion of excavation and partial restoration in 2016. Surrounded by a very well-kept olive grove, the small archaeological site stretches southward and also offers a beautiful view of the White Mountains.

Ancient theatre, fortification, aqueducts, public baths and graves

are some of the findings the visitor can see visiting the archaeological site Aptera. The ancient city of Aptera was founded on the hill of Paleokastro, in a place of rare beauty, surrounded by the gulf of Souda to the north and the imposing White Mountains to the south. The area covered a large amount of land, mostly fertile fields in the lowland, crossed by the river Pytktos (today called Koiliaris) from the north and the east.

Theories for the origin of the name Aptera

The oldest reference of the name Aptera is found on Linear B inscriptions (14th-13th century B.C). The most dominant theory attributes the name to an epithet of Goddess Artemis (Diana): Artemis Aptera. According to another theory, the name was given by the famous hero of Delphi, Pteras or Apteras. Finally, according to the myth recorded by Stefanis Byzantios (6th century AD) the name comes from the mythical battle between the muses and the sirens, during which the sirens were defeated, they lost their wings (in Greek Ptera means wings, Aptera means without wings, in this case), they became white and fell into the sea.

The city-state Aptera

The time when the city of Aptera flourished as an independent city-state begins in the 4th century BC, when it is distinguished as the most commercial city of Crete. The city created numerous commercial and political agreements and arrangements with Egypt, Libya, the Kingdoms of Pergamos and Vithynia, as well as with other parts of Greece such as Peloponnese, the islands of the Aegean, Asia Minor etc.

The strategic position of the city with the two ports, the port Minoa (today called Marathi) and the port Kissamos (near today’s village Kalyves ) at the entrance of the natural gulf, provided the opportunity to control the industrial and commercial movement in the region, and therefore played a central role for the upgrading of the city. For this reason, it was characterized by the historian G. Svoronos as the most commercial city of Crete, and one of the most powerful, in times of glory.

The earthquake of 364-5 AD marked the end of this powerful city, and the next strong earthquake of the 7th century AD resulted in its permanent abandonment.

Roman Villa

Take the path to the right of the ticket house and you will see a signpost after 50 m showing the way to the remains of a Roman Villa west of the Theatre, a house with peristyle yard from the period of Roman domination (100 B.C – 400 A.C.).

Two very well preserved statuettes depicting the Greek gods Artemis and Apollo

have been discovered in the luxury Roman home. />The sculptures, which date to the first or second century AD, would have been imported to Crete and used to decorate a shrine in a luxury Roman home, the Greek Culture Ministry announced. Both statues stand at around 54 cm in height, with the base measuring around 35cm. The one of Artemis is made of copper, while Apollo is sculpted from marble. They were found during an excavation of the archaeological site led by Vanna Niniou-Kindelis, director of excavations at Aptera.

The ministry describes Artemis as being in an excellent state of preservation. She is wearing a tunic, with her stance showing her preparing to shoot an arrow. Artemis was the daughter of Zeus and Leto and was the twin sister of Apollo. She was the goddess of chastity, virginity, hunting, animals and the wilderness – she is often depicted with a bow and arrows. (text source International Business Times)

Holy Monastery St. John Theologos

At a central spot in the ancient city of Aptera, which was erected and flourished in the 3rd and 4th centuries B.C., there is the Monastery of St. John the Divine (Theologos), a dependency of the Monastery of St. John on the island of Patmos. There is a reference to dependence as early as 1181 A.D. therefore, it had been built before that date and stopped being active in 1964. The walls of the ancient city still stand around the monastery. Recently, the building was fully restored.

Roman cistern

The most impressive monument, because of its size and excellent preservation, is the Roman cistern, which gathered rainwater from the roofs of the buildings and from other smaller tanks through a network of water pipes. These water tanks provided water to the two large public baths, which were later turned into laboratories.

Further findings in Aptera

Shortly after the mid-4th century BC, the city was fortified with a strong wall, 3480 m long, which surrounds the whole hill. In 1942 a small Doric temple was excavated by the Germans, dating back to the 5th century BC. In the same area, a part of a large temple has been discovered, which was used for many centuries and was probably one of the central temples of the city. Another small Doric temple has been discovered by the excavator Stylianos Alexiou , dedicated to the Goddesses Dimitra and Persefoni, dating back to the 1st century AD.

There were two cemeteries in Aptera: one on the southeast with arched tombs and one in the west, where excavations continue to take place. Near the gate many funeral monuments and inscriptions dating back to the 1st- 2nd century AD have been revealed. In the rest cemetery area that expands under the old settlement, there are many different types of tombs from different periods (from the 8th and 7th century BC to the 3rd century AD). Many representative findings from these different periods from the city and the cemetery (vases, coins, idols, inscriptions, sculptures and other objects) are exhibited in the Archaeological Museum of Chania.

Koules Fortress and Itzedin Fortress

Two castles of unique historical interest are located in a small distance from antiquities. The first is Palaikastro that was built by the Ottomans for the Revolution of 1866 and the second one is Itzedin castle that is located in Kalami. Itzedin was built in 1872, allocated barracks, hospital and other facilities, while it was used up to recently as a prison for political prisoners.

And last not least

walking west on the path past the sign for the Roman villa one can discover … 2 machine gun installations from the period of German occupation.

(text source: municipalities of Chania and Kalyves)

Useful Information (last updated May 2020)

Opening times: the archaeological site Aptera is open during all year daily (except Mondays and National Holidays) from 08.30 to 15.00 hrs, in summer season (15.04. – 31.10) until 18:00 hrs.

