Wandering through ancient streets

The Minoan town of Gournia

No archaeological site in Crete gives you a better idea of what it must have been like to live in a Minoan town than Gournia, located on the Isthmus of Ierepetra.

Josho Brouwers

Crete is an absolute paradise if you love exploring archaeological sites. During the heyday of Minoan civilization, or ca. 1900 to 1450 BC, Crete was, as Younger and Rehak put it, “surprisingly urbanized.” As they explain (2008, pp. 141-142):

Along the north coast, from modern Chania to Siteia, there would have been a string of palaces: presumably Chania and Rhethymnon, where important buildings have been excavated, and then Knossos, Malia, Gournia, and Petras, all approximately 25-40 miles apart. Some traces of roads have been discovered, sometimes with watchtowers, and a whole string of small settlements, “villas”, and farms.

I’ve written before about Knossos and Malia, two large and important centres. Smaller, but certainly not less impressive, is the town of Gournia, located on the Isthmus of Ierepetra and in close proximity to the sea. It was excavated early in the twentieth century by the American archaeologist Harriet Boyd-Hawes.

An important Minoan town

“Gournia” is the modern name for the town; we don’t know what it was called in ancient times. Because it is situated near Crete’s narrowest point, a lot of traffic must have flowed through it, and the finds from the site certainly suggest it was important. The Minoan town itself occupies a large hill, with a large and impressive building complex at the very top, Gournia’s “palace”. Like the other Minoan palaces, this structure must have served as the town’s administrative centre.

The buildings on the hill are well preserved. The superstructures, which would have mostly consisted of mudbrick and wood, have naturally disappeared, but the foundations and lower sections of walls are visible. Gournia consists of a conglemeration of structures, intercut by a number of narrow streets that all seem to lead to the palace at the top (see the photos in the gallery, below).

Wandering through the streets and alleys of the site, you don’t need much imagination to picture what life may have once been like in Gournia. If you’ve been to modern Greek villages or even Italian towns like Capri, you know what to expect. The streets aren’t wide enough for two people to walk side by side; there are walls everywhere, and occasionally short flights of steps that lead to doors on a higher level.

Behind the walls are the residences of Gournia’s inhabitants, but also workshops and store rooms. The people who lived here were merchants and craftsmen, engaged in trade and the manufacture of pottery, metal tools, and the like. The large palatial structure at the top of the hill would have been the political and religious heart of the community. As at Knossos and Malia, there was a relatively large court there that would have been used for various purposes.

One of the characteristics of the Minoan culture on Crete is that during their heyday, settlements seem to have been unfortified. But it may well be that fortifications were unnecessary: in the case of Gournia, we have a town with buildings tightly packed together; the narrow streets would have afforded an attacker little protection. The buildings all had flat roofs, and in case of an attack, the inhabitants could simply bar their doors and hurl stones and other projectiles from above. Defensive architecture without the need for gates and towers.

Touching the past

If there’s any place in Crete where you feel like you can get really close to the Bronze Age inhabitants of the island, Gournia is it. There is the impressive palace at the top of the hill, but also the regular homes and workshops of the people who lived around it. At the very foot of the hill are also the house-shaped tombs where some of the dead were buried.

Gournia is a place with history and meaning, and one well worth your time to seek out and explore. As always, the easiest way to reach the site is by renting a car, but the site can also be reached by bus or taxi. The visitor centre has no information on offer, but there are plenty of signs dotted around the site that give a good amount of information about various points of interest.