20. Heraklion - Agios Nikolaos (travelling
inland) (see Map1
THE PALACE OF KNOSSOS
Since Evans discovered the ruins of the palace
of Knossos, at the beginning of the century, there has not been
a single visitor to Iraklio who has not gone up the hill to
the archaeological site, if only for a short visit. With so
much that has been written about Minoan Crete, everyone wants
to see Knossos, the most important centre of the Minoan civilisation.
So leave the centre of Iraklio in a southerly direction, following
the narrow, slippery road to Knossos (there are Greek/English
road signs everywhere and you can’t miss it). Ignore the
various parking areas you will see some hundreds of metres before
the archaeological site and park your motorcycle, free and safely,
right outside the entrance to the archaeological site.
Close your eyes for a moment and try to imagine the palace
of Knossos. A palace that surpassed in magnificence and luxury
all other buildings in the whole of Europe of the Bronze Age.
A palace of 22,000 square metres with 1,500 rooms and five floors
at some points, two big paved courtyards, a theatre, an altar,
storehouses and workshops. A palace built by clever architectural
design which ensured coolness in the summer, warmth in the winter
and abundant light in all its living quarters. A palace decorated
with impressive frescoes, its columns and walls painted in bright
Well, don’t tax your brain too much because not even the
most daring imagination can easily compete with the architectural
inspiration of the people who designed this palace 3,500 to
4,000 years ago. If you could go back in time and see the palace
from high up, what you would be faced with could not be too
far removed from what you will see when you turn the page.
As with all palaces of all ages, so it is here, inside the luxurious
bedrooms, the brilliant banqueting - rooms and the underground
passages, scandals took place, compared with which, even present-day
palace scandals pale into insignificance!
The first king to live in this palace was the fabulous, Asterionas
and his wife Europa (whose adventures with
Zeus we have referred to in the description of Gortyna). The
legendary Minos was born from the first sexual
intercourse Europa had with Zeus.
It seems that Zeus continued to be in love with Europa even
after her marriage to Asterionas and he visited her whenever
he had a chance. From these erotic meetings were born Radamanthys
While they were young children, the three princes (whom Asterionas
believed to be his own children) played happily in the courtyards
and gardens of the palace.
When they grew up, however, and the time came for one of them
to take the throne after the death of Asterionas, they were
at each other’s throats! Minos, being the first-born,
argued that he was the gods’ favourite and consequently
the kingdom belonged to him. And in order to prove it, he maintained
that the gods would give him whatever he asked for.
His brothers gave him a difficult one, to push him into a corner:
‘Ask the gods to send you a white bull from the sea!’
Minos prayed with all his heart to Poseidon, the god of the
sea, to send him the bull, and promised that he would sacrifice
it in his honour as soon as he took over the kingdom. Poseidon
had no particular reason to grant Minos’ request, but
Zeus supported his first-born son by Europa at that critical
moment and ordered Poseidon to send up immediately the most
beautiful bull he had in his underwater stables. And so, before
the amazed eyes of all who were sitting waiting on the rocks
on the seashore, a very beautiful bull with a strong body and
shining horns emerged from the sea and went to stand beside
Minos. After this undoubted proof of divine favour, everyone
went to his place - Minos to the royal throne of Knossos, Radamanthys
and Sarpidonas into exile and the subjects to their houses.
But the beautiful bull, instead of going straight to the altar
to be sacrificed, was taken to the royal stables.
This obvious breach of promise on the part of Minos enraged
Poseidon, who took the cruelest and craziest revenge - he made
Minos’ wife, Pasiphae, fall madly in love with the bull!
Poor Pasiphae, who after all was not to blame
for anything, was tormented for a long time unable to be released
from her passion. In the end she sent for Daedalus, that clever
craftsman and inventor from Athens who was then working at the
Palace of Knossos, and begged him to help her get over the ‘technical’
difficulties of having sexual intercourse with the bull! Indeed,
Daedalus made a wooden cow which was so perfect
that it managed to fool the bull.
After several trials (to make sure of the attractiveness and
robustness of the construction!), Daedalus placed Pasiphae inside
the hollow likeness and so the queen’s passion was satisfied.
Unfortunately, however, not without consequences - she became
pregnant and after a while gave birth to the terrible Minotaur,
a carnivorous monster with the body of a man but the head and
strength of a bull. Minos tore out his hair in despair when
heard the events he had caused to happen, but it was too late.
