Crete Knossos palace history and visiting – Knossos is generally one of the most famous archaeological sites and certainly the most famous in Crete. The visit to Knossos is certainly interesting, but it is better if done with a guide for a better understanding of what you see and the history of this city.
Once you have visited with the guide here at the palace of Knossos, visiting the Heraklion museum will also make much more sense, as you will already know what you are looking at and what is best to focus on.
How to reach Knossos?
Knossos is one of the most important attractions in Heraklion and is therefore easy to reach. In fact, Knossos can be reached both by bus and by car without any particular problems.
The parking for the archaeological area of Knossos is very large and free.
What are the inhabitants of Knossos called?
The Minoan civilization lived in Knossos. We can therefore call the inhabitants of Knossos Minoites.
Is what we see in Knossos original or fake?
Is what we see in Knossos original or fake? To answer this question, let’s first understand what we see during our visit to Knossos.
The palace we see today is the palace from 1700 BC. This palace was built on the ruins of the old palace. The only remaining parts of the old palace are the western courtyard, the warehouses and the theater. These parts were refurbished and reused until the end of the Minoan era. The rest of the old palace with its ruins was instead covered with earth after the earthquake of 1700 BC and the new palace was built exactly above.
It must be said that even the palace we see today, the palace of 1700 BC, has been damaged many times by earthquakes, the eruption of the volcano of Santorini in 1500 BC and the invasion in 1450. However, immediately after each destruction, the palace was renovated and re-inhabited.
This is true until 1360 BC, when the last great destruction was due to an earthquake, followed by a fire in the warehouses. In fact, the warehouses contained amphorae that contained oil and wine. The contents of these amphorae were overturned and due to the earthquake, they caught fire by the lamps that illuminated the warehouse. First, the warehouse caught fire and then the whole building. The fire burned all the wooden parts and since the columns were also made of wood, the whole building collapsed.
For this reason, there is nothing original in Knossos above the first horizontal beam. After the earthquake of 1360 BC, the palace was no longer restored, but the city of Knossos remained inhabited until 67 BC, when it was destroyed by the Romans. In fact, the Romans no longer needed a large city in the north and changed the sea routes. Their ships passed along the southern coast. They moved the capital of the island to the south, about 70 km from Knossos, where the ruins of the ancient city still stand today, which are located near Phaistos in southern Crete.
But until Roman times, Knossos was the capital of Crete.
Why do we see well-preserved parts of the palace of Knossos today?
If it is true that the Palace of Knossos collapsed, why do we see well-preserved parts of the palace today? To answer this question, let’s first try to figure out who started excavating the ruins of the palace of Knossos.
The first to excavate at Knossos was Arthur Evans, who carried out restoration, not of a conservative type but rather tried to reconstruct some parts of the palace according to his idea of how it could be. In addition, he uses materials that are not faithful to the originals and unrelated to the original construction of the palace of Knossos.
His method is clearly criticized by modern archaeologists, although tourists are very attracted to these reconstructed parts, and are among the most photographed.
So some parts of the palace that seem well preserved, especially those with red columns, are actually a reconstruction by Evans. Other parts of the building, such as the warehouses, are original.
Why had they chosen this place to build the city of Knossos?
Why had they chosen this place to build the city of Knossos? The city of Knossos was located not on the sea but at a certain distance. This allowed it to be protected in case of direct attacks from the sea.
It was also located a little high so that you could control and observe the land around it. There was a natural fortification formed by all the hills around, plus it is a fertile area and there was water nearby. For all these reasons, this place was chosen for the construction of Knossos.
Are there any frescoes in Knossos?
While visiting the ruins of Knossos, you will see some frescoes. These frescoes are copies and are not originals, as the originals are kept at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum.
In any case, the frescoes of Knossos are beautiful to see as different colors were used and from these frescoes, we can learn about different aspects of the life of the inhabitants of this city.
The colors were extracted from plants, shells, minerals, the walls from which they took the dust, and the bones of burnt black animals and imported the blue from Egypt. They painted the men red and the women white. The women were white, perhaps to make it clear that they didn’t go out often, didn’t work in the fields, and were therefore not tanned.
