Culture And Ancient Cities of Rethymno

The existence of human life during the Neolithic period (6000 -2600 BC) is proved by archaeological findings in the Ideon Andron cave on Mount Psiloritis, the Gerani cave west of Rethymnon and the Elenon cave in the Amari district.

The greater number of archaeological findings dating back to the Minoan period (2600-1100 BC) can be explained by the fact that human existence and activity became more common both in caves as well as in a variety of other dwelling places, the remains of which cover the entire area of the Prefecture and are evidence of every stage of the Minoan period. Dating back to the Early Minoan period (2600-2000 BC) in the Mylopotamos area are the Sfentoni Cave in Zoniana and Pyrgi, Eletherna, in the Municipality of Rethymno are the sites of Chamelevri, and Apodoulou in the Amari district.

The palatial installations of Monastiraki in the district of Amari, the settlements of Pera Galinous in the Mylopotamos area, and Stavromenou as well as the caves of Melidoni and Patsos in the Municipality of Rethymno date back to the Middle-Minoan period (2000-1600 BC). Finally, the cemetery of Armeni, the settlement of Zominthos in Anoghia and the place of worship in Fantaxospiliara in the village of Prinos date from the Late Minoan period (1600-1100 BC).

During the Geometric and Daedalian period (1100-620 BC) important cities such as Eleftherna and Axos (Oaxos), in the Mylopotamos area, flourished, while at the same time a settlement existed on Mount Vrysina, on the plateau of Onythe. Continuous development of the same areas can also be observed during the period of Antiquity (620-500 BC), when works of great artistic value were produced.

According to the testimony of more recent sources, during Classical (500-330 BC) and Hellenistic (330-67 BC) times, the ancient town of Rithimna must have flourished; it was situated in the same place as the modern town of Rethymno is today. Simultaneously, the other large cities of the prefecture, as for example Eleftherna, Axos, Lappa and Sivrytos continued to exist during the Hellenistic and the Graeco-Roman period (67 BC - 323 AD).

During the First Byzantine period (330-824) when the capital of the Roman Empire was transferred to the Byzantium and Constantinople was founded in 330, Crete was included in the East Roman Empire, constituting a separate district, which was governed by a Byzantine general. Henceforth Christianity expanded on the island, and in the 8th century the Cretan Episcopate was integrated with the Patriarchate of Constantinople. During the early Christian and First Byzantine period a large number of temples were built, archaeologists have discovered many of which.

Starting from the year 824 up until 961, the island was governed by the Arabs, although very little evidence of this fact was found in the area of Rethymno apart from some Arabian coins, which were found in the village of Giannoudi.

During the Second Byzantine period (961-1210) fortification works of the town of Rethymno were started for the first time as we shall see further on. In the year 1211 the long and interesting period of the Venetian occupation began, remains of which can clearly be seen still on all levels in the area of the town of Rethymno.
Ancient Rithymna
Neolithic potsherds, which were found during surface research on the rocky hill of Palaiokastro, reveal the existence of human life during this period. The existence of a settlement here during the Late Minoan period is undoubted. This was proved by the discovery of a chiselled tomb, complete with funeral gifts, in the area of Mastabas, dating back to the last stage of the Late Minoan period (LM III = 1350-1250 BC).

However, the most convincing and distinct evidence for the existence of the ancient town of Rethymno, or Rithimna, is given by the inscriptions and coins dating back to the 4th and 3rd century BC; the latter displaying Apollo or Athena on the one side and symbols of the sea such as two dolphins or a trident on the reverse.
Furthermore the writers of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th century supply valuable information about Rithimna. Plinios, for example (1st century), and Claudius Ptolemaeus (2nd century) describe the town as being situated between Panormo and Georgioupoli, whilst Claudius Aelianos (3rd century) was the first to mention the existence of the temple of Rokkaia Artemis.

The carvings, which were discovered on the natural rock on the Palaiokastro hill, give evidence of the existence of a sanctuary on the hill. Furthermore, there is undoubted evidence that part of the constructions and buildings the sanctuary consisted of was demolished during the building of the Venetian fortress. The Venetians called the hill "Palaiokastro" (= Old Fortress) which proves that remains of an earlier, fortified building had existed.

