c. 3000 – 1450 bc
Long before the classical Greeks, a highly developed culture flourished on the island of Crete. As a frame of reference, their vast palace at Knossos was constructed well over a thousand years earlier than the Parthenon in Athens.
The Minoans, as they're called today, reached their peak at roughly 1700 BC and enjoyed a golden age for several centuries until the civilization collapsed at around 1450 BC. A series of earthquakes and a volcanic eruption on the nearby island of Thera are thought to have triggered a crisis that left them vulnerable to invaders.
Before their way of life vanished, they managed to leave behind innovative architecture, fresco paintings, complex religious iconography, and an undeciphered writing system known as Linear A. They're also the earliest known civilization to use underground pipes for sanitation and water supply and are said to have invented the first flush toilet.
"Knossos in all its manifestation suggests the splendour and sanity and opulence of a powerful and peaceful people . . . a spirit of play is markedly noticeable. In short, the prevailing note is one of joy."
-artist and writer Henry Miller
watch time: 4 MIN.
Discover the beautiful Minoan frescoes from Crete and learn about the massive volcanic eruption on the nearby island of Thera (Santorini).
MYTH AND REALITY
British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans is credited with rediscovering the Minoan civilization at the dawn of the 20th century. He tends to be a polarizing figure. His supporters praise him for his bold and visionary methods, while his critics argue that he ventured too far into the realm of interpretation. Whatever position you take, it's impossible to talk about the Minoans without talking about Evans, too. He gave them their name, after all, based on King Minos of Crete from ancient Greek sources such as Homer and Thucydides.
Evans' restored exterior as it appears today
Restoring the Grand Staircase
(Evans upper right in white), 1905
But Evans wasn't the first to make the connection between the fabled King Minos and Knossos, nor was he the first to discover the site. It's important to note that Knossos was initially discovered and partially excavated in 1878 by a wealthy businessman and amateur archaeologist from Crete. His name? Get this–Minos Kalokairinos. Like Evans, he was a visionary who was well-versed in ancient Greek literature and eager to uncover Crete's extraordinary past and share it with the world.
'Dancing Lady' fresco fragment, Knossos
Detail of "Bull-Leaping Fresco", Knossos
Though Kalokairinos technically discovered Knossos, Evans's work at the site has become about as legendary as the Minoans themselves. By 1903, he had excavated most of the sprawling, labyrinth-like ruins at Knossos. His colorful reconstructions of the palace captured the public's imagination when it was first unveiled, and it continues to do so today as evidenced by the millions of tourists who visit the site.
It's not known what the Minoans called themselves, by the way. A fair guess might be Keftiu, the Egyptian name for Cretans in the Bronze Age. That said, calling them Minoans or Keftiu doesn't alter the fact of their existence. They're most commonly referred to today as Minoans, so let's stick with the name for now even though it's a 20th century creation based on Greek legend. Perhaps discoveries will shed more light on this subject and they will be known by their true name at some point in the future.
Minoan pottery discovered at Knossos
from The Palace of Minos, Evans
Egyptian painting of a Minoan/Keftiu,
c. 1479 – 1425 BC, Thebes
Minoan ornament showing
strong Egyptian influence, c. 1600 BC
It's clear now that the Minoans had less to do with ancient Greek legend and more in common with their Near Eastern neighbors in the Bronze Age. Evans became increasingly aware of this, too, and he even proposed the idea of a sacral kingship centered around a high priest/priestess who was also the king/queen.
"Throughout its course Minoan civilization continued to absorb elements from the Asiatic side..."
-Sir Arthur Evans
WATCH TIME: 10 MIN.
Professor Marinatos talks about her book, the Minoans, and her personal connection to Sir Arthur Evans and the excavations at Knossos with us in this video.
Crete is located in the eastern Mediterranean Sea and is by far the largest of the Greek islands. Although an island culture, the Minoans did not develop in isolation but were part of a much larger, cosmopolitan world. As Crete belongs to Greece, we consider it part of the 'Western world' today. In the Bronze Age, however, it was very much connected to the Near Eastern world.
Minoan Crete occupied an exceptionally advantageous position at the intersection of maritime trade routes to the Cyclades and mainland Greece, but also to Anatolia, Syria, the Levant, and Egypt. In her book Minoan Kingship and the Solar Goddess, Nanno Marinatos seeks to enlarge our mental map of Minoan Crete to include the Near Eastern cultures that surrounded and helped shape it.
Crete's strategic position
Courtesy of NASA
Remains of Minoan Palace at Phaistos, Crete
PALACE OR TEMPLE?
Knossos, which we looked at earlier, is the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete and has been called Europe's oldest city. Settled as early as the Neolithic period, the palace of Knossos eventually became the ceremonial and political center of Minoan civilization and culture.
At its peak, the palace and surrounding city boasted a population of 100,000 people shortly after 1700 BC. After being the seat of Minoan power for centuries, Knossos fell at around 1450 BC and was finally abandoned at some unknown time at the end of the Late Bronze Age, c. 1380 – 1100 BC.
