"And the first person known to us by tradition as having established a navy is Minos. He made himself master of what is now called the Hellenic sea, and ruled over the Cyclades, into most of which he sent the first colonies, expelling the Carians and appointing his own sons governors; and thus did his best to put down piracy in those waters, a necessary step to secure the revenues for his own use." ("The History of the Peloponnesian War", by Thucydides, translated by Richard Crawley. entire text available at the Internet Classics Archive)
King Minos was a legend even in ancient times, having preceded the Classical Greeks by more than a thousand years, and it was after him that the entire bronze age civilization of Crete took its name. It was named thus by the famed archaeologist Evans who excavated Knossos in the beginning of the 20th century BCE. His findings at the palace of Knossos helped redefine the historical record of Bronze age Greece and to fuel the imagination of generations of subsequent archaeologists who roamed Crete in search of more clues to this splendid civilization, the Minoans. Knossos is named in ancient Greek sources as the palace of the mighty king Minos.
Knossos is an expansive palace atop a low hill just a few kilometers outside Heraklion in Crete, and it seems to be the destination of just about every visitor who sets foot on the island. Justifiably so, because the splendor and flamboyance of prehistoric Cretans is a spectacle that establishes a proper historical perspective on the roots of western culture. The Minoans are credited as the first European civilization. Their orderly, peaceful, and commercial way of living influenced the Helladic (mainland) cultures of the time, and they, in turn transformed into Classical and Hellenistic Greece.
The palace of Knossos is the grandest of the four Minoan palaces that have been unearthed in Crete, and its complex architecture has been identified as the legendary "Labyrinth". The palace of Knossos was the stage for a plethora of fascinating myths in ancient Greece.
This is the palace that was built by the famed Architect Dedalus who after completing its construction was held prisoner by king Minos so he would be unable to divulge the palace's plan to anyone else. As the story goes, Dedalus and his son Ikaros constructed wings made of feathers and wax, and thus were able to fly off the island to freedom. In a tragic turn of events, during their escape youthful Ikaros soared higher and higher in the sky despite his wise father's advise. Getting close to the sun was his undoing as the heat melted the wax which held the wings together and he plunged to his death somewhere in the Aegean sea, near the island we now call "Ikaria".
Knossos was the place where the minotaur - a terrible monster with the body of a man and the head of a bull - lived to torment the bounty of six youths and six maidens who were sent by Athens every nine years in tribute to king Minos' hegemony. Knossos is the place where the Athenian hero Theseus put an end to this tradition by slaying the beast with the aid of the daughter of Minos, Ariadne, who fell in love with him and gave him a ball of thread which he unraveled as he entered the labyrinth, and followed on his way back towards the exit. As the legend goes, Theseus took Ariadne with him back to Athens but on the way there he abandoned her at Naxos where she was subsequently rescued by Bacchus. At the end of Theseus' voyage his triumphant return turned tragic when he forgot to change the sails from black to white causing his waiting father Aegeus to believe that his son was dead. Distraught he leapped to his death in the sea, which was named henceforth in his memory: Aegean.
As I walked the grounds of the palace during my visit I could not help but think that all the drama in these fantastic myths was certainly worthy of the architectural grandeur, but nowhere did I sense that this was indeed a place of violence. Instead, the architectural planes and multi-leveled spatial configurations could not have but housed a people who loved life and art. The palace, despite its riches had no defensive walls, and its chambers were dedicated to worship, statesmanship, commerce, and entertainment. Its multi-level volumes communicate with impressive staircases, and ramps, while all the spaces are intricately connected with long corridors, light wells, and tall pillars; Trully remarcable spacial organization for people who lived more than 3500 years ago!
The artifacts and the impressive wall paintings
that were found represent nature scenes, and abstract themes, consistent
with a culture that was closely dependent on its natural environment.
As we know now from excavations such as the Knossos
palace, the Minoans lived affluently in their vast island sheltered
by the sea, and by their impressive organizational skills. While
the island of Crete was more than capable of supporting the local
population, the ancient inhabitants of the island flourished through
an extensive commercial network which connected the major prehistoric
civilizations of Anatolia, the Middle East, Egypt, the Aegean
Islands, and the Helladic cultures of the Greek mainland.
The first archaeologist who excavated Knossos was (the appropriately named) Minos Kalokairinos who was a native of Crete and had already dug a few areas of the palace before Evans, unearthing in the process a wealth of artifacts that proved the existence of a previously unknown civilization. Kalokairinos began excavating Knossos in 1878, and he exposed among other areas part of the ante chamber of the Throne room with its red frescoes, and the third magazine of the west wing with its 12 plithoi which still contained peas, broad beans, and barley. Unfortunately all of Kalokairinos' finds along with his notes were destroyed by fire during the liberation of Crete from the Ottoman empire.
Arthur Evans had extensive contact with Kalokairinos, and he had seen the finds which fueled his determination to excavate the site after the Cretan parliament refused Kalokairinos a licence to dig the site. Evans began excavating on March 23, 1900 and what he unearthed changed the historical landscape of prehistoric Aegean, and defined the inhabitants of ancient Crete as a culture independent of their well known contemporaries. A people who cherished the harmony of nature, and who lived an affluent and joyous life.
What one sees at Knossos today is the result of extensive restorations that Evans undertook in order to reveal the splendor and complexity of the architecture. For this he has been criticized extensively, because many of his interventions, while educated, do not necessarily reflect a true reconstruction of the ancient palace. Admittedly, he took liberties with his "reconstitutions" and while the entire structure is accepted as closely reflecting the ancient reality, probably many of the details were born in the active mind of the passionate archaeologist during the rebuilding process.
Nonetheless, I was grateful that Evans did undergo the extensive reconstructions as I climbed the grand staircases of the palace. Without them it would have been impossible to comprehend the complexity of the architecture, and to imagine the flamboyant way of Minoan thinking.
While I personally prefer the raw historical record of minimal reconstructive intervention of places such Phaistos, Malia, Zakros, and Mycenae, the relative completeness of Knossos made me feel the excitation of a child who visits a theme park. Indeed, Knossos is in my mind a kind of Disney World of archaeological sites! It is an enchanting and magical place, full of history, reconstituted from reality and myth to fuel the imagination. It is a place where myth acquires a touch of reality, and where veracity gives birth to myth.
Never mind its flamboyant artifice. The palace of Knossos retains its dignity beyond the physical presence as a stage where mythical performances are constituted through its labyrinthine corridors. Its deserted sacred chambers echo mysterious chants through the millennia: A point of reference for all who yearn to discern where we come from, and where we go.
More info about the Minoan Civilization at ancient-greece.org