Angelokastro is a Byzantine castle on the island of Corfu. It is located at the top of the highest peak of the island"s shoreline in the northwest coast near Palaiokastritsa and built on particularly precipitous and rocky terrain. It stands 305 m on a steep cliff above the sea and surveys the City of Corfu and the mountains of mainland Greece to the southeast and a wide area of Corfu toward the northeast and northwest.

Angelokastro is one of the most important fortified complexes of Corfu. It was an acropolis which surveyed the region all the way to the southern Adriatic and presented a formidable strategic vantage point to the occupant of the castle.

Angelokastro formed a defensive triangle with the castles of Gardiki and Kassiopi, which covered Corfu"s defences to the south, northwest and northeast.

The castle never fell, despite frequent sieges and attempts at conquering it through the centuries, and played a decisive role in defending the island against pirate incursions and during three sieges of Corfu by the Ottomans, significantly contributing to their defeat.

During invasions it helped shelter the local peasant population. The villagers also fought against the invaders playing an active role in the defence of the castle.

The exact period of the building of the castle is not known, but it has often been attributed to the reigns of Michael I Komnenos and his son Michael II Komnenos. The first documentary evidence for the fortress dates to 1272, when Giordano di San Felice took possession of it for Charles of Anjou, who had seized Corfu from Manfred, King of Sicily in 1267.

From 1387 to the end of the 16th century, Angelokastro was the official capital of Corfu and the seat of the Provveditore Generale del Levante, governor of the Ionian islands and commander of the Venetian fleet, which was stationed in Corfu.

The governor of the castle (the castellan) was normally appointed by the City council of Corfu and was chosen amongst the noblemen of the island.

Angelokastro is considered one of the most imposing architectural remains in the Ionian Islands.

The Glorious History Of Ancient Aptera

The habitation of the area started in the pre-Hellenic years and continued until the first Byzantine period. The city was developed most, during the Hellenistic period (4th and 3rd century BC.), when it created its own currency. During this period, Aptera was one of the most important and rich nautical, commercial and industrial centers of Crete. In the city, as it is proved by the finds from the excavations, was developed an important war industry, while its ships transported its products in southern Italy, Ancient Greece and the East.

During the Roman period, Aptera is shrinking and its economy is based on rural activities. The city, though not so strong now, is still inhabited during the Byzantine era and is even a bishop. An earthquake in the 7th century and a little more after the invasion of Saracen pirates put an end to the existence of the city around 820-830 AD.

Later, on the ruins of Ancient Aptera founded the monastery of St. John, which was first mentioned in an official document in 1181. The monastery operated until the decade of 1960. Later, in the Ottoman period was constructed the fortress built in the northwest of the archaeological site.

The archaeological site of Ancient Aptera is visited by many tourists every year and its ruins are reminiscent of the past splendor and power of the city. In the area, dominate the vaulted Roman cisterns, which are still kept in very good condition. The cisterns provided water to the installations of private and public baths, excavated west.

When you visit Ancient Aptera, you will see a part of its walls, well preserved, in length greater than 4 km. Those cyclopean walls surrounded the entire rocky plateau on which the city was built. In the area was also excavated a small church, a large private house with columned courtyard, the auditorium, the orchestra and the first tier of a theater and necropolis west of the city with carved tombs.


In 2002, the paleontologist Gerard Gierlinski discovered what he claimed were fossil footprints left by ancient human relatives 5,600,000 years ago, but the claim is controversial. [2]

Excavations in South Crete in 2008–2009 revealed stone tools at least 130,000 years old. [3] [4] This was a sensational discovery, as the previously accepted earliest sea crossing in the Mediterranean was thought to occur around 12,000 BC. The stone tools found in the Plakias region of Crete include hand axes of the Acheulean type made of quartz. It is believed that pre-Homo sapiens hominids from Africa crossed to Crete on rafts. [5] [6] [ better source needed ]

In the neolithic period, some of the early influences on the development of Cretan culture arise from the Cyclades and from Egypt cultural records are written in the undeciphered script known as "Linear A". The archaeological record of Crete includes superb palaces, houses, roads, paintings and sculptures. Early Neolithic settlements in Crete include Knossos and Trapeza.

For the earlier times, radiocarbon dating of organic remains and charcoal offers some dates. Based on this, it is thought that Crete was inhabited from about 130,000 years ago, in the Lower Paleolithic, [7] perhaps not continuously, with a Neolithic farming culture from the 7th millennium BC onwards. The first settlers introduced cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, and dogs, as well as domesticated cereals and legumes.

The native fauna of Crete included pygmy hippo, pygmy elephant Paleoloxodon chaniensis, dwarf deer Praemegaceros cretensis, giant mice Kritimys catreus, and insectivores as well as badger, beech marten and Lutrogale cretensis, a kind of terrestrial otter. Large mammalian carnivores were lacking in their stead, the flightless Cretan owl was the apex predator. Most of these animals died out at the end of the last ice-age. Humans played a part in this extinction, which occurred on other medium to large Mediterranean islands as well, for example, on Cyprus, Sicily and Majorca.

Remains of a settlement found under the Bronze Age palace at Knossos date to the 7th millennium BC. Up to now, Knossos remains the only aceramic site. The settlement covered approximately 350,000 square metres. The sparse animal bones contain the above-mentioned domestic species as well as deer, badger, marten and mouse: the extinction of the local megafauna had not left much game behind.

Neolithic pottery is known from Knossos, Lera Cave and Gerani Cave. The Late Neolithic sees a proliferation of sites, pointing to a population increase. In the late Neolithic, the donkey and the rabbit were introduced to the island deer and agrimi were hunted. The Kri-kri, a feral goat, preserves traits of the early domesticates. Horse, fallow deer and hedgehog are only attested from Minoan times onwards.

