Olous, the sunken ancient city.
One kilometer east of Elounda, near the windmills on the peninsula of Spinalonga under the clear blue sea, sleeps the sunken ancient city of Olous. In today’s place name of Elounda lives the ancient Greek term ‘Olous’.
On a day with dormant winds and waves it is possible to see the ruins of the famous city under the water level, next to the chapel of Anlipsis.
Olous was one of the approximately one hundred cities, which existed in Crete already in the Minoan age from approximately 3,000 to 900 BC. Olous became later the port town of the Doric mountain town of Dreros, which controlled the north around today’s Neapoli during the first millennium BC. The city had a famous Apollo sanctuary with the bronze group of Leto, Apollo and Artemis, which are exhibited today in the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion.
The height of his power reached Olous between the 5th and 2nd century BC and had about 40,000 inhabitants. The city was on the same level as Lato, Gortys, Ierapitna (Ierapetra) and Driros.
At times during its history, the city was also ruled by Knossos, as witnessed by founded stone panels there.
Olous had good relations with Ierapitna, but in constant conflict with neighboring Lato.
Olous was a very lively and prosperous democratic community, and the election of a new mayor took place every year. The city was autonomous and had its own coins and water supplies.
All the gods and goddesses of Greek mythology were worshiped in Olous, but as in most of the cities of Crete, there were also local gods.
Each year there was a celebration in honor of a deity named Britomartis, which means ‘Sweet Virgin’ in a special Cretan dialect.
Many stories have been handed down about Britomartis. This includes one, in which the divine girl was so beautiful that King Minos was so enchanted by her that he always wanted her. Britomartis fled from the king, and after reaching the region of Olous, she threw herself into the sea to kill herself.
But she was caught by the nets of some fishermen and was taken to the city, and after hearing her story, the citizens decided that she really had to be a goddess to have survived these torments. So she became the goddess of Olous and the sculptor Daidalous created a great statue of her.
Another myth about the city is the story about the ‘Hundred Fountains’.
Since the inhabitants of the area were afraid of the many pirates who could steal their gold and treasures, they dug one hundred fountains on the mountains of Oxa, south of Elounda. Ninety-nine of the wells contain only water and were all found. The last remaining well will contain all the riches of the old town and has not yet been discovered.
Sunken in the sea
There are contradictory theories why Olous is sunk in the sea. One assumption is that the city was first destroyed by the volcanic eruption on Santorini in the year 1,540 BC.
Since the city still had a significant history and in any case still into the 2nd century BC., it is more likely that it is more or less naturally and slowly sunk. Until today, the east of Crete is continually declining, while the west continues to rise and the entire island slowly migrates westwards.
In the 4th century AD there was a significant ‘migration’ of Crete, when the east fell sharply and the West rose. Olous will finally be sunk, and the Spinalonga peninsula was only connected to the mainland by the marshy isthmus.
Some of the old artefacts found in the old town can be seen in the Archaeological Museum of Aghios Nikolaos.
Of the ruins, which date back to Roman times, there is still little to see, since from the 15th century the Venetians used everything they could find in the area – including the stones of the ancient ruins – to construct the salt-producing plants and the Fortress of Spinalonga.
Building walls and remains of the old port facilities can still be seen in the sea or under the water level. And even during the Byzantine rule, this area still had a certain importance, as there are ruins of a three-aisled basilica located behind the ‘Canal Bar’ (a restaurant behind the bridge near the mills).
The floor mosaics of the Basilica of Olous are among the best preserved on Crete, but are sometimes covered. It was built during the second half of the 5th century AD and originate from early Christian times. The mosaics show fishes and geometrical motifs, and two inscriptions preserved in fragments, which mention Theodoulos, Antaxios, and Helidoros as donors.
Probably many artifacts and parts of the ruins are still waiting under the earth or the sea bottom. Therefore the ground is under archaeological protection and it must neither be built nor dug.
On the dam across the Isthmus to the bridge is a long sandy beach and on the opposite side behind the old salt mines a pebble beach.
Also a visit to the ‘ Canal Bar’ with a wonderful view over the Gulf of Elounda and the Gulf of Mirabello is recommended during a visit of the area.
How to get to the chapel of Anlipsis at the ruins of Olous