Crete: Knossos

Royal road.

A trip to Crete is not complete without a visit to the Minoan palace complex of Knossos. The first palace here was built during the Old Palace period (1900-1700 BCE). Around 1700 BCE, this palace was destroyed, presumably by an earthquake. It was rebuilt soon afterwards. The ruins we see today are mostly from the second palace. As I have discussed previously, we should not interpret the word ‘palace’ in the modern sense of the word. A Minoan palace was an immense complex with central courtyards and hundreds of rooms, some used for living, others for religious ceremonies or the processing and storing of goods in large vases called pithoi. Knossos was, at times, by far the largest and most powerful of the Minoan palaces. More than 100.000 people may have lived in and around the complex, which covered a space of some 21.000 square metres and had over 1.300 rooms.

Bust of Sir Arthur Evans.

Bust of Sir Arthur Evans.

Excavations and renovations

The first attempts to start excavations at this site were undertaken in 1878 by soap manufacturer and archaeology enthusiast Minos Kalokairinos. Although he dug up some Minoan artefacts, he has remained relatively unknown to posterity. This is somewhat ironic, as Kalokairinos shared his first name with the legendary King Minos, whose name Sir Arthur Evans used to indicate an entire civilisation. There is another story – I do not know whether it is true – that claims that German treasure hunter Heinrich Schliemann, the man who discovered Troy, considered excavating at the site of Knossos. However, after some test-digging, he decided to go somewhere else because he did not expect to find anything of value here.

A set of sacred bull’s horns.

It is with Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941) that the first systematic excavations at Knossos started in March 1900. This British archaeologist did not just dig up parts of the huge palace complex, he also felt the need to reconstruct parts of it. For this he has been criticised, sometimes harshly. Archaeologists critical of his work have called Knossos a “Minoan Disneyland”. Indeed, some of his reconstructions, interpretations and ideas about what Minoan civilisation must have been like seem fanciful and are based on little more than speculation and Evans’ own authority and ideology.

Nonetheless, Evans’ work has made it possible for the modern-day visitor to imagine what Knossos might have looked like over 3.500 years ago. This is much more difficult at other locations, such as at Phaistos, where little or no reconstruction work has been done. People who have played the video game Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (1992), of which some parts are set on Crete, will immediately recognise many elements of the location, such as the red and white columns and the sacred bull’s horns. It is very pleasant to walk around here, but it pays to arrive early, as almost every tourist on Crete wants to visit Knossos and it can be quite crowded here.

Southern propylon.

Exploring Knossos

A bust of Sir Arthur Evans can be found near the entrance (see above). If you enter the complex, you will soon come to the southern propylon, i.e. the monumental southern gate of the palace. It is decorated with two frescoes of people carrying vases. They are probably part of a religious procession and there would have been many more frescoes 3.500 years ago. These are not the original frescoes by the way. They are replicas, and what remains of the original images can be found in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. The huge columns are made of concrete. Originally, they would have been made of wood.

Prince of the lilies (original).

Not far from the southern propylon is a replica of another famous fresco, the so-called Prince of the Lilies. What we see is a long-haired young man wearing only a loincloth and an elaborate headdress with lilies and feathers. He seems to be walking in a garden filled with large flowers. You can find his image – sometimes stylised – everywhere on Crete and the young man has become the official symbol of the Minoan Lines ferry company. But who was this Prince of the Lilies, who – like the vase bearers – was obviously part of series of frescoes depicting a procession? He is sometimes identified as the Priest King of Knossos, but may alternatively have been an athlete (although that does not seem to match with the headdress).

Just north of the Prince of the Lilies is the large central courtyard. It would have been used for religious ceremonies and perhaps also for athletic competitions. Our travel guide suggested that ‘bull jumping’ competitions may have been staged here too. Bull jumping seems to have been the national sport of the Minoans. The aim was for young men – and perhaps women as well – to test their courage by somersaulting over a charging bull. A fragmentary fresco in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion shows how this was done.

Bull jumping.

It depicts a young man (painted reddish brown) making the daring jump and two women to the left and right of the bull. You can tell they are women, because they are painted white. The one on the left seems to be holding the bull by its horns. The one on the left looks like she is ready to catch the brave young man in her arms after he has completed his jump. Judging by the fresco, it seems like women had a role in the bull jumping games and they may have jumped themselves as well.

Wall with fresco of a charging bull.

Wall with fresco of a charging bull.

Bulls, griffins and dolphins

A little further to the north of the central courtyard is the northern entrance to the palace. Here we find another famous fresco, that of a charging bull. Of course, the walls and red columns here are reconstructions by Evans, and the fresco is a replica; the original can be found in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. I must say the details of the bull are quite impressive. The animal is obviously angry and panting, its nostrils are wide open and you can even see its tongue.

Let us return to the central courtyard. The courtyard gave access to many of the rooms of the complex. The most important of these was dubbed the Throne Room by Evans. The name suggests it was used by the kings and queens of Knossos for audiences. This is certainly incorrect. Instead, the room seems to have been used for religious purposes.

Throne room.

Evans found an alabaster seat here against the north wall, which he called a throne. Along the walls are benches and in front of the throne is a ritual basin. The walls are decorated with (restored) images of griffins. It is difficult to reconstruct how exactly the room was used. The benches may have been used by priests or priestesses, and the throne may have been either used by the high priest or priestess, or left empty during the ceremonies, but we just cannot know for certain.

The king’s and queen’s quarters are located in the south-eastern part of the palace complex. Of course they do not have the words “this is the room of the king” written all over the walls, but because of the scale and elegance of the rooms, they have been probably correctly identified as the royal quarters (megara). Regretfully, the king’s quarters were closed for tourists when I visited Knossos in October of 2014. So I missed the famous Hall of the Double Axes, where the king may have held court and welcomed foreign delegations.

Queen’s megaron.

It did not matter much, as the queen’s quarters were in fact accessible. The queen had a private bathroom with a toilet and her rooms were decorated with frescoes featuring dolphins. Again, the original frescoes – which are quite fragmentary – can be found in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion.

Knossos is a wonderful location and it is a pleasure to wander around here, admiring the complexity of the palace, the many pithoi, Evans’ reconstructions and the many, many winding stairs connecting the various parts of the complex. If you take a look at all the stairs, it is not hard to imagine how Evans came up with the idea of a labyrinth beneath the palace (i.e. the legendary labyrinth of King Minos where the minotaur was imprisoned). Of course he never found one.

Stairs connecting the various parts of the complex.

It is interesting, however, to note that the word ‘labyrinth’ possibly derives from the ancient Greek word labrys, which means ‘double axe’. The double axe was not just a tool, but also a religious symbol, connected to the Mother Goddess, and probably also a symbol of power (like the fasces – rods and axes – of the Roman magistrates). I already mentioned the Hall of the Double Axes (the king’s megaron) and in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion one can find many vases with double axes, as well votive axes. This museum is perhaps the best in all of Crete, and it is definitely worth a visit.


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