Mysterious Knossos

If you travel to Crete without visiting Knossos, you are missing out on the best part, the island’s most emblematic, mysterious, amazing, and largest archeological site, the former political and religious center of the Minoan culture, dating all the way from the Bronze Age. The ruins of the giant Minoan palace at Knossos, only 5 km from Heraklion, are the main tourist attraction on the island of Crete.
Sir Arthur Evans, whose statue lies proudly in front of the Heraklion Museum, was the one who unearthed the remnants of the Palace of Knossos in 1900, presenting the world with the Minoan civilization, one of Europe’s earliest, most intricate, and most enigmatic cultures. The excavations continued for 35 years, during which time most expenses were supported by the archeologist himself. The remarkable palace as its stands today was reconstructed using the original materials the team unveiled. Evans named his remarkable discovery the Minoan civilization, after the legendary king Minos.
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Evans’ extraordinary intuition told him to retrace the legend of the Minotaur. According to the ancient myth, Zeus fell in love with beautiful Europa, daughter of the Phoenician king, whom he abducted by taking the form of a strong white bull, bringing her to Crete. Their union produced three sons. One of them was Minos, who asked for Poseidon’s help to take over the throne of Crete. The God of the Sea sent a bull from the depths of the seas to convince the people of Minos’ divine origins, thus landing him the throne. But Minos did not keep his end of the bargain, which was to sacrifice the bull in honor of the god, stirring Poseidon’s wrath. Poseidon took vengeance by making Minos’ wife fall in love with the bull, and their union gave birth to the legendary Minotaur, a creature with the head of a bull and the body of a human. Minos locked away the Minotaur in a giant labyrinth built by Daedalus under the place. Each year, it was given 7 young girls and 7 young boys as sacrifice, all brought from Athens. Theseus, son of Athenian king Aegeus, decided to go to Knossos together with the youngsters that were to be sacrificed and slay the Minotaur. With the help of Ariadne, Minos’ daughter, who gave him a ball of wool so he wouldn’t get lost, Theseus entered the labyrinth and killed the monster. The hero returned to Athens in glory only to find out that his father had killed himself by jumping into the sea, believing his son had been sacrificed for the Minotaur, thus giving his name to the Aegean Sea.
Evans was convinced the artifacts he discovered at the site matched the legend of the Minotaur, and the tortuous chambers under the palace and narrow corridors were indeed a vast maze. Among the many objects found during the excavations, bulls, bull horns, and minotaur miniatures obsessively surfaced. Diggings supplied written documents over a millennium older than the Greek sources of the archaic era. Evans spent a fortune on reconstructing the palace, restoring and preserving the architectural complex conventionally known as Minos’ Palace.
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The Minoan civilization had a relatively short life, between 2600 and 1000 BC, their flourishing periods sharply curtailed by catastrophes, most likely earthquakes. It reached its peak around 1500 BC, only to perish due to a violent earthquake that preceded a volcanic eruption that has yet to be matched to this day – Thera Volcano, now known as Santorini. How the civilization came to be in the first place and the reasons for its sudden flourishing periods remain a mystery.
Minos’ Palace and the Minoan civilization are extremely valuable discoveries that offer a new perspective over Europe’s ancient history. The frescoes found in the palace provide an insight on the manners, crafts, and concerns of the people of those times, while the beauty and grandeur of the queen’s apartments stand as proof to the position of women in the society of those days. Cretan women were considered equal to men and, as the extraordinary still-intact frescoes tel us, participated in public activities, sports competitions, and could access positions in the citadel’s administrations. Divinities were worshiped in special altars, caves or mountain tops. During religious celebrations sacrifices were brought to the gods and bull fights were organized. The sacred symbols of the Minoan religion were the bull, the snake goddess, the double horns, and the double ax.
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Minos’s Palace extends over a considerable surface. It took us more than half a day to visit the site. The palace presents itself as a series of chambers, all oriented toward the interior, the megaron, which stands as the main principle of Minoan architecture. Around the main megaron, paved with stone tiles, there are numerous representation rooms, the Throne Room being among the best preserved. The stone flooring was once painted in red, benches were placed along the walls, and in the very middle the famous limestone throne sat with a painting above depicting griffins that stood to protect the king. The imposing stairs with white steps and red columns narrowing toward the base, the Hall of the Double Axes (its name given by the frequent representations of the weapon on the stone blocks), the Queen’s Megaron, the white tile paved floors, the many multicolored frescoes, all seem to convince us that life still flows within these walls. The pottery workshops, stone processing, and storage rooms were found in the north-west wing. Outside the palace lie the ruins of the theater with the oldest stage in Europe, where representations of a both cultural and secular nature were once held.
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The palace was repeatedly destroyed by earthquakes and underwent a series of reconstructions that ultimately led to the chambers being disposed like a labyrinth, reaching perfection between 1800 and 1400 BC. General knowledge of palatial architecture remains incomplete due to the advanced stage of decay in which the buildings were found, preserving only the basement and ground floor which cannot offer a clear image of how the upstairs apartments looked like. The architectural ensemble was imposing not only through its beauty, but also thanks to its functionality and care for hygiene. There were bathrooms, sewage system, toilets, skylights, unique architectural features in the Ancient Orient. With the fall of the Minoan civilization it wasn’t until the Roman palaces and villas that the same degree of comfort was once again matched. No walls or any kind of fortifications were built around the Minoan palace, as opposed to continental Greece where sovereigns were protected by cyclopean fortresses. It seems as if a millennial peace reigned over Crete up until the catastrophe around 1450, when the Minoan palaces were destroyed and never rebuilt again.
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The Minoan culture is renowned for its colorful and elaborate fresco portraits. The paintings depict a surprisingly non-military society. Mural paintings and finery do not celebrate the war, but present scenes of women and men engaged in peaceful activities like fishing and gardening, and the frescoes portray athletics competitions like bull leaping, a Minoan ritual in which the youngsters perform acrobatics on bulls. It was at Knossos that Evans discovered the Bull-Leaping Fresco, depicting a scene that seems ripped off the stage of a circus carnival. Researchers found traces of the mythical bull everywhere. Bull leapers were carved in ivory and stone bowls were found shaped like the skull of a bull with golden horns. The Fresco of the Lily Prince is the most valuable of all paintings found at Knossos and is believed to portray king Minos himself.
Minoan Crete is the legendary realm of absolute beauty, harmony, and refinement. It was one of human civilization’s greatest adventures, and despite its short and puzzling existence, it remains a glimmer of hope in humanity’s agitated past.


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