Breathtaking view of the blue infinity of Aegean sea, over the olive trees-dotted hills, extensive vineyards, Cretan wild herbs and fresh air ... God Zeus knew what he is doing by choosing Mount Juktas as his final resting place. So did Minoans when erecting right here their fist ever peak sanctuary on Crete. The peak of Mount Juktas, referred to also as Sleeping Zeus mountain, is the most remarkable natural feature of central Crete. Throughout the millennia this sacred mountain has been a place of worship - first venerated by Minoans and than churchgoers. Erect high above the terrain of the island, it reveals an awe-inspiring panoramic view over Crete's North coast - there is no better place to enjoy that kind of grand sight anywhere within vicinity. Come along!
Paradise of healing wild herbs
While enjoying the grand view, you feel the fresh air is scented with healing wild herbs - aroma of sideritis, oregano, thyme and sage. This is the right place to pick up your own mountain tea for a wonderful herbal fusion. The mount has an altitude of 811 m and its home to 360 species of plants (approximately ⅕ of Crete’s flora), some of which are endemic to Crete. One such example is Dittany (Dictamnus Oreganus) an endemic herb which grows in affluence on the sudden cliffs of the mountain. Along the Mt. Juktas trail, there are a large number of signs informing visitors on the names of aromatic and other plants in Latin, posted by the Archanes Centre for Environmental Education.
God Zeus final resting place
Crete is Zeus birthplace but it is also his resting place. Ancient authors believed the sacred, anthropomorphic Mount Juktas to be the tomb of Zeus. It has four sacred caves, one at each point of the horizon. In the Minoan period these were places of sacrifice, ceremonies and food storage.
The Cretan Zeus was a deity who each year died a violent death and came to life again. He thus resembled closely the Egyptian Osiris who became Judge of the Dead. 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.
Since antiquity God Zeus as had many names, many faces and manifestations - "Zeus, god of vintage", "Zeus, god of sailors," "Bald Zeus", "Dark Zeus" (god of death and the underworld), "Zeus-Trophonios" (earth-god), "Zeus of thunder and rain", "Zeus, lord of flies", "Zeus, god of boundaries", "Zeus Soter", as well as the "Cretan Zeus".
Place to worship saints
A Greek Orthodox chapel is located about a kilometer south of the sanctuary along the ridge of the mountain. Every year, people from towns down in the plains below Mount Juktas bring flowers in procession to the chapel.
In the past Mount Juktas has also served as astronomical observation centre from which solstices, equinoxes, moon, sun and star movements could be observed.
Minoan peak sanctuary
Juktas Mount occupies a central place in the Cretan sacred landscape of Minoan times - it was the first Minoan sanctuaries on Crete and the most ancient peak sanctuary on Crete - appeared about 2100 or 2200 bc. Mont Juktas sanctuary is clearly linked to the palace at Knossos.
The Minoans clearly believed, in common with many other peoples in Africa, Asia and Europe, that deities lived on the mountain tops, or at least made appearances there. Religion played a major role during Minoan times, both in the towns and in the countryside. The Minoans worshiped in caves and on mountain peaks, where they dedicated clay figurines in ‘ash altars’.
Ritual sacrifice place - Anemospilia
Mount Juktas is also a place of mysterious ritual of Minoan period - a human sacrifice. The sacrifice ritual took place further down the slopes of Juktas at the small but significant site - Anemospilia (excavated in 1979). The sacrifice place of Anemospilia was built in the Middle Minoan IIB period (c. 1800-1700 BCE) and destroyed in the Middle Minoan III period (c. 1700-1600 BCE) by an earthquake (c. 1650 BCE), causing the entire building to crumble to the ground. Four human skeletons were discovered in the sanctuary, one of whom is believed to have been a human sacrifice.
There are many questions to the day but clearly - in the very moment the building collapsed, there was a group of people inside performing a ritual. Who knows, perhaps they were enacting a drastic ritual to prevent the very earthquake that interrupted and killed them.
Anemospilia is fenced off and closed to the public. There is very little to see except the foundations of three narrow rooms, overgrown with weeds. It is a place to visit and think about the story, to wonder whether the peace-loving Minoans actually committed such acts, rather than a place to marvel at what remains.
Grand view that feeds the soul and Icarus
This breathtaking view feeds the soul - have a look at the terrain of Crete. Juktas is the main landmark, controlling the valleys of Pediada, Mesara and Temenos. Mount is also home to 40 species of birds, the most important being the griffon vulture, which uses the mountain as its nesting and mating ground.
It is also said that when the mythological Daedalus was imprisoned by King Minos in the Labyrinth at Knossos, he fashioned wings of feathers and wax with which to escape. He made two pairs, one for himself and one for his son Icarus. He warned Icarus that flying too near the sun would cause the was to melt and the wings to disintegrate, but Icarus did not heed this advice. He may have achieved the altitude of Mount Juktas before he came crashing down into the sea.
Like any place, Mount Juktas it comes to life through the storytelling and appreciation of history and mountains significance - there is so much more than the eye meets when travelling with a good storyteller.
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.
Spring in Crete is amazingly beautiful, it is all-promissing, inviting and terribly alluring. In Crete it is particularly expressive - the fresh green on the ground has bright and vivid tones as if it would hold the promise of paradise. The beams of sun target the tender green, olive groves, wine yards and the the wild flowers spring up.
The peak time to to see the wildflowers in Crete is from February until May, when the whole greenery of Crete comes into being quickly. As if a true miracle and a master-pece of the mother nature. Here are 4 spring wild flowers in Crete you must see, before they wither away ...
The expressive violet-pink Cretan Orchids burst out of the ground in a spring time and are soon in wonderful colour. The earliest of the orchid species appear already in February, however, best they can be spotted in April.
