Aptera was one of the most important city states in Crete. The site lay on a plateau 200 metres above the Bay of Souda, roughly 15 km from the town of Chania on the road to Rethymno. The two city harbours of Minoa (today’s Marathi) and Kisamo (today’s Kalives) made Aptera one of the most important centres of trade in Crete. The inhabitants were accomplished archers and fought as mercenaries which brough wealth to the country.
The history of Aptera began in the Minoan period (3500-1070 BC), and traces have also been found from the Geometric period (1000-685 BC), the Hellenistic period (323-67 BC) and the Roman Empire (67 BC to 324 AD).
Written sources and excavations tell us that the city’s golden age was during the Hellenistic age (end 4th – 3rd century BC), when it began to mint its own coins and enjoyed economical and political power. One side of the coins showed the goddess Artemis and the other the king of Aptera, Apollo or Hera, together with a torch, a bee or a bow.
During the Pax Romana period of Roman domination the city of Aptera began to decline economically and politically, while agriculture began to thrive. Occupation continued under the Byzantine years, during which the city did not prosper.
The origin of the name Aptera
The name supposedly refers to Artemis: “Artemis Aptera”. According to Pausanias the king of Delphi – Pteras or Apteras – gave his name to the city; it was he who built the second temple of Apollo in Delphi and founded the city (from Ptolioikos, as shown on the coins). But the most attractive myth comes from Stefanos Byzantios (6th century AD), who says that the name is derived from the mythical battle between the Muses and the Sirens on the hill of Aptera. The defeated Sirens became featherless (“apteres”) because they threw away their feathers, which turned white and fell into the sea. These white feathers formed the islands of the Souda Bay, known as the Lefkes (white).
Visiting the archaeological site
During a visit to Aptera you will learn about the history of Crete. The site attracts many visitors and ongoing excavations continue to reveal important new finds. The most important of these can be seen in the archaeological museum in Chania.
The excavations and restoration work which still continue up to the present day have revealed the following:
* a stretch of the remaining fortifications of the city measuring almost 4 km. This was built in the 3rd century and the sturdy masonry illustrates the great wealth of the city in the Hellenistic age.
* the vaulted Roman cisterns which provided the city with water. You can see them by following the path behind the chapel of Agios Ioannis Theologos. The cisterns provided water to all the public and private baths on the west side.
* an arcaded structure with three arches from the Roman age, linked to the parliament chamber to the east of the walls. The “double sanctuary”, a small temple with two chambers, dating from the 5th – 4th century BC.
* the ancient theatre, built completely of limestone and situated on the south-eastern entrance to the city. Part of a large private house (a villa in the Roman style) with an inner peristyle courtyard (5×7 pillars) and a gallery with a tiled roof in the south-west area of the city. Most of the pillars and some of the capitals lie inside the courtyard.
* the old necropolis, situated outside the walls in today’s suburb of Plakalona Megalon Chorafion. The graves, which have been excavated in the last few years, date from the Roman, Hellenistic (4th and 3rd century BC) and Geometric period (8th and 7th century BC).
* the monastery of Agios Ioannis Theologos, built with materials from the old city. It belongs to the monastery on Patmos and was in use until the middle of the 1960’s. Today it has been partly restored and is the first area you come to when you enter the site.
* Close to the antiquities are two forts built during the Ottoman period, which are of great historic significance. The “Palaiokastro” (Koules) fort, built by the Turks to oppose the Cretan revolution, and the “Itzedin” fort in Kalami, built in 1872 with barracks, an infirmary and other facilities. To reach Koule you should turn left at the last junction before the archaeologicale site.
Text Harrie Wolters
Translation Alun Harvey