Ancient City of Gortyn

Ancient Gortyn: Unearthing the City of Power and Law 

The city of ancient Gortyn, located in the gorgeous southern Heraklion district of Crete, is a monument to the island’s rich history and cultural legacy. Gortyn, with its intriguing ruins and significant historical value, provides insight into the political, social, and legal complexity of ancient Crete. In this article, we will look at the history, remarkable features, and enduring legacy of Gortyn. Gortyn, with its huge ruins and remarkable antiquities, provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to journey back in time and explore the heritage of a city that played an important role in the growth of Cretan and Mediterranean history.

Ancient Gortyn: Apollo temple
Ancient Gortyn: Apollo temple

Historical Background

Ancient Gortyn, which is thought to have been inhabited since Neolithic times, rose to prominence during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, flourishing as one of ancient Crete’s most powerful city-states. The city was important in the region’s political scene, and it was recognized for its large legal system, known as the “Great Code of Gortyn” or the “Gortyn Law Code”. Gortyn’s influence extended far beyond its borders, elevating it to the status of an important cultural and political center of the time. Also known as Gortyna, thrived as a political, economic, and cultural crossroads for many civilizations, like the Minoans, Mycenaeans, Dorians, and Romans.

Ancient Gortyn: Church of Saint Titos
Ancient Gortyn: Church of Saint Titos

Excavations and Discoveries

Excavations of Ancient Gortyn began in 1884 by the Italian School of Archaeology at Athens. The Gortyn site has unearthed a trove of archaeological relics that shed light on the city’s magnificence and socioeconomic institutions. The ruins display a variety of architectural styles that represent the city’s growth over time.

The Odeon, an ancient theater believed to have been built in the first century BCE, is the most visible structure at Gortyn. This well-preserved theater previously hosted dramatic plays and musical gatherings, providing insight into the ancient residents’ cultural and leisure activities.

Ancient Gortyn: Roman Theater, Odeon
Ancient Gortyn: Roman Theater, Odeon

The ruins of the Roman Agora, a busy marketplace, provide insights into Gortyn’s economic activities and commercial transactions.

The agora was the city’s heart, where merchants, traders, and townspeople gathered for business and social exchanges.

The Gortyn Law Code, one of the most complete legal systems in the ancient world, was also discovered.

This legal system, known as the “Gortyn Code Inscription”, is written on massive stone blocks and comprises over 600 lines of text covering laws and regulations pertaining to numerous elements of daily life, including family affairs, property conflicts, and criminal charges.

The Gortyn Law Code provides unique insights into ancient Crete’s social structure, morals, and legal processes.

Ancient Gortyn: Gortyn Law, Queen Inscription
Ancient Gortyn: Gortyn Law, Queen Inscription

Layout and Architecture

Ancient Gortyn’s well-preserved architecture and urban layout are two of its most notable qualities.

The city has an intricate network of streets, squares, and buildings that demonstrate its inhabitants’ skillful urban planning.

The Odeon, an ancient theater that once hosted concerts and gatherings, and the Praetorium, an administrative facility with Roman architectural elements, are two of its most prominent features.

Ancient Gortyn: Detail around the Theater
Ancient Gortyn: Detail around the Theater
Ancient Gortyn: Pretorium
Ancient Gortyn: The Praetorium

Highlights of ancient gortyn

Apart from the Odeon and the Agora, Gortyn boasts several other noteworthy structures.

The Praetorium, the seat of the Roman Governor of Crete, sits at the heart of Roman Gortyn. The Praetorium was constructed in the first century AD, although it was considerably remodeled throughout the next eight centuries.

The Temple of Pythian Apollo, a Doric-style temple, stands as a testament to the city’s religious devotion. Although partially ruined, the temple’s surviving elements hint at its former grandeur and significance.

Ancient Gortyn: Roman Baths (Thermae)
Ancient Gortyn: Roman Baths (Thermae)

In the same area, between the Agora and the temple of Apollo, are the ruins of the Roman baths (thermae). 

The Romans constructed their favorite spas wherever they went. They created a vast spa complex in Gortyn, which included auxiliary rooms and bathrooms.

Gortyn, like most Roman baths, had warm, intermediate, and cold baths. The spa remains in Gortyn have not been thoroughly excavated, but visitors may get a good impression of that part of the city.

Ancient Gortyn: Acropolis
Ancient Gortyn: Acropolis

The ruins of Gortyn’s acropolis are a short walk from the city, on top of the nearest hill.

It was originally populated, but following the Dorian invasion (1100 BC), it was defended with a polygonal wall with towers at each corner.

Excavated on the Acropolis are the ruins of a Byzantine basilica (6th century AD) constructed on top of an ancient Greek temple dedicated to Athena (7th century BC).

A temple of the Egyptian deities with the worship statues of Isis, Serapis and Anubis.

Ancient Gortyn: Remnants of the Egyptian Temple of Gortyn
Ancient Gortyn: Remnants of the Egyptian Temple of Gortyn

Behind the Roman theater is what has been called the “Queen of the Inscriptions“. These inscriptions are the laws of the city of Gortyn, which are inscribed in the Dorian dialect on large stone slabs and are still plainly visible.

The half-demolished three-aisled church consecrated to the first Bishop of Crete, Agios Titos, still survives inside the major archaeological site (next to the road). When the larger Saint Titus temple was destroyed, this temple was erected in the 6th–7th centuries and dedicated to Saint Titus.