Gold and wooden items were painted yellow, while silver items were painted blue. Silver items such as vases, bracelets, and anklets.
From the information we have, we can say that the people represented here in the painting are men in fact, they are painted in this reddish color, they hold various objects, some of which are silver as they are blue.
These were priests dressed in their typical priestly robes. The priests depicted in the paintings are always dressed like this: with a short embroidered skirt, with all colorful designs on it. It was probably made of very fine fabric or was very wide because a net with small silver weights at the bottom hung in the final part of the skirt. This was to prevent the skirt from being raised even on windy days.
The rest of the man’s body was naked. In the frescoes, all these men are represented with narrow waists and broad shoulders but in reality, we can say that they were not like that. In fact, observing the skeletons found, they were not even very tall, around one meter and 60 cm. The women were instead others around the meter and 50 cm. There were also taller men but generally, they were shorter and not as slender as we see them on the frescoes.
In the processions, there was a line of men coming from one direction and another procession of men coming from the opposite direction and in the center between the two lines, there was a white woman waiting to receive the offerings contained in the vases.
The rooms we see have been reconstructed and even the columns are not original, but we still see the ancient alabaster base under the columns.
How do we know how tall the rooms were?
If we don’t have columns and how do we know how tall the rooms were?
The rooms were a maximum of 3 meters high as this is the height of the stairs leading to the upper floors.
The bull as a symbol of power
The bull was, for the inhabitants of Knossos, a sacred animal, a symbol of power. According to Evans, the double horns symbolized the king’s double power: religious power and legislative power. The horns were placed on the roofs of the rooms (Evans’s theory) or on his drawings. The horns were a symbol indicating the sacred character of a part of the palace.
The western courtyard and the processions
On your visit to Knossos, one of the first areas you come across is the western courtyard. It must be said that seeing it without an explanation, we cannot understand its function or importance.
The courtyard is crossed by three corridors raised above the rest of the pavement and they intersect each other. The idea is that processions would parade over them during the ceremonies.
You can clearly see these corridors from the model of Knossos that you find at the Heraklion museum.
To know how the processions took place, we must rely on the images depicting these scenes, as we have not yet been able to understand the Minoan script.
For this reason, a sarcophagus kept at the Heraklion museum is very important because it shows us a procession like those that probably took place right here in the western courtyard.
The warehouses kept large amphorae in which products such as wine, olive oil, and honey could be placed.
The size of the Knossos warehouses makes us understand that they could satisfy more than just the needs of the inhabitants of Knossos. In fact, all the products collected in the neighboring lands were probably brought into the palace and from there distributed to the inhabitants or exported to other countries.
This makes us understand that the palace of Knossos was also a commercial center.
The warehouses were rectangular rooms generally covered and closed. Two sets of amphorae were placed near each room’s long walls. In the warehouses where the products were liquid such as wine and oil, there were holes in the ground or small square or rectangular tanks, a maximum of 1 meter and 20 cm deep, with an internal alabaster lining.
These small cisterns had the task of collecting the contents of the amphorae when they broke for any reason: for an accident or an earthquake, for example. In this way, even if all the vessels were destroyed at the same time, at least some of the products were collected in these tanks and not lost. The product could then be filtered and reused.
The religion of the Minoan civilization
The inhabitants of Knossos were monotheists until at least 1500 BC. In fact, the museum contains clay tablets written with the writing used in Crete after 1500 BC that mention 3 gods of Olympus: Dionysus, Poseidon and Zeus.
It is therefore evident that these 3 gods were introduced from Greece around 1500 BC with the arrival of the Mycenaeans from the Peloponnese, who brought with them the worship of their gods. The worship of these gods accompanied the worship of the Minoan goddess who was previously worshiped.
The worship of the mother earth of the Minoites continued until 1100 BC, but this adoration was accompanied by the adoration of the other 3 gods after 1500 BC.