Crete was the centre of Europe's most ancient civilization, the Minoans. Tablets inscribed in Linear A have been found in numerous sites in Crete, and a few in the Aegean islands. The Minoans established themselves in many islands besides Ancient Crete: secure identifications of Minoan off-island sites include Kea, Kythera, Milos, Rhodes, and above all, Thera (Santorini).

Because of a lack of written records, estimates of the Minoan chronology are based on well-established Minoan pottery styles, which can at points be tied to Egyptian and Ancient Near Eastern chronologies by finds away from Crete and clear influences. Archaeologists ever since Sir Arthur Evans have identified and uncovered the palace-complex at Knossos, the most famous Minoan site. Other palace sites in Crete such as Phaistos have uncovered magnificent stone-built, multi-story palaces containing drainage systems, [8] and the queen had a bath and a flushing toilet. The expertise displayed in the hydraulic engineering was of a very high level. There were no defensive walls to the complexes. By the 16th century BC pottery and other remains on the Greek mainland show that the Minoans had far-reaching contacts on the mainland. In the 16th century a major earthquake caused destruction on Crete and on Thera that was swiftly repaired.

By about the 15th century BC a massive volcanic explosion known as the Minoan eruption blew the island of Thera apart, casting more than four times the amount of ejecta as the explosion of Krakatoa and generating a tsunami in the enclosed Aegean that threw pumice up to 250 meters above sea level onto the slopes of Anaphi, 27 km to the east. Any fleet along the north shore of Crete was destroyed and John Chadwick suggests that the majority of Cretan fleets had kept the island secure from the Greek-speaking mainlanders. The sites, save Knossos, were destroyed by fires. Mycenaeans from the mainland took over Knossos, rebuilding some parts to suit them. They were in turn subsumed by a subsequent Dorian migration.

The collapse of the Mycenaean civilization was followed by the appearance of the first Greek city-states in the 9th century BC and the epics of Homer in the 8th century BC. Some of the Dorian cities that prospered on Crete during those times are Kydonia, Lato, Dreros, Gortyn and Eleutherna.

In the Classical and Hellenistic period Crete fell into a pattern of combative city-states, harboring pirates. In the late 4th century BC, the aristocratic order began to collapse due to endemic infighting among the elite, and Crete's economy was weakened by prolonged wars between city states. During the 3rd century BC, Gortyn, Kydonia (Chania), Lyttos and Polyrrhenia challenged the primacy of ancient Knossos.

While the cities continued to prey upon one another, they invited into their feuds mainland powers like Macedon and its rivals Rhodes and Ptolemaic Egypt. In 220 BC the island was tormented by a war between two coalitions of cities. As a result, the Macedonian king Philip V gained hegemony over Crete which lasted to the end of the Cretan War (205–200 BC), when the Rhodians opposed the rise of Macedon and the Romans started to interfere in Cretan affairs. In the 2nd century BC Ierapytna (Ierapetra) gained supremacy on eastern Crete.

In 88 BC Mithridates VI of Pontus on the Black Sea, went to war to halt the advance of Roman hegemony in the Aegean. On the pretext that Knossos was backing Mithradates, Marcus Antonius Creticus attacked Crete in 71 BC and was repelled. Rome sent Quintus Caecilius Metellus with three legions to the island. After a ferocious three-year campaign Crete was conquered for Rome in 69 BC, earning this Metellus the agnomen "Creticus." At the archaeological sites, there seems to be little evidence of widespread damage associated with the transfer to Roman power: a single palatial house complex seems to have been razed. Gortyn seems to have been pro-Roman and was rewarded by being made the capital of the joint province of Crete and Cyrenaica.

Gortyn was the site of the largest Christian basilica on Crete, the Basilica of Saint Titus, dedicated to the first Christian bishop in Crete, to whom Paul addressed one of his epistles. The church was begun in the 1st century. As revealed in the Epistle to Titus in the New Testament and confirmed by Cretan poet Epimenides, the people of Crete were considered to be always liars, evil beasts and gluttons. (Note: Epimenides was a poet in the 6th century BC. Paul cited him in Titus 1:12.)

Crete continued to be part of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, a quiet cultural backwater, until it fell into the hands of Iberian Muslims under Abu Hafs in the 820s, who established a piratical emirate on the island. The archbishop Cyril of Gortyn was killed and the city so thoroughly devastated it was never reoccupied. Candia (Chandax, modern Heraklion), a city built by the Iberian Muslims, was made capital of the island instead.

The Emirate of Crete became a center of Muslim piratical activity in the Aegean, and a thorn in Byzantium's side. Successive campaigns to recover the island failed until 961, when Nikephoros Phokas reconquered Crete for the Byzantine Empire and made it into a theme. [9] The Byzantines held the island until the Fourth Crusade (1204). In its aftermath, possession of the island was disputed between the Genoese and the Venetians, with the latter eventually solidifying their control by 1212. Despite frequent revolts by the native population, the Venetians retained the island until 1669, when the Ottoman Empire took possession of it.

(The standard survey for this period is I.F. Sanders, An archaeological survey and Gazetteer of Late Hellenistic, Roman and Early Byzantine Crete, 1982)

In the partition of the Byzantine empire after the capture of Constantinople by the armies of the Fourth Crusade in 1204, Crete was eventually acquired by Venice, which held it for more than four centuries (the "Kingdom of Candia").

