According to the Greek Speleological Society, there are around three thousand caves scattered around Crete. Many of these caves are open to the public and they make the difference to the island’s scenery.
People lived in caves thousands of years ago. But in Crete, caves were more than a natural shelter. Originally, they were used as religious centres (from around 2600 BC to 1100 BC). At the time, the ancient Minoans were a polytheistic society who worshipped several deities, primarily goddesses. This is the main reason that the temples, which were eventually common in Ancient Greece, didn’t exist on Crete.
During the Byzantine era, they were converted to ascetic communities and later they were used as shelters during the struggle for the Cretan independence.
Here is an overview of only some, very well-known ones.
Dhiktean Cave (also known as Psychro) – Birthplace of Zeus
The Dhiktean Cave is located in Lasithi.
Even if there are a few conflicting reports about where Zeus was born and raised, it was here that Rhea gave birth to the “father of gods”.
According to the myth, his father, Kronos, had received a warning telling that he was fated to be defeated by his children. For this reason, Kronos used to eat all his children. When Zeus was born, his mother Rhea hid baby-Zeus in the cave and left him under the protection of the Kouretes, who would beat their shields outside the cave so as to prevent Kronos hearing Zeus’ cries.
The Dhiktean cave was certainly a cult centre, as explorations brought to light offerings made to Zeus and to Mother Goddess.
Nowadays is quite easy for someone to explore the cave.
According to legend, the Labyrinth was constructed to house the Minotaur, a creature that was part man and part bull. According to the same myth, Labyrinth was an elaborate maze, constructed by Daedalus, the master craftsman.
Even though the Labyrinth does not seem to be a historical reality, many people found in the narrow corridors of the desolate Gortyna mine admit to hearing a wild animal mongering. Since then, this place has been named Minotaur’s cave, which of course is not scientifically proven.
But it is true that the Germans built here the largest ammunition depot in the Eastern Mediterranean. In 1944, when they left Crete, they blast the entrances so that the munitions do not fall into their hands. After 1981, studies from speleologists began.
The Sfentoni Cave (also known as Zoniana)
The Sfentoni Cave is located into a well-hidden place of Mount Psiloritis, at Rethymno.
Till now, it remains the largest Cretan cave complex, open to the public. That is why it is not allowed to explore the cave without a guide. Impressive stalactites and stalagmites are to be seen all over the cave, most of them over five million years old.
According to the legend, this cave was found by an eight-year-old girl. She was lured away by fairies, and finally, she was found dead in the depths of the cave.
The Melidoni Cave
The Melidoni Cave is very close to the Sfentoni cave (in the Prefecture of Rethymno) and keeps a separate place at the modern history of the island.
Back in 1824, during the early uprisings against the Ottomans, approximately 300 villagers took refuge in the cave. A Muslim commander sent two messengers but as this brought no results, the Ottomans blocked the entrance, cutting off the air supply. The refugees used to open new air passages every evening, till their enemies piled inflammable material at the mouth of the cave and set fire to it. That was the end.
Cave of the elephants.
It was accidentally discovered in 2000, by a local fisher during underwater fishing. This cave is a unique and of stunning beauty. It was the last home of a group of rare elephants, thousands of years ago. When the sea level rose, an unsurpassable wall of water blocked the access to this place, protecting it from man’s destructive interference.
White and red formations decorate the ceiling and floor. The entire surface is covered by water and the depth ranges from a few centimetres to 4m. Even though the cave was not always covered by water.
The fossilized bones which were found in this cave belonged to elephants and deer. The characteristics of the elephants of this cave were unique and scientists gave this specific type of elephant the name “Elephas Chaniensis”. The age of the Cretan Elephant is estimated between 50.000 and 60.000 years old and where it was possible, the bones were taken to the Department of Historical Geology and Paleontology of the University of Athens.
Of course, on the island, there are many more caves. Caves with rich decoration, of high speleological and ecological significance, open to visitors or not, bigger or smaller, but all of them unique parts of the same network of the more than 4.500 mapped caves and sinkholes of the island.
Would you like to find out more? Then follow the link.