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The Minoan Palace at Knossos and the Cretan Labyrinth

The Minoan palace at Knossos

Foundation of the Minoan Palace at Knossos (18th century BC)

In 1894 the English archaeologist Arthur Evans, while perusing the offerings of antiquities dealers in the Athens flea market, noticed some peculiar symbols etched on tiny seal stones. Evans was told the stones came from the mountainous island of Crete, and, fascinated by their strange appearance, he used his own money to buy a plot of land on the island at Knossos. This site had long been suspected of harboring ancient ruins, and when Evans began full-scale excavations there he soon uncovered the labyrinthine foundations of an elegant Bronze Age palace, the remains of an extraordinary lost civilization. He chose to name this civilization Minoan after a legendary King named Minos, who according to Greek tradition had once ruled over a great sea-empire from Crete.

The Minoans flourished during the middle of the 2nd millennium BC, building mysterious cave and mountaintop sanctuaries, luxurious villas, and remarkably elegant palaces all across their island. They developed extended trading links, grew rich from sea-borne commerce with the Egyptians and Greeks, and used an early form of writing called Linear A, which has yet to be deciphered. At the height of their empire Minoan towns, ports, roads, and fortification walls dotted the rugged Cretan landscape, and Minoan settlements and trading colonies could be found throughout the Mediterranean.

quote

Minos resolved to banish his shame from the house and to close it up in a sinister edifice with many chambers. Daedalus created the work, and he fitted out its chambers with deceptive signs; into the windings of the tangling passages he misled the eye."

—Ovid, Roman poet, 1st century BC

The Labyrinth at Knossos

Knossos is the largest of the Minoan palaces, and like others it is an agglomeration of rooms clustered around a long, rectangular central court. Only the ruins of its foundations have survived, but these reveal a vast interconnected complex of small corridors, staircases and private rooms containing residential quarters, workshops, administrative areas and many different cult centers. Stairways led to large upper rooms made of wood that have not survived, but which probably once rose five stories in height. An elaborate and advanced system of drains, conduits, and terra-cotta pipes provided water and sanitation, and deep courtyards known as light-wells created an airy and comfortable atmosphere. Palace walls were decorated with delicate and vibrant frescoes depicting scenes of lithe young athletes leaping over bulls, ladies gossiping and dancing, and dolphins and other animals in magical gardens, all done in a naturalistic style that emphasized movement and grace. The palace's interior floors were covered with crystalline white gypsum, and its outer facade was rendered in strikingly varied color and crowned with many bull horns, a sacred symbol that the Minoans may have worshipped.

The palace at Knossos consisted of perhaps 1,300 rooms spread over three acres of land. Since its discovery, many have speculated that this complex structure, with its ever-present bull symbolism, was the distant inspiration behind the labyrinth in the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. In this myth, an ingenious labyrinth was built to contain the half-man, half-bull Minotaur to which the Cretans sacrificed Athenian children. Recent discoveries of the bones of four young children in a house outside the palace, found mixed in with the remains of edible snails and animal bones, only strengthen the parallels. The Roman historian Pliny, in his Natural History, also mentions a Cretan Labyrinth as one of the four famous labyrinths of the ancient world, along with the Egyptian labyrinth, a Lemnian labyrinth and an Italian labyrinth.

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And Minos ordered [the Athenians] to send seven young men and the same number of girls without weapons to be fodder for the Minotaur. Now the Minotaur was confined in a labyrinth, in which he who entered could not find his way out; for many a winding turn shut off the secret outward way."

—Apollodorus, Greek scholar and writer, 2nd century BC

Collapse of Minoan Civilization

Over the centuries the Minoan palaces weathered many destructions and disasters, including the catastrophic volcanic explosion of the nearby island of Thera (now Santorini) in 1628 BC. This cataclysmic eruption was about 75,000 times more powerful than the earliest atomic bombs, and could probably have been heard as far away as Norway. The great volumes of volcanic ash it spewed into the atmosphere plunged the entire globe into a "nuclear winter" for many years; chroniclers in China at this time reported a "yellow fog, dim sun, frost in July, and famine." Knossos itself was shattered by a series of earthquakes that preceded or accompanied the eruption, and a 200 mile-per-hour tidal wave that was perhaps 50 feet high—a tsunami—leveled settlements along the northern coast of Crete. After the explosion, 30 square miles of land at the center of Thera collapsed into a hollow caldera and sank one thousand feet beneath the ocean, an event that may have given rise to Plato's legend of the lost continent of Atlantis.

Bronze Age fresco of ships from Akrotiri, Santorini

Part of a Bronze Age fresco of a ship procession, taken from the ruins of Akrotiri on the island of Santorini

Despite the violence of the eruption of Thera, Minoan civilization recovered and even prospered for nearly two more centuries, until around 1450 BC when Minoan palaces, towns, and country houses all across Crete were destroyed by fire, never to be rebuilt again. The cause of this destruction is uncertain: it may have been due to Mycenean invaders from mainland Greece, an internal revolt, or even another massive earthquake. Knossos itself survived until 1375 BC, but then it too succumbed to destruction and was left in ruins. In the stonecutter's rooms in one corner of the palace, excavators uncovered scattered and half-finished stone utensils and tools, mute testimony to the suddenness of this final destruction.

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Text taken from Amazeing Art: Wonders of the Ancient World — HarperCollins Publishers — Serialized in Games magazine — Recommended by the Archaeological Institute of America — A BookSense "What's in Store" Main Selection —  Maze puzzle art reproduced by the British Museum

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I visited the Egyptian Labyrinth, and found it to surpass description; for if all the great works of the Greeks could be put together in one, they would not equal this building."

—Herodotus, Greek historian, 5th century BC

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