The most important of the many rebellions that broke out during that period was the one known as the revolt of St. Titus. It occurred in 1363, when indigenous Cretans and Venetian settlers exasperated by the hard tax policy exercised by Venice, overthrew official Venetian authorities and declared an independent Cretan Republic. The revolt took Venice five years to quell.

During Venetian rule, the Greek population of Crete was exposed to Renaissance culture. A thriving literature in the Cretan dialect of Greek developed on the island. The best-known work from this period is the poem Erotokritos by Vitsentzos Kornaros (Βιτσένζος Κορνάρος). Another major Cretan literary figures were Marcus Musurus (1470–1517), Nicholas Kalliakis (1645–1707), Andreas Musalus (1665–1721), and other Greek scholars and philosophers who flourished in Italy in the 15–17th centuries. [10]

Georgios Hortatzis was author of the dramatic work Erophile. The painter Domenicos Theotocopoulos, better known as El Greco, was born in Crete in this period and was trained in Byzantine iconography before moving to Italy and later, Spain. [11]

During the Cretan War (1645–1669), Venice was pushed out of Crete by the Ottoman Empire, with most of the island lost after the siege of Candia (1648–1669), possibly the longest siege in history. The last Venetian outpost on the island, Spinalonga, fell in 1718, and Crete was a part of the Ottoman Empire for the next two centuries. There were significant rebellions against Ottoman rule, particularly in Sfakia. Daskalogiannis was a famous rebel leader. One result of the Ottoman conquest was that a sizeable proportion of the population gradually converted to Islam, with its tax and other civic advantages in the Ottoman system. Contemporary estimates vary, but on the eve of the Greek War of Independence as much as 45% of the population of the island may have been Muslim. [12]

Some Muslim converts were crypto-Christians, who converted back to Christianity others fled Crete because of the unrest. By the last Ottoman census in 1881, Christians were 76% of the population, and Muslims (usually called "Turks" regardless of language, culture, and ancestry) only 24%. Christians were over 90% of the population in 19 out of 23 of the districts of Crete, but Muslims were over 60% in the three large towns on the north coast, and in Monofatsi. [13]

Greek War of Independence (1821) Edit

The Greek War of Independence began in 1821, with extensive Cretan participation. An uprising by Christians met with a fierce response from the Ottoman authorities and the execution of several bishops, regarded as ringleaders. Between 1821 and 1828, the island was the scene of repeated hostilities. The Muslims were driven into the large fortified towns on the north coast and it would appear that as many as 60% of them died from plague or famine while there. The Cretan Christians also suffered severely, losing around 21% of their population in the 1830s. [14]

After Greece achieved its independence, Crete became an object of contention as the Christians revolted several times against Ottoman rule. Revolts in 1841 and 1858 secured some privileges, such as the right to bear arms, equality of Christian and Muslim worship, and the establishment of Christian councils of elders with jurisdiction over education and customary law. Despite these concessions, the Christian Cretans maintained their ultimate aim of union with Greece, and tensions between the Christian and Muslim communities ran high. Thus, in 1866 the great Cretan Revolt began.

The uprising, which lasted for three years, involved volunteers from Greece and other European countries, where it was viewed with considerable sympathy. Despite early successes of the rebels, who quickly confined the Ottomans to the northern towns, the uprising failed. The Ottoman Grand Vizier A'ali Pasha personally assumed control of the Ottoman forces and launched a methodical campaign to retake the rural districts, which was combined with promises of political concessions, notably by the introduction of an Organic Law, which gave the Cretan Christians equal (in practice, because of their superior numbers, majority) control of local administration. His approach bore fruits, as the rebel leaders gradually submitted. By early 1869, the island was again under Ottoman control.

During the Congress of Berlin in the summer of 1878, there was a further rebellion, which was halted quickly by the intervention of the British and the adaptation of the 1867-8 Organic Law into a constitutional settlement known as the Pact of Halepa. Crete became a semi-independent parliamentary state within the Ottoman Empire under an Ottoman Governor who had to be a Christian. A number of the senior "Christian Pashas" including Photiades Pasha and Kostis Adosidis Pasha ruled the island in the 1880s, presiding over a parliament in which liberals and conservatives contended for power.

Disputes between the two powers led to a further insurgency in 1889 and the collapse of the Pact of Halepa arrangements. The international powers, disgusted at what seemed to be factional politics, allowed the Ottoman authorities to send troops to the island and restore order but did not anticipate that Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II would use this as a pretext to end the Halepa Pact Constitution and instead rule the island by martial law. This action led to international sympathy for the Cretan Christians and to a loss of any remaining acquiescence among them to continued Ottoman rule. When a small insurgency began in September 1895, it spread quickly, and by the summer of 1896 the Ottoman forces had lost military control of most of the island.

A new Cretan insurrection in 1897 led to the Ottoman Empire declaring war on Greece. However, the Great Powers (Austria-Hungary, France, the German Empire, the Kingdom of Italy, the Russian Empire and Great Britain) decided that the Ottoman Empire could no longer maintain control and intervened, dispatching a multinational naval force, the International Squadron, to Cretan waters in February 1897. The squadron's senior admirals formed an "Admirals Council" which temporarily governed the island. The International Squadron bombarded Cretan insurgents, placed sailors and marines ashore, and instituted a blockade of Crete and key ports in Greece, bringing organized combat on the island to an end by late March 1897. Soldiers from the armies of five of the powers (Germany refused to participate) then occupied key cities in Crete during late March and April 1897. [15] Eventually, the Admirals Council decided to establish an autonomous state within the Ottoman Empire on Crete. [16] After a violent riot by Cretan Turks on 6 September 1898 (25 August according to the Julian calendar then in use on Crete, which was 12 days behind the modern Gregorian calendar during the 19th century), the admirals also decided to expel all Ottoman troops from Crete, which was accomplished on 6 November 1898. When Prince George of Greece arrived in Crete on 21 December 1898 (9 December according to the Julian calendar) as the first High Commissioner of the autonomous Cretan State, Crete effectively was detached from the Ottoman Empire, although it remained under the Sultan's suzerainty. [17]

