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Many authors and historians describe ancient Crete as being the site of the first great Western Civilization. There was an emphasis on life, rather than death. There were palaces, not fortresses; no tombs, but rather royal towns. The potter's wheel was invented, allowing for thin-shelled pottery. Decorative arts developed and advanced, taking the form of environmental subjects in the immediate vicinity. Polychromatic art flourished in the form of frescoed murals. Two and three story town homes were erected. Waterworks and sanitation would be unrivaled for almost 4000 years. Life flourished and progressed in a period of peace.

Crete is the southern-most Greek Island in the Aegean (except for divided Cyprus). The Island is the fifth largest in the Mediterranean. The Minoan civilization located there was extraordinarily advanced for its time, and for another 1000 years or more to come; it featured multi-level constructions and remarkable water works. The Palace complex at Knossos, originally home to King Minos, mythological son of Zeus, who was god of the heavens, gave his name to the culture, which ensued: that of the Minoans. This society gave human shape to its gods, an anthropomorphic attribution. Architecture at the Palace featured multi-storied terraces, grouped around light wells, and featured very sophisticated and practical mechanical systems including clay pipes for bringing water in, and drainage for disposal, all engineered quite efficiently. There were also bathtubs and evidence of water closets.

Civilization on Crete came to a complete standstill apparently when Santorini (Thira) blew up in 1628 B.C.E. The thought is that Cretan Palaces, having no defensive constructions, were protected by a strong naval fleet. It is possible that the entire Cretan navy was destroyed by tidal waves resulting from the volcanic eruption. A defenseless populace would have had to leave the island. The Minoan civilization did restructure itself in Mycenae, within the Peloponnesian area of Greece, and after the 13th century B.C.E. a major empire developed, headquartered in Mycenae (according to most texts on the subject). There is, however, ambivalence among historians as to exactly when the decline - if not total cessation - of civilization began on the island of Crete; indeed, some speculation exists regarding a possible Mycenaean invasion of a crippled Crete (crippled due to earthquakes and the eruption of Santorini).

For many years sources described the ultimate fall of Crete at 1400 B.C.E., give or take a half-century. This, according to some sources, was the time when Achaeans swept in from the northern Peloponnesus and wiped out the Minoans on Crete. The time frame has always been the 15th century, until recent pinpointing of the eruption of Santorini back to the year 1628 B.C.E. A most recent source, attributing geological finds in Greenland (tree rings indicating stunted growth possibly due to ash cover in the atmosphere), seems to confirm the early 17th century date; the source: The Athens Archaeological Society. As of this writing they are still awaiting total confirmation.

Considerable rethinking needs to be done to determine what happened and exactly when the flourishing life of Crete was extinguished. Was it a result of the eruption, attacks succeeding because of a lack of defense due to the destruction of the navy, a lack of fortified buildings, or what? The Palace at Knossos, as you will see, had no defensive construction whatsoever. It was literally "wide open."

The year 1628 B.C.E. was based on the research of particular scholars at some point dating volcanic fallout in Iceland - check it out on your own because it goes beyond the immediacy of this course, but is quite fascinating. The field of Archaeology is closely allied to that of architectural history and most research into past civilizations and their construction comes from archaeologists. Some dispute leads particular researchers to selecting 1650 B.C.E. as the date of the big blowup. In any event, we are talking the 17th century B.C.E. here and certainly not the 15th century stated in most history books. That's the beauty of the Internet - up-to-date information is available instantly, without the wait time for editing, publishing, and distribution of texts. The above is important because it leaves a couple of hundred years either unaccounted for in Minoan history or requires a complete readjustment of the Minoan development timeline and empire building emanating from Mycenae.

Last thought on the subject: historians have long searched for mythical Atlantis, and some have attributed it to Crete, others to Santorini itself. All speculation to date has been without any hard evidence.

Back to Crete - the famous mythological "labyrinth of Crete" was probably derived from the elaborate floor plan of the Palace of Knossos (there were possibly as many as 1,300 - 1,400 rooms). Daedalus, an Athenian craftsman, designed the labyrinth for the legendary King Minos. The labyrinth was to contain the Minotaur, a mythological monster that was half bull, half man.

Minos was king of Crete, possibly Minos I - but there were two kings, same name, and some confusion as to which was, by mythological derivation, the son of Zeus and Europa. Minos I might have been the grandfather of the more famous Minos II. The story is as follows: Zeus assumed the form of a bull (bulls were, incidentally, the subjects of a number of frescoes in Crete), carried off the Phoenician Princess Europa, and took her to Crete. Their union produced three sons, one of whom was Minos (possibly the one known as Minos II). Minos became King of Crete, claiming the privilege was a gift from the gods, and served as a ruler/priest. It is said he now delivers judgment of the dead in Hades. The Genealogical Guide to Greek Mythology, by Carlos Parada, provides a most complete background to all of this. What seems to have happened in ancient times is that many other leaders also attributed their success, power, and position to their gods, often claiming "divinity." So it is sometimes difficult to separate fact from fiction. Interestingly, Louis XIV of France (1638-1715) believed in a doctrine dubbed "the divine right of kings," which claimed that monarchs were responsible only to God, and therefore their subjects owed those monarchs unquestioning obedience. As our history unfolds, we find that some things never seem to change.


