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Phaistos
The Palace of Phaistos lies on the East end of Kastri hill at the end of the Mesara plain in Central Southern Crete. To the north lies Psiloritis, the highest mountain in Crete. On the slopes of Psiloritis is the Kamares cave, probably a religious or cult centre for Phaistos and the Mesara plain. In this cave a very fine pottery style was discovered from the Middle Minoan period, which has been named Kamares Ware after the cave in which it was found.

Kamares ware has only been found at Palace sites like Phaistos and Knossos, suggesting that it was specially produced for whatever elite was based in the Palaces. To the south of Phaistos are the Asterousia mountains beyond which lies the Libyan Sea. To the south west is Kommos, the ancient port of Phaistos and to the east, the vast Mesara plain.

The Palace was excavated by the Italian archaeologist Halbherr at the beginning of the 20th century. The earliest settlements on the site, which lies close to the Yeropotamos, one of the few rivers in Crete to flow all year round, dates from the Neolothic Period (c. 4000 BC) . It is likely that in the Early Minoan period small settlements were scattered over the hill on which the Palace later stood. Dark on light pottery (Agios Onouphrios ware) has been found in the prepalatial levels on the hill, but no Vasiliki ware from the Early Minoan II period has been found on the site.

The Old Palace was built on the site at the beginning of the Second Millenium, known as the Protopalatial Period (c. 1900-1700). Twice it was severely damaged by earthquakes and rebuilt so three distinct phases are visible to archaeologists. Levi, who excavated here from 1950 to 1971 believed that the first two phases of the Old Palace of Phaistos constitute the oldest Palatial buildings in Crete. Other finds at the site include thousands of seal impressions and some tablets containing the Linear A script from Middle Minoan II. Linear A has also defied all attempts so far to decipher it.

When the Old Palace was finally destroyed a new palace was built on the site. Fortunately for us, the builders of the new palace did not destroy all traces of the old. In fact much of the old palace was covered over at the time of the building of the new palace in order to level the ground. Some of the old palace can still be seen by visitors but much of it is accessible only to the experts.

The New Palace covers a smaller area than the old, thus enabling the visitor to see some of the remains of the Old Palace, including the area where the Phaistos Disc was discovered. However, excavators have been surprised by the lack of finds that one would expect at a Minoan Palace. No frescoes have been found in the New Palace and there is a complete absence of sealings and tablets. One view suggests that in the New Palace period the importance of Phaistos decreased while that of Agia Triada nearby continued to grow and that the two settlements complemented eachother in some way.

The site is entered at the level of the Upper West Court, which was used by both the old and the new palace. The Upper West Court is joined to the Lower West Court by a staircase which was built a the time of the upper court and was in use at the time of the old palace. To the north of the court is a very high wall and in front of this wall is the theatral area, with two raised walkways. There are eight rows where spectators either sat or stood to watch religious rites, ceremonies or whatever else took place there.

The main entrance to the New Palace was from the West Court, up the dozen steps of the 14 metre wide Magnificent Staircase, at the top of which is an equally wide landing, behind which stood the Monumental Propylaia. This structure is the forerunner of the Propylaia of Classical Greek times.

Between the landing and the actual entrance itself, were two porticos. Hutchinson points out that if the West entrance to palaces was direct, then it was small, but if it was indirect then it was grand. Here, the main entrance does not lead directly into the Central Court and is very grand.

To the south of the Propylaia is to be found the Palace magazine or storage area. This consisted of ten rooms, five on each side, opening onto an east-west corridor, which at its east end opened out into a two-columned hall with a portico facing the Central Court. One storage room remains in tact with a number of pithoi inside (see photo above).

The Central Court lies to the east of the magazines. It measured 55 metres by 25 metres. The South East part of the Central Court is now missing. Given the large number of corridors which lead to the Central Court, it must have been central to the life of the Palace itself. It was lined on two sides by porticos with alternating columns and pillars.

The north-east wing of the palace is considered to have consisted of artisans' workshops and the remains of a furnace for smelting metal can still be seen in the courtyard. The south-east wing collapsed some time in the past and the hill has eroded to beyond the point where the it would have stood.

Much of the West wing of the central court, south of the magazines, was used for religious purposes. It contained a number of rooms which opened directly onto the Central Court. Just south of the corridor of the magazines, in the West Wing, there are two rooms with benches lining the walls. Thes benches were covered with gypsum, a material used extensively at Phaistos. Further south there is a pillar crypt similar to those found at other Palaces and also in the remains of the old palace at Phasitos, but this one is on a rather more modest scale than, for example, the one at Malia.

The area also contained two lustral basins. Cult vases and figurines were found in this part of the West Wing, and the shapes of double axes were incised on the stone, all adding to evidence of a religious use for the building.

The conventional view is that whereas the West Wing of the palaces were used for religious and administrative purposes, the East Wing contained the domestic apartments of the royal family. However, a lustral basin was originally situated in the East Wing and if the purpose of the lustral basin was religious rather than hygenic, that would tell against the theory that the East Wing comprised domestic quarters.

The so-called Royal Apartments are in the north part of the Palace, to the East of the Monumental Propylaia. The smaller "Queen's Megaron" lies to the south of the larger "King's Megaraon". These rooms would have had light wells, porticoes and pier-and-door partitions which would have enabled sections of the room to be closed off. The lower walls and floors were lined with slabs of alabaster. To the west of the King's room is possibly the best-preserved Lustral Basin in Crete.

On the slopes of the hill to the south of Phaistos and on level ground below the hill stood the Minoan town. This is still being excavated though part of it can be seen below from the perimeter of the Palace site.

There are many reasons why a visitor to Crete should make the effort to visit Phaistos. It has the most beautiful setting of any of the Minoan Palaces, it does not get quite so crowded as Knossos and even in the summer it is possible to have the site almost to oneself provided one arrives at opening time or alternatively an hour or two before closing time. Finally, it is a much more intimate site than Knossos where walkways of scaffolding scar the Palace and so much of Knossos has been roped off, preventing access to visitors, who must look from a distance.

No doubt these measures were necessary to protect the Palace of Knossos from the hundreds of thousands of tourists who swarm all over the site from April to October each year. Similar measures may one day be necessary at Phaistos. Until then, an early morning or early evening visit will allow you to wander round the site in a way that simply isn't possible at Knossos and to break off from looking at the ruins to view some of the most spectacular scenery that Crete has to offer.


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