The Secrets of Ancient Phalasarna (Falasarna)

For most people Phalasarna is one of the best beaches in Crete – and nothing more. And yet, right there on the core of the Gramvousa peninsula, the ruins of ancient Phalasarna reveal a secret millennia-old world.

Phalasarna Tower

From prosperity to decay – The region seems to have been inhabited from as early as the Minoan years, while the city of Phalasarna itself was founded at least as early as the 6th century BC. Its port is mentioned by Sylakas of Karyanda in 350 BC (Periplous 47, 14-16: "In the cape exists the most western city, Phalasarna, and its closed harbour"), making Phalasarna the oldest known nautical port in Crete. Its geographical position, the fortified closed port and the impressive public buildings and walls that suggest a healthy economy and a substantial population, show that Phalasarna was in all likelihood a city living on piracy and slave trade, terrorizing the Mediterranean during the Hellenistic era. It probably gained independence from the neighbour city of Polyrhenia during the 4th century BC.

Phalasarna (Falasarna) Map

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Polyrhenia dominated the region during the classical years and reached its peak at the end of that century, having developed commerce with regions as far as the Northern Aegean and the Western Mediterranean.

Phalasarna Throne

Prosperity didn't last long. It was abruptly disrupted, it seems, and with it life in the city overall. Its destruction probably came with the Romans in 67 BC, during the expedition of Metellos who aimed to eradicate piracy in the Mediterranean. Before landing in Kydonia, Metellos destroyed the city and port of Phalasarna to make sure no hostile harbour was left behind. After the destruction, poor evidence of habitation remains. The port was left in a condition of disrepair and was never used again. Another destruction finished the remaining traces of civilization off. It was the massive earthquake of 365 AD.

Ancient Phalasarna

The absolute catastrophe – In July 21, 365 AD, the biggest earthquake in the history of the Mediterranean actually "lifted" the entire landmass of western Crete and transported the port of Phalasarna inland.

Ammianos Markelinos experienced and described the great catastrophe "similar to which cannot be found neither in legends nor in true historic events: The sea withdrew, the water pulled back in such a degree that the bottom of the sea revealed itself. You could see many sea creatures buried deep in the mud, and many mountain ranges and valleys became visible as the rays of sun touched them for the first time. Many ships ran ashore and people were wandering through the shallow waters gathering fish. But the waves returned bigger than ever and dashed on the shallows, the islands and the shore, flattening everything. Enormous amounts of water drowned thousands of people. When the fury of the water subsided, some destroyed ships and the bodies of the shipwrecked appeared. Some big ships were thrown by the waves to the roofs of houses, like in Alexandria, up to two miles inland".

Phalasarna Ruins

This massive earthquake was followed by the biggest known tsunami in history. The epicenter was underwater, close to Phalasarna, off the southwestern coast of Crete. According to scientific research, the earthquake caused Crete to elevate 6-9 meters from its former position within a few days! After the earthquake Phalasarna was abandoned. The city's location remained unknown throughout the Middle Ages. British traveler R. Pashley identified the ruins of the city in 1837, but the port, 100 m from the modern shoreline, would have to wait for T.A.B. Spratt to be discovered, 23 years later.

The revelations of the excavations – The archeological excavations reveal the port of Phalasarna, the impressive acropolis, the necropolis and the ancient city.

The proper dig was initiated in 1986 under the direction of Dr Elpida Chatzidaki and her colleagues Dr Manolis Stefanakis and Dr Hab. Nicholas Victor Sekunda. Since 2001, a group of students also participates in the dig, from the Department of History, Archaeology and Social Anthropology of the University of Thessalia, the Department of Mediterranean Studies of the Aegean University as well as the Institute of Archaeology of the Nicholas Copernicus University of Torun, Poland.

from ANEKORAMA Magazine