We're going to visit that Palace complex on the island of Crete. The Palatial ruins are located in the north-central part of the island, about 5 kilometers (3 miles) south of the main contemporary city of Iraklion (Gr. Heraklion).


The Minoan Palace - a sprawling, stepped, multi-terraced complex, dates from about 2000 B.C.E. It apparently ceased to house life in the 17th century B.C.E., at about the time that the volcano on the Aegean island of Santorini blew up. As discussed above, there is some conflict regarding dates of construction, and the ruins we see today might be the result of a second building phase between 2000 B.C.E., and the volcanic eruption in the 17th century B.C.E. There has been a prevalent opinion among historians that an earthquake destroyed much of the Palopalatial (Gr. ancient palace) construction (estimated between 2000 - 1700 B.C.E.), followed by a period of rebuilding dubbed the Neopalatial (Gr. new palace) Period (1700-1450 B.C.E.). At this point - 1450 B.C.E. - common belief held that Santorini blew up. The question is: Were the earthquake and the eruption one and the same, or was there a time separation? Personally, I am awaiting a rewriting of all of this. In any event, construction is somewhere between 3500 and 4000 years old and extraordinarily advanced for its time.

Initial excavations began in 1878. Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941), a British archaeologist, began uncovering and reconstructing the site in about 1900, with 6.5 meters of soil (approximately 21 feet), resulting from a tidal wave that might have been 45 meters in height (150 feet). Evans then proceeded to reconstruct the complex, using concrete to replace wood beams and columns that had been burned. Local inhabitants regard his reconstruction as not exactly accurate; there appeared to be resentment by the "locals" of the "expert from out of town.”

Some human-interest observations follow that show how similar life remains throughout millennia and across continents; some of the following construction elements show a strong measure of common sense, a lot of which, sadly, we have yet to regain.

  • Personal identification was carried in the form of inscribed stones.

  • People shaved using volcanic glass for razors.

  • Door jambs leading to areas used by women were painted red, while those leading to areas apparently reserved for men were painted white.

  • Society was matriarchal.

  • Holes discovered within floors were apparently used as safe deposit boxes.

  • Garden party frescoes featured topless women.

  • In addition to water being brought in, and wastewater removed, there is evidence of rainwater being drained out of the building complex.

  • Bathroom floors were sloped for drainage.

  • Bathing and toilet facilities were in abundance, compared to their non-existence in the much more recent construction of Versailles, which many believe led to the invention of French perfume.

  • Cisterns existed for the storage of water.

  • Remarkably efficient plumbing systems of terra cotta pipes must have made Knossos the most sanitary city prior to the 20th century A.D.

  • The idea of the lustral bath developed: bathing for purification.

  • Light and ventilation were major design considerations.

  • Construction was often exposed meaningfully, giving a 'half-timber' effect.

  • The idea of the megaron developed, featuring a porch, vestibule, atrium, and rooms beyond; these designs were forerunners of later Greek Temples, the beginning of 'Classical' design.

  • Clusters of buildings developed with courtyards as their nuclei, creating a major organizing element.

A copy of an original fresco: many of these are exhibited throughout the Palace. Cretan art shows an artistic vitality unrivaled in its time frame in history. Compare this view with similar illustrations in Egypt, where figures were stiff, static, and ill-proportioned. Representation of body movement was far more realistic and advanced here in Crete and considerably more "alive."

Frescoes, by the way, are paintings or murals on walls done in such a way that the colored pigments penetrate into the plastered wall itself, creating an in-depth color process. It can be done while the plastered wall is still wet, or applications of water-based colored pigment can be applied to a specially treated wall, bonding the two together, again giving depth to the painting or mural.

In this Palace, apparently, the Cretans changed their frescoes as we do wallpaper - periodically. It is an interesting concept; for example, the Japanese are known to change wall paintings seasonally. These notions help stimulate the mind and retain interest in our surroundings. Realize that if a painting hangs on a wall, basically forever, there does come a time when we don't even look at it, even in our own home. It is little things such as this that we learn from history, and can emulate, in order to enrich our lives today.

Sir Arthur Evans reconstructed the Palace employing reinforced concrete, which was at first painted yellow, then a more wood-like color, depicting the fact that wood originally supported stone sections of the Palace. This building technique - of wood beams and lintels supporting stone walls above is found in Roman constructions as well as Mayan. The capital is most unusual for ancient times, and actually forms a bracket effect to better support the wood beams (the brackets cut the span distance, allowing the beams to function with less material). Capital, from the Latin word for "head,” is the top of the column. The bottom of a column, if there is a separate element, is known as the base. Interestingly, contemporary architects use the staggered effect of the bracket design. Realize that the bracket effect of column capitals is a sound, practical matter. It is unfortunate that most historians ignore this very simple structural fact: capitals cut down the span between vertical supports.

The urns all show either different forms or decorative elements integrated within those forms. As was mentioned above, the ancient Greeks had a different form for each and every purpose of containers. It is possible that the Cretans preceded the Greeks in this articulation of shapes. But the integration of decorative artistic embellishment is not to be overlooked.

