This large plain area of central southern Crete is known as Messara and the river Geropotamos flows right through the province to the Bay of Messara / Libyan Sea just south of Tymbaki. To put some context into the archaeological sites in the Messara here is a brief chronological outline:
Neolithic – 6000 to 3000 BC.
Evidence from sites across the plain and beyond has been found in Gortyn, Phaistos, Agia Triada, Commos, Lendas, Miamou, and Kali Limenes, mainly around arable farming, animal husbandry and hunting.
Early (Minoan) Bronze Age – 3000 to 2000 BC.
Dense population is evident and unique funeral monuments have been found all over the area in the form of bee-hive tombs containing artefacts attesting to local wealth and lineage.
Middle (Minoan) Bronze Age – 2000 to 1200 BC.
The palace building era was well established and the distinctive ‘Kamares’ pottery was prevalent. This was the height of the Minoan civilisation and the period where their writing in the form of hieroglyphs is evident – the most famous being the Disc of Phaistos written in ‘Linear B’. Bee-hive tombs were still used to bury their dead with artefacts. The palace at Phaistos is believed to have been destroyed around 1700 BC. Possibly by an earthquake.
Late (Minoan) Bronze Age – 1600 to 1200BC.
The palace at Phaistos was rebuilt with even greater splendour and the villas at Agia Triada were built. A catastrophic event befell Phaistos and Agia Triada around 1450 BC., but occupation continued probably under the occupation of a Greek Archaean dynasty. The dead were now buried in clay sarcophagi and placed in tombs cut into the rock.
Dorian – 1100 to 67 BC.
The Dorians came to Crete establishing city states. They brought with them a new art form and erected monuments, specifically in Gortyn and Prinius. At Gortyn, the famous Law Code can be still be seen carved into face of the wall that has housed it since 450 BC. The Classical period (5th - 4th century BC.) and the Hellenistic period (3rd – 2nd century BC.) were contributed to in Crete by art and war.
Roman – 67 BC. to 323 AD.
Rome subjugated Crete and made Gortyn its capital. Roman art was established and the city flourished and extended across a huge area of some 20 square km. Trade was expanded and the harbour ports of Matala, Lebena and Lesela grew in prosperity. Matala has extensive Early Christian burial tombs cut into the cliff sides from this period.
Early Byzantine – 323 to 824 AD.
Crete became a province of the (Byzantine) Eastern Roman Empire with Gortyn as it’s capital, when the empire split into two regions.
Arab invasion – 824 to 960 AD.
Throughout this period, Saracens systematically sacked all the coastal settlements in Crete including Gortyn. Candia (present day Heraklion) became their new stronghold.
Second Byzantine – 960 to 1204 AD.
Crete was liberated and the Messara plain virtually uninhabited. Gortyn abandoned with Candia being the new capital.
Venetian Occupation – 1204 to 1669
After a brief domination by Genoa, Crete was subjugated by Venice. Over 460 years Venetian architecture became widespread and has left an indelible mark on the island. The Messara began to increase it’s population and the fertile plain became an important agricultural resource. The local inhabitants were treated as animals and there were many uprisings so that a revolutionary tradition was born among the Cretans. However, from 1445 Cretans and Venetians fought together against the Turks whilst the rest of the Christian world looked on.
Ottoman Occupation – 1669 to 1898
The Ottomans ruled Crete very harshly, repressing some 400 documented revolts. The Messara was the home of a renowned resistance brigade (the Hainides) and these were part of the Christian inhabitants (Palikares), although many Cretans converted to Islam under Turk iron oppression. There are many ‘secret’ churches dotted around Crete. Turkish landlords were assigned land across the plains and most Cretans lived in the mountainous areas or worked as virtual slaves for the oppressors. In 1822 Crete came under Egyptian rule for 25 years and during this period there were many individuals from Messara who led insurrections and are held as local heroes to this day. In 1832, modern Greece was established as a sovereign nation by with the help of the British and allies at the time, although Crete was left in Turkish hands. Throughout this period the Messara became the ‘Granary’ of Crete with most of it’s produce exported via Megalo Castro – the new name for Candia, now Heraklion.
