The Ancient City of Lyssos: Becoming Fascinated with the Beauty of the Past
The Ancient City of Lyssos: Becoming Fascinated with the Beauty of the Past

The Ancient City of Lissos: Becoming Fascinated with the Beauty of the Past

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Lissos is an ancient city in the southwest of the prefecture of Chania, near the small but beautiful village of Sougia. Together with Syia, Poikilassos, Tarra, Yrtakina, and Elyros was a part of the koinon of the Oreians. Do you know that Lissos is the second most important archaeological site in Crete, after Gortyna which was the Roman capital of Crete, considering the number of sculptures found by archaeologists?

Apart from the Asclepieion, you will find the remains of a theatre, the thermal baths, two small chapels, ruins of houses, an aqueduct and a Roman necropolis! Discover more about Lissos in this fascinating article.

Α Path that Leads to the Past

The E4 path winds from Palaiochora to Sougia along the coast. From Palaiochora the walk is approximately 13km. On a difficulty scale of 1 to 4 with 1 being the easiest, it is 2 for both going underfoot and how arduous it is.

Overall, the path towards the Ancient City of Lyssos includes some easy walking sections, but there are many sections where you are walking on loose stones and fixed rocks and some minor climbing skills are needed. At the beginning of the route, there are a few steep ascents/descents.

The ferry leaves at 8.30 and returns departing from Sougia at 18.10. We decided to walk there and sail back, so avoid rising early! We left at about 10.30, stopped for lunch, and deliberately slowed down for the last 3k; and we still had an hour for a beer in Sougia village. We walked on 31st May. The breeze kept the temperature down, but it was already a little hot for comfort in some sections.

From the harbour of Sougia follow the seaside road. Near the end of the town, it bends left a little away from the sea and shortly after that follow a turn to the right. Take the road on the right signed for Anidri. This leads out of the town and eventually past the camping site.

When the tarmac road bends left and heads uphill and inland, take a right turning onto a rougher road that continues on in much the same direction towards Gialiskari beach. This road follows the coast thoroughly and is a mixture of concrete, gravel and uncomplete sections. It passes a small pebbly beach with a sheltered swimming bay (Anidri Beach) and shortly afterwards it is transformed into a wonderful sandy beach (Gialiskari Beach).

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Next, head to the top left corner of the parking area. Walk along the back of the beach to the far end. You come to an information board about the walk, which reminds you to take lots of water. From this point, the walk to Sougia is 9.0 km from here.

The walk starts off with a bit of a climb over flat rocks and is marked all the way with black and yellow stripes, yellow blobs and black and yellow poles. This signage is extensive and significantly useful. The paint splodges are only a few metres apart and are essential on some stretches through rocky terrain.

The first section wanders near the sea with great views in both directions. Ascents and descents are small. It dips down to a small cove, where a half dozen people were taking a dip. Thereafter there is a long hard ascent to cross the back of the crocodile cape, with the path zigzagging through rocks.

Eventually, it passes through a gap and becomes a flatter, wider path across flat lands with goats around. It then descends through shrubs and then turns right with a short section of a small ravine on the right. It winds down towards the spectacular Lissos beach.

The path doesn’t go to the beach but bends left. It passes the tallest building of ancient Lissos (originally two storeys), and very soon after into a small valley full of trees and oleander to emerge at a charming picnic spot.

There is an information board about ancient Lissos. To go to the beach, take the path that continues in the same direction. To continue on the E4 for Sougia turn left uphill into a small valley. You can visit the temple of Asclepius – it is surrounded by a high fence but the gate is open where you can see the beautiful mosaic on the floor with geometric figures. It is still well preserved if we consider that no overlay is foreseen.

The path is a small right turn before the temple – not too easy to spot, but marked with yellow paint when you look closely. It winds up steeply through rocks and bushes. It is easy to take the occasional wrong turn, so keep your eyes peeled for paint splodges. The path emerges onto a plateau and goes straight across amongst strange low volcanic rocks.

It then goes down through the pines and emerges at the bottom of a gorge. Turn right and follow the gorge through the bushes and past a wonder concave yellowish cliff full of martins. This section through the bushes is quite long. It emerges eventually behind the harbour.

Turn left over a patch of rough ground. In the fence is a section that opens – it isn’t a hinged gate. Pass through and follow the coast road to Sougia.

The road passes the white kiosk where tickets for the ferry back can be purchased. The kiosk opens about 30 minutes before the ferry is due.

Asclepius Tempe

The temple is a small, simple Doric temple with walls of well-dressed polygonal masonry below and pseudo-isodomic above. It has no pronaos, and the cella, paved with a fine polychrome mosaic, has a marble podium at its rear for the cult statues.

The water from the spring ran under the paving to a fountain in the cella. In front of the building is a forecourt and on the W side an entrance portico from which steps led up to the temple. The building seems to have been destroyed in an earthquake; parts of its superstructure were found widely scattered. Nearby was a building used by priests or visitors. The spring itself was approached by steps from the terrace; beside it was a large cistern.

Asklepios – Image Credits: British Museum, CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

This site has produced more sculptures than any in Crete except Gortyn. Many of the heads of statues and statuettes were found in a heap some distance away from the torsos; most of them represent Asklepios or Hygieia, or girls and boys (presumably consecrated to the god). They are of Hellenistic and Roman date, but the types are mostly Classical. A number of statue bases bear dedications to Asklepios – God of medicine, healing, rejuvenation, and physicians, Hygieia and to Plouton.