The spectacular and fine, velvety and soft, wild iris can only be found in Crete.
Small, tiny, almost invisible but invincible are the wild, endemic tulips of Crete, found in area of Spili or mountain areas of East Crete.
Wild Calla Lilly
and off we are ...
And off we are for the quest of Cretan wild flowers, following off-the-beaten path into Cretan wilderness.
Driving in Crete is fairly easy and relatively safe. However, just like in any place there are rules and 'musts' that you have to know. Respecting these unwritten rules will make your life easier when getting around in Crete. Here are the top 4 "do not" to keep you on the safe side.
Rule 1 - Let the car pass
Don't be mislead by short distances
Rule 3 - Don't rely roadsigns always being visible
Road signs are not bulletproof in Crete. Exactly the opposite - the road sides are full with proofs that Cretans are using the signs as target practice with their guns. Well, it is no secret that Cretans own guns and like to practice shooting, especially in mountainous areas. Those are easy targets and you'll see many signs that resemble Swiss cheese. Driving in mountains Crete requires knowing where you are driving!
Don't underestimate the rain
There is, no doubt, a similarity between the ancient sanctuaries weather it is in Delphi, mainland Greece or in Patsos gorge, island of Crete. There is this special vibe, a charge of energy and something wholly different about the place.
The cave of god Hermes (Ermis Kraneos) in Patsos gorge was a sacred site in antiquity. The protector of shepherds, forests and the fertility of nature, as well as the god Pan, were worshipped there. Periodically people have found objects from the Minoan, Greek and Roman eras. The cave of Ermis Kraneos is known to the locals as Agios Antonios Cave because of the small church of Agios Antonios that has been built within it - on top of an older site. The altar of an ancient open air sanctuary used to stand next to the chapel.
The chapel of St. Antonius is at a place where different cults have been known from as early as the Minoan period. Archaeological findings date back as far as 2000 BC, and different types of worship and services were carried out as late as during the Roman period around 400 AD.
The gorge is green and beautiful. There are two paths that you can follow, that go along the small river.
We are greeted with loud ring of the bell upon arrival in this lonely place. The rhythm of bell ring is somewhat hazy and erratic. We are not sure if it is a greeting or a warning. Are we guests or are we unwelcome breachers?
The hermit told us some of the principles that should be observed in life, for instance, the women should wear black blouse, cover her head, wear long skirt and wear no earrings. The other - God sends you angels to you to look over you and to direct you on the right path. The rules of the visit include not disturbing him and no taking photos. You are, however, invited to read some excerpts from the bible, you can cut grapes and take with you and you can lit the candle.
This monastery is built near the gorge of Arvi, in an elevated area with panoramic sea views. Today it is abandoned and only remnants of monks’cells reveal its past. The monastery is believed that was initially built on the ruins of the ancient Temple of Arvian Zeus in the Valley shaped at the exit of Arvi gorge. However, it was later moved to its current elevated position because of the marshes shaped in the valley. In the monastery there are two churches, one very old and one quite new, dedicated to Saint Anthony.
Having travelled extensively in Crete, we have come across many abandoned villages. Here, I have selected three I would recommend visiting as they are interesting on their own right. Discover the abandoned mansions, stone-build hoses and ineffable vibe of past times!
Ethia village in Asterousia mountains
Asterousia mountains harbour many secrets and surprise adventuous traveller with many discoveries. Ethia village is one of them.
A quiet wind is gusting through the alleys of bygone past of Ethia village - grand and empty stone buildings, the few villagers left are having nap during midday siesta, beautiful gardens and many stories to be told. As families have left Ethia village for decades now, the houses have started to crumble. The village population, which had once numbered in the hundreds, dwindled to single digits. Ethia is one of Greece’s southernmost settlements and just above it, the hills overlook the Libyan Sea.
Ardachtia village in Central Crete
One of the most interesting ghost villages - Ardachtia lies just 500 m from Agios Thomas village. This village has quite a history as its name features in all the Venetian documents of the 16th. Its unique location under cliffs, looming rocks and the natural caves, however, became a reason why it was abandoned. The earthquakes, falling rocks threatened to land right on the rooftops of the houses; the landslides shaking the structures of the buildings threatened the lives of villagers. It was abandoned as a result and nowadays it is a quiet, lonely place, except for few houses.
The name Mixorouma was given to this village due to its position at the confluence of two streams. It is worth for visitors to visit old Mixorouma, a wonderful dorp with stone-built houses, submersed in the green landscape. It is referred to with the name Mixorouma in all Venetian censuses. In 1881, it is referred to with the name Mixorouma in the Municipality of Lampis with 126 residents. In 1900, it is mentioned again in the same municipality as Mixorouma with 146 residents. You can walk through the empty streets and see the old houses that are falling apart and that have their doors open.The only building that is in sort of a good state is, off course, the village church.
Three churches which are utterly beautiful in their architecture, location and unique in their significance.
Church of Sotiros Christou in Temenia
At the altitude of 686 meters Byzantine church in Temenia village, West Crete. Temenia is a small village between Sougia and Kandanos. It is situated in such a point on the mountains from where it leads to Palechora (13 km), Sougia (22 km) or Kandanos (12 km).
Chapel of the Virgin Mary in Fodele
A little before the El Greco Museum there is the 11th or 12th century Church of Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, with fine frescoes (wall paintings) covering many surfaces, patches remain inside the dome, upon tapering columns, and on the undersides of arches. Larger fragments of saintly figures look upon you with soulful eyes from walls and around the altar.
It is a small and highly important relic of the mid-Byzantine period. A visit here will offer memorable views of icon painting from what many say was a 'golden era' for this art form. The opening hours are 8:30 am to 3 pm, apart from Monday when it is closed.
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.