Getting to Know Knossos

Well, we were finally able to get to the Minoan ruins at Knossos yesterday. Unfortunately, because we had to make the hour and a half drive to the ruins from Rethymnon back through Heraklion, we weren’t able to beat the tour buses to the site and it was quite busy by the time we got there. Traffic in Heraklion, the capital of Crete, is crazy.

After we got our tickets, a Greek woman named Ava approached us and asked if we would like to join a small tour that she was guiding. Knossos is known for being a labyrinth, literally (the myth of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth spring from this place), so we said yes and joined Ava and a group of Canadians for an hour long tour of the ruins.

Ava was a great guide, very animated:

The Minoan civilization is the oldest in Europe and it existed entirely on Crete and nearby Aegean islands, reaching its peak between 2,000 B.C. and 1,500 B.C. The Palace at Knossos was believed to have been the administrative and religious center of the Minoans; essentially, its capital.

The ruins were not discovered until the late 1800s and excavation did not begin until around 1900 when a Brit by the name of Sir Arthur Evans gave 30 years of his life and most of his fortune to the work of uncovering and partially restoring the Palace.

The ruins of the Palace at Knossos were mostly foundations and some lower walls, revealing around 1,300 individual rooms.

Evans was able to uncover a number of frescoes during his excavations, all of which are now in the Archeological Museum in Heraklion which we were not able to get into, but there are copies in the restored ruins at Knossos, like this one:

Evans believed that he found enough evidence in the ruins and frescoes to accurately reconstruct the original Palace, so he set out to do so. Most of what the public sees at Knossos is actually Evan’s reconstruction, rather than actual 4,000 year old ruins, but it does give you a sense of what the palace must have looked like. Here are a couple of Evans’ reconstructions, built on the original Minoan foundations.

Ava was very adept at taking us to those parts of the Palace that were bypassed by the crowds, but worthy of our attention.

We were especially impressed by the giant ceramic pots that were used to store olive oil and wine. The Minoans were great traders and these were their main exports.

But we opted to skip the throne room, a favorite of the tour bus crowd; here’s the line for it:

We ended the tour in the Theater, which you can see is quite different from the Greek and Roman Theaters. The Minoan Theater is lower, and square, instead of semicircular.

Ava told us that the Minoan civilization came to an end because the Mycenaens invaded and conquered them. She pointed out that, unlike the Mycenaens, Greeks and Romans, the Minoans were peaceful and did not build city defenses like city walls or fortresses.

But most of the articles I read told a different story which I find to be better substantiated and more probable. The Minoans were peaceful, being traders rather than warriors, but they had a sizeable fleet that defended their island nation from invasion. The Minoans had four major cities: three of which (including Knossos) were on the north side of Crete; the fourth, Phaistos, was on the south side. Knossos, the largest, was also the highest, built in the hills above the harbor where the Minoan fleet normally sat at anchor when not at sea.

It is known with certainty that sometime between 1600 B.C. and 1500 B.C., the volcano at Santorini – an island just north of Crete – exploded with a force that was more than four times that of the great volcanic eruption of Krakatoa. It is believed that the earthquakes from the eruption of Santorini caused all four Minoan cities to collapse and the tsunami that spread south from Santorini to the north coast of Crete, believed to have been as high as 60 feet, destroyed the Minoan fleet, the two lower Minoan cities on the north coast, and all the agricultural fields on the north of Crete (there is also a belief that the tsunami wrapped around Crete and rebounded off of Egypt to cause damage to Phaistos on the south side of Crete, as well).

Thus, weakened, the surviving Minoans abandoned the ruins of their cities and the Mycenaens, seeing an opportunity, sailed for Crete and occupied Knossos, which they then partially rebuilt and held for several hundred more years.

One of the things that is pointed out in support of the theory that the Minoan civilization came to an end because of a Mycenaen attack, rather than as a result of the volcano and tsunami, is the fact that the ruins show evidence of being burned, which you can see in the lower part of the photo of the storerooms, below.

But, today I talked with a curator at Phaistos who had worked on a couple Cretan archeological digs and he was of the opinion that the earthquakes associated with the volcano caused the Palace at Knossos to collapse and catch fire, likely due to the olive oil in the storerooms below the Palace igniting from torches used in the floors above for lighting.

At any rate, whatever brought about the end of the Minoan civilization is still, officially, a mystery.

But there’s no doubt that the Minoans were way ahead of their time in many ways, including engineering, construction, design and fashion.

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