He locked the Minotaur inside the dark Labyrinth
(also the work of Daedalus), an underground complex of passages
where no one who entered could find the way out. He imprisoned
Daedalus and his son, Ikaros, in the palace; as for Pasiphae,
he never wanted to see her again and took to pederasty and a
debauched life with other women.
Despite all this, Minos was especially loved by his subjects
thanks to his renowned justice and his wise laws. Personally,
he cannot have been particularly wise or just (judging by his
behaviour to Poseidon), but his father, Zeus, helped him as
much as he could. Every nine years, Minos met his father on
Idaio Andro, where he took new laws and accepted instructions
on the policies he should be following.
So all Cretans feared him and respected him and agreed (voluntarily
or by coercion) to submit to his authority. During
the years of his rule, Crete knew its greatest prosperity. Under
his leadership, Cretan ships plied the Mediterranean and expanded
the power of Crete to many Aegean islands and to the opposite
coast of Karia on the Asian continent.
Minos had many children by many women, but he had only eight
legitimate children by Pasiphae. One of these, Androgeos,
was an athlete of exceptional prowess. Having swept off all
the prizes in all the local games, he went one day to Athens
where he repeated his athletic triumphs and won all the events.
He thought that nothing could stop him and he set off to go
to neighbouring Thebes to take part in the games scheduled to
take place there. But the defeated and humbled Athenian athletes
stopped him in the most dishonourable way - they ambushed him
just outside Athens and killed him.
When Minos was informed of the death of his beloved son, he
went crazy. He immediately organised an expedition against Athens,
laid siege to the city and eventually, with the help of the
gods, he captured it. He then punished the barbarity of the
Athenians with an even worse barbarity - he forced them to send
seven young men and seven young women every year to Knossos,
whom he threw into the Labyrinth to be eaten by the Minotaur.
One year, a brave volunteer went with the young people that
were being sent for the Minotaur’s dinner - it was Theseus,
the son of the King of Athens, Aegeas. Theseus
had great success in the difficult feat of exterminating wild
beasts and all kinds of destructive forces and he was determined
to go and kill the Minotaur and to release Athens from this
His father, naturally, was very worried and tried to deter
him, but it was impossible to dissuade Theseus. He promised
his father to be careful and that, if all went well, he would
take down the ship’s black sails on the journey home and
hoist white ones.
Theseus did indeed manage to kill the Minotaur but he owed
his achievement less to his strength (which was truly great)
than to his blinding beauty! As soon as he set foot in the Palace
of Knossos, one of Minos’ daughters, the very beautiful
Ariadne, saw him and fell in love with him.
She ran immediately to Daedalus (who, as we have seen, was under
house arrest) and asked him how she could save her beloved from
the darkness of the Labyrinth and the jaws of the Minotaur.
Daedalus told her to give him a ball of thread, the famous Ariadne’s
Thread, which he would unravel as he advanced through
the tortuous passages and when, with the help of the gods, he
had killed the Minotaur, he would wind it up again and would
find himself at the exit (every pot-holer in the world still
uses this self-same sure and simple tactic!).
So Theseus managed to kill the Minotaur, get out of the Labyrinth
and set sail for Athens, taking with him Ariadne (whom, however,
the ungrateful young man abandoned on Naxos several days later).
When Minos heard about all this, he went crazy again. He realised
that Daedalus was once more responsible, and gave orders for
him to be executed. But Daedalus suspected what was in store
for him and did not sit around with his arms folded.
He made wings for himself and for his son, Ikaros, and theyescaped
through the only available exit - the sky! Ikaros, excited by
his first experience of flying (he was the first aviator on
earth) made the stupid mistake (pilot error, we would say today)
of flying very high, too near the sun, with the result that
the wax holding his wings onto his back melted and he fell,
broken, into the sea near the island which has borne his name
ever since (Ikaria). Daedalus took a westerly route and landed
at a secret base on Sicily, at the palace of King Cocalo.
When the guards announced Daedalus’ spectacular escape
to Minos, the king nearly went out of his mind with anger. He
left the palace and his luxurious apartments, equipped ships
and began an unprecedented manhunt to catch Daedalus and strangle
him with his own hands. After a prolonged systematic search,
he arrived at the city of Camico in Sicily, at the palace of
king Cocalo where Daedalus was hiding. While the two kings were
dining, Minos put into action the trick he believed would locate
Daedalus - he placed on the table an empty snail shell that
had a hole in the top, and asked Cocalo if he knew anyone who
could pass a fine thread through the spirals of the shell. Cocalo
took the shell and went to Daedalus’ room to set him the
problem. The unsuspecting Daedalus (for whom riddles like this
were just a game) caught an ant, tied the thread onto it, put
it into the hole and shortly afterwards, the ant came through
the other side with the thread. Joyfully, Cocalo took the shell
with the thread passed through it, to Minos. Minos was even
more joyful, however, as he immediately realised that Daedalus
was hiding nearby (he was the only person capable of solving
such riddles so easily).
