Monday, February 13, 2017

That Day When You Pretty Much Have Knossos to Yourself...


Look up the TripAdvisor reviews for the Palace of Knossos and three themes prevail. 1) Fascinating archeological site. A must see. 2) Phooey, not authentic enough. Arthur Evans used concrete in his restoration and we hate him. 3)Sweet baby Zeus, why are there so many people here?! So very many people!

To be fair, the majority of the assessments fell squarely into the first category and rightfully so. The complex, located 8km outside of Heraklion, is what remains of Europe's oldest city and is pretty darned impressive. Of course, I can say this as someone who had the chance to visit on a cool sunny day in February, when we encountered  maybe a half dozen other visitors, tops. If I were to attempt the same thing on a sweltering summer day while 3 cruise ships are in port and a mob of sun worshippers from the nearby resorts are itching to get cultural, I might not find the experience quite so magical. I suspect that if I had to stand five people deep to get a better look at the throne room, a common complaint for the category three people,  I too might be cursing the mother of all Minoans by day's end.

Visiting Crete in the off-season definitely has its benefits and this was one of them. We pulled into an empty parking lot, paid a reduced admission fee (8 €) and had tour guides battling each other for our business. Once everything was settled, half of our group opted to hire a knowledgeable woman named Maria to show us around, while the other half chose to do it on their own. There are plenty of informational signs so either way is possible but to try to grasp the amount of history present, I firmly believe hiring a guide is the way to go.

Maria began her tour by explaining that what we were looking at was primarily a reconstruction based on the second palace to occupy this site.  Starting in 7000 BCE, there was a settlement on this hill of people who most likely arrived by boat. The spot they chose was right by a river leading to the Aegean sea, so they would have had water access while being inland enough to spot any unexpected seafaring visitors. 

Around 1900 BCE, the first palace was built upon the ruins of this settlement only to toppled by an earthquake in Santorini around 1700 BCE. Today, there are areas where you can see the original flooring and roads from the first palace. As soon as this first palace came down, work began on the second one.

This palace-which in addition to be being the king's home was also an administrative compound/ religious center/ storage warehouse/ entertainment complex/ etc- was to be the epicenter of the Minoan civilization. But before we get to that, we need to recall some scandalous myths (as if there were any other kind). The story goes something like this: King Minos, son of Zeus and the first king of Crete, was trying to grab all the power, primarily from his brothers, so he prayed to Poseidon to send him a white bull as a sign of support. He promised to kill the bull in honor of Poseidon, which sounded good on paper,  but once the bull arrived, Minos realized "Holy shit, this is one nice looking bull!" so he decided to pull a fast one. He kept the good bull and sacrificed a dud instead. Poseidon found out because of course he did and he was pissed. While Minos was off kinging, Poseidon put a love spell on Minos' wife so that she would be all over that sweet bull D. Crazy with lust, she went to Daedalus, the resident palace inventor and had him build her a cow costume so she could consummate her love. Nine months later- or whatever the gestation period would be on this kind of thing- she gave birth to a bouncing baby minotaur. It was half man, half bull and all hungry, with a sweet tooth for humans.  Minos came home, met his new son and knew that if he tried to kill it with fire, his wife would be hella-irate. He had Daedalus build a labyrinth underneath the palace to contain this thing. In order to feed his new charge, he demanded that Athens send over seven men and seven women every seven years. This continued until Theseus, son of King Aegeus (of Aegean Sea fame) volunteered to go kill the minotaur. En route, he woo'ed Minos' daughter Ariadne who wasn't ready to lose him to fact that GPS had not been invented yet. She gave him a ball of thread to unspool as he navigated the labyrinth. Once he killed the minotaur, he simply followed the thread back out to the exit and to the waiting Ariadne.  He then promptly ditched her on the island of Naxos and continued home. Dick.

Now back to our tour. In explaining Knossos and the Minoans, Maria gave us some of the facts upon which these myths were based. For example, Minos was not actually a person but a title. It meant king, so whoever was sitting on the throne was automatically Minos.

The bull represented masculinity and virility and was thus considered sacred. When sacrificing a bull during religious ceremonies, they would use a double-headed axe called a labrys. Today, it is possible to see its depiction on some of the original stones.

If the word labrys sound familiar, perhaps you have heard of a little maze associated with a certain half-bull/ half-man...wait for it...the labyrinth.

We know that ritual sacrifices took place at Knossos thanks to burial pits that have been discovered full of bull bones.



