We were a bit disappointed at the Minoan ruins we visited in both Gortyna and Phaestos. I mean, who wouldn’t be? We had just returned from Egypt, land of the most incredible and complete ancient ruins anywhere in the world. OK, that is a bit superlative, but the magnificence of Egypt definitely colored our visits to theses sites as well as to Knossos. We’ve been spoiled!
Many see the Minoans as the beginning of the Greek civilization. People have lived here in Crete for a long time, as far back as 7000 BC as Neolithic communities. Minoan civilization is divided up into three periods of time, which roughly correlate with Egyptian kingdoms: Early (3000-2100 BC), Middle (2100-1500), and Late (1500-1100 BC). The ruins at Knossos, just south of Heraklion, contain elements of all three periods but the palace reconstruction here is based upon ruins from the Middle period, the height of Minoan art and culture. The name Minoan was given to this culture by British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans after the mythological character King Minos of Crete. His was the city of the legendary palace and labyrinth designed by the architect Daedalus. In this labyrinth lived the Minotaur who was fed a dozen or so Athenian youth each year at the Spring Equinox as tribute to King Minos’ rule. One can ascertain by legend that Crete was a powerful place. At any rate, Evans named this culture after that story; we have no idea what these people really called themselves. Nor do we have any evidence to corroborate the story of Minos and the Minotaur, unless you look at the unruly mess of ruins as a maze of some sort. Maybe the story is based upon the ruins of the palace?
Knossos is the ancient capital of the Minoan civilization, if there ever really was such a thing as a capital for this culture. The trouble with studying Minoan culture is that we actually know very little about it. Everything we read at this site is listed with a qualifier. Around 1900, Sir Arthur Evans discovered this site at Knossos. It is a huge site covering over 20,000 square meters. He spent more than 30 years and 250,000 British Pounds uncovering and then restoring the site. The problem was, and still is, did he know enough about Knossos to accurately rebuild the palace? He used cement to reconstruct much of what we picture as Knossos. The reality is that the remains were a wreck. Some of the buildings here predate the great Pyramids of Giza, but unlike Egyptian antiquities, these have been subjected to millennia of weather - harsh weather. We have experienced a bit of the rain, wind and snow that this island receives. Yes, I said snow! The weathering and warring that Knossos underwent these past 4,500 years have left no stone unturned. The original stones that are still exposed to the elements are eroded beyond usefulness. So the big question is, what exactly did Evans rebuild? Many critics believe he had romanticized ideas about the Minoans. His reconstruction seems largely influenced by the way Roman villas were arranged, which may or not have been the way things actually were here. It sounds like he let his own cultural lens steer the way he rebuilt Knossos as opposed to allowing the culture to uncover itself. His rushed efforts have left us with a Knossos that may never have been, and because of the materials he used in its reconstruction, a Knossos we might never be able to know. The new and the old are tangled into a knot that may never be undone.
As I looked around the palace grounds I was constantly doubting the reconstruction; were these ruins an original foundation or a guestimated reconstruction? An idea of a column might be based upon a tiny fragment of marble at the base. Anything with original color, including all those famous frescoes, have been reconstructed and moved to the Archaeological Museum of Iraklio. Knossos is filled with replacements that are overly redone. Remember none of this was in one piece and many pieces are missing. It all seemed a bit misleading. But all the same very imaginative and interesting. We all agreed that you need a lot of imagination to make any sense of these ruins.
Something else that makes this culture so hard to get to know is the fact that there is a great deal of difficulty reading any of the early wrtings. There are three types of writing from the Minoan period. Linear B is an early Greek form that has been partially deciphered from tablets found at Knossos. From these we know a little about the inventory of supplies and trade related to palace life, but so far linguists have been unable to translate anything related to Minoan history of daily life. Linear A is an even older script from this culture that has not been translated. And then there’s the famous Phaestos disk with its mysterious undeciphered markings. So much unknown and so few clues.
In addition to weather and wars the island of Crete is regularly subjected to geologic activity. There is evidence that the palace at Knossos was destroyed by earthquakes, fires, and volcanic fall-out from Mt. Thera on the island of Santorini. And not just once but several times beginning in 1700 BC through the palaces’ apparent abandonment around 1400 BC. It just so happens that Crete lies at the intersection of three major continental plates: the Eurasian, African, and the Arabian. These three push against each other causing pressure to build and release in the form earthquakes and volcanoes. The region has seen more than 20,000 quakes in the past 40 years. In 1999 two devastating quakes rocked this region: one in Athens killing 139 and a huge 7.4 quake that hit Turkey killing 40,000.
One aspect of Knossos’ destruction that I am particularly interested in came in the form of a tsunami tidal wave following the eruption of Santorini around 1440 BC. I have read estimates that this tidal surge may have been as high as 500 feet and surged deep into the heart of the northern coast of Crete up to the palace of Knossos. Minoan military strength would have been decimated since the majority of Crete’s power rested in the strength of its navy, which at this time was based along this same northern coast at Knossos. It is shortly after this date that Minoan culture fades from its position of power and influence over the region. Cool!