Key Things to Pack on Your Trip to Crete

If you’re planning a trip to Greece, you’ll want to pack all the normal essentials, but here are a few things we strongly recommend bringing that may not have crossed your mind. For more packing tips, check out our complete Essential Crete Packing List: What to Wear & Pack for Crete

A physical guidebook, in paper or on Kindle. We love Lonely Planet Greece for this region and strongly recommend it to supplement blogs. Blogs are great, but a combination of a blog and a guidebook is key to having the best access to information easily at your fingertips.

A water bottle with a filter. While often, the tap water in Greece is drinkable, there are places where it isn’t, including some popular tourist destinations like Santorini.

We generally recommend using a water bottle with a purifying filter to reduce your plastic consumption and ensure you won’t drink any funny-tasting water on your stomach that could make your trip unpleasant!

We recommend the GRAYL water bottle – it filters water perfectly in an instant so that you can even drink from lakes, bad taps, etc.

Motion sickness pills. Many Greek roads are winding, especially around the coast. Not to mention how choppy the ferries can be if you’re not lucky with the weather! If you have a weak stomach as we do, save yourself and bring some non-drowsy motion sickness pills.

Wet wipes, hand sanitizer, TP & other Balkan transit needs. Bathrooms in Greece aren’t always well-stocked. Save yourself the disappointment and bring a mini-rescue pack of wet wipes & hand sanitizer.

Travel safety items. We think Greece is very safe to travel, but at the same time, it never hurts to be prepared! Some people like to carry money belts, but neither Stephanie or I use these. Instead, we both carry the same PacSafe anti-theft backpack.

It has locking zippers, slash-proof construction with metal mesh hidden in the fabric, and tons of other smart security features — all while being cute and stylish enough to be our everyday bag. We recommend it highly for both male and female travelers, as it’s neutral enough to be unisex. We also strongly recommend travel insurance! Our recommendation is at the bottom of the post.

Roman Period


Figure 7. Roman cistern in the ancient town Aptera, Chania, Crete: (a) Drawing of cistern from Raffaele Fabretti [17] and (b) Interior view of the three-aisled vaulted cistern (of about 3000 m3). Figure 8. Comparison of Roman cisterns: (a) Small cistern in Ostica Antica and (b) Much larger cistern below the Acropolis of Athens (photo copyright by L.W. Mays).

The Romans made extensive use of cisterns and, therefore, only very few of the many that were built are discussed herein. Pompeii had an extensive water distribution system including both aqueduct water and well water. The roofs of houses collected rainwater that flowed through terracotta pipes down to cisterns where water was stored for domestic use. In Pompeii, the aqueduct and well water were contaminated by the volcano, requiring cisterns to be used for drinking water [16]. Adrawing of a Roman cistern that was supplied by the Aqua Marcia near Villa Vignacce outside of Rome is shown in Figure 7a. Also an interior view of the three-aisled vaulted Roman cistern in the ancient town of Aptera, Chania (volume of about 3000 m 3 ) is shown in Figure 7b. A comparison of Roman cisterns is shown in Figure 8: a small cistern in Ostica Antica in Figure 8a and a cistern below the Acropolis of Athens in Figure 8b. The Roman cistern at the base of the Acropolis of Athens, Greece had a domed roof supported by the columns. This cistern at the southern foothills of the Acropolis could have been supplied with rainwater collected either from the relevant slope or from the roof of the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, and the water probably was used for the supply of the Roman baths in the vicinity.

Figure 9. Piscina Mirabilis: (a) Photograph (copyright by L.W. Mays) (b) Plan view and (c) Cross-section view [19].

The Piscina Mirabilis (Figure 9) is one of the largest Roman cisterns (capacity of 12,600 m 3 ). The cistern was supplied by water from the Augustan aqueduct, referred to as the Serino aqueduct, which was built from Serino to Miseno. The Serino aqueduct, which is 96 km long with seven branches, supplied many towns including Pompeii, Herculaneum, Acerra, Atella, Nola, among others. The total drop in elevation from the source, the Acquaro–Pelosi spring in Serino, to the Piscina Mirabilis is 366 m (0.38%). This large cistern is 72 m by 27 m in plan (as shown in Figure 9b,c) and is 15 m deep [18]. Large Roman cisterns were also built in Spain, southern Italy, Crete, Asia Minor, and North Africa, where the largest number can be found.

Roman Cisterns in North Africa

Wilson [20] points out that in Roman North Africa, vast cistern complexes were used in conjunction with aqueducts. These cisterns had capacities that were often several thousand cubic meters, which were much larger than domestic cisterns. The large cisterns in North Africa were typically located where the aqueducts reached the edge of towns. Wilson [20] describes two types of common cistern complexes in North Africa, both of which were used at Uthina (see Figure 10a) in Oudna, Tunisia. Large cross-vaulted chambers, with a roof supported by piers, was one common type of cistern. A second common type of cistern complex includes several barrel-vaulted chambers with a transverse chamber set across them.