Aerial view of Knossos as it appears today
Artist's impression of Knossos in Minoan Crete
Although referred to as a palace, Knossos would have housed the royal family and contained spaces reserved exclusively for religious ritual. As mentioned before, it's believed that the king and queen also served as high priest and high priestess, and that the palace united both the religious and political realms together under one roof, so to speak. The palace and temple appear to have been one and the same. Minoan religion and its associated symbolism will be discussed a little bit later.
Throne Room at Knossos (photomontage)
Who sat upon it?
MISTRESS OF ANIMALS
WATCH TIME: 2 MIN.
This video explores a fascinating little figurine found at the site of Knossos. Who does she represent?
Phaistos was the second largest Minoan palace after Knossos. It was a wealthy and powerful center located in southern Crete.
Phaistos covered a considerable area around the palace. After the destruction of the palace in the 15th century BC, the city continued to be inhabited by the Mycenaeans or by a fusion of Minoan-Mycenaean culture.
Ruins of the palace at Phaistos
The Phaistos Disc is a rather mysterious and even controversial object found at the palace site of Phaistos. Its purpose and original place of manufacture remain disputed. Many attempts have been made to decipher it.
Although it's generally accepted as authentic by archaeologists, some believe the object to be a forgery or a hoax.
Phaistos Disco, Heraklion Archaeological Museum
The palace of Malia was destroyed by an earthquake in the Middle Bronze Age along with Knossos and other sites, and was rebuilt at the end of the Late Bronze Age. Most of the ruins visible today date from this second period.
A strange carved object called a kernos stone was found at the site. On the north side of the courtyard were storage rooms with giant earthenware pithos jars used for holding grain, olive oil and other liquids; the floor of these rooms has a complex drainage system for carrying away spilled liquids.
Archaeological site of Malia
"Kernos stone" discovered at Malia
An impressive gold 'bee pendant', among other objects, was discovered at Malia in a royal cemetery known as Chryssolakkos, meaning 'pit of gold'. It's commonly thought that the so-called Aegina Treasure of Minoan jewelry in the British Museum was excavated here by local people in the 19th century.
"Bee pendant" discovered at Malia
c. 1700 BC
In the absence of readable texts, modern scholars have reconstructed Minoan religion on the basis of archaeological evidence such as paintings, figurines, vessels for rituals, signet rings and other objects. Minoan religion is considered to have been closely related to Near Eastern religions from the Bronze Age.
It's generally agreed that the central figure in Minoan religion was a goddess, with whom a younger male figure is often associated, usually in contexts suggesting that the male figure is a worshiper. The Goddess is often shown seated or 'enthroned' and is associated with animals and escorted by fantastic creatures like the griffin.
Minoan gold signet ring showing enthroned goddess and imaginary creatures
The old view was that, in stark contrast to contemporary cultures in Egypt, Mesopotamia and Syria, Minoan religious practice was not centered around massive formal public temples. However, it now tends to be thought that the Minoan "palaces" and perhaps also the smaller "villas", were themselves the temples, and the performance of religious ritual one of their main purposes.
There were also rural peak sanctuaries and many sacred caves. There is a question as to how much the palace religion that seems to be shown in Minoan painting and seals was followed or even understood by most of the population.
WATCH TIME: 4 MIN.
The "Horns of Consecration" symbol seems to represent bull's horns. But is there another possible meaning?
Gold pendant showing Minoan shrine with sacred 'horns'
c. 1700 BC
Many fundamental questions about Minoan religious practice remain extremely uncertain. These include: the extent to which it, and its "priests", were tied into the political system; the amount of centralization or regional divergence; the changes over time, especially after the presumed Mycenaean conquest around 1450 BC; the depth of borrowings from Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia, and the degree to which it influenced later Ancient Greek religion. Until after the Mycenaean conquest we have no names for deities, nor any real idea of how Minoans thought of them and their relationship with their devotees.
WATCH TIME: 3 MIN.
The double axe (labrys) is a ubiquitous Minoan symbol. But what does it represent?
Why Knossos fell and indeed the whole civilization collapsed c. 1450 BC remains a mystery. It's believed that natural disasters including a series of earthquakes and a massive volcanic eruption on the nearby island of Thera weakened the Minoans and left Knossos vulnerable to conquest by Greek mainlanders known as Mycenaeans. Though conquest might not be the right word to describe what occurred. Marinatos proposes a dynastic fusion between the royal families of Knossos and Mycenae, and by extension Minoan and Mycenaean culture, as opposed to an aggressive usurping of the throne.
The small island of Thera (Santorini) to the north of Crete
Thera as it appears today
Thera was home to a wealthy settlement called Akrotiri which combined both Cycladic and Minoan culture. It was likely a significant trading outpost of Minoan Crete. Like Knossos, it too has connections to an ancient Greek legend, as some believe it is the island upon which Plato based his fabled Atlantis.