Traveling Classroom Foundation
Friday September 22nd 2017

The Palace at Knossos

After the road sign mix-up and unplanned road trip of the previous day, we decided to take a completely different approach to Knossos. Starting early in the morning, we drove to Iraklio and took the port exit. We knew Knossos tour buses departed from a station near the ferry dock, where we assumed there might be a road sign. If worse came to worst, we could always follow a tour bus.

As it happened, our luck was not much better than before. We could not locate any directions at the port, and we drove around several streets before we accidentally ran in a tiny sign that pointed us towards Knossos, which lies along the road to Archanes. The ride was bumpy and dusty because the street was torn up for some municipal project. Happily, the city ended not far from our destination, and we were on a pleasant country road with farmland on either side.

At the archeological site, we found a parking lot jammed with dozens of tour buses. Apparently, our plan to avoid the crowds had failed. We waited in a long line to get into the site, and then dodged several guided tours as we walked up the hill. So many people visit the palace each year that the government installed raised wooden walkways to prevent the erosion of ancient stone surfaces.

It is easy to visualize how wonderful Knossos must have been when the Minoan civilization was in its prime. The complex was built on a hill near the river Kairatos, which no longer flows in summer. The site had great natural advantages: a strong position (although defensive walls were not used at any Minoan site), a reliable water supply, access to the sea and proximity to a large forest, which produced the pine trees used to make beams and columns for construction of the palace. The drawing below gives you an idea of the architectural layout of the palace complex.

An artist's reconstruction of Knossos Palace

At the height of its power, Knossos ruled a city of no fewer than 100,000 people (nearly the size of modern Iraklio), and probably drew tribute from other palaces and towns scattered around Crete. The wealth, vitality and culture of the Minoans surpassed every other Mediterranean civilization, except the Egyptians. Unfortunately, a long series of disasters (repeated earthquakes, a tidal wave that smashed the merchant fleet and navy, and ultimately, invasions by the Mycenaeans and Dorians from the North) finally wiped out the Minoan civilization. No one knows the details, but archeologists believe Knossos was destroyed around 1450 BCE. Mycenaean kings repaired the palace for their own use, but around 1300 BCE a fire (accidental or maybe due to a revolt by the subjugated Minoans) devastated the palace, and it was finally abandoned.

The ruins lay undisturbed for many centuries until an Englishman, Arthur Evans, began excavating in 1900. Within three years, he had uncovered not only most of the buildings, but also an entire civilization’s art and culture that had passed out of memory. Evans felt these artifacts should be restored, so he rebuilt parts of the great palace (based on his own perceptions of Minoan art and culture), which has been a controversy ever since.

West entry guard house

We walked along stone path to the west entrance, but traffic was heavy. To avoid the crowd, we left the boardwalk and hiked down a hillside to the “South House” – a reconstructed three story mansion along the southern wall of the complex. It was very evident that the Minoan elite lived comfortably. In an age when most people lived in one-room houses, the palace had multiple stories, and even the surrounding houses were built in several stories and many rooms, with plumbing and lavish use of trees and gardens.

'South House' Mansion

When the crowd at the west gate cleared, we climbed up to the processional way. The walls of the portico on the east side of the guard house at the gateway were adorned with a reproduction of a fresco showing a procession of men carrying rhytons and other gifts (for the king or the gods – no one knows).

The Procession Fresco

Continuing along what was once a corridor, we tried to picture what we might have seen in ancient times, when the place was swathed in artwork. No culture before had rejoiced in painting, fresco, statues and decoration, to the extent that the Minoans did. Taking into account the beautiful decorations and painting in every room ā€“ even in lesser buildings surrounding the palace – it makes one sad to think of all the art lost to the ages.

On the left side, where a wall would have stood, we could look down to a lower floor where eighteen storage rooms extend over the entire western wing of the palace. Here the palace kept dry goods, such as grains, in huge pithoi (storage jars), some of which still stand in the rooms, and olive oil was stored in square wells beneath the floor. In one room, we saw young archeologists carefully examining the walls for new artifacts.

Archaeologists investigate a storage room

Moving into the expansive central courtyard, where festivals and ceremonies were held, we walked to a multi-storied building on west side and climbed a stone stairway to upper level chambers, which offered a good view of the entire complex.

Visitors to the third story royal apartments

On the floor below, we visited the most heavily restored part of the palace: the throne room complex. An antechamber to the main throne room looks as if it might have been a less formal meeting place, with stone benches flanking a wooden throne. The throne room itself is through a double entrance. Here we found wonderfully colorful frescoes depicting griffins (imaginary creatures with the head of an eagle and the body of a lion). These symbols of royal and divine power flank a throne, before which is a large basin used for ritual cleansing. Some experts believe that this is where the king – in his role as the priest-king – met with religious leaders.

Throne room of Knossos

Just south of throne room complex is the religious center of the palace, with its tripartite (three-part) shrine. This is where priestesses performed ceremonies and kept sacred objects (such as the Snake Goddess we saw at the museum). There are two chambers with square pillars inscribed with sacred symbols; at the base are small stone basins for liquid offerings. Perhaps it was believed that some divinity inhabited these pillars.

Tripartite shrine near throne room

On the eastern side of the central courtyard, across from the tripartite shrine, is a grand staircase leading to the royal apartments and the “Hall of the Double Axes.” The staircase itself is extraordinary because it incorporates a light well, which channels air and sunlight to the four levels that the stairs connect.  This is the only way to get daylight into interior rooms.

Staircase "light well" in royal apartments

In this wing of the palace is the Queen’s Megaron (“megaron” means big room), which is adorned with frescoes of dolphins, dancers, spirals and other decorations. The chambers were flooded with light and – in ancient times – well furnished with everything a queen might want, including a bath.

Queen's Megaron

The royal ladies lived well at Knossos. They had fancy clothes, makeup, beautiful jewelry – and even hairdressers to maintain their elaborate hair styles.

"Royal Ladies" fresco

Minoan architecture obviously depended for its effect on the use of color; every column was brilliantly painted, every wall frescoed. Everywhere we saw the Minoan artistic hallmarks – the bull, the sacred double axe (called a labrys), men and women in intricate costumes and bright scenes from nature.

Bull mural at the north end of the palace

At the northeastern part of the palace, above the north entrance, is the “customs house” and a balcony with a relief fresco of a bull. Whether the customs house was actually used to collect tribute or taxes (or perhaps had some other purpose) we don’t know. However, there are nearby storerooms where tribute goods might have been laid up.

Beyond the customs house was the north entrance to the palace complex. Here we also found the theater area, where a welcoming ceremony might have been performed – or perhaps an entertainment or religious service for commoners who did not have free access to the palace.

Theatral stairs at the north entrance

Leading up to the theater area is the so-called “king’s highway.”  This was actually the main road to the palace. It is also the way back to Koutouloufari and a rest in the shade.

The "king's highway" to Knossos Palace
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