Figure 10. Cisterns in North Africa: (a) plans and sections of the small (top) and large (bottom) cisterns at Uthina (Oudna, Tunisia) (after Babelon and Cagnat [21], text to f.XXVIII, Oudna) and (b) cisterns at Dar Saniat at Carthage (after Cagnat and Chapot, [22,23]. Both (a) and (b) as presented in [20]). Water also flowed from settling tank A into secondary circular settling tanks B and C before entering the second cistern chambers F and G. The water in F and G obviously would have been cleaner. A circular tap chamber (H in Figure 10b) received water through two lead pipes from D and E at floor level. It also received the higher quality water from G and F in a third lead pipe a meter higher than floor level.

In the cisterns at Tuccabor and Djebel M’rabba in Tunisia, the transverse chamber was placed between the inlet and the parallel chambers the chamber serves as a settling tank before water enters the storage chambers [20]. At Tugga, Thuburnica, Thapsus and Uthina, the transverse chamber is placed between the parallel chambers and the outlet, without a settling tank [20]. At Thuburnica and the Ain el-Hammam cisterns at Thugga, the entrance of the aqueduct channel runs along an internal wall of the cistern so that it distributes water to the cistern chambers. Cisterns at Dar Saniat at Carthage were constructed with three settling basins and two storage reservoirs, each bearing two compartments with a total storage capacity of 2780 m 3 (see Figure 10b). Primary settling tank A (oval in shape) received water from the aqueduct and water entered.

Figure 11. Cistern of Hadrian in Athens, as it was rebuilt after the original design in the 1880s (photo copyright by G.P. Antoniou).

Similar small cisterns had been constructed in numerous cities of the Roman Empire. During the times of Emperor Hadrian, a medium-sized cistern was built at the foothills of Lycabettus, outside the city of Athens (Figure 11) to store the water from an aqueduct and thus supply water to the new Roman neighborhood, situated at a level 70 m lower. It is remarkable that the water pressure found in this hypsometrical difference is a quite common water pressure in many modern water supply networks.

Figure 12. Cistern at Minoa on Amorgos, built on the open space of the former agora. (Reconstruction by G.P. Antoniou).

The habits and social customs of the ancient Romans, along with the needs of growing craftsmanship, resulted in an increased demand for water, either for bathing and toilet flushing or for the various workshops. These needs led to the construction of cisterns in places like Minoa on Amorgos (Figure 12), where previously the water demand was managed with small-scale rainwater collection and water reuse [24].


The spectacularly sited archaeological site of Eleutherna is located 25 kilometres (15 miles) south-west of Rethymno near Mount Ida, the highest mountain in Crete on which lies, according to legend, the cave in which Zeus was born. Although Eleutherna has yielded Minoan artefacts dating back at least 4,000 years, it was during the Dark Ages of Greece’s early history that the city flourished (800 – 450 BCE). Numerous significant artefacts from the 8th, 7th and early 6th centuries BCE have been found throughout nearly all of the city. Eleutherna also experienced economic and cultural heydays in the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine times. Its surrounding landscapes, rich in olive trees, stone, honey and other plant resources, contributed to the city’s economic success.

A view of Mount Ida (right) from the ancient city of Eleutherna in Crete. In Greek mythology, Mount Ida was sacred to the Greek Titaness Rhea and on its slopes lies one of the caves in which Zeus was born. / Photo by Carole Raddato, Creative Commons

The site of Eleutherna includes an acropolis, a polis (city), and a necropolis, spreading over an elongated ridge in the olive-tree-dotted foothills of sacred Mount Ida. Unfortunately, most of the site is currently fenced off as it is being excavated. The accessible remains include the ruins on the Acropolis with a Hellenistic tower at its entrance, two rock-cut Roman cisterns as well as of the remarkable stone-built Hellenistic bridge which has survived and is still in a good state of preservation in the valley.

The remains of a Hellenistic defensive tower standing atop Pyrgi hill in the ancient city of Eleutherna on Crete. The tower was used from the Hellenistic until the Byzantine period (4th century BCE to 7th centuries CE). / Photo by Carole Raddato, Creative Commons The Eleutherna Bridge on Crete is a well-preserved Hellenistic corbel arch bridge with a single span of 3.95 m. It was built with large limestone blocks in dry masonry around 330 – 367 BCE when a major construction project took place at Eleutherna. / Photo by Carole Raddato, Creative Commons

A team of archaeologists from the University of Crete has been excavated the site since 1984, unearthing important archaeological remains, including a necropolis dating back to the period of the Homeric epics (9th – 7th century BCE), as well as Hellenistic and Roman buildings and streets which had been built on top of earlier constructions. The discovery of lavish female burials in the Orthi Petra necropolis of Eleutherna was declared one of Top 10 Discoveries of 2009.

View of the Orthi Petra necropolis located on the west slope of Prines hill in the ancient city of Eleutherna in Crete. The cemetery was used from the late Protogeometric period until the early Archaic period (870/850 – 600 BCE). A variety of burial practices has been observed, including simple inhumations, inhumations in pithos or amphora and cremations. The discovery of the remains of four females in Orthi Petra was declared one of top 10 discoveries of 2009 by the Archaeological Institute of America. / Photo by Carole Raddato, Creative Commons

The necropolis has also yielded a number of high-quality grave goods from funeral pyres, cist tombs, and burials in pots from the 9th to the early 6th century BCE. The majority of the funerary practices at Orthi Petra were similar to Patroclus’ cremation described by Homer in the Iliad.

The Museum of Ancient Eleutherna is an on-site archaeological museum on the island of Crete. It houses artefacts found in the nearby archaeological site of Eleutherna and the necropolis of Orthi Petra. / Photo by Lourakis, Wikimedia Commons

The Museum of Ancient Eleutherna, directly linked to the archaeological site, was inaugurated in June 2016. This beautiful museum is a journey back to the dawn of Greek civilisation and Homer. Thousands of finds are showcased at the museum, shedding light on a long period of history spanning from 3000 BCE to the 14th century CE.

