Thursday, 28 May 2015


“There’s a place in the middle of the wine-dark sea called Crete, a lovely, fruitful land surrounded by the sea.” – Homer, Odyssey (bk. 19)

Let’s go back in time about 5,000 years to the Greek island of Crete. It was around that time that an Asiatic people from Asia Minor settled in the island and mingled with the local inhabitants. At about 2,000 BC, these Cretans were already living in cities, trading with other nations in the Mediterranean, and employing a system of writing, probably derived from Egyptian hieroglyphics. Their hieroglyphic writing would eventually evolve into a linear script. They built magnificent palace centres at Knossos, Phaistos, and Kato Zakros; these palaces seem to have dominated Cretan society. The civilisation was called the Minoan civilisation after the legendary king of Crete, Minos.

The remains of the magnificent palace at Knossos (near present day Iraklion) were excavated and restored by Arthur Evans in 1900 AD. The Minoans literally surrounded themselves with art, with colourful frescoes adorning almost every wall, beautiful decorated pottery, statuettes and carved gems and an architecture that was not only visually stunning, but also extremely advanced. At the peak of the civilisation around 1,700 BC, the multistory palaces had flushing toilets, baths with running water, extensive utility areas, ingenious light wells and an intricate plan (“labyrinth” is a Minoan word applied to the palace of Knossos and meaning “House of the Double Axe”, as the double axe was a sacred Minoan symbol).

The Minoan culture flourished for many centuries in Crete and the Aegean islands, but a cataclysmic volcanic eruption on the island of Santorini (about 100 km north of Crete) that happened around 1450 BC and was more than 10 times the force of the Krakatoa eruption was responsible for the downfall of the Minoan civilisation. The Santorini cataclysm is believed to have given rise to the Atlantis legend.

Pottery making reached a great degree of perfection in Minoan culture. Not only were very large (some up to 2 m tall!) utilitarian storage pottery jars made, but also small beautifully decorated pots and jars. Polychrome decoration alternated with monochrome and abstract designs were contrasted with wonderful representations taken from nature.

The cult in Minoan society was centred on the goddess and fertility. Statuettes representing the snake goddess abound in finds at various sites. The snake was a symbol of the earth and fertility. Women enjoyed a very good life in Minoan society. They participated in every occupation and trade available to men. The extensive crafts and industry on Crete included skilled craftswomen and entrepreneurs, and the large, top-heavy bureaucracy and priesthood seems to have been equally staffed with women. Priesthood was in fact dominated by women. Although the palace kings were male, the society itself does seem to have been matriarchal.

Women participated in all the sports that Cretan males participated in. The most popular sports in Crete were incredibly dangerous ones such as boxing and bull-jumping. In bull-jumping a bull would charge headlong into a line of jumpers. Each jumper, when the bull was right on top of them, would grab the horns of the bull and vault over the bull in a somersault to land feet first behind the bull. This is not a sport for the squeamish. All the representations of this sport show young women participating as well as men. This sport gave rise to the legend of the Minotaur, the man-eating bull of Greek mythology.

In the palace of Knossos, there is a throne room, with a stone throne found in situ in this room. It is surrounded by stone benches on which nobles must have sat. The walls are richly decorated with griffin frescoes. Evans was criticised widely for his rather heavy-handed restoration of the palace and frescos in Knossos. However, it should be kept in mind that unless this restoration was carried out, the palace would have been completely ruined (the columns were originally of cypress wood and Evans re-cast them in concrete) and in this fashion the visitor gets a marvellous idea of what the palace must have looked like in real life. The throne room has a central hearth and possesses the characteristic “inverted” (upward) tapering Minoan columns. The colours used in the decoration were brilliant earth colours and mineral-derived pigments. The original frescoes are in the Iraklion museum and reproductions are seen on-site. Visiting Knossos is a fantastic experience that should not be missed if you are going to Greece!

Being an island girt by sea and having a sea-faring culture dependent on distant shores for trade, it is not unusual to find Minoan art full of representations of sea-life. There is a famous dolphin fresco from the Queen’s apartments in the Knossos palace that attests to this. The rooms in this palace are airy, full of light, resplendent with brightly coloured frescos and indicate a carefree lifestyle in which a high degree of culture was blended with joie-de-vivre and great sophistication.

No comments:

Post a Comment