God Zeus - the mighty Greek god is the most popular and known god of Greek antiquity. A sky and thunder God, king of the gods, god of justice, ruthless ruler, unfaithful husband, seducer, the mighty and powerful one.
While most of Zeus ruling was done from the mount Olympus in mainland Greece, Crete plays more than central role in life of Zeus as right here is Crete, god Zeus was born and raised; right here in Crete the myth of Europe was created when Zeus kidnapped the beautiful princess Europe, brought her on the shore and forced her into union; and right here in Crete is the Zeus final resting place.
Here are 5 must-visit legendary sites that follow the footsteps of mighty god Zeus.
Site 1: Dikteon Cave - the birthplace of Zeus
According to Greek mythology, Zeus was born on Crete. Two caves in the Cretan mountains contest the honour of being known as the birthplace of the greatest God of ancient Greece. One of them is Dikteon Cave in the mountains surrounding Lassithi plateau.
According to Greek mythology, Zeus was born by the Cronus and Rhea. Cronus was notorious for being a very jealous and greedy. Out of the fear one of his children could take his throne, Cronus swallowed every child Rhea was giving birth to. However, when Rhea gave birth to her last child - Zeus, she managed to trick Cronus by giving her husband a rock in swaddling clothes to swallow, as a substitution to her child. Special daemons named "Curetes" made noise by hitting their shields, so that Cronus would to not hear the cries of the baby. Zeus was raised secretly by the Nymphs in Dikteon cave and was fed with honey and milk from the goat nurse Amaltheia with the help of her broken-off horn.
Excavations at Dikteon cave have revealed that it was one of the most important pilgrimage sites across the ancient world. Dikteon Cave was one of the most important and famous cult places of Minoan Crete. The excavations discovered the foundations of a built altar and the remains of offerings placed in rock crevices. Pilgrims made offerings at the site, including olive oil, honey, wine, wheat and animal sacrifices, which were placed on the altar and burnt. The numerous artifacts discovered at the cave are on display at the Heraklion Museum in Heraklion.
Site 2: Ideon cave - arguably another birthplace
The other contestant for Zeus birthplace is Ideon Cave, located in the highest mountain in Crete, Mount Ida or Psiloritis. It sits at 1540 metres above sea level. The cave is slippery and wet, with a very large cavern to explore. It is takes some time to reach it following the winding mountain road. The Ideon Cave is one of the greatest cave sanctuaries in Crete, as important as the major Greek temples. It flourished in antiquity (4000 BC to the 1st century AD). The cave was discovered in 1884 by a shepherd. The excavations brought to light important findings including an altar to Zeus 100 m outside the cave. Archaelogical findings include bronze statuettes, bronze shields and other offerings to the father of all gods.
Site 3: Matala beach - where Zeus brought Europe onshore
Legend says that Europas was the daughter of the King Agenor, somewhere where modern-day Lebanon is. One day together with her friends and companions she went off gathering flowers by the sea. Zeus noticed this charming group, particularly Europa, who was the prettiest of all. Zeus appeared to the group in the form of a white bull, one that was more beautiful than any other; a bull that smelled of flowers and lowed beautifully; a bull so obviously gentle that all the girls rushed to stroke and pet it. The bull laid down in front of Europa and she slid onto its back. Instantly, the bull charged off, plunging into the sea, and began to swim rapidly from the shore. Europa realized that the bull must be a god and she pleaded to pity her. But Zeus spoke to her his love and took her to Crete and brought on shore in Matala.
Right here on the sandy shore of Matala beach, according to the myth, Zeus brought princess Europe on shore before they went to Gortyna. Right here - on Matala beach, across the African coast, emerged from deep blue Libyan sea, princess Europe's footsteps touched the place where the myth of Europe was born and where the geographical continent of Europe starts. Nowadays Matala is a lively and colourful fishermen's village and centre of Crete's hippy community.
Site 4: Gortyn tree - where Zeus forced Europe into union
Following their arrival on Matala beach, the legend states, God Zeus brought princess Europe under a deep-shaded plane tree on the banks of the Lethaios River and forced her into union or saying more diplomatically - married. According to the myth it took place right under the plane tree in a place what was later named Gortyn. From this union, the three kings of Crete were born - Minos, Rhadamanthys and Sarpedon. Indeed, it is no coincidence that at Gortyn, several coins were found depicting Europe and Minos (or Zeus). Later, the oldest Agora of the city of Gortyn, the Ekklesisterion (Congress hall), and the Roman Odeum were founded on this site. It became a major Roman city and the seat of the first Christian bishop of Crete. The plane tree was blessed and has remained ever green since that time. Nowadays Gortyn is the archeological site.
