Crete, the Cradle of Minoans (2009)

Crete, the Cradle of Minoans (2009)

One hundred and ten kilometres from Santorini lies Crete. A powered catamaran takes one to Heraklion in northern Crete, site of the largest Minoan palace excavated so far. The Minoan site in Knossos in Crete is the product of the singular efforts of a British archaeologist, Arthur Evans. In 1894, he decided to follow a lead by an earlier explorer who had uncovered parts of a palace in today’s Heraklion and began systematic excavation of the site, which turned out to be a splendid Minoan palace. He published his findings in four volumes entitled The Palace of Minos at Knossos. But in his eagerness, Evans reconstructed damaged parts of the palace in his own conception of what the original palace might have been. He discovered many frescoes, mostly intact, and these were moved to the museum in Heraklion, while copies supplanted them in the original location. His method of reconstruction elicited considerable criticism and perhaps compromised the authenticity of the artefacts to some extent. Yet, they do give us a glimpse of an ancient and glorious civilisation that might otherwise have been lost to posterity forever.

Knossos, non-pareil

At Knossos, built over a labyrinth, one is greeted by a majestic bull horn in concrete, the unmistakable insignia of the Minoans. But on closer inspection I realise it is a recent reconstruction on an earlier site. The site is a sprawling complex of courtrooms, grand staircases, kitchens, workshops, residences and bathrooms. At the core of this complex is the throne room which originally had a wooden throne. Now a stone throne mimics the original. Fragments of original frescoes depicting plants and griffins, mythical beasts with a lion’s body and a bird’s head, were found in this room. Stone vases for ritual use, possibly containing olive oil, were found. At the south entrance is a reconstructed relief wall painting of a figure with lilies, believed to be a Minoan prince. He wears peacock feathers and a garland of lilies and is seen leading an unseen animal in a procession. A fresco, now in fragments, depicting dancing ladies and dolphins is believed to have embellished the queen’s chamber. The women depicted in this fresco look so contemporary that a French visitor viewing them is said to have exclaimed, “Cest une parisienne”!

The Minoans were a seafaring civilisation, perhaps the earliest civilisation that was organised not militarily but on the basis of economic activity. They had virtually no army, no fortifications, no garrisons, no armada, nothing that would define and signify any major power as much then as it is today. Mercantile commerce was what defined the Minoans. Since land was limited, prosperity was sustained mainly through seafaring trade with Greece, Egypt and Anatolia, among other places. Knossos was administered by a complex system of palace bureaucracy that controlled the distribution of goods through multiple seals on clay. Records of clay tablets have been found, although their script, named Linear A, is yet to be deciphered.

Peek into Minoan World

The artefacts unearthed so far do give us precious insights into the Minoan world. Trade was facilitated through a system of measurements using numerical subdivisions and weights. Olive oil and wine were major items of export, which in turn spawned a major industry in pottery. In fact, some exquisite specimens of pottery can be seen both on the site as well as in the museums. The Minoans also exported gems, seals, knives and daggers and other articles of skilled craftsmanship. Knossos was built out of the profits of trade in wines and olive oil and there is ample proof for it – in four-foot-high terracotta jars and vases that seem to have survived miraculously intact for 3,600 years. They are carved with rich and elegant designs and at one time held as much as 19,000 gallons.

There is a mistaken belief that the Minoans worshipped Minotaur, a creature with the head of a bull and the body of a man. The Minoans are named after a legendary Cretan ruler, Minos, and these were people who migrated to Crete from Asia Minor around 3000 B.C. Legend has it that King Minos displeased sea god Poseidon and was cursed with a Minotaur-like creature (half bull, half human) for a son. The Minotaur is believed to have been chained in a labyrinth especially constructed by Daedalus, the architect of the Knossos palace. Minoans worshipped natural forces and venerated the female goddess, a symbol of fertility, much like their contemporaries in Asia. Another striking feature of the Minoan civilisation is that in this ancient period, women enjoyed absolute equality with men in all spheres. There were even women pugilists and bull-fighters.

Archaeological Evidence

A sarcophagus and its contents excavated from Knossos throw light on their funerary customs. They might have believed in life after death, much as their contemporaries in ancient Greece and Egypt did, as is evident from the razors, mirrors, tweezers, combs and jewellery cases made of ivory unearthed from the site.

Since the Minoans settled down in a volcanic region, their palaces and cities were destroyed frequently by earthquakes and were rebuilt. The other Minoan palaces were at Phaistos and Kato Zakros on the east coast. These palaces had numerous rooms, thousands of decorative vases, swimming pools and parquet floors, luxuries few contemporary societies enjoyed. In fact, the Minoans were adept at all the principles of modern engineering and sanitation.

Much of what we know about the Minoans comes exclusively from visual and archaeological evidence unearthed at the Minoan sites. There is little doubt that their serene existence was cut short by a volcanic eruption and they disappeared from human memory until excavations at Akrotiri and Knossos revealed their resplendent lifestyle.

Leaping Bulls

The most exceptional feature of the Minoans was their exquisite art. With the exception of classical Greeks, Minoan art is unparalleled in grace and beauty. Its distinguishing features are delicacy, spontaneity and naturalism. Much of what we glean about the Minoan way of life comes primarily from the paintings and frescoes. They depict the joyous life of a society in harmony with its environment. The human figures depict aesthetic proportions, characterised by the small waist, the fluidity of line, and the vitality of character. For instance, the “Taureador” or “Bull Leaping” fresco depicts a famous Minoan ritual sport during which the athlete did dangerous acrobatic leaps over the back of a bull. In Minoan Crete, bull-leaping was a noble sport in which the bull was not killed, unlike modern bullfighting. The original of this fresco is in Heraklion Archaeological Museum, while a copy has been placed at the Knossos site. Similarly, their women, as depicted in one of their frescoes, could have come from any modern city today. They appear so stylish and elegant.

(Excerpted from a lengthier piece published in Frontline dated Mar 13, 2010)

If one were to discount cellular phones, computers, cars and other modern means of transportation, the Minoan way of life was not very different from our own present ways. The Minoans wore stylish clothes, travelled on horseback, celebrated festivals, watched bullfights, threw parties, drank wine, indulged in elaborate feasting, engaged in seaborne trade with distant lands and celebrated life much the same way as we do today.

(Published in Frontline dated March 13, 2010)

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