Inscriptions are present on the left side the entrance and many ancient remains lie on the ground. Just before a water source and picnic tables where a young people group grilled meat. Along the path, there are two small chapels, where in one S. George who kills the dragon fresco, can be seen. Continuing on the path to see Roman tombs, built with big stones.

The History of Lissos

Lissos was the port of ancient Elyros. Its pre-Hellenic name suggests that it was inhabited well before the Dorian invention. The natural harbour and the medicinal springs present facilitated Lissos flourishing to a great extent, principally during the Dorian, Hellenistic and Roman periods.

Because of its strategic position, Lissos established a powerful commercial fleet and also featured the sanctuary of Asklepios which also functioned as a healing centre. This way, the city of Lissos managed to accumulate wealth and was one of the very few cities in Crete which minted gold coins.

The therapeutic waters of the spring, which are also present nowadays in Temenia, provoked the sanctuary of Asklepios to be established in the city. The temple followed the Doric order which is associated with simplicity and austerity in its architectural lines in comparison to the other canonical Greek orders.

The Location of Lissos

Temples and shrines of Asklepios on Crete like that at Lissos are frequently located at springs and at coastal sites and ports, given the importance of water – sometimes sea water as well as fresh water – in ritual therapeutic practices. Lissos was known for its spring and therapeutic waters, which came from the mountainous area above Lissos. At Lissos the temple of Asklepios was built on a terrace because of the spring just outside the eastern entrance of the temple on the north side of a forecourt.

Water from the spring ran under the mosaic floor of the temple. Remains of an upper cistern have been identified south of the temple. Beside the steps that led one up to the temple and its spring, there was a large, later cistern at the foot of the retaining wall of the upper terrace. As a coastal site with a spring, and a secondary port of Elyros, Lissos is characteristic of the places for which sites sacred to Asklepios are attested on Crete: eastern Itanos, Lato, and Olous.

Dedications and Sculptures

The buried and sealed Asklepieion of Lissos preserves a remarkable range of dedications, from votive tables to gold leaf offerings and stelai, a fact that suggests the status of the sanctuary. These sculptures, mostly found headless, can be seen today in the Archaeological Museum of Chania, together with a severely fragmented statue of Asklepios.

Of the two-gold leaf offerings, a small snake names a dedicant whose name is derived from that of Asklepios while the other bears a dedication to Asklepios and Hygeia in gratitude for the dedicant’s safety. Two stelai refer to the manumission of the same female slave, dedicated to the temple or the god fragments of were found inside the temple. Other stelai bear an early dedication to Asklepios and a later dedication to the god.

A gold snake, which bears the inscription (ASKLAS), from which the name Asklepios (= God of the snakes) derives, is counted among the most remarkable finds from the site. According to Wikipedia, in honour of Asclepius, a particular type of non-venomous snake was often used in healing rituals, and these snakes – the Aesculapian snakes – crawled around freely on the floor in dormitories where the sick and injured slept. These snakes were introduced at the founding of each new temple of Asclepius throughout the classical world.

It is the series of bases for statues or statuettes of children that makes Lissos distinctive among sites sacred to Asklepios on Crete. Fourteen bases, most naming males but at least one naming a female, were found inside the temple where they and more than 40 statues lay one upon the other in the area in front of the podium at the west end of the cella, atop the mosaic floor of Roman times. The statuettes can be dated to the 3rd‒2nd century BCE, when the Asklepieion was at its Hellenistic peak.

Decrees and Treaties

At Lissos at least thirteen decrees have been preserved on the exterior and interior walls of the Asklepieion. This high number may be an artefact of the preservation of the temple beneath the mass of rocks thrown down by the earthquake that sealed the site for future excavation.

None preserve a provision for publication in the Asklepieion, which was perhaps taken for granted on a local level. Most record the granting of proxenia, including granting such privileges to a citizen of Aptera; one records the granting of inviolability (asylia) and peace without a formal treaty (aspondia) to an unpreserved recipient.

On the short eastern wall of the temple – where the principal entrance was located – more civic decrees were displayed. The specific location of another civic decree is not recorded; two more were found on the upper terrace and the retaining wall west of it.

On the interior walls of the sacred enclosure (sekos or cella), yet more civic decrees were displayed. The series of decrees preserved on the walls of the Asklepieion at Lissos is remarkable yet characteristic, to judge from those preserved at other Cretan sites sacred to the god. Arkades is the site of the Asklepieion most comparable to that at Lissos, in terms of the number of treaties or decrees known to have been inscribed there. Two decrees record asylia for the Teians, to be inscribed onto the hiaron, or later the hieron, of Asklepios.

Epistyles and Monumental Inscriptions

The Asklepieion at Lissos is one of three sites sacred to Asklepios – all on the south coast of the island or in the Mesara plain that lies along the south coast – that preserve epistyles, architectural members or elements, and monumental inscriptions. At the same time, it preserves the earliest example of this epigraphic genre: an early Hellenistic document that seems to belong to a building from an early stage in the life of the sanctuary at Lissos

Related Read:
Prolegomena to a Dossier: Inscriptions from the Asklepieion at Lissos (Crete) by Martha W. Baldwin Bowsky

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