Yesterday I was sitting on a wooden bench overlooking the site of Festos in the Messara Plain south of Iraklion. It was a beautiful day and my thoughts turned to the Minoans. Who were they? What did they do each day? How did they create the first European civilisation? Why was that civilisation so wonderful?
In all my years in Crete I have been to most of the Minoan sites, the palaces, the farmsteads, the villages and the ports. You see the remains of what they built so many years ago and are impressed. Particularly with Sir Arthur Evans reconstruction of Knossos. The wonderful frescoes and the works of art on the fine pottery they made. They seemed a cultured people, sensitive to the land and the passing of the seasons.
Oh but why were they so quiet? Why do we know so little of their daily lives? The Minoan period in Crete is said to have begun at the end of the Neolithic period (2,600 BC) and extends right up until their civilisation was destroyed a few years before 1400 BC. That period of twelve hundred years is marked by archaeologists into various periods, the headings being Pre-Palace (2600-200 BC), Proto-Palace (2000-1700 BC), Neo-Palace (1700-1450 BC) and Post-Palace (1450 BC onwards). This dating of the Minoans was put forward by Professor Platon in 1958 and is now the generally accepted way of dating the Minoan period.
We have the mythology, of course. The stories of King Minos of Crete (which is why Evans called them the Minoans) and the killing of the Minotaur – half man, half bull – by Theseus with the help of Minos’ daughter Ariadne. The stories of the engineer Daedelus and his and his son’s wings of feathers, but how much of this is really relevant? Modern historians now believe that the term Minos was in fact the title of King, rather like the Pharoes in Egypt. No-one is really sure. As for writing, there seemed to be a series of Hieroglyphs popular in Minoan times which have never been deciphered but are shown, for example on the Festos Disc found in the old palace section of Festos. Then there is Linear A. This is dated to before 1500 BC and has never been translated, but was certainly Minoan. Later came Linear B which has been translated and discovered to be of Mycenaean origin and not Minoan. Not that even that gives much information beyond lists of crops and possessions.
Researchers today have various opinions about what life was like during Minoan times. There are also others who disagree. What seems to have been very important though, and enabled the civilisation to grow and achieve its greatness was what is called Pax Minoica. The fact that the Minoans lived in peace with each other and were never invaded. Overall there seems to be a love for life in the Minoans as there is in the Cretans of today. They had their festivals to celebrate the harvest. They had their gods – the most important being the Earth Mother – and they had their respect and worship for the dead. Many of the Minoan cemeteries scattered about the island show a care in tomb making which is extraordinary so long ago.
Almost everyone was involved in farming and looking after herds of sheep, pigs, chickens and so on. They had olive and wine presses but in addition they had many more forests where Cretan Cypresses were grown, a famous and wonderful wood to make things from. Minoan art shows us many forms of rural life, festivals, tilling the ground and more, but there seems to have been also a senior class, an aristocracy that demanded and were given fine clothes and jewelry. This class was clustered around the larger palace centres and may have been related or employed by the King and his family. Here the women had fine haircuts, if the frescoes are to be believed and splendid long skirts that were finely cut and worn.
The most astonishing thing about the Minoans seems to be the equality of men and women. Other civilisations of the time without exception were ruled and dominated by men. The women lived dull domestic lives, but not in Crete. Here the woman is equal to the man. You can see on so much of the pottery where women danced with men and discussed matters with men and were considered in all ways equal. All public and religious occasions had equal amounts of men and women mixed together. This clearly displays an important attitude to life which becomes lost as the Minoans lose their civilisation and was not resurrected until recent times.
Both Festos and Knossos have ancient theatres. The oldest in Europe, in fact, and here they would have festivals and games. The most famous game of the Minoans was the bull-jumping. A young man or woman would dive over the enraged bulls horns, somersault on the bull’s back and land on the floor behind the bull. The action of this game is clearly seen in the frescos that have been reconstructed from Knossos. The bull is never actually harmed as in Spanish bull fighting of today. They also had wrestling and boxing and their love of hunting and dancing is widely seen on pots and frescos.
When you look north from Festos towards Crete’s highest mountain, Psiloritis or Mount Ida, on the lower slops is a cave called the Kamares Cave. Here was found the first traces of the incredible Minoan pottery know as Kamares ware. The Minoans had always been pretty good potters – often with eggshell thin pottery and wonderful designs made both on the spinning potter’s wheel and by hand. But Kamares ware was wonderful. Multicoloured with complex and abstract designs. In the later palaces the Minoans built them as a whole, not just adding bits as they needed them. They had running water and baths. They had drains and sewers. This means that they also had architects, engineers, builders and stonemasons. They had beautiful green tiles and muticoloured rocks such as marble and obsidian. (Obsidian, or at least thin shavings of obsidian, could cut the hair from a man’s face and that was how the Minoans shaved, and they all shaved, it is said.)
As far as political power was concerned, the state was run by the king. The king’s power was said to have come from the gods so in fact the king was also the high priest. The representative of the gods on earth and maybe even was considered a god himself. The symbol of his power was the peacock’s feather. As the civilisation grew and the Minoans developed the use and the accuracy of bronze and copper, they built better and better ships. The wealth of forests on the island made this easy. With the ships they traveled to Egypt, Asia Minor, the Cyclades and the mainland of Greece in order to conduct their trade of exporting the valuable Cretan products and importing things they did not have, such as copper from Cyprus. As the centuries went by they set up villages or small towns on other islands such as Akrotiri on Santorini, for example. The town and palace at Kato Zakro in the centre of the east coast of Crete was considered the main port for dealing with Egypt, Syria, Gaza in Palestine and Cyprus. Finds made recently at Kato Zakro – which was never robbed, luckily, show items from both Syria and Egypt. Later they extended to Asia Minor (Turkey), Rhodes and other Agean islands.
The new palaces built after 1500 BC were truly beautiful. The biggest was certainly Knossos followed by Festos, Mallia and Kato Zakro. They were huge buildings too with central courtyards, grand entrances, light wells, superb plumbing and excellent and huge frescos using an art that looks as fresh today as it did three and a half thousand years ago. Knossos for example covered more than 20,000 square metres and had over 1,400 rooms on several levels. Roads were built all over Crete, the main one between Knossos and Festos. There were many villages and wonderful farmsteads. Of course Crete is in the earthquake zone of the Mediterranean and it was believed that the older palaces were destroyed by one such earthquake the century before. But that never seemed to trouble the Minoans as they simply went on and built even greater and more sophisticated palaces.
This was one of the finest civilisations in the history of mankind. And as I already said, they were never invaded. So how did it all come to such a sudden end? Most likely the civilisation was destroyed by a huge earthquake following the biggest volcanic eruption on the island of Santorini in the last ten thousand years. The eruption was so big that it killed everyone on Santorini and created a huge lake where once were cliffs. It has even been noted from ice cores taken from the Arctic where the red dust can still be seen. The volcanic explosion and the earthquake created a huge tsunami that hit Crete with full force. The new palaces crumbled and anyone living by the sea would have drowned. It is believed that this explosion happened in 1450 BC or thereabouts. There are a couple of varying theories on the date, but the force of the volcanic eruption is agreed by all.
The days and weeks following would have been like nightime all day. The dust that was in the atmosphere is believed to have created severe cold and although some did survive, it must have been extremely difficult. Dust was blown slowly south easterly by a north west wind. All of Asia Minor and Palestine was affected. The mainland of Greece was less affected. Fairly quickly after the eruption, the combined forces of the Achean Greeks – the Mycaneans attacked the island in force. There were very few left to even fight back. The Mycaneans took immediate control of Crete and a splendid civilisation died.