A modest area near the parking lot has been established to store Gortyna’s Roman sculptures. The statue, which most likely depicts Emperor Antoninus the Pious.


Zeus and Europa

According to Greek mythology, Gortyn was the location of one of Zeus’ numerous affairs.

This myth revolves around the princess Europa, whose name has been given to the continent of Europe. Zeus stole Europa from Lebanon disguised as a bull, and they had an affair under a plane tree (platanus), which may still be seen in Gortys today.

Following this romance, three children were born: Minos, Rhadamanthys and Sarpedon, who became the monarchs of Crete’s three Minoan palaces.

The identification of Europa in this tale lends credence to the theory that the European continent’s civilization was born on the island of Crete. A colossal statue of Europa sitting on the back of a bull was discovered at the amphitheatre in Gortyn in the nineteenth century and is now in the collections of the British Museum. Many coins were found with Europa representations on the back, showing that the people honored Europa as a great goddess.

Ancient Gortyn: Platanus of Zeus and Europa
Ancient Gortyn: Platanus of Zeus and Europa
Ancient Gortyn: Statue of the Emperor Antoninus the Pious
Ancient Gortyn: Statue of the Emperor Antoninus the Pious

The Odyssey

According to Book III of Homer’s OdysseyMenelaus and his fleet of ships, returning home from the Trojan War, were blown off course to the Gortyn coastline.

Homer describes stormy seas that pushed the ships against a sharp reef, ultimately destroying many of the vessels but sparing the crew.

Preservation and Access

Efforts to preserve and safeguard Gortyn’s archaeological treasures are ongoing. Visitors have the opportunity to explore the site, walking in the footsteps of ancient inhabitants and immersing themselves in its historical ambiance. The Archaeological Museum of Heraklion also houses artifacts and information related to Gortyn, providing visitors with a deeper understanding of the city’s significance.

Connecting the Past and Present

As visitors wander through Ancient Gortyn’s streets and contemplate its ruins, they are reminded of the enduring connection between the past and the present. Gortyn’s legacy continues to influence the cultural fabric of modern Crete, contributing to the island’s identity and sense of heritage.

Additional informations for the site

45,5 kms from Heraklion.

The site has a Caffeteria & W.C.

Adults 6€, over 65 3€. Youth up to 18 and students, free.

Summer 08:00-20:00 daily.

Winter 08:00 - 15:00 daily.

Usually visitors stay in this area up to 1 hour and 30 minutes.

Available Wi - Fi.

Phone Number: +30 2892 03 1144

There are infrastructures for the handicap.

additional Photos featuring Gortyn

How to Get There

Visiting the ancient city of Gortyn in Heraklion, Crete, is a rewarding experience for history enthusiasts and travelers interested in archaeological sites. Here’s how you can get to the ancient city of Gortyn:

Starting Point: Heraklion: The typical starting point for visiting Gortyn is the city of Heraklion, which is the capital of Crete and a major transportation hub.

By Car: Renting a car is one of the most convenient ways to reach Gortyn. From Heraklion, you can take the National Road (E75) southward in the direction of Mires. After Mires, follow the signs to Gortyn. The drive takes approximately 1 to 1.5 hours, depending on traffic and road conditions.

By Public Transportation: While public transportation options exist, they may be less frequent and require transfers. Here’s a rough outline of the public transportation route:

Bus: From Heraklion, take a bus to the town of Mires. Buses operate from the KTEL Bus Station in Heraklion. The journey to Mires takes around 1.5 to 2 hours.

Transfer: From Mires, you’ll need to transfer to a local bus or taxi to reach Gortyn. Buses to Gortyn might have limited schedules, so it’s recommended to inquire about the timetable at the Mires bus station. Taxis are also an option.

Distance: The distance between Mires and Gortyn is relatively short, and the travel time should be around 15-20 minutes.


The ancient city of Gortyn is a testimony to ancient Crete’s political, social, and legal difficulties. Gortyn, with its spectacular ruins such as the Odeon, Agora, and the Gortyn Law Code, provides visitors with an enthralling excursion into the past. This archaeological site serves as a reminder of the island’s historical significance and the Cretan civilization’s continuing heritage. Exploring Gortyn allows us to appreciate Crete’s rich cultural legacy while also learning more about the socioeconomic structures and legal systems that created the ancient world. A visit to Gortyn is an immersive experience that transports guests back in time to a city of tremendous strength and significance.


Plan Your Visit!
Research the opening hours, admission fees, and any special events or guided tours available at the ancient site. This will help you make the most of your visit and avoid any surprises.
Comfortable Clothing and Footwear!
Wear comfortable and breathable clothing suitable for walking. Sturdy and comfortable walking shoes are essential, as you'll be exploring the archaeological site on uneven terrain.
Sun Protection & Hydration!
Crete can get sunny and hot, especially during the summer months. Wear a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen to protect yourself. Stay hydrated throughout your visit. Walking and exploring the site can be physically demanding, especially in warm weather.
Explore the Highlights!
Prioritize visiting key areas of the site, such as the Odeon, the Great Code Wall, and other significant structures. This will give you a comprehensive understanding of Gortyn's history.
Take Your Time!
Don't rush through the site. Take your time to soak in the atmosphere, appreciate the architecture, and imagine what life was like in ancient times.
Respect the Site!
Follow the site's rules and guidelines to preserve the historical integrity of the area. Refrain from touching or climbing on the ancient structures or artifacts.

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