Crete – The Palace of Knossos and the Minotaur


King Minos and the Palace of Knossos…

In 2001 I visited the Greek island of Crete with my son Jonathan and while we were there visited the ancient site of the Palace of Knossos.  This is the largest archaeological site on the island and was the ceremonial and political centre of the ancient Minoan civilization.

According to Greek mythology, the palace was designed with such cunning complexity that no one placed in it could ever find the way out again and King Minos who commissioned the place to imprison the hideous Minotaur kept the architect prisoner to ensure that he could not reveal the palace plan to anyone. 

The architect was Daedalus who was a great inventor and he built two sets of wings so he and his son Icarus could fly off the island and escape.  He warned his son not to fly too close to the sun because the wax that held the wings together would melt but Icarus was young and impulsive and flew higher and higher until the heat melted the wax and he fell to his death in the Aegean sea.

Daedalus escaped and gave the palace plans to the Athenian King Theseus who travelled to Crete and found and killed the Minotaur.

Knossos Crete Postcard

The ruins at Knossos were first discovered in 1878  by a local man, Minos Kalokairinos, and the earliest excavations were made.  After that several Cretans attempted to continue the dig but it was not until 1900 that the English archeologist Arthur Evans purchased the entire site and carried out massive excavations and reconstructions. 

Arthur Evans and the Palace of Knossos…

These days archaeology is carefully regulated and supervised by academics who apply scientific rigour (except for Tony Robinson and the Time Team of course) to make sure that history isn’t compromised but it was very different a hundred years ago when wealthy amateurs could pretty much do as they pleased and went around digging up anything that they could find of interest and aggressively reinterpreting it.

Evans employed a large staff of local labourers as excavators and within a few months had uncovered a substantial portion of what he named the Palace of Minos, at the same time applying the description Minoan to the people who lived there.  No one really knows what they called themselves four thousand years ago when the Palace was constructed of course. In the Odyssey which was composed centuries after the destruction of Knossos, the poet Homer called the natives of Crete Eteocretans, which means true Cretans and it is possible that they may have been descendants of the Minoans.

There is much disagreement over the value of Evans’ work because some experts argue that some of his reconstructions are inaccurate, not thoroughly researched and constructed from unsuitable material, including concrete.

Knossos postcard 2

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the scholars arguments I have to say that it does make the site a whole lot more interesting than just a few old walls and foundations and some of the experts have been forced to agree that in some places the concrete has actually helped preserve the original building, especially on steps that would otherwise have been worn away by thousands of visitors over the last one hundred years.

After considering the issue I think I agree with Henry Miller who wrote in the Colossus of Rhodes: “There has been much controversy about the aesthetics of Sir Arthur Evans’s work of restoration.  I find myself unable to come to any conclusion about it; I accepted it as a fact.  However Knossos may have looked in the past, however it may look in the future, this one which Evans has created is the only one I shall ever know.  I am grateful to him for what he did…”

Arthur Evans

Walking Tour of the Palace of Knossos…

We left the holiday village of Agios Nikólaos early in the morning and arrived in Knossos an hour or so later and paid our entrance fees.  Once inside we were approached by a local guide who looked as though he was stuck in a 1960s hippie culture time warp and somehow he persuaded me to part with €10 to join his guided tour.

This isn’t something that I would normally do but on this occasion I was pleased that I did because he provided an informative and amusing tour and we learned that the Palace had one thousand interlocking rooms and enjoyed the comforts of an elaborate system of water supply and drainage systems as well as flushing toilets, air conditioning and paved roads. 

The Palace was not the home of one privileged individual but housed a complete community and included artisan workrooms, shops and food processing centres and it served as a central storage point, and a religious and administrative centre for the north of the island.

Even at fourteen, Jonathan was cultivating an impressive mean streak and he became very concerned when two non-payers joined the guided tour and tagged along, he kept trying to draw this to the attention of the guide who eventually responded to the hints and asked them to pay up, much to his satisfaction.  Actually I think freeloading in this way is quite good fun so long as there isn’t a spoil sport like Jonathan around!

The Destruction of the Palace of Knossos…

The Minoan civilization was a Bronze Age culture that flourished from approximately 2700 to 1450 BC but it came to a dramatic end sometime between 1550 and 1630 BC as a result of the eruption on the island of Santorini which is about one sixty miles north of Crete.

This eruption was among the largest volcanic explosions in the history of civilization.  It measured six on the Volcanic Explosivity Index which may not sound that much but is just about as big as you can get.  The Yellowstone eruption, six hundred and forty thousand years ago, was the biggest ever and measured eight.  So this would have been a fairly big bang and when it went off you would probably want to be standing well back because it ejected an estimated forty cubic miles of material or about roughly 10,000,000,000 tonnes as it blew the devastated island apart.

To get a sense of perspective try to imagine the county of Essex rising forty miles into the air into the earth’s mesosphere (a terrible thought I agree) and you can get a sense of just how much material that is.  Actually it probably wouldn’t be such a bad thing if Essex blew up in this way, except we would lose Stansted airport I suppose.

As it happened, sixty miles was not far back enough and the eruption devastated the Minoan settlement at Akrotiri on Santorini which was entombed in a layer of pumice and created a huge tsunami that engulfed the island of Crete and destroyed the Palace of Knossos and many other Minoan coastal settlements.  Archaeologists believe that the eruption created a crisis in Minoan society (well I rather imagine that it would) and with trade and agriculture seriously disrupted they were easily conquered by the Mycenaeans from mainland Greece who took their place on the island of Crete.

Athens and Ancient Greece

The Acropolis Museum in Athens

16 responses to “Crete – The Palace of Knossos and the Minotaur

  1. Made me smile as we have some photos of our son James, aged about 9, wearing a ferocious scowl and posed by the horns. He was too hot and couldn’t have been less impressed with an ancient civilisation. Shame as I was so looking forward to our visit.

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  5. (I think you’ll find it’s SIR Tony Robinson nowadays! Kinghted for services to something, probably digging up historic sites.)
    Interestingly the French for a maze is “une dédale”, named after the man himself.

  6. Jonathan should be let loose on the railway fare dodgers

  7. Brings back memories.. Lived and worked on Crete for 2 years over 30 years ago.. 😉

  8. Wonderful. I suspect I would have been one of the freeloaders, although not looking or behaving as though I was!!

  9. When I was at Salisbury Cathedral, I was regaling my travel companion with the salient facts about it. As we strolled along, me pointing out the highlights, I discovered I had drawn a crowd and they were following us about as if I were a tour guide. I don’t know whether to be embarrassed by or proud of the fact that it was just the first time this happened. Now it happens all the time.

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