Palace of the Minoans

Knossos, Crete

Jan 9, 2023

Crete is synonymous with Minoans and arguably the most famous relic of that age is the Knossos Palace. Knossos conjures in my mind a vast palace with hallways and squares held up by gracefully tapered blood-red pillars, the walls covered with intricate frescoes. I am off to see it for real.

Mitochondrial DNA analysis of Minoan skeletal remains from the Lassithi plateau show that this civilization arose 5,000 years ago in Crete from an ancestral Neolithic population that had arrived in the region about 4,000 years earlier. Studies show that a group of Neolithic humans likely came from the Levant, in present day Anatolia and Middle East. And it is this group that later evolved into what we call the Minoans, reaching the zenith of the their civilization around 2000 BCE. It is they who built the four palaces, its most famous, the Knossos.

Entering from the west I see the three huge circular underground storage silos and then past the corridor of processions to the south end. And there! There is the first blood-red pillar. Of course, this has been re-painted to match the originals but somehow it brings to life what was. And there around the corner on the wall is a reproduction of the fresco of the “cup bearer”. The original in the Archeological Museum in Heraklion, is actually much finer than this reproduction. Up the wide stairs are three gigantic pithoi or jars, likely used for storage of grain and oil. Across them is a large underground storage chamber, meticulously divided into rectangular sections. The resident peacocks call it home these days.

To the southeast is another corridor, this wall graced by the “Prince of Lillies” fresco, another reproduction. I stand, admire and imagine the place in its heyday when it was humming with people, the giant square in front, thronged. To the left of the square is the structure deemed sacred, where the two “Snake Goddesses” were found. Not much remains except for broken walls and a lone pithoi.

The middle of eastern side of the square is the entryway for the “Grand Staircase” that leads down a full four storeys. Two storeys down is the “Shield Room”, so called because of the figure of eight shields on the wall. These are faithful reproductions of the originals, now housed in the Museum. It is down these steps that the residential quarters are believed to be, including the Queen’s quarters where the famed “Dolphin” fresco was found. But sadly, these are closed now to the public, ostensibly for renovation although I saw not a single person, nor any signs of work actually being done.

Immediately across to the west is the “Throne Room”. A small antechamber leads to openings through which I peer. The fancifully carved throne sits to one side with a large bowl set in the floor in front of it and all along the wall are the griffins against a red background. A narrow stone bench runs round around the perimeter, likely for exalted personages of the day. Across from the throne are black pillars and continuation of the bench. Somehow in photographs seen before, it had seemed much larger, more opulent and grander.

The so called “Fresco Room” seems hardly large enough to house all the frescoes. Here again are reproductions, tiny in comparison to the originals that I saw in the museum. This too appears to be multi-storied but again, there is no access, thanks to the same so-called restorations. Disgruntled, I peer the best I can, teetering across the guard rope under the eagle eye of the guard.

Two more structures stand to the north, the one on the northeast arguably the most photographed “Bull Fresco”. Framed by three standing pillars, the charging  bull is life-size and in color and detail closest to the original. The walls wear a faded yellow patina as they stand over the steep inclined pathway pointing north. The function of the last multi-storied structure is debated, although currently thought to be a purification chamber. Here again are the red pillars with a staircase that goes down a storey or two. Both the “Bull Fresco” and the “Purification Chamber” open onto the north entrance, a long passageway leading to up shallow steps into an open space.

All around are the rubbles of the vast palace it once was. In the brief spatter of rain, I take shelter in the antechamber of the throne room and imagine how it once was.

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