Travelogue: Greece ’22, Part Six – The Palace of Minos

Knossos – reconstructed palace architecture and a light well. (Photo by Nathaniel: Brown)

Publisher’s note: This is the sixth installment of Edmonds resident Nathaniel Brown’s travels to Greece. You can read part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here, part 4 here and part 5 here.

“Here’s a maze trod indeed through forthrights and meanders.  By your patience, I needs must rest me.”

— Gonzalo, in The Tempest

Crete — if one has read enough history or myths, the Theseus novels of Mary Renault, the sagas of Homer or the wandering histories of Herodotus — the name itself groans of slowly accumulated layers of age. Unfortunately Knossos, the “Palace of Minos,” leaves one with very mixed feelings. Fascination, yes, but also confusion and some disappointment. But more of that in a moment.

You arrive at what seems the rather tired Heraklion airport, although baggage handling has to be the fastest in the world. Then you drive through the city, which stretches for several rather dreary miles along the coast. The airport runway, deep blue water to one side, aims directly at the town — something you are reminded of at regular intervals all day long. The city itself feels a bit run down, very random and presents seeming endless streets of nondescript houses of recent build. But you don’t come here for the city. You come for Crete, of which I saw too little, or in my case you come for the Heraklion Archeological Museum, and for the palace of Minos, Knossos itself.

I checked into the Megaron Historic Hotel, one of the very best hotels I have ever stayed in. It’s modern, uncluttered even though full, cool, welcoming…and five minutes’ walk from one of the great archeological teasures of the world: the Heraklion Archeological Museum. In fact, the museum might be better called the museum of Cretan/Minoan archeology, the repository of untold numbers of finds from the Palace of Knossos  itself, and from other great ruins scattered around the island.

It is valuable to see the museum before the palace; seeing it puts the palace itself, which is very confusing and vast, into a more manageable perspective.

Wooden model of the Palace of Knossos; note the four-story building in the foreground and the complexity of the whole palace! (Photo by Nathaniel Brown)

This civilization predates classical Greece by a thousand years. From Crete came influences on the Myceneans, who seem later to have conquered Crete, and who had perhaps little direct cultural effect on what we lump into the broad modern term “the Greeks,” but the ancients would not have known the word. If they called “Greece” with its many city states anything, they called it Hellas, referring more to the common language roots than to a people. But the Myceneans did leave behind the legends of the Trojan war, which Homer sang later (around 800 BC?) in the Iliad and the Odyssey, which had a deep spiritual effect on succeeding cultures. Alexander the Great traveled everywhere with his personal copy of the Iliad, and in the late ’70s, I remember the head ski coach of Finland, Imo Kuutso, had a copy of Homer he traveled with. The classics endure.

Clay model of a Minoan house, showing that as early as circa 1900 BC, architecture in Crete had reached a high standard of sophistication. Heraklion Archeological Museum. (Photo by Nathaniel Brown)

What strikes one in the Heraklion Archeological Museum is that this is a very, very different civilization from the classical Greek culture we have been examining in these travelogues, and that is different enough in itself. We know nothing of Minoan religion, we puzzle at their writing, which is in an undeciphered script we call Linear A, and we know very little else other than the sophistication of their pottery and architecture. Some examples follow.

An aspergillum, or a sprinkler, an object for sprinkling libations. Wine (one presumes) was poured in at the top, trickled down through the various loops, and sprinkled out through holes punctured in the bottom. Its significance is unknown. Heraklion Archeological  Museum. (Photo by Nathaniel Brown)
Elaborate amphora-style vase carved entirely out of stone, using the veins of the marble to create a disc in the center of the body. No “primitive” craftsmen, these! Circa 1500 BC. (Photo by Nathaniel Brown)
The labrys (plural: labryes) had unknown religious significance to the Minoans, but was apparently carried, always and only by women, for ceremonial purposes. I have left the museum guard in the picture for scale; the museum displays dozens more labryes in all sizes down to necklace ornament, and in all materials, including a good many in gold. Heraklion Archeological Museum. (Photo by Nathaniel Brown)

Cleanliness was also prized, as witnessed by the number of pottery bathtubs that have been excavated in the various palaces around Crete. (There are at least five of these Great Houses, though Knossos is by far the biggest and the grandest.) There is also evidence of running water on upper floors.)

