Koufonissi island or Lefki (White) is located lies in the Libyan Sea, in south Lasithi. The island is uninhabited now, but is full of ruins that indicate human activity from the Early Minoan times to post-Byzantine years. The locals like to call Koufonisi as Delos of Crete, because of the significant antiquities that have been found.
Koufonissi is a small island in the Libyan Sea, 3.5 miles south of Cape Goudouras and 10 miles southeast of Makrigialos. The island is roughly six kilometres long and 5.5 kilometres across. It has an entire surface area of 5.25 km². Koufonissi is the largest of a cluster of 5 islands: Koufonisi, Makroulo, Strogilo, Trachila and Marmara.
The narrow but often wavy strip of sea separating the islands from the opposite shores of Crete was not an obstacle to the continued presence of human in ancient times. The island has beautiful sandy beaches, it is mainly covered with fine sand and the scenery is not very different from an African desert. Visitors can admire the beauty of white rocks next to the blue of the Libyan Sea and enjoy the tranquility of nature in turquoise waters. The landscapes alternate from the steep rocky shoreline, to the caves of yellow marl and the endless dunes.
The ancient name Lefki (meaning white), was given by the glint of white limestone and marl in the sunlight. Instead, the current name, Koufonissi (meaning Cave-Island), is related to the many pits and caves shaped by the sea and rain. According to a second stronger version, the name comes after the many rats of the island, which are called "koufa" by locals.
The prevailing vegetation is low, bushy, steppic and with many species, rare in the Greek and Cretan area. Characteristic species are Helianfhemmum stipulalum, the Lygeum spartum (grass of North Africa), Austragalus peregrinus (characteristic of the southern Mediterranean) and the rare Erodium classifolium, located at the northernmost point of its spread. Lastly, near the beaches, there are some tamarisk trees.
Koufonissi is a very important place for dozens of migratory birds. Some of the breeding species, apart from the common yellow-legged gull (Larus cacchinans), are seabirds such as Cory's shearwater (Calonectris diomedea), shearwater (Puffinus yelkouan), shag (phalacrocorax aristotelis desmarestii) and some raptors such as long-legged buzzard (Buteo rufinus), peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) and falcon (Falco eleonorae).
Aegean lizards (Podarcis erhardi cretensis) bask on the white rocks, while the Mediterranean seal (Monachus - monachus) appears rarely in the sea caves.
The trade of the Tyrian purple
The history of the islands is inextricably linked to the sponge fishing and processing of Tyrian purple, the red dye used by Ancients and Byzantines, which was extracted by the gastropod (Murex brandaris). As Aristotle and Pliny say, live shells were gathered on early autumn or winter and were then put in pots, until many of them were gathered, because each shell produced just one drop of dye. After that, the smaller shells were broken with stones. The larger mollusks were pierced and then a small gland called "flower" was extracted. Then, they put the milky liquid in salt, added a little vinegar and left this in the sunlight. Its color turned red from yellow and was then diluted or condensed with boiling. The dye, the Tyrian purple, was sold at that time as it weighed in silver. If they added hyacinth blooms, the color was violet, but it was considered of inferior quality.
The archaeological site
In 1976, excavations started on the island, bringing amazing findings in light. On the northwest edge of the island, at Anemertia, opposite of the Marmara islet, and a short distance from the beach, the excavations revealed a well preserved stone theater, the auditorium of which was damaged only on its west side, while a big part of the central seats has completely disappeared. The auditorium has twelve rows of seats and a maximum length of 34 m. The distance of the twelfth row till the orchestra floor reaches 6 m. It is estimated that the auditorium could take about 1000 people.
The orchestra, almost chamber, was paved with clay tiles. The stage, completely corrupt in its western part, should have a length of 20m while the width is estimated at about 9m. At the eastern end one can make out the paraskenion, the pulpitum or stage, the hyposkenion and also the east parados which was vaulted. The theater had rich decoration, what was vandalized. The theater was destroyed and burned with ferocity at the end of the 4th century.
