Today we bid beautiful Chania goodbye and headed east to the famed Minoan palace of Knossos near the port city of Heraklion. Our local guide Ana filled us in on the significance of this site as both an archeological wonder and an archeological blunder, depending on whom you ask. But first, who where these Minoans and why did they matter? To someone like me, who has spent years pondering the Romans, the classical Greeks seem remarkably distant. But the Minoans were ancient even to the Greeks, making them Old, with a capitol O. This intriguing civilization existed on Crete and the Cycladic islands from roughly 3,000 B.C. to 1,500 B.C. when they rapidly declined due to the eruption of the volcano on ancient Thira (Santorini) in 1627, related natural disasters such as tsunami, and their ultimate defeat by the Myceneans of Attica (mainland Greece).
What we do know of the Minoans however is that they were sophisticated, seafaring traders whom we might consider the first true Europeans. They were a people who valued trade over warfare, who created immaculate works of art in the form of ceramics, gold, jewelry and painting, and they loved their athletic events—the most important of which was bull jumping. This dangerous sport required great acrobatic skills and was practiced by both women and men. The objective of the sport was to engage the bull to charging the athlete, at which point the athlete used the bull’s horns and torso to propel her or himself over the bull in a flip, landing in the same position as s/he started. Impressive. Don’t try this at home.
The palace of Knossos was the most significant of all Minoan settlements and could be called the capitol of Minoan civilization. Visiting the site, no matter what you think of its restoration (more on that in a moment), gives one goose bumps if only for the tangible connection it gives us to these ancient ancestors. Beyond the historical significance, its mythological roots give us the infamous Minotaur in his labyrinth.
According to legend, the Minotaur was born from the union of Pasiphae and a bull with whom she had fallen in love. The Minotaur unfortunately inherited the worst parts of both parents, with the body of a man and the head of a bull. If it weren’t bad enough, he also had the unpleasant habit of eating the flesh of humans—this made online dating a bit awkward. To contain him, King Minos placed him in the Labyrinth of the palace of Knossos where the Minotaur was fed sacrifices of young Athenians. One of these Athenians, Theseus, son of Aegean who ruled Attica, would change that practice.
Upon Theseus’ arrival in Knossos, he seduced Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos. She gave Theseus a ball of thread, which he used to find his way out of the Labyrinth after he slayed the Minotaur (guests can be so impolite!). He left Knossos for Athens, taking Ariadne with him, but on a detour on the island of Naxos, Theseus grew tired of her and abandoned her there. Don’t feel too sad for her—Dionysus the vegetation god of the vine found her there, fell in love with and married her, and they lived happily inebriated ever after.
The palace that we see today paints a very interesting (if not completely accurate) picture of life in Minoan times. The reason behind the conflicting views of the restoration lies in the method used by the chief archeologist who first excavated the site. Arthur Evans was a British archeologist who in 1900 excavated and restored large parts of the palace in a way that reconstructs for us the grandeur and complexity of the structure, while at the same time lacks genuine archeological evidence of its true form. What we did learn however was that the palace had over 1,500 rooms in a very complex layout, lending itself to the term “labyrinth.”
After our time in the labyrinth we made our way to Heraklion where we visited the superb archeological museum. Thus museum houses the greatest collection of Minoan arts, jewelry, pottery, even frescoes, anywhere. It also hosts the Phaistos Disc—a clay disc containing one of the earliest European writing, Linear A, a script that has yet to be deciphered.
Our afternoon was again impacted by our Greek Orthodox travel companions who had followed us to Heraklion. This time the entire town was shut down and streets roped off, making our own walk back to the hotel a bit of a labyrinth. We still managed to gather at the hotel this evening for the first of many “Mythical Happy Hours” with Randy. A highlight of our trip, Randy delighted us with his story telling savvy at these gatherings in which we indulged, almost as children, in learning the mythological narratives used to explain and define the human experience in ancient times. However, unlike children, we got to do this with a glass of wine in hand (or ouzo, or mastic, or Rakia).
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