Daedalus heard Minos shaking with laughter and was terrified,
but he kept his cool. When Minos went, after the meal, to have
a bath, freshen up and think how to kill his hated enemy, Daedalus
(who had fixed the plumbing) channelled hot tar down the pipes
and killed Minos.
This was the black and inglorious end of the legendary king
of Knossos. The end of King Aegeas (the father of Theseus),
was nevertheless, equally black; he saw his son’s ship
returning from Crete with the black sails hoisted (because Theseus
forgot to change them for white ones) and he fell into the deep
black waters of the sea which was therefore called the Aegean
sea, and was drowned.
These exciting stories about Minos, and many others that would
require volumes to tell, were preserved in many ancient literary
sources and have come down to us today, but until 100 years
ago, everyone believed that they were sheer myths. Yet, an inspired
and charismatic English archeologist,
Sir Arthur Evans, had a feeling that there
must be some historical truth surrounding king Minos. He came
to Crete in 1894, located the area around the village of Makrytoichos
(built on top of the ruins of Minoan Knossos, and so called
because of a long stone wall which had been preserved since
the time of Roman Knossos), bought a very large piece of land
and, in 1900, began excavations. By 1906, the
ruins of the magnificent Minoan palace and many Minoan treasures
had come to surface - you can admire these treasures today at
the Archaeological Museum in Iraklio. The excavations continued
until 1939 and, from then until today, many supplementary excavations
have been carried out by famous archaeologists like Duncan Mckenzie
and J.D.S. Pendlebury, who have uncovered sections of the great
Minoan city built around the palace, as well as sections of
the city’s graveyard.
Although the excavations went very deep, as far as the levels
of the first habitation of the region, which it is estimated
dates back to 6000 BC, the legendary Labyrinth was not found.
However, when you walk among the ruins of Knossos, you will
feel completely lost and you will agree that the Labyrinth was
the palace itself, with its hundreds of rooms and its endless
passages. The ancient Cretans themselves gave the name of Labyrinth
to the palace of Knossos, a name etymologically associated with
the word Labrys, which means Double-Headed Axe (the holy symbol
of the Minoans, with which the palace was decorated). Even in
Minoan times, when the palace was at the height of its glory,
it was impossible for a stranger to visit without an experienced
guide. Today, when the ruins of many floors coexist on the same
site with the various stages of architectural development of
the palace, only if you are accompanied by an experienced archaeologist
and after serious study, can you walk through the archaeological
site and understand what you are seeing and where you are. If,
of course, you come here in July and August, the intense heat
and the crowds will make your movements even more difficult.
On the pretext of preserving the ruins, Evans
gave in to the temptation of doing extensive restoration and
reconstruction work, using concrete and other modern materials,
a fact that provoked much comment about arbitrary and unscientific
interference in such an important archaeological site. Evans,
however, was a pioneer and (as happens with all pioneers) it
is natural that wrong choices were made, which in no way lessen
the total contribution and the enormous work of this man. It
is a fact, nevertheless, that this restoration work will help
you get an idea of the magnificence of this palace, much better
than if you were just faced with the ruins.
In a few years, this time the business genius of the English,
will make Evans’ vision of the rebirth of Knossos materialise
in the most impressive way. A company has already been formed
under the name of ‘Minoan State’, which will build
an exact full-size replica of the palace and of the Minoan settlement
at Knossos, on a 200 stremmata plot of land, not far from the
The inspirers of and main investors in this fantastic project
are famous archaeologists, architects, university professors,
set designers, and big businessmen. As for the Greek businessmen
and Government, once again they have proved to be coldly indifferent
to investing in the cultural heritage and archaeological treasures
available in their country. Actually, the ‘Minoan State’
company should have been a great investment, if not for the
Ministry of Culture, then at least under its aegis, as part
of a complete programme that would have included a corresponding
‘Mycenean State’, ‘Macedonian State’,
‘Byzantine State’, etc.. Instead of this, the Government
is not in a position to do even the basic, self-evident things
in the real Minoan State - in the archaeological site of Knossos,
there is not even a toilet for visitors, and the staff are insufficient
even for the most elementary protection of the site.