Independence – 1898 to 1913
For fifteen years, Crete was it’s own ruler and became part of the sovereign nation of Greece after fierce negotiations.
2nd World War – 1939 to 1945
German airborne troops invaded Crete in May 1941. The initial battle was fierce and raged for 10 days with high casualties on both sides. The Cretans fought against this invasion alongside allied soldiers from Britain, Australia and New Zealand, but were defeated and a large-scale evacuation ensued over the mountains and from the beaches of southern Crete to ships and submarines offshore. Having the long lived tradition of resistance, the Cretans organised themselves, with assistance from allies who had not escaped the evacuation or been captured, into the ‘Andarte’. They maintained extreme pressure on the invaders with the help of the local population. Many atrocities are documented and Cretan people suffered unimaginable events. The occupation ended with the German surrender in 1945.
The Messara is a thriving region, which remains an important agricultural area including cereals, olive oil and wine. On the south side of the Asterousia mountains, exotic fruits are grown for local consumption and for export. Tourism has become more dominant as some of the local young turn their back on traditional agriculture and the mechanised world has caught up. There are some 80,000 inhabitants in the Messara region and increasingly more immigrants from other parts of the EU who are looking for a different way of life.
History of Matala
Matala certainly has roman roots and could well have been a Minoan fishing settlement before the Roman era. The ancient city of Gortyn (about 20km. East) was the provincial capital that covered the whole of Crete and much of North Africa. Matala was undoubtedly an anchorage and the port for Gortyn and reached quite a large size during the Roman period and was possibly named ‘Goula’.
The main feature in Matala is the famous caves cut into the sandstone cliffs. These are now known to have been early Christian burial tombs. More recently, they were inhabited by the ‘hippies’, who discovered Matala in the early 1960s. This was the birth of tourism for the area as the town became better known through all the publicity it received.
Today the hippies have all gone and the caves have been cleaned and cleared during excavation and they have been made into an archaeological site, where visitors can climb among and explore them. There is still one ‘hippy’ who has stayed on and now resides in the town. He is hard not to miss, although his aging years now confine him to the use of a wheelchair for much of the time.
There have been extensive archaeological excavations around the town, but much of the roman settlement with its civic edifices is now buried beneath the hotels, shops and tavernas of the present town. A good part of the ancient town also lies under the water in the cove. There is a large flat rock in the centre of the cove about 0.75m below the surface, which may well have been the original town square. Along the south side of the cove there is evidence of buildings submerged below the sea and it has been reported that there are remains of what could have been a dry-dock for sizeable ships of that era. There is little evidence in the modern town of Roman architecture except for some large granite columns – three are located in the car park, holding back the sand and one outside a taverna near the town square. They are possibly the remains of an early Christian basilica that served the population who lived in the valley to the south and behind to the east, where excavations have revealed painted, lime plastered buildings with clay floor slabs and roof tiles along with appreciable quantities of marble. Large rectangular caverns have been carved into the rock on the south side of the cove, which may have been warehouses for wharf just below them.
As a Roman town with a relatively large population, it had its own water supply via an aqueduct that ran from the hills to the southeast. There are still intact sections of the conduit that can be seen coming down the valley. However, when the present sports field was constructed, a considerable length was lost, but the route can be traced to its source around 1km. into the hills.
There is also evidence of building structures near the summit of the path leading to Red Beach and the remains of a very small fort or look-out post, although there is no published information about them.
On the far points of the cove, both north and south there are ‘basins’ that have been cut out of the sandstone rock. They seem to have channels connecting them and the rocks have tilted somewhat since they were constructed. They are well above the current sea level and could well have been ‘farms’ for breeding murex sea-snails, which were highly prized for their intense purple dye in ancient times.