The Minoites organized ceremonies, processions and sacrificed animals for their divinity. Everyone could go to the sanctuary of the palace: inhabitants of the palace, Cretans but also foreigners. In fact, alabaster vases built in Egypt have been found with hieroglyphic inscriptions that also bear the names of the pharaohs.
People brought their offerings to propitiate the goddess’ favor or as thanks. Animal models in ceramic and bronze were found brought, perhaps by shepherds who wanted to ask for something for their animals.
Then some ex-votos were found to be very similar to those that are still carried in churches today. Today, in fact, gold or silver tablets are brought to represent parts of the body for which healing is requested. The Minoites did not have tablets of gold or silver but small ceramic objects in the shape of the part of the body for which healing was sought.
The double ax
The double ax was the most important symbol of the Minoan civilization. More than 2000 double axes of different materials, weights and sizes have been found here in Knossos. The double axes were used for different purposes depending on the size and material.
The medium-sized ones were used for animal sacrifices, and the larger ones supported by stone and wooden bases served as ornament inside the palace or stood in front of the sanctuaries. Smaller gold ones were hung around the neck, perhaps as a sacred symbol of the Minoan religion as crosses are used today. In fact, some still retain a ring on one side from which they passed a chain or a cord to form a pendant to wear around the neck.
The double ax symbol was also engraved on the walls of the rooms.
What is the Knossos labyrinth actually?
We have just seen how widespread and important the double ax symbol was in Knossos. This symbol is also connected to the very term labyrinth. How?
We know that the ancient name of the double ax was lábrys. It is said that the Greek word labyrinthos or labyrinth in Italian derives from this ancient word. Labyrinth is a word made up of two others: lábrys, which is the name of the double ax and inthos which means place or locality. Labyrinthos then meant the place of the lábrys, the house of the double ax.
Probably this was the name given to the palace of Knossos by the Mycenaeans or by the Greeks, who saw this palace full of double axes and called it labyrinth.
Perhaps later, this term was used by others who wanted to describe buildings similar to the palace of Knossos. In fact, the palace was large and complicated, all complicated constructions were called that. Gradually the word lost its ancient meaning and took on another meaning, first in Greek and then in other languages.
For archaeologists, the labyrinth was the great building of the palace of Knossos.
The labyrinth of Knossos according to mythology
According to mythology, the labyrinth was instead a construction made by an architect from Athens: Daedalus. Minos had ordered Daedalus to build a prison for the minotaur: the queen’s son and a white bull that Poseidon had sent as a gift to Minos.
After the scandal that broke out in Knossos for the birth of the monster, Minos ordered Daedalus to build the labyrinth. Inside the labyrinth, the monster was imprisoned: the minotaur.
Daedalus and his son Icarus were not allowed to leave the island of Crete not to reveal the labyrinth’s secret. They then escaped with wax wings built by Daedalus but while they were flying over the islands of the Aegean sea, Daedalus Icarus’s son got too close to the sun. His wings melted, he fell into the sea and died.
Since then, a part of the Aegean sea bears his name: Icarion sea, with the island of Icaria formed exactly in the place where Icarus lost his life.
This is the story of the labyrinth. According to mythology, the labyrinth is the place where the minotaur ate 7 boys and 7 girls from Athens every year. The place where Theseus, the prince of Athens, entered using Ariadne’s thread, killed the minotaur, and then found his way out using the thread.
All these myths were invented many years after the end of the Minoan era, probably by people who wanted to describe something they had heard and passed down from their ancestors to explain what happened in antiquity.
What is the origin of the myth of the arrival of Theseus?
What is the origin of the myth of the arrival of Theseus? Archaeologists say that the myth of the arrival of Theseus, a Greek and the killing of the monster may be an indication of an invasion by the Greeks. There is the theory that in 1450 BC the Mycenaeans, or the Greeks, destroyed the palace.
Where does the myth of the Minotaur originate from?
Where does the myth of the Minotaur originate from? The myth of the monster, of the minotaur who lived in Crete and ate 7 boys and 7 girls from Athens every year, was probably invented to describe bullfighting.