So until the ‘Minoan State’ has been built, where
everything connected with the Minoan civilisation will be intelligible
even to small children, walk as you will through the archaeological
site of Knossos and try to understand as much as you can, with
the help of the reproduction, the topographical plan, and the
short guide that follows.
Today’s entrance brings you into the paved West Courtyard
(1) which was first constructed around 2200 BC. In this courtyard,
there are two ‘roads’ separately paved. The north
‘road’ (1b) used to lead to an entrance to the palace
which was later closed, while to its left there are three pits
(2a, 2b, 2c) where the Minoans used to throw their broken pots
and other useless objects. Before the courtyard was built, there
where several houses here which were levelled to the ground
and covered up. You can make out their foundations on the floors
of these pits. The south ‘road’ (1c) leads you to
the West Entrance (3), from where the magnificent Processional
Corridor (4) started - this used to lead to the interior of
the palace and was decorated with wonderful frescoes depicting
young men and women in ceremonial procession carrying offerings
to the king/deity (the remains of the real frescoes are exhibited
in the Archaeological museum of Iraklio). The biggest part of
this corridor has disappeared due to land subsistence at this
point. One leg of this corridor (4b) turned left and led to
the Central Courtyard (5), while just before this, another of
its legs also turned left and led to the South Entrance (6)
which was decorated with frescoes (the ones you see are copies),
and from there to a wide staircase (7) which ascended to the
luxurious apartments on the second floor.
On the second floor, immediately after the staircase, there
was an Antechamber (8) that had two doors leading into the large
Reception Room (9). A small room on the south-eastern side of
this room must have been the Central Treasury of the palace
(10) because on the ground floor below, many valuable vessels
(rhyton) and other sacred utensils were found, which had obviously
fallen from this room.
An imposing staircase (11) to the east led to the Central Courtyard
while a long open-air corridor (12) to the west led to two large
rooms that were probably the Central Accounts Office of the
palace (13, 14), because on the ground floor area below, a very
rich archive was found lying, comprising 1,400 tablets with
accounts and commercial inventories in Linear B script.
Under the corridor of the upper floor was the long, dark corridor
of storehouses (15), west of which were the 21 Central Storehouses
of the palace (16), also dark and cool, where supplies of oil,
wine, grain, olives and other products were stored in large
earthware jars. Directly north of the Corridor of Storehouses,
is a large Room (17) in the centre of which there a Purification
Basin. Here, foreign visitors to the palace who came along the
northern Royal Road (18) washed their bodies with water and
anointed them with oil (the earthware vessels which held the
oil were found at the spot). If they were official guests or
nobles, they must have organised some sort of welcome for them
in the open-air theatre (19). After this, they went through
the North Entrance (20) from where a long corridor (21) which
was decorated with wonderful frescoes led into the Central Courtyard.
The heart of the palace and a sacred place right throughout
its existence was the Throne Room (22) where you can see the
plaster throne of the King/Archpriest and opposite it, the Purification
Basin which they used for their solemnisations.
East of the Throne Rooms was an Ante-chamber (23) and to the
west, a small altar (24). Directly south of the staircase which
led to the upper floor was a three part altar (25) that looked
onto the Central Courtyard, and behind the Altar was the ground
floor Treasury (26). Two hiding places were found under the
floor of the Treasury. In one of these, Evans discovered a stone
chest in which was kept, among other valuable objects, the renowned
Goddess of the Snakes that is exhibited today at the Archaeological
museum of Iraklio. The stone chest, once in the other hiding
place, had been robbed long ago, and the few traces of gold
found in the hole, bear witness to the fact that some extremely
valuable treasures have been lost forever.
In the centre of the palace’s east wing, a truly masterly
staircase (27) led to the upper floors, which in that part of
the palace were four or five. This staircase was one of the
most admired works of Minoan craftsmen, especially designed
in accordance with the human footstep to be relaxing, and with
abundant light from the peristyle skylight (28) on its east
side. One of the most splendid rooms of the palace was found
in this wing - the Room of the Double-Headed Axe (29), so-called
because it was decorated with this sacred symbol and with shields,
and it also had a wide L-shaped peristyle balcony (30). The
Queen’s Apartments (31) were also in this wing, and these
were full of frescoes, such as the famous fresco with dolphins,
quite a large area of which was preserved in good condition,
and today this is exhibited, together with the other Knossos
frescoes, on the top floor of the Archaeological Museum of Iraklio.
of the information on this page : “Unexplored
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