Hidden Crete: The Temple of Lissos

The ancient history of Crete has been shaped by forces outside its control. A tsunami resulting from the volcanic eruption on Santorini (ancient Thera) in 1500 B.C. destroyed the Minoan palace of Knossos, and there have been other geological disasters. A massive earthquake in the 9th century A.D. was caused by the collision of two tectonic plates beneath the Aegean Sea, and the resulting tidal wave, suddenly raised the sea level of the ancient port of Lissos on Crete’s south-west coast by ten metres. The city never recovered.

Ancient olive tree amid the ruins of Lissos

Lissos had been an important and prosperous place, famous for its temple of Asklepios, the god of healing. For me, Asklepios’ temples always exude an aura of peace and serenity – and I hoped that this temple would be the same.  Nowadays, you can only reach it by boat, unless you prefer a 90 minutes hike over a mountain.

Captain George’s boat; note small wooden jetty, bottom right

We took the short ten minutes boat trip to Lissos with Captain George, which reminded me of how travel used to be: eleven people (plus Captain George) were crammed onto the boat which shot off at a tremendous speed, the wash shooting up behind it. It was very exciting; a feeling heightened by noticing that there were no life belts. The small wooden jetty was obviously hand-made and wobbled alarmingly.

We landed safely, though some of us had to crawl off, in a small cove covered with large smooth pebbles, which were difficult to walk on – and found a party of nude Germans sunbathing. Being a mainly British group we skirted politely round them.

The sacred spring

Once through the pebbles, we found a sandy path which lead up the hill towards a sacred spring, where you still get water. It is set amid olives and lentisk and, yes, the atmosphere had that indescribable aura of peace. The roughly central brown patch two thirds down the photo indicates where water comes out into a stone basin.

 Stairs going up to the temple

There’s something about climbing crumbling stairs up to a once sacred site that makes me feel that I am on a pilgrimage. It is not easy to get there; stones slip and slide beneath my feet. I reminded myself that the temple was destroyed over a thousand years ago; it was surely something of a miracle that it had survived at all.

The temple from the outside

As you can see, it is a small temple. We were told that, originally, the temple had various ancillary spaces: a bath, a portico, accommodation for the priest and guests, and so on. This was a place of healing and the priests took their duties seriously.

The first question a priest asked a patient was, ‘Which God have you offended?’ A question which is more psychologically insightful that you might think. Once that had been established, the treatment could begin.

An inscription on one of the temple stones

An archaeological excavation found various marble statues but, unfortunately, none remain in situ. You can see inscriptions from grateful patients carved into some of the stones.

Remains of the mosaic inside the temple

Looking rounds the site, we could just make out the rock cut dwellings in the mountain cliff face opposite used by Christians fleeing persecution  during the Ottoman era (1669-1898).

Making our way back to Captain George’s boat

It was time to go; Captain George’s boat was due. As I negotiated my way back over the stones, I thought about the cyclical nature of history. Crete is in an important strategic position – a valuable staging post for any military commander with ambitions to conquer North Africa – and the island has suffered many invasions. The Venetians had ruled Crete from the early 13th century until the Ottomans arrived.  The Germans invaded Crete during the Second World War but never succeeded in subduing the partisans who fled, like their ancestors, to the mountains and continued their guerrilla tactics from there.

Lissos has been a place of sanctuary for many people for many different reasons.

Elizabeth travelled with Andante Travels: www.andantetravels.com

Elizabeth Hawksley

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4 thoughts on “Hidden Crete: The Temple of Lissos”

  1. I’ve always thought of Crete as exotic. Features in songs and myths. The Cretan Bull – the second Theseus story, isn’t it? Mary Renault’s The Bull Must Die featured Crete, if I remember rightly. It’s a bit like Capri – sounds exotic too. Very interesting to read of the temple remains – love that mosaic – and the feel of peace within. Envy you that trip.

    1. Thank you, Elizabeth. I particularly loved being up in the mountains and seeing archaeological sites which are little visited. The weather was great, too, which always helps.

    2. “The King must Die” and “The Bull from the Sea” are the two Renault novels about Theseus in Crete. Though now I come to think about it, the bull DID die so your title is very appropriate Elizabeth!
      How lovely to visit such peaceful and hard to reach sites with a small group. And what a rich layering of history.

      1. Thank you for your comment, Pauline. I remember reading Mary Renault’s two books on the Theseus legends when I first visited Knossos about thirty years ago. A terrific writer.

        This time, I was at the opposite end of the island and up in the White Mountains near where Patrick Leigh Fermor kidnapped a German general during World War II! Another terrific story.

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