The island of Crete was home to the civilisation known as 'Minoan,' about four thousand years ago. You can read their history in the entry The Minoan Civilisation of Crete. These people built enormous palaces and the ruins of these are open to the public.
Four palaces have been excavated:
Knossos is on the north coast near present day Iraklion
Festos is in the south, near the sea on the plain of Messara
Malia is on the north coast, about 30km east of Iraklion
Zakros is on the easternmost end of the island
Visiting the Palaces
To get a good idea of the palaces, you should visit Knossos and one other palace, as well as the Archaeological Museum in Iraklion. Knossos is a special case, because some parts of it have been reconstructed by the archaeologists to give an impression of what it would have been like. This will help you to imagine the grandeur and scale of the palaces. But much of what you see in Knossos is in effect a fake. So it's good to see the real thing as well, in Festos, Malia or Zakros.
A trip to the museum is essential, because all the artefacts found in the excavations have been brought to the museum. The palace ruins themselves are now bare, except that in Knossos copies of the frescoes have been erected in the places where the originals were found. The original frescoes are all in the museum. To see the culture of the Minoans, rather than just their architecture, you really must visit the museum.
All the palaces were built in about 1900 BC and destroyed in 1700 BC by the earthquake. This period is known as the First Palace period. They were built again on a grander scale, then destroyed again in 1450 BC. This period is known as the New Palace period.
Knossos is situated about 5km south of Iraklion. It is the biggest of the palaces, with over a thousand rooms. It is sometimes described as the palace of the King of Crete, but we don't know anything much about the social order of these palaces, so we don't know whether the other palaces were subject to Knossos or not. It was excavated in about 1900 by Sir Arthur Evans, the English archaeologist who is credited with discovering the Minoan civilisation.
Before visiting Knossos, there are a few things you should know:
Knossos is absolutely inundated with tourists at all times. Buses carry hordes of tourists from all parts of the island to see the ruins. You will have to queue to see some parts of the excavations. But on the other hand, this means there are plenty of guides, giving tours in many different languages. You can even tag onto the end of a tour if you are careful.
Knossos is extremely confusing. There are remains of two separate palaces, one on top of the other, as well as newer and older buildings, although most of what you can see is from the New Palace. This means that even with a map, you won't have a clue as to where exactly in the place you are. Don't worry, just wander around until you think you've seen everything.
Arthur Evans bought the land as his own personal property and carried out all of the excavations to his own personal standards. Some of these seem rather peculiar to today's way of thinking. The most controversial is that he 'reconstructed' portions of the palace, to give a flavour for what it would have been like. So some of what you see is a fake. It is based on a very educated opinion of what the palace would have been like, but is not necessarily correct.
Although there were many frescoes and artefacts discovered in the ruins, they were all brought to the museum in Iraklion, except for a few of the very large storage jars. The frescoes on display in the ruins are copies of the originals.
- In the summer, Crete is very hot and the Sun is almost directly overhead. Wear a hat and bring some water with you.
Having said all that, the palace is well worth a visit. It will probably take you about two hours to see most of it. Watch out in particular for:
- The giant central courtyard - 60m x 30m
- The 'throne room' with a stone chair
- The lustral basin - a ceremonial bathing pool with steps leading down to it
- The theatral area, with shallow steps in two directions facing a small open area
- The grand staircase
- The royal road
- Plumbing - (interlocking terracotta pipes and drains)
- The Bull dancer fresco
- The Bull relief fresco
- The Prince of the Lilies (also known as the Priest King)
- The Dolphins fresco
- The giant stylised stone bull's horns
Festos is in the south of Crete, beyond the mountains, on the Messara plain. It is about 60km south of Iraklion on mountainous roads and is a complete contrast to Knossos. It is far less accessible to tourists, so it is not inundated with them. The countryside around Festos is so empty that it is easy to imagine you are back in the time of the Minoans.
The palace was excavated at the start of the 20th Century by Federico Halbherr, an Italian archaeologist. No attempt at 'reconstruction' was done, so what you see is all genuine. Most of the ruins visible are from the New Palace. The palace follows much the same plan as at Knossos. There is a huge central courtyard with buildings all around it. There are hundreds of rooms. There is a theatral area with shallow steps.
Leading from the theatral area is an enormous 'Grand Stairway', 14m wide with 12 shallow steps. These must have been designed for processions of people. The steps themselves are in very good condition. The lowest are carved out of the bedrock while the higher ones are masonry. All the steps are curved very slightly, the centre being slightly higher than the ends to compensate for perspective, giving them a more pleasing look than a straight stair. This same perspective-fooling technique was used by the Greeks a thousand years later in the design of the Parthenon temple in Athens.
The third biggest of the palaces, Malia is situated on the north coast about 30km east of Iraklion. This area is where most of the tourist resorts in Crete are situated, so it should be within a short bus journey of most tourists, but the ruins are not very much frequented.
The Malia Palace is probably the most straightforward and easy to understand of the palaces. It is built on flat ground, so it is all on the same level. It was never re-occupied after the second destruction, so what you see is all from the New Palace period, except for one building, the so-called 'Oblique Building', which was built later and at an angle to everything else.
