Crete is the largest of the Greek islands, and – according to people who know the country well – the finest. Crete has history, culture, traditions, a rich cuisine and some of the most beautiful beaches in Greece. A land of myth and imagination – where mythology and history are so intertwined it’s hard to tell them apart – Crete is Greece in a nutshell.
I grew up hearing about this magical island from an uncle born in Chania, Crete – uncle Christos, who came into our family when he married my aunt Maria. But what finally took me there was the mystery surrounding Europe’s first civilization: the Minoans, as the prehistoric Cretans are called. I had read about them as a child – about King Minos of Knossos – and had always imagined visiting his palace. The opportunity finally came up last month, and I was off to Greece in a matter of days.
The amazing Minoans
History tells that as far back as the year 3,500 BC, while the rest of Europe was still a land of barbarian tribes, this Bronze Age people built in Crete one of the most brilliant cultures the world has ever known. The center of their power was the Palace of Knossos, uncovered in Crete in the late 19th-century by British archeologist Sir Arthur Evans. Not knowing the real name of the people who lived in the ruins, Evans decided to call them Minoans – as for king Minos of Greek mythology. But whatever their name was, Knossos is considered Europe’s first urban center, the political, religious and economic capital of a society so refined and advanced, that their legacy of art and architecture strongly influenced mainland Greece and the other Aegean islands.
Knossos and the Archeological Museum – which houses most of the artifacts found in the excavations – are the main reasons people come to Heraklion, Crete’s capital. Home to 150.000 people, Heraklion is a modern and not immediately appealing city, a sprawling collection of apartment buildings and busy roadways. I arrived in the city coming from Santorini by ferry, after a three-hour ride south on the Aegean Sea (Crete is right in the middle between Athens and the coast of Egypt) on a boat full of animated tourists.
When we docked at the Old Port in Heraklion, I could see Hotel Aquila Atlantis, where I had a reservation. It looked near, and I decided to walk, instead of taking a taxi. It was a bad idea: my suitcase was heavy with travel brochures and books collected at each stop of my Greek-island hopping, dragging it on the last few blocks to the hotel – on a steep, upwards hill – took all my energy. I was so tired when I got to my room that I ordered room service instead of going out to eat. My meal was as fresh and tasty as if it had been cooked from scratch in a fine restaurant. You can never have bad food in Greece.
The next morning I left the hotel early to visit the Heraklion Archeological Museum, one of the greatest in Greece and the best in the world for Minoan art. The sun was shining bright and already hot. From the top of the hill I could see the port in the distance, already crowded with ships coming and going. Heraklion’s importance has always come from the port – it was the main harbor for the Minoans, expert sailors and traders who lived from exploring the sea, and it’s still vital today.
The Heraklion Archeological Museum is a modern building on a busy square crowded with buses, shops and locals. Founded at the turn of the 20th century, restored in 2014, the museum is in a class of its own, for guarding practically all of the Minoan treasures of Knossos – some of them 3,000 years old. Among the masterpieces displayed in its 27 rooms are treasures like a seal-stone called Phaistos Disk, a 3500 year-old clay tablet written in a script considered the earliest known example of Minoan text – Linear A – and not yet deciphered. The Linear B script, used in Minoan documents and considered an early form of Greek, has been deciphered by English architect and linguist Michael Ventris.
What struck me the most in the museum is how ‘modern’ and elegant the objects on view looked. Sophisticated frescoes depicting tall, broad-shouldered and slim-waisted youths, delicate restored fragments, formal ritual processions and scenes from bullring, a sport widely practiced by young Minoans of both sexes. A mural depicting a group of elegant court ladies could fit very well in today’s fashion magazines.
The Minoans were a seafaring culture that dominated the trade in the Mediterranean at their time, and their artists were constantly exposed to foreigners: Babylonian, Egyptian, Cyprus and Near East peoples. What was found in Knossos showed that they loved animals and the sea, which they used to decorate frescoes, pottery and jewels. They also delighted in flowing and naturalistic shapes and designs; there’s a vibrancy in their works not present in that of other contemporary cultures. Aside from its aesthetic qualities, Minoan art also gives valuable insight into their religious, communal and funeral practices. I was particularly impressed by the delicate workmanship of their jewelry – diadems, necklaces, bracelets, headbands – specially a masterpiece depicting a pair of gold bees rendered in great detail and realism, clutching between a drop of honey they are about to deposit into a granulated honeycomb. Cartier couldn’t do better.
Knossos, the first European capital
The Palace of Knossos is three miles south of the Heraklion Museum, and the most amazing archeological site ever discovered. Sir Arthur Evans brought this forgotten and sublime civilization to light in 1899 and introduced it to an astonished world. Now considered Europe’s oldest throne (the actual stone throne still there, intact) Knossos also provides clear evidence of the great elegance and sophistication of King Minos’ court, something that still amazes visitors today.
To get there I took number 2 bus, across the street from the museum, and in 15 minutes I was in front of the ruins. The sun was burning by then – thank God I never leave home without a hat. Around the entrance of the ruins there were stands selling souvenirs and food, but I had plenty of water in my bag and proceeded to get an English-speaking guide, to help me make sense of the imposing seat of Minoan power in front of me.
The Minoans – the Greek guide told me – flourished on Crete from around 2700 to 1450 BC, and their palaces in Knossos, Phaistos and Gournia were centers of political power and luxury. Minoans were traders in tin, saffron, gold and spices in the Mediterranean, as far away as Spain. They loved art, farmed bees and worshipped many goddesses.
The site of Knossos was occupied from Neolithic times – proceeded the guide – and the population spread to the surrounding areas. The first palace in Knossos was built around 1900 BC, and the second – after an earthquake – around 1700 BC (later Knossos became a Greek city-state). What we see now is the product of 20 years of excavations and reconstructions, and it gives an idea of how this magnificent society lived, and of how advanced their engineers were: they brought water from the hills to the palace, and built a perfect storm drain system – perhaps the first known to mankind – at least 1000 years before the Romans! The rooms in the palace were built to allow privacy, and elaborate tunnels guaranteed a permanent breeze to freshen them up – the first air conditioning. The frescos and decorations on the walls, especially in the throne and the queen’s mega room, show clearly the fine craftsmanship and taste of Minoan artists.
But with all we know about this brilliant people, there’s still a shroud of mystery surrounding them. How did such a strong and wealthy society disappear from the face of earth? History doesn’t tell. The answers may be in scripts yet to be deciphered. At present, all we have are theories.
After hours on the ruins, with more literature collected at the front desk and no idea how I’d fit it in my suitcase, I took number 2 bus back to Heraklion. I got my luggage in the hotel and took a taxi to Heraklion’s main bus station, to catch a bus to Chania, on the west end of Crete. I try to use local transportation whenever possible, to get to know the people.
Waiting for the bus at the busy Heraklion central station, I watched groups of talkative Greek men smoking – always – and lively discussing something I could not understand (Greek is Greek to me). Not far from them, their wives – all dressed in black – sat next to many shopping bags and talked animately, smiling a lot. ‘Probably people from other towns coming to the capital to go shopping’, I thought. ‘How proud they must be of their heritage. How much the world owes to the Greeks’. I, for one, think I do.