Traveling Classroom Foundation
Friday January 18th 2019

Palace at the Beach

East of Hersonisos, situated near the sea on a rich agricultural plain that extends to the Lisithi Mountains, is the Minoan palace of Malia. While it is not as large and famous as Knossos, the palace was an important food production center and a major port for sea trade in ancient days. After experiencing the crowds at Knossos, we decided to leave early in the morning for our visit to Malia. There was little traffic along the coastal road to the modern town of Malia and, happily, the turnoff to the ancient site was well marked. After a short drive through farmland, we entered a nearly empty parking lot – we had the palace to ourselves.

Scale model of the Malia Palace

We stopped first at the little two-room museum, which displayed (as we hoped) a wonderful scale model of the palace. The museum had only a few minor relics and photographs, but we had already seen the important finds from Malia at the museum in Iraklion (which has the really good stuff from all the Minoan palaces). The model was the most interesting exhibit for us, because it recreated the palace complex in its glory days.

The ceremonial (north) entrance of the palace

Leaving the museum, we walked to the north side of the palace – the formal entrance facing the sea, which once welcomed visitors into a beautiful two-story pillared hall (as you can see in the model above). Not much exists of the great entry hall, except the bases of pillars and the mosaic floor, which appeared to be undergoing some restoration.

What remains of the north entrance today

At the northwest corner is a large step-down bath, which is almost the size of a small swimming pool. A dignitary arriving by ship or dusty road might stop here to be washed and perfumed by servants before meeting with the king. Whether bathing was a formal ritual or common courtesy (no deodorants in ancient times), no one knows.

"Lustral Bath" near the palace entrance

After a bath and a formal welcome in the pillared reception hall, an honored visitor might have passed through into the great central courtyard. Here he could have met with members of the royal household and been escorted upstairs to the throne room, or he may possibly have attended a festival that would have been held in the huge courtyard.

The central courtyard is large enough for a football match

There are remains of columns that once supported a portico on the northern end of the court, and others along the east and west sides. Between these columns are post holes, suggesting that the courtyard could be fenced in for special events – perhaps to protect spectators during the bull-jumping games, which may well have been staged here. In the center of the courtyard is a shallow pit, possibly used for sacrifices to the gods. It is one of only two Minoan sacrificial areas ever discovered.

On the west side of the courtyard are the remains of two important stairways. The first led up to the Royal Lodge or throne room, which overlooked the courtyard. The second, at the southwest corner of the courtyard, is a broad ceremonial staircase that presents a stage for religious ceremonies.

Ceremonial stairs where religious events were staged

Beside the lower stairs is a heavy limestone kernos, or altar, in the form of a disc with 34 hollows around the rim and a larger one in the center. No one knows how this altar was used. Some have theorized that, at harvest time, the first fruits of the various crops were put into the hollows as offerings to the fertility goddess.

Stone kernos for offerings to the gods

In whatever way the Minoans might have used the stone, it probably had a sacred function. Just south of the kernos, archeologists uncovered an apartment with benches and cult objects. They determined that this was a religious shrine.

Many areas of the palace had nothing to do with royal doings, celebrations or ceremonies. In fact, most of the complex seemed devoted to what the Minoans did best: commerce. Around the northern court were store rooms, workshops and an oil-press. Behind the portico on the eastern side was a series of store rooms with drainage culverts and low terraces for placing pithoi (large storage jars).

One of many store rooms on the west side of the courtyard

Scattered round the palace grounds were giant jars that once filled the numerous palace store rooms. When you start adding up the jars and the storage rooms, it is amazing to calculate the amount of foodstuffs kept at Malia.

Giant pythos jar from the store rooms

On the southwest end of the palace were two rows of silos, which were probably granaries. The south wing was occupied mainly by workshops, where craftsmen manufactured bronze tools and weapons, jewelry of gold and precious stones, ivory objects, and many other products sold at trade ports throughout the Mediterranean Sea. Unlike the luxurious European palaces of later times, which were designed for royalty comfort, Minoan palaces are more like business headquarters.

Around the palace complex there was large city, which was also devoted to the commercial goals of the Minoan empire. This is what gave even common craftsmen, traders and sailors a lifestyle more comfortable than most of the world’s population at that time. Several neighborhoods have been excavated (something we did not see at Knossos), which makes Malia a very interesting place to visit. Under a huge protective structure west of the palace, an ongoing neighborhood excavation reveals how the “regular folks” lived.

Excavation of a working neighborhood not far from the palace

The houses were built with mud brick or “wattle and daub” (clay stucco over reeds woven between wooden posts). Surprisingly, many of the homes had two stories and rather large rooms. Some had porches and terraces, where the owners could sit and enjoy the cool evening breeze from the sea. The streets were narrow, but not unlike some of the lanes in Koutouloufari, where we were living. There were pottery and metal working shops near the homes of the craftsmen. Like the palace itself, this neighborhood seemed to be devoted to production and commerce.

We spent more time walking through other neighborhoods near the palace. Some had grand homes with stone walls, others did not. When we left them, we had a better appreciation for the rich tapestry of life during the Minoan period. These ancient people lived and worked in communities. They traded goods and services to earn a living, and they enjoyed festivals and the company of friends. In the most important ways, they were not very different from us.

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