There is nothing left in Malia more than about 1.5m high. Originally, there would have been two- or even three-storey buildings. Once again, there is a giant central courtyard (48m x 23m). On the south side are two sets of steps leading upwards and a maze of tiny rooms. Also here is a strange carved stone which looks like a millstone with a cup attached to the side of it. This is generally thought to be an altar stone of some sort. On the north side of the courtyard were storage rooms with giant earthenware jars, up to two metres tall. These were presumably used for holding olive oil and other liquids; the floor of these rooms has a complicated drainage system for carrying spilt liquids.
Artefacts were found in some rooms in the palace, leading the archaeologists to assign names such as 'records room,' 'kitchen,' 'throne room' and so on. These are speculative. There's not really much to distinguish one room from another. You should come away not with an impression of what each room was, but of the vastness of the place.
The palace of Malia was excavated in 1915 by Hadzidakis, a Greek archaeologist. However, the palace was surrounded by a village which has only been recently uncovered. Excavation is still being carried out here. This is at least as interesting as the palace itself. Most of these new excavations are covered by a giant semi-transparent roof, which protects them from any torrential rain. In places you are allowed to wander among the ruins, in others walkways allow you to walk above them. Here you will see rooms which have been identified as metal workshops, ceramic workshops and meeting rooms.
The palace of Zakros is the smallest of all the palaces and the least accessible. It is situated on the very easternmost end of the island. There is some flat arable land nearby, but not enough to support a palace of this size, so it must have been supported by overseas trade with countries to the east. Egypt was at the height of its power at the time Zakros was built.
It was suspected at the start of the 20th Century that there was a palace here, but the archaeologists were unable to find it, missing it by a few metres in their digs. The main excavation, by the Cretan archaeologist Nikolaos Platon, didn't take place until 1961. The palace was never looted after the second destruction, so it was full of all sorts of treasures, all of which have now been moved to the museums.
The palace has only about 150 rooms. The central court is 30m x 12m. There are quite a few interesting features, such as a lustral basin which had frescoes showing sacred objects and a massive cistern with steps down to it, which may have been a swimming pool or a fish tank.
The Archaeological Museum, Iraklion
The Archaeological Museum at the corner of Eleftherias Square in Iraklion is the Mecca for all interested in the Minoans. Here are collected virtually all the Minoan artefacts that have ever been discovered. The museum is big and spacious, but it is so full of stuff that it seems cramped. Plans to extend it by adding a basement floor have run into problems, as virtually anywhere you dig in Crete you encounter ruins which have to be excavated slowly.
The museum has about 20 rooms. These are laid out in linear fashion so that you must visit them all. The items in the rooms start with the earliest in Room One and progress chronologically. You will start by examining every little thing, but by the end of the tour you will be just glancing at the finds as there is so much to see.
Everyone will have their own personal favourite - this Researcher particularly liked a gold brooch in the shape of a sleeping cat and pots with pictures of octopuses. The highlights of the tour are generally recognised as the following:
The Bull's Head Rhyton - a stone vase in the shape of a Bull's Head, probably used for sacred rituals. From Knossos.
The Snake Goddess - a glazed pottery model of the Goddess, with flounced skirt and bare breasts, holding a snake in each hand.
The Festos Disk - a clay disc, inscribed with a spiral message on each side in undeciphered pictographs. The individual symbols are printed rather than handwritten, making this the earliest example of printing in the world.
Giant Double-headed axes - known as the 'Labrys', replicas of this axe are available in jewellery shops throughout the island.
The Pendant of the Bees - a gold pendant showing two bees face to face with a fruit or a blob of honey between them. From Malia.
Earthenware figures of the Goddess with flounced skirt and bare to the waist with arms up in the air.
Tablets of Linear A and Linear B writing.
Seal stones used for sealing boxes, with intricate carvings of many different things.
Following the tour brings you to the upper floor, where the frescoes are on display. The most important are the following:
The Bull Dancer - two pale-skinned women stand on either side of a bull while a dark-skinned youth leaps over the back of the bull.
The Bull Relief - the front half of a bull is shown in relief. The plaster is raised from the wall.
The Prince of the Lilies - a man wearing a loin cloth and an elaborate flower-adorned head-dress.
Woman's head - a woman with beautiful hair, enormous eyes and very red lips. This one is often nicknamed 'La Parisienne' because of the obvious sophistication of the lady.
Dolphins - a school of dolphins and fishes.
Among the frescoes is an unusual stone sarcophagus, the only one of its kind, from Ayia Triadha. This has interesting scenes painted on it. One side shows a procession bringing offerings. The other shows people making music.
At the end of the trip around the museum is a large room containing an assortment of Greek and Roman statuary and mosaics. These would be given pride of place in any normal museum, but here they are almost ignored. Most of them only get a small explanatory label.
Other Minoan Sites
There are many other Minoan sites. Almost all of them are in the eastern half of the island. Almost nothing has been found in the western half. It seems likely that the Minoans lived throughout the island, so archaeologists are looking forward to some major finds in Western Crete.
Ayia Triadha - just down the road from Festos, this is a large villa, which may have been the residence of a Priest or Prince.
Gournia - this is a huge town without a palace. Situated at the north side of the isthmus, the narrowest point of Crete, it would have been on a trade route from the north to the south side of the island.
Kommos - this was the port of Festos. Excavations are not complete here and it is not yet open to the public, but it promises to be one of the major attractions.
Tilissos - three large houses, each with different features.
Armeni - a giant cemetery, with over two hundred rock-cut tombs. There is no sign of any settlement nearby. This is surely an indication that there are major finds still to be made.