This discovery, as well as every other Knossos-related find, is thanks to a British man named Arthur Evans. The entire complex had been covered over by a hilltop until a local farmer discovered artifacts leading archeologists to believe there was more that lay beneath.  In 1900 CE, Evans bought the entire site and began excavations that would continue for 35 more years.  In the process, he discovered two distinct alphabets which he would label Linear A and Linear B, showing that more than one civilization had occupied this site.

He also undertook a pretty significant restoration of what Knossos would have originally looked like based on, in his own words, "educated guesses". Here is where you get the second set of comments on TripAdvisor. It is certainly true that what we are looking at is significantly different from what Evans would have first encountered. The bright red columns that are prevalent throughout would have originally been composed of the upside down trunks of cedar trees. Evans recreated these using painted concrete.





Maria was instrumental in pointing out what was original and what was a recreation, although careful examination would probably lead you to the same results.. I think if I was a hardcore archeology buff, I too might be annoyed with the liberties that were taken.  But I am not, I am more of a casual fan, and as such there is a part of me that appreciates having this visual representation to fill in the gaps where my imagination might be lacking.  

As any good guest knows, it is impolite to show up at someone's home empty-handed.  The Minoans (a name that was given to them by Evans based on the King Minos myth) were no different. People paying tribute to the king would show up with vases or pithois filled with wine or olive oil as gifts. We can see this depicted in the reproduced Palace frescos (the originals can be seen in the Archeological Museum in Heraklion, unless it is winter time when they close at 3pm and then you are shit out of luck).

The men, who tended to work out in the field, are usually depicted as reddish in color. 

Bull horns: when you want to let the world know quien es mas macho.
The offerings were then transferred to larger immovable jars where a ladle would be used to scoop out the contents as necessary.


The jars would be kept in underground storage rooms, which also had secret compartments in the floor to hide the really valuable stuff (ie gold and jewels).


Along with all this wine and good food, a King needs some entertainment. The Minoans had a sport where the goal appears to be for an acrobat to jump over a charging bull without getting gored in the process. This was inexplicably popular, much like rugby and golf in my eyes, so athletes from all over would come to Knossos to participate. This would have included competitors from Athens. It is a safe assumption that not all of them would have made it back in one piece, thus you have youths from Athens coming to King Minos' palace only to get killed by a bull. Ring a bell?



The main attraction of the complex is the throne room. Located in the central court, this room gets its name from the alabaster seat located against the wall. It is unclear whether the king (or possibly the queen) would have used this space to hold court or for religious ceremonies, as suggested by the lustral basin used for ritual cleansing. Based on the first theory, the President's seat at the International Court in the Hague is a wooden replica of this alabaster seat. It makes sense when you consider that Minos was  believed to be a fair and just ruler who got his wisdom directly from Zeus. He was so good that he continued to ply his trade after death, going on to be become the judge of the dead in the underworld.


If you look at the seat, the chair was ergonomically designed for maximum butt comfort.


This guy was not as red as the others, leading Evans to believe that he was not a typical laborer and probably a prince.
The palace itself contained many features that reveal a pretty advanced knowledge of architecture and engineering. There were three different water maintenance systems: one to bring in clean water, one to remove waste and one to act as a drainage system to siphon off excessive rains. We have the Minoans to thank for the invention of the flushing toilet.



The palace contained over 1300 thousand rooms, all of them connected by passageways of varying shapes and sizes. There were no central hallways to assist in navigating this, this....there is a word for this intricate combination of paths or passages in which it is difficult to find one's way or to reach the exit but it escapes me.





The Queen's Megaron and her many dolphins



The most photographed spot is undoubtably the north entrance portico with its fresco of a bull. Based on its proximity to the water, this was most likely part of a customs house.

If you google Knossos, you will see some variant of this picture, I guarantee it.

It was near this entrance that Maria concluded her tour and most likely went home.  Our group of eight were the only people remaining and Knossos would be closing for the day soon.  Our luck was crazy to have enjoyed not only great weather but to have had this entire place practically all to ourselves.


We celebrated our good fortunes with a late lunch in nearby Heraklion, sitting by the harbor and gazing out at the Koules Fortress.  Unfortunately, it was closed (note: in February, everything in Heraklion is closed at 3pm, except thankfully the restaurant and bars) but we made do. And then some...





We then attempted to walk off the overabundance of food and raki we'd ingested by strolling down 25th of August, the main pedestrian street.



I think it worked because we soon returned to Chania fat, tired and extremely happy, none of these things that you typically see from those reviewers who just spent a day at Knossos.

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