Crete Stories and Tips

Palace of Knossos, Crete

Photo of Crete, Greece

Why is Europe called Europe? Come with me to Crete, to the Palace of Knossòs (stress on the second syllable) to be precise, and I’ll tell you the myth and also some others which you may already have heard or read about but maybe don’t associate with this Greek island.

We’re in the Bronze Age, in the third millenium BC , one day Zeus, the leader of the gods, who was born on Crete, fell in love with the Phoenician princess Europa, he transmogrified into a snow-white bull and appeared in front of the maiden who was struck by its beauty and climbed on its back. The bull ran into the water and once safe at sea revealed its true identity, then swam west to the island of Crete [the Cretans were supposed to have come from Phoenician settlements in Asia Minor].

After reaching the coast Zeus changed back into his original shape, copulated with Europa and bigat triplets one of which was called Minos (later this name came to mean ’king’, the period from 2600 BC – 1420 BC is known as the Minoan one), making her the founding mother of the first literate civilisation in this part of the world. Zeus soon abandoned Europa for new amorous adventurers, she married the king of Crete who raised her children, Minos succeeded his step-father on the throne.

Once Minos wanted to sacrifice a bull but couldn’t kill it because it was so beautiful, Poseidon who had given him the animal was miffed and as a revenge made Minos’ wife fall in love with a bull [They had it with bulls in those days, the bull cult was an import from Egypt with which Crete had close relations, the Cretans got bulls from Egypt in exchange for honey, grain and olive oil]. The queen turned to Daedalus for help, an architect and craftsman from Athens, who constructed a wooden cow covered in real hide into which the queen climbed to mate with the bull (don’t ask!), the result of this union was Minotaur with the body of a man and the head of a bull.

Not surprisingly King Minos was outraged and banned the freak into the maze like cellar of the palace Daedalus had built, he ordered that Minotaur was to be fed seven young men and seven virgin women who had to be sent from Athens every nine years [the Atheneans had been conquered and subjugated by the Cretans], when this had been going on for some time, Theseus, the Athenian King’s son, volunteered to be one of the seven sacrificial young men, he wanted to kill the Minotaur and end the suffering of the Atheneans.

Ariadne, King Minos’ daughter, fell in love with Theseus and gave him a ball of thread which he unwrapped entering the maze like cellar, he killed the Minotaur and found his way out again by following the thread back to the entrance.

Daedalus who had aroused the King’s wrath by building the fake cow was also imprisoned in the palace, he escaped with his son Icarus adjusting wax wings to their arms; Icarus overwhelmed by the height and the speed they reached went too near the sun, the wax melted, he fell into the sea and drowned, his father Daedalus, however, succeeded in flying as far as Sicily [Minoan artefacts have been found there].

Of course, it’s not necessary to know all this, but it certainly helps to get a feeling for the place. We visited at the end of October shortly before the end of the tourist season, we had bought a guidebook and intended to walk through the site on our own after paying 6€ (concession 4€) for the ticket, but then a woman addressed us in German and invited us/talked us into a guided tour for 8 € each, quite expensive in addition to the entrance ticket, but I’m glad she did. She said that following our guide book we’d need about three hours until we would have figured out what was what whereas the guided tour would only last one hour and we’d understand everything at once. Right she was.

Right behind the entrance is a small column with the bust of Sir Arthur Evans (1851 – 1941), the British archaeologist who bought the site at the end of the 19th century convinced he’d find the Palace of Knossos there, he was not mistaken, together with his team he excavated the site for more than thirty years, he partly restored the palace according to his ideas pleasing the visitors, enraging many archaeologists His enemies claim he consciously manipulated facts to arrive at his version of Minoan civilisation, some even speak of Disneyfication.

The Palace of Knossos is the largest archaeological site on Crete, there are some other sites of former Minoan palaces in other parts of the island where the visitors find only ruins, heaps of stones scattered everywhere which mean nothing to the untrained eye; I’m grateful for Evans’ work, I’ve got difficulties enough as it is to complete the whole palace in my imagination. I know that hardcore archaeologists disagree, but I’m a layperson, I simply can’t construct a complete building in my mind when I see only the base of a column.

When we came to the first wall, the guide pointed to a double axe chiselled into the stone, the symbol stood for power, ‘double axe’ is ‘labrys’ in Greek, the term ‘labyrinth’ means only the palace of the double axe, nothing more, it does not mean maze. As the structure was like a maze with around 1000 rooms the two terms have got mixed and now the guides are nearly driven crazy when at the end of the tour the tourists who haven’t listened attentively come and ask, "And where is the labyrinth, please?" The palace * is * the labyrinth!

It had four wings with several storeys arranged around a rectangular central court, tourists can see the throne room with the oldest throne of humankind, a simple stone chair (a replica is standing in the European Court of Justice in Den Haag), some restored frescoes adorn the walls. One can see many storerooms with huge vase-like jars that contained oil, Evans calculated that all in all around 19 000 gallons of oil were stored in the palace, the many kitchens, residences and workshops prove that the palace was an enormous site, unfortunately these rooms can’t be visited at the moment. The inhabitants are believed to have lived in luxurious conditions, the palace had a drainage system, luxurious bathrooms, ventilation, water conduits and waste chutes, things that after the destruction of the palace were forgotten and had to be reinvented thousands of years later.

The guide made us look at the surrounding barren landscape and told us to imagine it in lush green, the mountainsides covered by forests, when the palace was built, the climate on Crete was subtropical, it was so warm that people didn’t wear much, we know from frescoes that women didn’t cover their breasts. The palace is situated on a hill, a river was flowing at its foot which could take boats to and from the sea (now there is not a drop of water), the palace was not surrounded by walls, the Minoan period was a peaceful one according to historians and archaeologists, troops were only kept for decoration.

We walked slowly across the site, looked at whatever there was to look at for as long as we liked, it was very relaxing and just the way it should be. Besides us there were approximately 50 other tourists, we shuddered when the guide told us that in summer every day around 10 000 tourists visit the site, waiting for up to one hour to peep at the throne with temperatures of 35°C and no shade, I think I’d rather do without this cultural experience than undergo such torture!

Ropes mark the way the masses take/have to take through the site in order to avoid total chaos, we could walk wherever we wanted, walking is difficult, though, handicapped people can forget Knossos, even healthy people should have the fitness of a mountain goat if they don’t want to sprain their ankles, thousands of years and the feet of millions of tourists have left their traces on the paving stones.

The building of the palace was begun in 2000 BC, it was destroyed three times, in 1700 BC after a massive earthquake, then it was rebuilt and destroyed again following a tsunami and a devastating fire connected to the volcanic eruption of the neighbouring island of Santorini, the final destruction came when peoples from mainland Greece invaded the island.

Filled to the brim with information we left the site not before using the (clean) bathrooms at the exit and went to the bus-stop outside to go to the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion where the findings of Knossos are displayed.

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