My favourite Cretan sites where ancient civilisations come alive

Being the birthplace of Zeus and the setting of the famous legend of Theseus and the Minotaur, Crete is well known for its impressive ancient archaeological sites. But, visiting some of the sites this summer, I was shocked by the fact the only other group of people I met at one of them, were classicists from the private school in my home town. At that point, I realised that these fascinating and magical sites deserve more exposure to a wider audience.

I visited many ancient sites in Crete including Matala with its Roman cemetery, the famous palace at Knossos, and mount Ida - the mythological birth-place of Zeus. However, the ones that interested me most were Phaistos, Gortyn and Aptera. The way the different layers of archaeology at these sites portray the societies that inhabited them through time is something quite unique and captivating.

Phaistos, despite being largely dependent on Knossos, was a significant Minoan city due to its large population and administrative power. The Phaistos Disc, which is now on display at the Museum of Heraklion, is a remarkable relic from its history that can be seen at the site. However, during the later Helenistic period, Gortyn took over as one of the most influential city on Crete. Having been praised by Plato for its legislative practices, during its heyday Gortyn held power over the whole of the Messara Plain which were subject to its laws. Later in Roman times, Aptera went through its golden age, and the site now displays the amazing shift from the architecture of the Helenistic population to the mark made on it by the higher demands of the subsequent Roman inhabitants.


The main entrance of the city with the remains of the ancient road and the fortification tower dating from the mid-4th century BC. The remains of the massive fortification wall made of large polygonal stones. It was built in the mid-4th century BC with a total circumference of 3.5km. The defense of the wall was enforced by a series of fortification towers. The main entrance of the city and the west cemetery outside of the city walls. The cemetery includes tombs of all periods, from the 8th century BC until the 3rd century AD. The remains of an Heroon and a mausoleum dating from the 1st -2nd century AD. The remains of the Heroon with inscribed pedestals located between the ancient road and the west fortification wall. The inscription on the pedestal cites a citizen of Aptera, Praxiohos, the son of Filetairos, whom the city honored after his death, perhaps for some public donation. The gamma-shaped cistern which collected rainwater through openings on the roof. It was 56m long and 25m wide and could store 3050 cubic metres of water. The remains of one of the two Roman baths constructed in the Roman period (1st century BC – 4th century AD). The remains of one of the two Roman baths constructed in the Roman period (1st century BC – 4th century AD). The exterior of the three-parted vaulted Roman cistern. The interior of the three-parted vaulted Roman cistern. It had three barrel-vaulted aisles divided by two rows of four longitudinal arched piers (overall size 24.7 x 18.5 x 8.2 m high). It is of Roman date, at least in its final form. The remains of a small 5th century BC double-cella temple dedicated to Artemis and his brother Apollo. The remains of the ancient theatre. The excavation and architectural information to date indicates that there were three building phases: Hellenistic, Roman I (1st c. AD) and Roman II (3rd c. AD). The theatre had the typical structure of Hellenistic theatres, consisting of the auditorium (koilon), the orchestra and the scenic building. It was made of the local limestone, like most monuments of the ancient city. The lower section of the cavea of the ancient theatre. Only the seats in the central section remain, along with a sizeable part of their stepped foundations. The scene building of the ancient theatre built during the Roman period with three large niches corresponding to three entrances. The long stepped construction at the north side of the ancient theatre. Its exact function has not been clarified yet but it may have served as stands for event taking place in front of this structure. It is dated to the Hellenistic period but does not belong to the initial phase of construction of the theatre. The 55m long paved road dated to the Hellenistic period and leading to the ancient theatre. The ruins of the peristyle courtyard (5࡭ columns) of a Roman residence dating from the 1st century AD. The ongoing excavations at the Roman residence. The monastery of Agios Ioannis Theologos. It was built during the 12th century and was in function until 1964. The monastery of Agios Ioannis Theologos.

Roman Cistern at Aptera, Crete - History Above the entrance to the great harbour of Souda, where Paleokastro stands today, near the village of Megala Chorafia, the extensive ruins of the ancient city of Aptera (also referred to as Apteria, Apterea, or Aptaria) can be found. The name Aptera according to one tradition derives from Apteron, king of Crete, son of Kydon and father of Lappios, who is said to have lived in the time of Moses around 1800 BC.

The legend of Apteron lends itself to the suggestion that the city was once a colonial settlement governed by the Dorian Apteros or Aptaros who took part in the occupation of Crete towards the end of the Minoan era.

Alternative legends claim the city of Aptera took its name following a musical competition between the Muses and the Sirens held in the Temple of the Muses. At the time of the competition the city which was to become Aptera was renowned as a centre far musical expertise.

The Muses emerged as victors of the competition, a defeat which left the Sirens in such a distressed state that their feathers fell out into the sea, where they were transformed into the small ‘white islands’, in Souda Bay. It is from this legend that the city takes its name, Aptera meaning wingless.

The builder of Aptera is believed to have been Glaukos. Archaeological digs in the ancient city by Wescher in 1862-4 unearthed inscriptions confirming the position of Aptera on the site of Paleokastro - Megala Chorafia. Further archaeological digs were undertaken in 1942 involving amongst others the Italian archaeologists Mariani and Savignoni.

The city walls of Aptera are made of large polygonal stones to the east and long rectangular ones to the west. The foundations of several large buildings have also been uncovered. Where the church of St John now stands, once stood the Temple of the Muses. Nearby stood the offices of the college of the government of the time of which a whole wall of inscriptions has been preserved.

