Ancient Minoa

A path from the top of the habitation in Katapola leads up the hill of Minoa to the church of Aghios Phanourios and then on up the winding track to the archaeological site (30 mins): alternatively the motorable branch-road to the right, passing south of Rachidi, leads to the site in 3km. Of the three cities of antiquity on the island, the ruins of * Ancient Minoa are the most extensive and interesting. It is an impressive site in an impressive position. (Site always open and mostly unfenced.)


The summit of the hill of Moundoulia, with its cave and rock formations, was inhabited in Late Neolithic times, as finds of obsidian and domestic artefacts of the period show. When the hill was subsequently settled in the 10th century bc, habitation moved to a more protected position on the south-facing slope of the hill: its remains have been indentified, along with the grand, Hellenistic buildings which are visible today. The settlement grew with the influx of colonisers from Samos and as a result the summit of the hill was fortified as an acropolis. Traces of the 8th century bc fortification-walls can be seen between rock outcrops on the north side of the summit and on the east slope. The city appears to have reached its apogee in the 4th century bc, when many of the buildings visible today were constructed. Under Roman domination greater importance was given to the port. The city had two poles—hill and harbour—connected by a sin gle enceinte of walls. Latterly the harbour dominated, and the upper city was abandoned in the 4th century ad. 


Though it is clearly a possibility, the toponym ‘Minoa’ (which is not unique in the Aegean) does not necessarily indicate a Cretan ‘Minoan’ connection. All we can say is that it prob ably refers to a legendary hero-founder, ‘Minos’: whether that was supposedly the Cretan Minos or another, we can not know. Minoan peak sanctuaries at places where there are outcrops of rock are a common phenomenon in the Aegean: but there is as yet no archaeological evidence suggesting that there might have been one here of a clearly Minoan nature. 


The site

There are two main areas: a lower site (mostly Hellenistic re mains) on the south slope, and an upper site (with scattered Archaic and earlier remains) at the summit. On approaching the lower area, the well-constructed walls—some for fortification, some for retaining terraces, some for both—make an immediate impact. Viewed from the entrance, you see:

* ahead and to the right, the terracing wall which sup ported the late 4th century bc Gymnasium, constructed in massive, interlocking masonry blocks with drafted edges, and channeled corners. On its left side, what looks like a postern gate at the head of a narrow channel, is in fact the drainage for the latrines which occupy the small wing made from massive stone blocks at the western end of the Gymnasium. The space still conserves its roof, and the limestone benches cut with individual seats over a drainage channel are unusually well-preserved in side. On the hillside directly above the Gymnasium rise large walls in a rough stone-rubble bound in mortar; these defined a vaulted water cistern of considerable size, which was constructed under Roman dominion in the 2nd century ad. The accumulated water must have supplied the gymnasium and its thermae, and provided drainage water for the latrines directly below. In later times, this vast ruined structure, which was always visible above ground, was referred to as ‘Palati­a’—an imagined ‘palace’ of Minos, the legendary founder, in the eyes of the local inhabitants of the area.

* ahead and to the left, is the city’s (main) South Gate in a trapezoid-shaped recess, with bastion-walls to either side; to the left of the approach is a votive pedestal; to the right side, a drainage channel for rain-water, cut both inside and outside the main threshold. The threshold itself is a single block, shaped and cut to accommodate the doors and their posts. Above the gate, slightly to the left (west) is a small temple to Apollo, which faces south from a platform of three marble steps. A fragment of the lower portion of the cult statue has been set up in the centre of the naos : its drill-cut, deeply folded drapery dates it to around the late 3rd or 2nd century bc. The temple would have been made entirely of the same hand-chiseled and finished marble-blocks which constitute its ruined base.

Both to left of the temple, and below and to the right of the Gymnasium, a number houses and shops of the Hellenistic town have been cleared by the archaeologists—many with wells or cisterns for water still visible. Further around the hill to the west, the remains of the houses have not been cleared; but the line of the enceinte of walls is visible be low them, becoming clearer as it approaches the northwest bastion. Beyond the bastion, an arm of the walls, added in Hellenistic times, continues steeply down the slope to the port below.
   Climbing up towards the summit from this point, the scene changes: the geological conformation means that there are natural rock terraces, plateaux, grottoes and out crops, between which the base of stretches of the Archaic walls (8th/7th century bc) can be seen. They come particularly into evidence on the east and southeast sides and are quite different in construction from those below. The base of a tower can be made out at the northeastern end.
   The peak sanctuary is characterised by a rock summit (255m a.s.l.), under which is a deep natural cavern, entered by a small aperture—later fancifully dubbed the ‘Tomb of Minos’. The combination of the two—summit and cave— constituted an obviously numinous site for prehistoric man, and it is no surprise that Neolithic artefacts have been found here going back to the 4th millennium bc. The cave should not be thought of as separate from the cultic build or temple directly above it, whose outline can be seen at the summit; together they formed the single unit of the sanctuary. The finding of charcoal ash, sacrificial animal re mains, horns and votive objects shows that cultic practices occurred—but in honour of which divinity cannot yet be determined. The sanctuary continued to be used into Hellenistic times and beyond, and objects relating to the cult of Dionysos ‘Minoites’ might suggest that, even in prehistoric times before the appearance of Dionysos, the divinity was also a god of the earth, and of fertility and procreation. It is equally possible that the early cult was centred on a hero, such as Minos, the legendary founder. The entrance to the sanctuary through the Archaic peribolos, or perimeter wall, has been rebuilt in Hellenistic times: similarly, the sacred building or ‘temple’ at the summit has been slightly adapted with time. But its form, like a small temple oriented east/ west, with an inner sanctum or naos , and a forecourt to the east, follows the earliest construction which dates from the 8th century bc. The threshold can be seen, as well as ledges for the placing of offerings. Below the sanctuary area to the southwest, part of the inhabited settlement of the Archaic period has been uncovered.

The track leading to the southwest from the church of the Stavros just below the archaeological site, continues into an area of considerable beauty. The two hamlets of untouched simplicity that you encounter, Lefkes and Aghia Thekla (30 and 45 mins respectively by foot) over look attractive inlets with beaches. The churches in the area—Aghia Irini on the hillside above, Aghios Ioannis in Lefkes, and the Aghii Saranda (60 mins)—all incorporate ancient spolia. At Aghia Irini, an ancient sanctuary from Archaic through to Hellenistic times is attested.

Amorgos Island is part of the Cyclades Island Group, Greece.

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