Bullfighting was a Minoan game in which a wild and untrained bull participated. They hunted the bull in the plains where they lived and took them to the place where these games were played. The games were also attended by athletes who could be both men and women, as we can also see in the fresco: some figures are white while one is red.
We recall as already mentioned above that in the frescoes the women were colored white, the men instead of this reddish color.
The athletes depicted in the games are all dressed alike, with a uniform consisting of short shorts.
At the start of the games, the athlete had to take the bull by the horns as the bull ran toward him, then he had to jump over his back, and eventually, he had to jump back and stay standing. As you can see, they were very difficult games.
The games aimed not to kill the bull but to do stunts over its back. The bull was a sacred animal, and they sacrificed it on other occasions but not during games.
Bull athletes died much more often. This is especially true for athletes who came from afar, as they were very young, did not have the opportunity to train and did not have a lot of experience in this type of game. For this reason, they were very often injured and killed by the bull’s horns.
Probably the invention of the myth of the Minotaur, or a myth that spoke of a monster who lived in Knossos and who ate 7 boys and 7 girls from Athens every year, was just a way that the Athenians had found to describe these Cretan games that they seemed cruel to them.
The minoites and sport
The Cretans were lovers of games and sports as we can see from the frescoes depicting muscular men. In addition to the acrobatics on the bulls on the frescoes, there are running competitions where not only red Minoite men participate but also black and, therefore African men who probably came up here to participate in the races. There were also wrestling and boxing competitions.
The fresco of the Prince of Lilies also probably represents an athlete. Evans thought he was a prince but he probably wasn’t. In fact, he is dressed like an athlete, he has a very muscular body, and his right hand is in a fist. Perhaps he was an athlete in a fight scene, not a prince as Evans called him.
The fresco of The Prince of the Lilies
The man represented in this fresco is an exception to the rule as he is a man but does not have a red color like on the other frescoes. In fact, the color used is pink, an orange-pink.
At the turn of the century, Evans said that the younger members of the royal family were painted pink and for this, he called him prince. In particular, the name Prince of the Lilies was given to him for his crown, decorated with lilies and peacock feathers, and the necklace with red lilies.
The original fresco is kept in the museum. Looking closely at the fresco, we can see that some parts are not original and have been added and reconstructed by archaeologists.
An important detail to note is that we only have a small part of the left arm so the movement has been completely reconstructed. Evans thought it was a prince pulling an animal, so the arm was placed in a position that depicted this scene, so in the reconstruction, the arm is outstretched.
However, nothing indicates that the arm was in a different position.
In fact, modern archaeologists think that he is not a prince but an athlete: he is dressed like an athlete, has a very muscular body and his right hand is in a fist.
So maybe he was an athlete in a fight scene and the other arm was also in a wrestling position. Therefore an athlete and not a prince as Evans called him.
However, this relief painting is still known today as the Prince of the Lilies and is the most famous painting among those found. To be able to do this type of painting, the artist first had to apply stucco on the wall giving the desired shape and then, while the stucco was still wet, he had to apply it very quickly, perhaps with a sponge, all the colors that were absorbed by the stucco.
This technique allowed the colors to last over time and are still preserved.
The throne room
The throne room is one of the most visited areas of the palace of Knossos. In the throne room, there is the stone turret adjacent to a wall and benches all around where people could sit to talk to the king. On the wall, a painting was found showing palm leaves and griffons, mythical animals imagined by Minoites with the head of an eagle, the body of a lion and a snake as a tail. This composition of the griffon perhaps indicated the 3 powers worshiped in Crete: the powers of the air or of the sky with the eagle, of the earth with the lion and the underground powers with the snake.
According to Evans, the throne room was probably used when the king acted as a priest because this room is connected to the sanctuaries. Probably inside the throne room, the king received other priests and together they purified themselves, before leaving for the ceremonies in the sanctuaries or in the central courtyard.
The benches and floor are original in the throne room, but almost the whole room has been reconstructed. The throne room can be visited, but in periods of particular crowding the queue can be very long, almost exhausting if we want to add the heat in summer. Therefore, it is better to consider visiting it when it is not too hot and the crowd is less.
