03 July 2017

Finding one of the oldest
basilicas in Crete on
a hot Sunday afternoon

The harbour in Panormos during the heatwave in Crete that continued on Sunday (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

There has been a long heatwave here in Crete, but everyone says it is coming to an end this week. On Sunday afternoon, two of us caught a bus from Rethymnon out to Panormos to enjoy the summer sunshine and to take advantage of the end of the heatwave – knowing we are probably not going to have an opportunity like this in Ireland for the rest of this summer.

Panormos is a small coastal village with about 400 residents, and about 25 km east of Rethymnon, just off the national road. The village has developed into a tourist resort in recent years, with hotels, apartments, restaurants, tavernas, coffee shops and tourist shops.

But Panormos has kept its atmosphere as small harbour, serving local fishing crews. After lunch in the Agkyra, overlooking the harbour, we sat on the terrace in the shade for what seemed like hours of uninterrupted bliss, sipping coffee, reading books and watching life in the harbour below.

Inside Saint George’s Church in Panormos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Agkyra (Αγκυρα, Ancyra) means anchor in Greek, and the large anchor that gives this restaurant its name rests on one of the harbour walls, beneath a Greek flag that was sadly frayed but determinedly fluttering in the sea breeze, almost like the present state of the frayed Greek economy and society that is frayed and fluttering but still determined to live life to its fullness.

Below us in the harbour, in the small sandy horseshoe bay, people were swimming in the clear water, and a few boats were aimlessly enjoying the day. On the other side of the harbour wall, there was a smaller and quieter pebble beach.

It was as though we had dropped anchor on the terrace at Agkyra for the afternoon.

Later, as the afternoon temperatures began to ease just a little, we visited Saint George’s Church above the harbour, and I then set out to find the site of Aghia Sophia, which was once one of the largest basilicas in Crete.

Panormos may date back to at least the first century BC, but the basilica is the main site of archaeological interest in the village, and is a short climb away, reached by passing under the bridge that carries the main road and continuing along a side road for another two or three minutes. The site is fenced off and there are few signs indicating its importance.

In the west, the word basilica is associated with a church that has received a specific papal recognition. But in the Orthodox Church, the word basilica is an architectural description used for churches built in an ancient style, and it makes no claims about the importance of a church or the priests associated with it.

Greek basilicas may be single-naved, or have the nave flanked by one or two pairs of lower aisles. If a basilica has a dome in the centre it is called a domed basilica. Indeed, in Romanian the word for a church – both as a building and as an institution – is biserică, derived from the word basilica.

The site of the Basilica of Aghia Sofia is a five-minute walk from the village of Panormos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The Basilica of Aghia Sofia, just five minutes south-west of the village of Panormos, was uncovered following research by the theologian Konstantinos Kalokiris. The site was excavated in 1948-1955 by the archaeologist Professor N. Platonas.

According to the archaeologists, this was the seat of the Diocese of Eleftherna, which transferred there after the destruction of the ancient city of Panormos. In time, the name Aghia Sophia was given to the entire area around the basilica.

Like most coastal basilicas of that era, this basilica was built in the fifth and sixth centuries, and was once one of the largest in Crete, measuring 54 metres in length and 23 metres in width, with a wooden roof.

This was a basilica with a nave, two aisles, a simple apse and a transept that gave it the shape of an archaic cross (†). The large dimensions are evidence that Panormos was once a powerful city. This may have been the seat of the Diocese of Avlopotamos, although it is likely to have been the Diocese of Eleftherna, which was moved here after the destruction of the city.

The aisles were separated by tall base blocks that supported four Corinthian and Ionic columns. The basilica had pebble and slab floors, and a small container filled with bones found under the chancel floor may have been a foundation deposit.

In front of the church, at right angles to the aisles, there is a narthex and an atrium that had a Corinthian colonnade around a cistern and that may have been a baptistery.

The findings during the excavation included marble and limestone parts of the building, including Ionian and Corinthian columns, capitals and parapets, embossed ivy and fig tree leaves, and parts of a marble iconostasis. The discoveries also included coins, pottery and a large amount of glass pieces.

Aghia Sophia was violently destroyed during a Saracen raid in the seventh century. However, there is evidence that it continued to be used until the ninth century, according to coins from the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Leo VI the Wise (886-912) found on the site and minuscule inscriptions on pillars and slabs in the church.

In the 13th century, the Genoese pirate Enrico Pescatore built a castle at Panoromos before Crete was captured by the Venetians. The castle was maintained by the Venetians until the early 17th century, but no nothing remains at the site at the eastern end of the town.

A quiet summer Sunday afternoon in the backstreets of Panormos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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