Ancient Lyttos

Ruins of ancient Lyttos or Lyktos survive today near the village of Xidas, in the Municipality of Kasteli Pediadas. It was one of the oldest, most important and powerful cities of Crete, and a rival of Knossos, with which was often at war. It was built at the foot of Dikti, the sacred mountain of the Cretans. According to mythology, the parents of the goddess Rhea sent their daughter to give birth in Lyttos, to keep away from the wrath of Kronos. The city was named after its founder, Lyktos, a son of Lycaon.

It was possibly the oldest Doric settlement of Crete, founded by Dorians from Sparta and local Minoans, circa 1000 BC; however, the conditions under which it was first established and how it managed to become such a powerful city are not yet known. It is believed that Lyktos was a colony of Sparta, and Lyktos locals were considered the most powerful and brave among Cretans

According to a more contemporary opinion, the city was founded by residents of the Minoan centre at Malia, which possibly had the name Lyktos in Antiquity. This view is consistent with tradition, which preserves the memory of a blood sacrifice ritual; this may indicate that the city existed well before the Doric conquest.

It is considered a fact that Lyktos took part in the Trojan War; its troops were led by Koiranos, who had Mirionis as his charioteer. According to the Iliad, Koiranos saved king Idomeneus from a lance thrown by Hector, thus sacrificing himself.

Built amphitheatrically, like many current Cretan villages, at a naturally secure location,650 metres up the western foothills of Mount Dikti, it did not need any fortifications. Its citadel stood on top of a hill, where the ruins of several windmills and a chapel of Stavros (= the Cross) can be seen today.

Lyktos was founded in Prehistory, however it prospered mainly in the historical years. It was supreme throughout eastern Crete, over the current areas of Pediada, Chersonissos, Lassithi, Mirambello, and Viannos. Milatos (located on the seashore near Malia) and Chersonissos belonged to Lyktos, being its two ports. Lyktos was frequently at war with Knossos, because it continuously challenged its supremacy among the Cretan cities. It was eventually destroyed by the Knossians in 220 BC, during the so-called Lyttian War, and was left in ruin for several years.

As recorded, the Lyttians made a fatal mistakeat some point: Being also at war with Hierapytna, they set off to fight leaving their city essentially unprotected, with only a small garrison to defend it. Unfortunately, the Knossians heard about it, and they marched against Lyktos. They seized it effortlessly, no warfare needed, and they subsequently burned it to the ground. Then, they captured the Lyttian women and children and took them to Knossos. When the men returned, they faced utter destruction; so disheartened were they in front of such a dreadful sight, that they could not muster the courage to rebuild their city. They lamented and cursed their evil fate and then headed for Lappa, where they were received with sympathy.

Lyktos was reconstructed later, with the help of Sparta. It did not recover its former great power, however it managed to become an important Cretan city, anyway.

During the Roman years, it flaunted large public buildings and enjoyed a newperiod of prosperity and growth. The statues of the Roman Emperors Marcus Aurelius and Trajan which can be seen today in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, were discovered there. In 450 BC Lyktos minted coins depicting an open-winged eagle (the bird of Zeus) and a head of a wild boar. ThefestivalofPeriblemaia wasorganisedthere; it was connected to the institution of ephebeia, just like Ekdysia in Phaistos. These initiation festivals marked the transition of young men (epheboi) to citizenship and warriorship, by ritually discarding the garments of youth and receiving those of the citizen.

The retaining walls forming the three terraces on which the city was built, and the walls of the citadel, built in the 7th century BC, can be seen in the archaeological site today. Ruins of buildings from the Roman imperial years can also be seen. 

The retaining walls forming the three terraces on which the city was built, and the walls of the citadel, built in the 7th century BC, can be seen in the archaeological site today. Ruins of buildings from the Roman imperial years can also be seen. The Bouleuterion (building which housed the council of citizens) was the most noteworthy construction unearthed there; it was founded in the years of Hadrian and is mentioned in numerous inscriptions. Its end came in 365 AD, when it was destroyed by an earthquake. Its largest room had four rows of seats, a floor paved with marble slabs and a marble wall cladding in the lower part of its walls.

Another monumental public construction, parts of which survive today in several places, is the aqueduct of the city, a truly impressive engineering project built in the years of Emperor Hadrian (2nd century AD).

The chapels of Saint George (Agios Georgios) and of the Holy Cross (Timios Stavros) exist today in the site of the ancient city. 

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Additional Info

  • location Lyttos (Kasteli), Minoa, Heraklio
  • type Ancient City/Town
  • time period Minoan Era, Geometric/Greek Period, Archaic/Greek Period, Classical/Greek Period, Hellenistic Period, Roman Period
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