In fact, the Throne Room is particularly popular with visitors because here they can see an entire room of the palace of Knossos and in addition with a very important function. Too bad, however, that the original find did not look at all as we can see today because almost everything has been rebuilt. We can see below a photo of the excavations before the reconstruction.
The eastern wing
The Minoites had built a part of the building four floors high. To need less support, however, they had dug into the hill and formed terraces. There are therefore 2 floors underground. The palace of Knossos is the first building in Europe that had more than one floor.
It is precisely here that there were the largest and best-decorated rooms, perhaps the royal apartments and the king’s room, or another throne room that was used however when the king had his role as administrator, he exercised political power.
A very important thing found here in these rooms is the fresco of the taurocatapsia, or leap of the bull, preserved in the Heraklion museum.
Also in this wing, there is another somewhat smaller room with a feminine decoration that Evans called the Queen’s Room, where the fresco of the dolphins was found. This makes us understand that they traveled a lot and loved the sea.
Bathtubs and Sarcophagi
Next to this queen’s room, a bathroom was found where still today, there is the ceramic tub that was connected to the canalization system. In fact, the tub has a hole at the bottom from which the dirty water from the bathroom could come out.
It is a small bathtub for our standards. Tubs of the same type were used as sarcophagi. We know that they were sarcophagi and not tubs because they were found in cemeteries and contained skeletons.
The two tubs that were found at Knossos are definitely tubs because all two are connected to the drain system and were found in the royal apartments. The same shape was then used for a sarcophagus and a tub. Both had a hole at the bottom to let out the bath water or the liquids of the dead person.
Here it is in the model theater of Knossos. The steps facing us were steps large enough to sit on. The others that we see as more numerous are very low and it was impossible to sit down. Therefore it is thought that the less important people could attend but remain standing here.
The Ports of Knossos
2 ports of Knossos have been found. One is located 6 km from Knossos, where the new port of Heraklion is now towards the airport, in the eastern part. The second port was in Amnissos 11 km from Knossos, immediately after the airport where there is the beach of Amnissos.
Here Evans discovered the port facilities, the port commander’s house or the villa del liglio as he called it for the frescoes that decorated it. Minoan ships loaded with products from other countries and perhaps even foreign ships arrived at the port.
The northern entrance
According to Evans, the northern entrance was closely linked to the presence of ports north of Knossos and to the arrival of people and goods.
The people who came and went through the northern entrance were sometimes also foreign people who brought imported products. For this reason, he called the rectangular space at the northern entrance “the customs”, the same space that today we call the room of the 8 pillars, for the 8 square pillars that supported its roof.
According to Evans, there was a need for control of all these products that came in from the northern entrance and that came from the sea. From here then began a long corridor where you climbed four steps and at the end, you arrived in front of the throne room.
On either side of this corridor, there were two verandas. Evans rebuilt one of these two verandas, where he found the bases of 3 columns which he rebuilt and painted red in the ruins.
He also found the ancient parts of the large painting “the hunt for the bull” depicting a red bull with yellow horns facing north, towards the sea. In front of him is an olive tree and there is a red net with blue dots that is falling over his back to catch him.
This too is a relief painting like that of the prince of lilies. This fresco is very beautiful as it is rich in details, especially regarding the bull’s head which is very expressive.
In front of this veranda, there was another one of which today we have only the base. These two verandas were like two balconies from which you could have a beautiful view of the sea. They were 2 views from which the guards could control the entrance.
However, this theory is not accepted by archaeologists of the British school for whom the Minoites were peaceful, the palace was open and there was no control. This theory is based on the fact that no weapons or bastions have ever been found at Knossos. According to them, these were just balconies to have a nice view and enjoy the panorama.
Heraklion Archaeological Museum
During the visit to Knossos, the guide will refer several times to the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion as the original frescoes and other important artifacts found in Knossos are kept here in the museum.
For this reason it is useful to visit the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion after the visit to Knossos: in this way your visit will be more complete and you can further deepen your knowledge of the Minoan civilization.
At the Knossos ticket office, they sell the combined ticket for the excavations of Knossos and the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion.
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