Site 5: Yuchtas mount - the burial place of Zeus
The sacred Mount Yuchtas is the final resting place of the greatest God of Greek Antiquity. Whilst the claim of Crete to be the birthplace of Zeus has been widely accepted, the myth that the god also died and was buried in the island is unique to Crete. According to the legend, the shape of Mount Yuchtas when viewed from the west, reveals the profile of a bearded head reclining as in sleep or in death and represent the face of Zeus; right here, according to the myth, in the mountain lies his tomb. Following his death, God Zeus, legend states, was reborn annually in a springtime. There is evidence of a shrine on the peak of Mount Yuchtas that has been identified as the earliest temple of Minoan Crete. According to the excavations, the bull sacrifice was a part of the rituals enacted in the building as well as unequivocal evidence has been found for the ritual of human sacrifice (!!!)
The route: into the footsteps of Zeus
The five sites - two caves, mountain, beach and the site of Gortyn located in Central and East Crete are open to visitors. Within the total distance of 232 km that requires roughly 5 hours of driving time in total can be reached by car.
Etz Hayyim dating from 14th century is a unique little Romaniote synagogue in the old town's former Jewish quarter of Chania. It is the only surviving monument of the Jewish communities in Crete, the only living, silent witness of the community that once upon a time was thriving in Crete, throughout the centuries and even not so long ago. Now, the synagogue beautifully restored, lacks only one thing - the Jews.
Jews were residing in Candia as early as 13th century. Venetian Crete (1204 -1669) was one of the privileged centres of Jewish life. In second part of 16th century there were approximately 800 Jews living in Chania; the island of Crete as a whole had twice that number. It's known that there were four congregations in Chania at that time: congregation around "the great synagogue", around the "synagogue of the Cohaim", around the "synagogue of the European Jews" and around the "upper synagogue". The accepted liturgy of all four was that of Romaniotes - the one of the ancient Greek-speaking Jews. All four synagogues were located fairly close to one another - all in the heart of zudecca part of Chania - a neighbourhood that Cretans referred to as evraiki (Jewish).
By August 1941 the island's Jewish community had shrunk to approximately 330 people, based exclusively in Chania with handful of families in Heraklion. By the time the 263 members of the Jewish community in Chania were arrested by the Nazis in May 1944, of the two synagogues in the city, only Etz Hayyim remained. While the Jews were still imprisoned nearby in Ayas, the synagogue was already being vandalised, both by the Germans and the locals. They were sent by convoy to Heraklion in the east and herded onto a ship, the Tanais. Early the next morning, 9 June, the ship was hit by torpedoes fired from a British submarine. The ship sank and there were no survivors. The Jews were almost certainly on their way to Auschwitz. All 279 Jews aboard perished and the ancient Jewish community of Crete reached its end.
Following the war, and with no-one left to use it, the synagogue became dilapidated through decades of neglect and misuse. It became a home for squatters and a spot for residents of the neighborhood to dump their rubbish. Its walls were scarred by shells and shrapnel still, and by 1995 in the wake of an earthquake, Etz Hayyim was on the verge of collapse. Today, Etz Hayyim stands fully restored. Once more, it is a place of prayer and worship, congregation and celebration. This is due to the work of Nicholas Stavroulakis.
The walls of the synagog Synagogue is in the tradition of Romaniote synagogues in Greece. It serves as a place for prayer, a museum and memorial, and a library recording the long and troubled history of Crete's Jews. In 2010 synagogue survived yet another attack - the fire was set at night. Luckily the neighbour who was awake at the time noticed the smoke and called authorities and the synagogue's director Dr. Nicholas Stavroulakis. The walls of the synagogue's main hall were covered in soot, it sustained significant water and smoke damage in the attack, some 30 antique Turkish carpets also were damaged, the fire severely damaged the recently restored ezrat nashim (former women’s section) but luckily the fire did not reach the Torah scrolls or the library.
Having traveled for over 30 years, since 6 years now, I have found the whole world in one of the most fascinating and unique places on earth – Crete. It is a diverse, rich and inspiring island which even after so many years does not stop surprising me - its rich history and unique traditions, its people, the delicacies of Cretan cuisine, its landspace and its stunning nature. Here I reveal some of its secrets.
I see Crete through turquoise - pink glasses.