New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
Not a gorgeous beach or a citadel high on a hill, but a mysterious rise on a plain, the Isle of Gla in Boeotia, with its raw stone outlines of life and ritual from Greece’s deep past is one of the most affecting places that I have been, in Greece, or anywhere. Gla (“fortification” in Albanian) has a strange name; it is also said to be one of the strangest prehistoric sites in Greece.
Silent now except for the buzz of bees on a hot afternoon, aromatic with sage and fennel but without a house or tree, prehistoric Gla, Paliokastro in modern times (said an off-the-track goatherd who roamed the site with us) was the largest of Greece’s Bronze Age palaces, or citadels—about 10 times larger than the Mycenaean citadels of Athens or Tiryns—but it is the least known. Because Gla’s ancient name is unknown, it is also unknown whether Gla, which dates to 1300 BC, with a 3,300-year history for the area in total, is mentioned in the Iliad under another name. Some scholars say yes, suggesting that Gla might be one of the Boeotian places named by Homer, perhaps Arne. Gla, with its unknown name, may have been a principality of the Minyans, a pre-Hellenic people who descended to Thessaly into Boeotia and formed part of a system fortifications guarding the shores of the lake.
Spotted by chance on the way to Delphi and eventually reached by a short dirt road less than a mile long, the prehistoric Isle of Gla, once washed by the shallow waters of the now drained Lake Kopais is a natural curiosity: a two-mile circumference of Cyclopean walls without towers follows the contours of the cliff; in many locations, the walls are built directly on the cliffs that form the limits of the isle.
Excavation has revealed much detail about the fortification walls, and remains of buildings from the Mycenaean period in the interior, all conveying vitality and power. The walls are built of medium-sized limestone blocks; their total length is 2.8 kilometers, they are up to 6.75 meters wide, and 3-5 meters high. Gla had four gates, an unusually high number of gates for a Mycenaean fortification, in the north, west, south and southeast, and elaborately built ramps leading to the gates. There is a ramp on the north, flanked by two defensive buttresses. All suggesting vitality and power. And innovation: a feature of the buildings at Gla is the discovery of fired pan and cover tiles, suggesting that some Mycenaean buildings already featured pitched, tiled roofs like those known from Classical antiquity.
Gla has many mysteries. Much of the area within the walls of Gla is vacant, suggesting to archaeologists that Gla may have served as a refuge for farmers in the area of Lake Kopais in the event of attack. This also implies that the land dominated by the citadel of Gla served as the “bread basket” of the Mycenaean world.
At about the same time that Gla was built, Lake Kopais, the largest lake in southern Greece, was drained by a system of dams and canals, creating a large fertile plain, in one of the most astonishing achievements of prehistoric engineering. This drainage system collapsed from destruction or neglect at or after the end of Mycenaean civilization, and in Classical antiquity, the lake existed again. Lake Kopais was drained a second time in the 19th century.
The most striking interior feature at Gla is a large L-shaped building, often described as a “palace”. It is in the north of the site, which is subdivided by several internal walls in this area. The “palace” is located on an artificial terrace and consists of three wings. Each of the wings contains mostly very small rooms, arranged in groups of six and accessed by corridors. At the two ends of the L, there are similar arrangements of rooms resembling the megaton complexes known from Tiryns, Mycenae, Dimini and Pylos. Nevertheless, the lack of several typical features of other Mycenaean palaces, namely of a “throne room”, a (circular) hearth and a “bathroom” casts some doubt on the designation of the structure as a palace.
Another mystery: two further Mycenaean architectural complexes were found further south, in the area of the so-called “agora” of Gla which is separated from the “palace area” by a wall. The two complexes are parallel to each other and have similar plans. In each, a long corridor links buildings in the north and south of the complex that are subdivided into small rooms which may have been used as barracks, storage spaces/distribution centers, or workshops. The discovery of large amounts of carbonized grain (probably burned during the destruction of the site) in one of the buildings supports the storage room theory.
Like Mycenae, Tiryns and Pylos, Gla came to a violent end by fire, probably in the 12th century BC.