On the island of Crete, which lies nearer to the coast of Africa than to the Greek mainland, a brilliant civilization flourished from approximately 3650 to 1400 BCE. It was rediscovered at the beginning of the 20th century through the work of British archaeologist Arthur Evans and refers to the mythic King Minos. Minos was associated in Greek myth with the labyrinth and the Minotaur, which Evans placed at the largest Minoan site, Knossos.
The Minoans were the first Europeans to have a literate civilization. They were traders who built a colossal fleet and exported their products all over the Mediterranean: timber, wine, currants, olive oil, saffron and honey, herbs, exquisite pottery, jewellery, wool and cloth. They imported alabaster, precious stones, copper, ivory, gold and silver, as well as artistic ideas and techniques.
They built astonishing palaces decorated with amazing murals; the palaces, unusually, were lacking in fortifications since their choice of site provided natural protection. Also it is thought the Minoans managed to live for many centuries in contact with all the major civilizations of the time without being significantly threatened.
Urged by my grandchildren who are studying the Minoan civilization at school, we went on a two-day excursion to visit the ancient ruins at Knossos and Phaistos. Not nearly enough time to enjoy all that Crete has to offer, it was nevertheless a very interesting and enjoyable trip.
History was brought to life by our excellent guide, Maria, who illustrated the Minoans’ customs and answered every question. The kids were especially interested in the relationship of myth to history.
“Was the Minotaur ‘real’?”
“Where exactly was the labyrinth?”
On the way to Knossos from the airport they treated us to the entire story of the Minotaur, Daedalus and Icarus, etc. with a special focus on the gory bits, of which there are plenty!
Knossos was a huge palace (700 rooms over 5 floors have been excavated out of an estimated total of 1300-1500) with very complicated architecture (hence the labyrinth?) and enjoyed superb views over the surrounding countryside and the sea. Its walls were painted in bright colors and the floors and wainscoting were made of alabaster imported from Egypt.
The columns, made of cypress trunks, were wider at the top than the base.
The appartment walls were decorated with wonderful murals.
The Minoans had workshops which made delicate jewellery.
And even more delicate porcelain, known as Kamares vessels. (Καμαραϊκά αγγεία)
They had a theatre,
and a central courtyard where the famous bull games took place. These involved both boys and girls somersaulting over a bull, which was not killed at the end of the games (as in Spanish bullfights). It probably ended up being sacrificed to the gods, though.
The Minoan palaces also had plumbing – running water and sewage – even on the top floors (something not seen again until the Romans, 2000 years later). Also the orientation of each room made for perfect ventilation; we visited on a hot day, and the temperature indoors was several degrees lower than outside.
We continued with a visit to the Irakleion museum, which has been totally refurbished and contains all the important artifacts.
The bull was worshiped as a symbol of strength and thus portrayed in many ways.
We finished the day with a cooling swim in the sea, and the next morning set off for Phaistos, and hour and a half away through lovely scenery. The mountains were covered with Cretan ebony, small bushes covered in pink flowers. They looked a little like overgrown thyme, but apparently their seeds produce very vivid black dye, used in ancient times and still today.
The palace of Phaistos is much smaller than Knossos (around 700 rooms), but still impressive, built on a lovely site overlooking fertile plains.
It faces north and thus also has superb ventilation, as well as plumbing and workshops. One of the trades first practiced there is that of metallurgy.
It also has a theatre,
And wide stairways.
Feeling famished after our visit, we stopped off for lunch at a little taverna down the road. We were welcomed by a lone man who did not speak Greek well. Fearful it would take forever to get served, we made the kids all have the same thing. However, things started arriving on our table in a delicious sequence – salads of delicious tomato and cucumber, little spinach pies melting in the mouth, saganaki (grilled cheese), the most aromatic spaghetti bolognaise for the kids and, for the adults, a chicken tagine with saffron and prunes. I’d thought the man was Egyptian but he proved to be a Moroccan. Having finished serving, he sat down next to us for a chat and told us he’d been a cook on the ships, had stopped off in Crete on leave 30 years ago and stayed. But, he said, placing his hand on his heart, it was his mother who’d taught him to cook. She must have been one hell of a chef!
Having some time to spare before our flight, we stopped off at Gortyna, the site of a beautiful domeless Byzantine church
And a Roman Odeon
The surrounding land contained ancient olive trees, one of which was around 700 years old;
as well as the descendant of the plane tree under which the union was consummated between Zeus and Europa which would produce King Minos and his siblings, Radamanthes and Sarpedon.
The peculiarity of this tree is that it is the only plane tree that is not deciduous – it keeps its leaves in winter!
Obviously, this is just the description of a family trip. I’m no historian, so for anyone interested in finding out more about the Minoan civilization, I can recommend the excellent book written by Stylianos Alexiou.