Crete is one of my favourite Greek islands and I have visited Knossos many times and as with Ephesus, I have always preferred visiting it in winter when there are few, if any people there. Knossos has been excavated, though not without controversy, and it still holds many secrets which baffle archaeologists.
The site of the Great Palace at Knossos was first excavated by a Cretan merchant with an interest in history, Minos Kalokairinos. That was in 1878 when Crete was still under the Turkish Occupation. Later it was excavated by the British archaeologist, Sir Arthur Evans between 1900 and 1931.
The great Palace of Knossos is an incredible building on different levels, with frescoes which depict life in Minoan times. There are dolphins and bull-leaping as well as women and men following peaceful pursuits such as flower gathering. This is in contrast to the more militaristic frescoes of the same period in ancient Egypt or mainland Greece.
The entrance to the palace was via the baths and visitors were expected to bathe before seeing the king. These baths had running water which was taken to Knossos via an aqueduct. During Minoan times the river Kairatos would have flowed all year round and the hillside would have been covered by oaks and cypresses. Today vines and olive trees grow there. The pine trees on the site today were planted by Sir Arthur Evans.
There is evidence of human habitation at Knossos since the Stone Age, although the Palace we see now was built during the Bronze Age, at the peak of the Minoan civilization. There have been several palaces on the site, destroyed by natural disasters, such as the earthquakes on Thera (Santorini). It is said that the Great Palace was built by Daedelus for King Minos and that he built it so that the exit would be impossible to find. King Minos didn’t want anyone to know about the layout of his palace, so he imprisoned Daedelus and his son Icarus. Daedelus made two pairs of wax wings and he and his son flew out of captivity, but Icarus flew too close to the sun, his wings melted and he fell into the Aegean Sea close to the island of Ikaria.
The other myth about the Palace of Knossos is that it was home to the minotaur (half bull and half man) which was slain by Theseus with the help of Ariadne, Minos’ daughter. The minotaur was said to have been kept in the labyrinth below the palace.
Clearly bulls were important in Minoan culture, and they feature not only in the frescoes but also the bulls’ head rhyton cup (a drinking goblet in the Archaeological Museum at Heraklion) is in the shape of a bull’s head. A bull’s horns statue is also in the excavated site of the palace at Knossos. It was restored using concrete by Sir Arthur Evans, and while this is lamentable, visitors have a good idea of what it looked like when it was made. You have to use your imagination to picture it as it would have been in Minoan times.
I love pottering around the archaeological sites in Greece and particularly love Knossos. No one knows really why it was abandoned in 1375 BC. No one lived there after that, but the site became a sacred grove dedicated to the goddess Rhea.
It is said that Knossos and the Minoan civilization which flourished there was the fabled Atlantis, but there are many suppositions about where and if Atlantis existed. However, Knossos is a place not to be missed if you are on Crete. It is only 5 kilometres outside Heraklion, so you can “do” it in half a day. Enjoy!
- DNA analysis unearths origins of Minoans, the first major European civilization (washington.edu)
- DNA reveals origin of Minoan culture (bbc.co.uk)