One of several bathtubs in the Heraklion Archeological Museum; the drain is just out of sight at the far end. (Photo by Nathaniel Brown)

Having gained a grounding in Minoan life, we turn to the Palace of Knossos, which along with the Archeological Museum was my reason for visiting Crete. (That and a quest for the best olive poil in Crete, which I found in a little shop on a pedestrian street. The owner assured me that it was indeed the best in Crete, and who I am I to dispute him?)

Knossos is the discovery of British archeologist Sir Arthur Evans. To a greater or lesser extent it is also the creation of Sir Arthur.

Sir Arthur Evans began excavating at Knossos in 1900, a project that would occupy him for the rest of his working life. Being a creature of his age, some degree of romanticism tinted his view of ancient Greece and Crete, like Schliemann at Troy and Mycenae a generation earlier, and it was Evans who decided that the complex of ruins that we today call Knossos, was the Palace of the legendary King Minos, with his labyrinth, Dedalus and Icarus, the Minotaur, and with Theseus and Ariadne. It is from the name Minos that Evans derived the name for the entire civilization, the Minoan. It was also Evans who undertook much of the restoration we see at the palace today.

We owe Sir Arthur a great debt of thanks for all he achieved, but herein lies the rub: There has  been so much restoration, so much cut from brand-new cloth, that while it is easy to tell the brightly painted new from the very old, there is an enormous amount of the palace that lies in between, so that you are really never certain if you are looking at the ancient, genuine Knossos, or some mixture of ancient and new.

The old. Outser buildings of Knossos. (Photo by Nathaniel Brown)
The new. (Photo by Nathaniel Brown)
The mix. The “Throne room of Mimos,” so dubbed by Evans. The throne stands where it was found, the floor is original. The bowl was placed there by Evans, and the painting and door are new. (Photo by Nathaniel Brown)
More mix. Socket for a pillar, with a very deep light well (?) behind – three stories down from the surface. Access to interior passages is closed. (Photo by Nathaniel Brown)
Mostly new – but no photo visit to Knossos can be complete without the red pillars with the reverse taper: wider at the top.  (Photo by Nathaniel Brown)

I had no trips or falls at Knossos. I must be getting more cautious about watching the footing in front of me! But caveat tourist: lots of very awkward stairs without railings, much uneven ground. That said, I am glad I went, but I do question to what extent what one sees is Minoan as opposed, if you will, to Evans’ view of how it ought to have looked. Certainly the place is enormous and complex; the maze of Daedalus may well simply be the palace, with its endless, added-onto passages and cellars and porches and chambers and ceremonial ways. It left me grateful to have seen it, although at the same time confused and puzzled by details.

But like Gonzalo in the play, having trod the maze, I begin to feel drained, traveled out, and ready to start heading home. One more travelogue to come, to plague the patience of the weary reader, and Hobbit-like, fill in some last corners. London in a few hours, home Monday.

— By Nathaniel Brown

Nat Brown taught and coached cross-country running and skiing for 16 years before joining the US Biathlon Team as wax technician, switching to the US Cross-Country team in 1989. He was the first American to take over technical services for a foreign team (Slovenia) and worked also for Germany and Sweden.  He coached at 3 Olympics and 14 World Championships, edited Nordic Update for 9 years and Cross-Country Skier for 2. He has written three books on skiing and training; the latest was The Complete Guide to Cross-Country Ski Preparation (Mountaineers Books) which has gone through two editions and a Russian translation. He owned and operated Nordic UltraTune, an international freelance ski tuning service until retirement. 

 

 

  1. Well, now I’ve got to go back and read the first five installments. You write so well, Nat! Keep on keepin’ on.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Real first and last names — as well as city of residence — are required for all commenters.
This is so we can verify your identity before approving your comment.

By commenting here you agree to abide by our Code of Conduct. Please read our code at the bottom of this page before commenting.