East and south of the theater, the excavations revealed a settlement that seems to have been destroyed, such as the theater. Excavations have unearthed a large house or villa of which 8 proper rooms still exist. One enters through a small but impressive porch (propylon) facing the road which leads to the east parados of the theatre. The kitchens were identified and also the household workshop for the preparation of purple dye. Two formal rooms for entertaining were found with mosaic floors of black and white geometrical designs (based on the rhombus and the cross) framed by a surround. In the main part of the settlement other houses have been excavated; 16 rooms have been cleared - probably houses of fishermen, because installations for the preparation of purple dye were found and also fishing equipment such as hooks and lead weights for nets.
The most important building of the settlement - following the theater - is the imposing building of the Public Baths (Bali neae), which was in use from the 1st to the 4th AD century. The pathological love that Romans had for the public baths, combining physical cleaning with training and discussing, is well known. The Baths building was necessary not only in cities, also but in small dorps. In rich houses, there was a separate area, a miniature of the public Baths (Balinea), while the imperial Baths (Thermae) were famous for their luxury.
The Bath complex of Koufonisi includes all the spaces that followed the standards of the Roman Baths: Around a garden, there are rooms such as that for the central heating system (which’s walls are preserved at a height of 4 m), two hypocausts (perhaps for men and women separately), baths for sweating, warm, hot and cold bath and changing rooms. Luxury is still visible in some rooms, in the preserved parts of the marble floor and walls. The large number of vaulted tanks with pipelines is impressive. They were used to bring water from the springs located north of the Temple to the other side of the island.
In the south part of the island, there was found a temple, which unfortunately has suffered from predatory looting from the authorities (in 1920) in order to build a huge lighthouse, only 5m from the eastern short side of the temple where the entrance would have been, even though another stepped entrance was found on the north side.
The overall dimensions of the temple were 18m x 15,7m with a crepidoma, while next to the north-west corner two large pieces of the colossal cult statue of the temple seen were found. This represented a deity enthroned on a cube-shaped seat. The fragments found are: a part of the seat with the left side of the pelvis, and the right leg from the draped or folded waist of the garment down to the ankIe. Unfortunately it is very damaged, but it appears to be of the Hellenistic period and the height of the whole statue must have been over 2,50m. Visitors to the island, mainIy saiIors, have scratched names and dates onto the surfaces; one of the dates discernable is 1630.
The rest of the statue, however incredible it may seem, must have been broken up by the workmen and used as building material for the lighthouse (which was bombed in 1944). Here the lumps of marble can be seen wedged among the other stones, also the huge symmetrical blocks which were uprooted from the temple of which only the steps and the filling remain - even the flooring has disappeared.
As if all this were not enough, in more recent years, a metal automatic lighthouse pylon (now removed) had been set up over the fIoor of the temple, placed perhaps, who knows, by the ironical hand of fate right where the colossal statue of the deity, worshipped by the peopIe of Lefki, used to stand in all its splendour.
It is worth visiting the picturesque church of Saint Nikolaos, the guard of seamen. It is a small beautiful Christian church in the north part of the island.
Until 1976 shepherds used the island a sheep run, but there is no reference for permanent habitats in recent years. It is impressive that until late '70s, large quantities of grain were grown on the island. Today Koufonissi is a haven for fishermen during windy days.
In the last years the wealth of the history and the environment of Koufonissi has been recognized and studied. This knowledge and the beauty of the island are now offered to visitors as a gift that demands respect and protection.
There are boats running to Koufonissi from Makrigialos (10 miles), when the weather allows that, however if you have private boat, the nearest harbors are Goudouras and Atherinolakkos (3 miles). If you have a private boat, note that you should be very careful because the island is surrounded by many invisible reefs. The daily excursions start in the morning and the boats return to Makrigialos in the afternoon.
Walking through the island is easier and faster, if you follow the existing paths and the distance does not exceed one hour of walking. The visitor should have drinking water, and everything needed for one day in a warm, dry place without shade and without any infrastructure.