As to the exact position of ancient Rithimna, nothing can be said with absolute certainty. However, based on a few Venetian written testimonies in combination with archaeological findings in the area of Arkadiou Street and the Customs, it may be concluded that at least during the Hellenistic and Roman period the settlement was situated in the same place as is the town of Rethymno of today.

Possibly this also applied to the settlement of the ancient Rithimna, the name of which has been kept alive up until today.

Coins of Ancient Rithimna.


The sun and the moon were worshipped in many places on Crete. This was the reason why a large variety of mythical characters were created such as Minos and Pasiphae, Zeus and Europa, Talos, Daedalus, the Minotaur, the Labyrinth, Ariadne and Diktynna or Vritomartes. Furthermore, the domination and power of the Minoan people, who had expanded on the Cycladic islands as well as on the East Mediterranean shores, helped to create myths such as that of Radamanthys, of Sarpedona, of Deukalion, of Idomenea, of Miletos and of other descendants of Minos.
There are two main areas in the prefecture of Rethymno, which are closely connected with Cretan mythology: The Ideon Antron on Psiloritis and the Talaea Mountains, which today are called Mount Kouloukounas and are situated in the north-eastern part of the prefecture.
In the sacred cave on the Ida Mountain, which was predestined to become the most important centre of worship of the ancient world, Zeus, the most powerful of the gods, was born and raised. According to the myth, Kronos, the king of the heavens and father of Zeus, swallowed his children out of fear that one of them might become stronger than him and deprive him of his power. His wife Rea was inconsolable about her husband's behaviour, since he had already swallowed five of their children. Therefore she decided to fool him in order to save the life of her last child Zeus. Thus, after having given birth, she wrapped up a stone in swaddling clothes and gave it to her husband, who, believing it was a child, swallowed it.
Thereupon she hid the child in a cave on Mount Ida, where the legendary Cretan demons, the Kourites danced and struck their bronze shields so that Kronos could not hear the child's crying.
While the goat Amalthia nourished the child, a golden dog watched the cave. When Zeus had grown up and was ready to become king, he defeated his father Kronos and forced him to release the other five children from his bowels.

The Kourites depicted on a shield from Ideon Andron

The name of the Talaea Mountains refers to the giant Talos, who played an important role in Cretan mythology. Talos was the guardian of the island of Crete. He circumnavigated it three times a day in order to protect it from intruders. This giant, who was made of bronze and had a unique vein running from his neck to his heel, was invention of Hephaestus. Talos was unarmed, however he was able to hurl enormous rocks at hostile vessels when they approached Crete, while at the same time his bronze body glowed so that everything he touched was destroyed by fire. He was also responsible for the laws being obeyed in the country. During his walks through the island he was holding the plaques in his hands, on which the laws were written.

This mythical giant would never have died, if it had not been for the Argonauts who passed the island on the vessel "Argo" and Medea, the witch, who helped them escape Talos' destructive blow. She kept him immobile so that she could approach him and take away the small bronze pin at his heel, which sealed the unique vein of his body. Thus the "blood of the gods" ran from his body and the hero collapsed.

Talos, the legendary hero of Crete depicted on a red - coloured urn.
Archaeological Sites

Archaeological remains were discovered all over the prefecture of Rethymno, dating back from the Stone Age, up until the Roman and Early Christian period.

These findings not only imply that this area was geographically important, but also that it had flourished continuously and had arrived at an economic and intellectual peak. Minoan, Geometric and Ancient sites and cemeteries as well as Roman cities and Hellenistic relics have been discovered at many places in the prefecture. The findings in the area of Psiloritis, the sacred Mountain, were particularly concentrated as this place not only hosted but also protected the newborn Zeus from the wrath of his father Kronos.

The number of archaeological sites discovered up until today amounts to 350, naturally many of which cannot be visited


Excavations in the area of Eleftherna were started 16 years ago, in 1985, when the Department of Archaeology and History of Art of the University of Crete started research on the ancient city and subsequently brought it to light, of which philological texts had already given mention.