A short distance away the remains of the Temple of Eileithnia, the birth goddess are located. More over, following a dig in 1958 the remains of the Dorian Temple to Apollo were discovered, close to the preserved ruins of the ancient theatre. There are also the ruins of the double sanctuary or treasure house. Both were wonderfully constructed with interior archways, similar to the ruins of Rome. Finds include impressive Byzantine buildings and several tombs in the cemetery towards the west and the south. Smaller finds range from engravings, inscriptions, coins, and drinking vessels to the more elaborate works of art from the Hellenic, Greek and Roman periods. Multi-coloured finger paintings of the greatest beauty and delicacy, representing Apollo and Artemis, have also been found.

The archaeologist Alexiou during his excavation in 1958 discovered a temple dedicated to Demetrer. In the temple various examples of kerni were discovered dating back to Hellenic times. A kerni was a vessel with many openings in which seeds were placed in the honour of the goddess of agriculture. Alexiou also discovered a group of tombs from the 4th century BC which contained silver brooches, coins and vessels of various kinds. One of his greatest finds was part of a treaty made between Aptera and Kydonia.

The jurisdiction of the city state as a whole ranged from the plain of Apokoronou, towards Kydonia, approximately as far as the plain of Chania, incorporating Akrotiri and the small islands off Souda. Archaeologists estimate the population of Aptera to have been upward of 20,000, of which one fifth were freemen with the rest of the population in the bonds of slavery.

Many of the freemen were merchants, great landowners or ship owners. Aptera was one of the few cities which had a substantial trading network. This included the most important Mediterranean and Greek ports which allowed Aptera to protect her business interests. The two main ports of the ancient city were Kisamos, in Kalives and Minoa, believed to be situated at Marathi on the Akrotiri.

Towards the end of the Minoan age, Aptera was at the peak of its development. This belief is supported by the formidable, large stone cyclopean city walls which protected the ancient city. Defence was a major concern of the Apterians as traditionally they had fierce and powerful enemies in the Lappians, the people of Lappos. (Today the Argyroypolis in Rethimno). Lappos had an excellent mercenary army of highly skilled archers whose part in the Messenian war at the end of the 6th century BC is chronicled in history books. However the character of the Apterians differed greatly from their enemies military predisposition. The Apterians were primarily a trading nation, noted more for their passivity than aggression.

A steady alliance always existed between the Apterians and the Kydonians. They also had allies in the shape of the Knossians, however, in 210BC sieges by the Lappians and the Polyrrinians forced them to abandon their alliance. In 183 BC the Apterians became party to the treaty of King Eumenes of Asia Minor. In order to publicise their uncharacteristic aggression the Apterians had the figure of an armed soldier engraved on their coins, which was symbolic of the strength of their mercenary army.

Alternatively the Apterians would if circumstances permitted participate in wars without bloodshed. An example of bloodless war would follow along the lines of a conference between the two opposing armies, whilst the Generals assessed the strength of the enemy, the priests would study the omens and accordingly a compromise would be reached. In this way the attachment of the Apterians to the Kydonian army against the Polyrrinians involved no sacrifice on their part, and worked out to be very advantageous. Moreover, the Apterians did not fight against the Romans, surrendering similarly like the Kydonians overwhelmed by Metellus in 63 BC, this placed them in Roman favour which was reflected in the negligible taxes they had to pay.

The life of Aptera continued into the Greco-Roman period and into early Christian times, when there was a Bishop of Aptera. Unfortunately due to later periods of war and natural devastation the ancient city of Aptera was destroyed. Later on the site of the ancient city, appeared the small settlement of Paleokastro, which was to be destroyed by barbarism in 1583. In the mid nineteenth century a large proportion of the material ruins of Aptera were acquired by Reouf Pasha and utilised in the building of the Itzedin, the fortress of Kalami, in honour of the son of the Sultan of the time.

Successive digs have also unearthed limekilns in which the art and the brilliance of the statues of Aptera were turned into lime. Aptera was known as the 'Gallery of Crete' and over the centuries was witness to the flowing and ebbing of all the civilisations that have existed in Greece.

The myth of the Muses and the Sirens was followed by the white Dorian eagle, then the black eagle of the Romans, the Saracen hawk, the crows of Barbarossa, the winged iron of Venice and the Islamic stork, until the cycle finished with the German eagle which for a short while rooted its talons in the city of the Muses.

The coins of Aptera were silver with the head of Zeus or a woman on one side and an armed soldier on the other. On some of them is written the word PYTHOAG, on others appear the head of Hermes or Apollo, while on the other side circling the figure of an archer are the words, VICTORY TO APTERA. The museum of Istanbul contains a host of discoveries from Aptera. Amongst the treasures there are guilt statues of Roman Emperors, many of which are headless due to the frequent change of leadership in the Roman Empire. With each change of emperor the head of the statue would be replaced, just as today we change street names.

The space inside the city walls of Aptera was so vast that it is hard to imagine the enormous scale of the city. From the sheer size of the city it is obvious that in times of war, the walled city was used as a refuge by farmers and other citizens living outside the city walls. It was also a religious and administrative centre as well as a place for celebrations and social gatherings.

Furthermore all of those who have made a study of Aptera confirm that it was one of the great commercial and shipping centres of Crete, mostly due to its favourable location near the harbour of Souda. Aptera was also an industrial city as together with fine finger paintings both iron and bronze forges were discovered very close to the ancient mine of Verekgnthos (today Malaxa), the oldest mine in Europe.

Watch the video: The Ancient Theatre of Aptera (June 2022).

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