Getting to know Knossos

by Neil

We have been back in Italy for nearly two weeks now and I am finally getting down to writing a post about Crete. I am not, as is often the case, suffering from procrastination, but still basking in the experience. I liked the idea of Crete, heck, it’s been a lifelong ambition to visit because it is so steeped in history, both ancient and modern. What I wasn’t prepared for was how taken I would be with Crete. In a weird, almost indescribable way, landing in Crete felt like coming home. Given that I don’t speak Greek and have no familial connections with the region, it was an odd sensation. Still, it was there and it wasn’t until we visited Knossos that a spark of understanding wiggled its way into my brain.

One of the perks of joining Rachel in Chania while she was attending a conference, was the option of participating in a tour to the Knossos archeological site. We had an early start, left late and took, what was scheduled to be, two and a half hour bus ride from Chania through Heraklion to reach Knossos. I had the good fortune to be seated next to a librarian from Finland with whom I discussed the advantage of the universality of the English language; he thought it great and I argued universality was largely due to colonialism and somewhat lamentable. We both agreed that it did help us both contemplate at which point the tour schedule would really go awry and left the subject at that.

Around the time most participants were thinking about eating a late lunch, we arrived at Knossos, palace of the legendary King Minos. Despite the need for sustenance or a restorative beer (talking for the entire bus trip produces quite the thirst), we were shuffled into groups to follow our tour guides through a slated one hour tour of the site. It was at this point, that I finally began to appreciate what Knossos tells us about ourselves and what Crete really is.

There are larger, more elaborate and better preserved archeological sites in Italy than the ruins of Knossos, but when Romulus and Remus were still waiting for the she-wolf to find them and my ancestors were more likely to be prey rather than predators, the Minoan civilization was already in decline. A decline brought about, moreover, by nature rather than man. Even the most dedicated of builders cannot withstand successive earthquakes and at least one devastating tsunami; not that the ancient Cretans didn’t try.


Model of the Palace at Knossos


Knossos, what little remains of it, provides us with a history lesson about where Western societies began and a contemporary lesson in how democratic societies should operate. Before looking at that aspect, you have to look at the palace of Knossos itself. In Greek mythology, Knossos is the place where Theseus goes down into the Labyrinth to defeat the Minotaur. As contemporary scholars point out, Knossos was so large and complex, it was the Labyrinth. A thousand years before the Greek empire, Minoans planned for elaborate systems to provide fresh water to Knossos, deal with effluent, built structures to withstand earthquake tremors, design rooms that could be cooled in the summer and take advantage of the sun’s warmth in winter months. It is believed that the bath tub of the Minoan Queen was the first of its kind. Engineering skills and principles that enabled the Greek and later Roman empires to build on a grand scale, have their beginnings in Crete.


Columns at Knossos tapered, being wider at the top than at the base.


It is not just the physical aspect of Knossos that is illuminating, but also the society that existed within its walls and surroundings. There existed a level of egalitarianism that many Western societies cannot yet brag of equaling. Women in Minoan culture could attain high office and display their physical prowess along with men. The concept of the fairer or weaker sex was alien to Minoans, as evidenced by the frescoes of women and men participating in the sport of bull leaping where the participant leaps between the horns of a charging bull and somersaults over its back. Furthermore, at Knossos, tradespeople or artisans lived in the palace alongside the King, suggesting that nobility came from ability rather than title alone. At Knossos, all laboured together for the success of the society and all suffered the same catastrophic fate.

When we left Knossos, I felt more or less, as we have come to term it, “museumed out” a state of not being able to absorb anymore historical information, leading to an eventual semi-catatonic condition. It could just have been hunger, given that we hadn’t eaten since breakfast and it was now nearing seven p.m. Unfortunately, this condition wasn’t taken into account by the tour schedule, so we headed off to Heraklion where artifacts from Knossos are kept. It is a fascinating place, full of interesting things; I took lots of photos and would urge anyone to go and see it. By this point, however, I was ready to start gnawing on my own limbs out of hunger, so I didn’t really appreciate the experience to the full extent. What I do recall was the intricate mosaics and ornate bronze armor found at Knossos, more evidence of the advanced skills in metalworking and mathematics in the Minoan culture. Really, if you get the chance, go and visit. Eat first.


After a brief stop to eat food ( which no one on the tour really expected to happen), we loaded up and drove back to Chania arriving just after 11 p.m. At the time, I was just so glad to be back and get our very tired children off to bed, that I didn’t have much time to think about what we had experienced. I did, however, have time to sit outside our hotel and finally have a beer as I stowed Knossos in the back of my mind to contemplate until now.


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