As early as 1929, H. Payne, the director of the British Archaeological School, had also carried out minor research in the area. Remains were discovered in the wider area of the two contemporary and neighbouring villages of Eleftherna and Ancient Eleftherna, which are situated in the northern foothills of Psiloritis, at a distance of 24 and 29 kilometres respectively from the town of Rethymno.
More specifically, the most important findings have been discovered at three places on a hill, which is situated between two converging streams: at the place of Orthi Petra on the west side of the hill (excavation section III), at the place of Pyrgi on the summit of the hill (excavation section II) and at the place of Katsivelos on the north side of the hill (excavation section I). Further important findings have been discovered in the area of Nisi, near the modern village of "Eleftherna", which mainly include remains of a settlement of the Hellenistic Period.
At the place of Orthi Petra, Professor N. Stampolidis, archaeologist and leader of the excavating team, brought to light a necropolis dating back to the Geometric and Ancient Period, as well as Hellenistic and Roman buildings and streets, which had been built on top of earlier constructions. At the place of Pyrgi, on the summit of the hill, where the centre of the ancient city is believed to have been, the archaeologist Professor Ath. Kalpaxis has discovered parts of buildings of the Roman and Early Christian Period.

On the east side of the hill, in the area of the modern village of "Ancient Eleftherna", the archaeologist, Professor P. Themelis, discovered a part of the settlement showing all the chronological stages from Pre-historical to Early Christian times.
Among others, Hellenistic supporting walls, Roman buildings and baths have been discovered as well as an early Christian basilica with three aisles, boasting a narthex and a superb mosaic displaying geometric and floral motifs.
Supporting walls of the Hellenistic period, Roman buildings and baths, as well as a three-aisled early-Christian basilica with a narthex and a beautiful mosaic displaying geometrical and floral motifs have been discovered at the excavation site directed by Prof. P. Themelis.

Late Minoan Cemetery of Armeni
10 km south of the town of Rethymno the famous cemetery of Armeni was discovered, situated near to the village of the same name in a beautiful oak forest, and it dates back to the Late Minoan period (13th / 12th century BC).
During the systematic excavation, which was started in 1969, more than 220 tombs were discovered, and excavation has been continued since then with the aim of finding the city belonging to this place. The cemetery consists of burial chambers, which were hewn into the soft natural rock, and which lie from east to west. Long and narrow, hewn corridors lead into the interior of the tombs.
Among the tombs discovered up until now only one has been vaulted and built from stone. As well as pottery it contained weapons, beads and a periapt displaying an inscription in Linear A script.

The rich ornamentation with motifs taken from nature as well as religious icons makes the shrines particularly impressive.
The findings from the cemetery of Armeni can be seen in the Archaeological Museum of Rethymno. The archaeological site is open to visitors.

Α complex of buildings has been discovered in the village of Monasteraki, which is situated in the valley of Amari, 38 km from Rethymno. It is believed that the settlement was founded in approximately 2000 BC and that it was violently destroyed by either an earthquake or a fire in approximately 1700 BC.
This set of buildings includes storehouses, sanctuaries and two archive rooms containing a variety of earthenware stamps, and it is believed to have been a palace.
Excavation research was carried out by the German Archaeological Institute during World War II and has been launched again in 1980 by the University of Crete.


During recent years the Supervising Central Committee of Classical and Prehistoric Antiquities has carried out excavations in the modern village of Argyroupoli, where parts of the ancient city of Lappa, considered to date back from the Geometric up until the Roman period, have been discovered in various places.
However, most of the findings probably date back to the Hellenistic and early Roman period, a fact that proves that this area had flourished continuously during these particular periods of time. Furthermore, in philological testimonies the city of Lappa is describe as one of the most important cities of West Crete, which flourished during the Roman period.

In 68 BC Metello destroyed it. However, after 31 BC, a new, even more magnificent city was built, which boasted not only hot water springs but also its own currency. Recently, a large cemetery dating back to the Roman period has been discovered at the place of "Pente Parthenes".
A large number of artefacts discovered during excavations, including two marble statues and a bronze statuette, which were found prior to the systematic search, are exhibited in the Archaeological Museum of Rethymno

Roman statue of Aphrodite from Ancient Lappa. Archaeological Museum of Rethymno


33 km south east of Rethymno the village of Thronos is situated, where at the point of 'Kefala' archaeological research brought to light the remains of the ancient city of Sivrytos.

