During the Bronze Age (in Europe, that was 3200 – 600 BC), a sophisticated, beautiful culture flourished for a millennium, from about 2600 – 1600. These were the Minoans, named for their mythical King Minos, and known for the legends they left behind- these centering around the Minotaur and the Labyrinth he inhabited.
Who were the Minoans?
For some historians, the Minoans are considered “the first link in the European chain”. Minoan culture and influence extended over the entire region- throughout the Cycladic islands, Cyprus, Egypt. Egyptian influence is apparent in their architecture and their exotic aesthetics.
The images they left behind are familiar to us- the Bull leaping fresco, the Prince of the Lilies fresco, and the figurine of the bare breasted snake goddess are just a few of these.
The Minoans in Mythology and Popular Culture
The Minoans are known to us all, and the best known Minoan of all was not actually human. How did the Minotaur come to be? The short version- Minos, the King, was to sacrifice a beautiful white bull to Poseidon. He thought the bull was so beautiful he hid it away and sacrificed another in its place. Poseidon’s revenge was imaginative- he had Pasiphae, Mino’s Queen, fall in love with the bull- a love that produced the Minotaur, half man, half bull. To hide this creature, Minos hired Daedalus (we know him as the father of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun) to build a maze- the Labyrinth.
Crete was the Minoan center of power, and four palaces have been excavated- they are all worth visiting for different reasons.
If you have time for just one palace, let it be Knossos. In fact, a visit to Crete cannot be considered complete without it.
This largest of the four Minoan Palaces -the Palace of Knossos- was famously excavated by Sir Arthur Evans at tee ginning of the 20th C, and the degree of accuracy of his vigorous and enthusiastic restoration is the source of debate among scholars. But there is no arguing with the aesthetic impact of the results- the red columns trimmed in black and gold, the replicas of the frescos, the rooms, the architecture, all transport the imagination of the visitor and conjure the days of the mythical Minotaur.
Phaistos is second in size. It was first discovered by Thomas Abel Brimage Spratt in 1853 on a surveying mission, He, in turn, was following the directions of Ancient Greek geographer Strabo.
A military man, Spratt was able at once to discern in this strategic ridge overlooking the Massara plain the likely location of the Palace. The palace was excavated by Federico Halbherr, a friend and colleague of Sir Arthur Evans. The Grand staircase, the Queen’s Megaron, and the King’s Megaron, and the central court are worth seeing. The site is also wonderfully sited, with a beautiful view of both Mt. Psiloreitis (Mt Ida) and the Messara plain. Phaistos is known for the enigmatic “Phaistos Disc”, still not deciphered and in the Museum at Heraklion.
In legend ruled by Sarpendon, brother of Minos and son of Zeus and Europa, it is the least visited of the places and therefore lends itself to more relaxed exploration. The Minoan name remains unknown! It is called by the name of the nearby town.
This remote site of the very western edge of the island is the smallest of the four palaces. Zakros was the gateway to the east, a center of trade, and wealthy.
Better still, this last of the Minoan palaces to be discovered was hidden from all — it had not been looted, and the finds were spectacular! The first excavations were carried out by the British School of Archaeology, but the Palace itself was only found in 1961, by Archaeologist Nikolaos Platon.
The Archaeological Museum of Heraklion
To see the original frescoes from the Palace of Knossos and artifacts from the excavations – including the Phaistos disc, magnificent pottery, jewelry, and metal objects, visit Heraklion’s Archaeological museum. The modernity of Minoan design will shock and delight you!
Have you visited other sites of Ancient Greece? How do they compare to the sites of Minoan Crete?