This is the great Propylaea at the southern entrance of the Palace. There is an "upside-down" round column (a sliver is shown to the left) just beyond the rectangular bracketed one in the foreground.

Blue dancers - to be identified; try, for some extra credit.

This fresco copy is situated in the hall above the Throne Room. It features tentacles of an octopus. Many of the frescoes feature marine life, and it is obvious that an island culture would develop an artistic inclination towards its surroundings. We can often identify a geographical location by its art. Notice that here, too, the art is alive, kinetic, and vibrant.

A stairwell.

This is part of the north entrance to the Palace. This is our first actual look at the "upside-down" columns. These are concrete reconstructions of original wood columns. Some verification of the fact that the columns have a smaller diameter at their base than they do at their top would undoubtedly have been made from measurements of base and capital remnants. Further verification is found in the Lions' Gate at Mycenae, where an "upside-down" column is sculpted. A local architect informed us that such a configuration was necessary, because when a tree trunk (which is what a column was) is placed in its normal position - wide at the bottom, and narrower at the top - leaves will sprout because of the nature of the trees in Crete and the climate of the island. To avoid having to prune their columns, the ancient Cretans apparently turned their tree/columns upside-down. I suppose the trees then strangled on their own sap. This inhibited growth.

Throne of the legendary King Minos. Notice, too, the very colorful background, which again shows the life and vitality of the culture.

Seemingly yet another throne within the Palace. Again, we find art integrated with utility. The legs are carved with repetitive flutings, and the back of the throne has a repetitive molding-like edge.

More cascading stairs, with considerable landing space between flights of stairs.

This appears to be a sewer inlet. Such water engineering was not seen again until Roman times more than 1000 years later.

The Queen's Megaron. Ancient societies supposedly created separate apartments for various members of royalty within their palaces. The custom can be seen in much more recent constructions, notably the Palace of Versailles in France, and the Escorial outside of Madrid, as well as the Royal Palace in Madrid, Spain. Megarons are very old designs, which usually included an entrance porch, a large main front chamber, and small, private rear chambers. This arrangement and architectural design led eventually to the 'mother' of all Megarons, the Parthenon in Athens. Notice the fresco reconstruction of porpoises (or dolphins), small fish (below), as well as sea urchins - all of which permeate the surrounding sea.

This is an opening above the door seen immediately above, on the right. It appears to occupy a position of what we would call a 'transom' today. Its purpose might have been to admit additional light into the room, possibly air. The Cretans employed a number of means of bringing light into this palace complex.

A bathtub, which is not only a beautiful form itself, but is also covered with integrated artwork. There is a lip running around the upper edge, and that lip is repeated on the inside in a repetitive banding. This is not only delightful; it is also quite sophisticated. Free-standing tubs today often look just like this more, but realize you are viewing a more than 3,500 year-old object. It's either that or things don't change; or the Cretans were light years ahead of their time. Apparently, every nobleman occupying the Palace had his (or her) own bathtub. To repeat: society was matriarchal in Minoan times.

Urns, again showing the integrated artwork - not necessary for practical purposes, but apparently so for aesthetic ones among the ancient Cretans. Protuberances are coordinated with the designs - the "handles" might have been for carrying, possibly for shipment. Apparently, Crete has been a winemaking center for millennia, and these could have been for that purpose. Some containers have been identified as having contained olives and figs.

A partial view of the Palace complex: note the fact that all walls, steps, and terraces are all either parallel, or at a precise right angle, to everything else. Notice again the transoms above the doors; and sizable transoms, too - again, probably for light, possibly ventilation. I don't know if we will ever be able to determine just how the Cretans kept the rain out of these openings - assuming that they were left open. Did they use glass, or translucent alabaster, wooden louvers, or what?

This is a view inside the columns of the north Palace entrance, which we glimpsed above. The "upside-down" columns are shown here, with their bulbous capitals. Historians feel these cushion-like bulbous bracket capitals were the forerunner of what was to become the Greek Doric Order. The fresco of a bull is seen behind the columns; apparently, bulls have long been a source for artistic creations, undoubtedly because of the virility they represent.

A Greek source calls the little porch a "control bastion" landing, which would indicate some measure of defensive design. This would seem arguable, given the open nature of everything unearthed on the site. There is a running pattern of circles in a frieze (continual ornamental design) of what can be called the entablature (horizontal massing above the column capitals).

This is the backside of that "bastion," or porch, showing what might have been ashlar-cut stones (horizontal rectangles of stone).

Cascading stairs are situated between parallel walls, and flow throughout the complex in a very contemporary way.

The very sad thing about the demise of Cretan civilization is that a so-called "Dark Ages" came about between the eruption of Santorini and the "Classical" period of development in Greece, roughly the 7th century. So much of what we have seen in Crete was lost for possibly 1000 years - not just art and architecture, but seemingly practical things such as plumbing systems as well.

For your personal investigation, there are two other major palace constructions located on the island: Phaistos, located in south central Crete, and Gournia, located in the northeast of Crete.

© Architecture Past Present & Future - Edward D. Levinson, 2009

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