Coins dating back to the period of the ancient city have been discovered during excavation works and are exhibited in the Archaeological Museum of Rethymno.


Τhe village of Oaxos, one of the most important cities of ancient Crete, was situated in the area of the modern village of Axos, and flourished from Late Minoan and Geometric up until Roman and consecutive times.

Archaeological pick-axes have brought to light many parts of the ancient city including the temple of Aphrodite, the prytaneum, tombs and a variety of archaeological relics. The wall of the acropolis, remains of which can still be seen today on the summit of the hill, must have been of particular grandeur. In 1899, the Italian Archaeological School started excavations, which uncovered a variety of findings such as Minoan potsherds, stone vessels, inscriptions and many figurines of a naked female body, which is believed to portray the goddess of Fertility.

Furthermore, remains of buildings dating back to the Classical Period were found, on top of which new constructions had been built, mainly Byzantine churches. The city flourished during both the Roman and the Byzantine Period.

During the latter it accommodated the seat of the Episcopate and boasted a large number of churches. At the place of Livada, north east of the village, remains of archaic times have been found, a fact, which indicates the dimensions of ancient Axos.


Near the village of Apodoulou of present day, 54 km from Rethymno and at the place of Tournes, remains of a proto-palatial centre have been discovered. Sp. Marinatos carried out initial research in 1934.
This was followed by research by the German Archaeological Institute during World War II, and since 1985 systematic excavations have been carried out under the supervision of the Greek Ministry of Culture in co-operation with the University of Naples.
The archaeological site of Apodoulou must have been of particular importance during ancient times, because it controlled the passage to the Messara plain. Three sets of buildings have been found as well as vaulted tombs, one of which includes a corridor 7 m long and three sarcophagi.

Vessel on three legs from Apodoulou


The wider area of the villages of Hamalevri - Pangalochori - Stavromenos and Sfakaki boasts most important archaeological sites. As early as in 1745 the English traveller R. Pococke described the area as being identical with the 'Pantomatrion'.
In 1918 Efstr. Petroulakis, the curator of the Museum of Rethymno, initiated a first experimental research in the village of Paleokastro. In December of the same year the antiquary Emm. Kaounis discovered a magnificent marble tomb stele dating back to the 5th century B.C. and depicting the relief performance of a young hunter.
During the following years, archaeological findings were often haphazardly brought to light in this area.
From 1990 up until today systematic excavations and preservations have been carried out by the Trusteeship of Pre-historical and Classical Antiquities, which have brought to light large complexes of buildings that can be characterised as settlements or workshops.
Most of the buildings have been discovered on the hills of Tsikouriana and Kakavella, exactly south of the village of Stavromenos. An exemplary centre of information has been established in the area of Sfakaki, where the visitor can obtain an overall picture of the excavations and findings.
All the findings are exhibited at the Archaeological Museum of Rethymno

Casket from a tomb at Pangalochori
Tomb stele of the 5th century BC with relief performance of a young hunter.

Goddess with raised hands from Pangalochori.

Ideon Antron

At a height of 1538 m on the Nida plateau the "Cave of the Shepherd girl" is situated. According to the myth Zeus, the father of the gods, was raised and probably even born here.
To be more precise, his mother Rea hid the new born child in this cave in order to protect him from his father Kronos, who was in the habit of swallowing his children because he feared they might deprive him of his power. Hidden in that cave Zeus grew up being fed with the milk of the goat Amalthia, while the 'Kourites" covered the child's crying through banging their copper shields.
Being closely connected with the myth the cave of Ideon Andron achieved great fame during ancient times and developed into a centre of worship, which lasted over the centuries from the Minoan up until the Late Roman period. Research and excavation works, which the Italian archaeologist Federico Halbherr started in 1885, proved that the cave had been used as a sanctuary. From 1983 and henceforth systematic research was continued by the archaeologists Giannis and Efi Sakellarakis.
A large variety of archaeological findings have been brought to light, such as the copper shields with relief performances of the Ideon order, cameos, objects made from ivory and gold jewellery. Equally impressive is the large variety of ceramics, figurines, tools and metal objects.
Copper shield depicting the 'Kourites' banging their shields.
Gold jewellery
from Ideon Andron