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Heraklion - Agios Nikolaos


20. Heraklion - Agios Nikolaos (travelling inland) (see Map Crete Heraklion - Map Crete Agios Nikolaos)

20.1 The Palace of Knossos 20.2 Archanes - Fourni - Juhtas 20.3 Towards the Lasithi plateau
20.4 The Lasithi plateau    


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.

Map, Heraklion to Agios Nikolaos

Map of Crete. The Palace of Knossos

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 colours.

Knossos,  the reconstructed north entrance

Knossos, the reconstructed north entrance, by Evans

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.

The Palace of Knossos

The Palace of Knossos

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 and Sarpidonas.

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.

Knossos, the Parisienne

Knossos, the Parisienne

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.

Bull Jumping from The Palace of Knossos

Bull Jumping from The Palace of Knossos

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.

The archaeological site of Knossos,

The archaeological site of Knossos

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 unbearable tax.

Theseus killing the Minotaur

Theseus killing the Minotaur

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.

Daedalus and the fall of Icarus

Daedalus and the fall of Icarus

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

Sir Arthur Evans

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 real Knossos.


The archeological site of Knossos

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.

Knossos, Linear B script

Knossos, Linear B script

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.



Routes starting from Hania

1. Hania - Akrotiri
2. Hania - Paleochora
3. Hania - Samaria
4. Hania - Hora Sfakion (Sfakia)
5. Hania - Kissamos (Kasteli)

Routes starting from Kissamos
Kissamos (Kasteli)
6. Kissamos - Gramvoussa
7. Kissamos - Elafonissos
8. Kissamos - Paleochora (through the Topolian Gorge)
9. Kissamos - Paleochora (through Episkopi)
10. Kissamos - Sirikari

Routes starting from Hora Sfakion (Sfakia)
11. Hora Sfakion - Rethimno (Rethymnon) (travelling inland)
12. Hora Sfakion - Rethimno (Rethymnon) (following the coast)

Routes starting from Rethimno (Rethymnon)
Rethimno (Rethymnon)
13. Rethimno - Ierapetra (following the south coast)
14. Rethimno - Ierapetra (travelling inland)

Routes starting from Ierapetra
15. Ierapetra - Zakros (coastal road)
16. Ierapetra - Zakros (inland route)

Routes starting from Iraklio (Heraklion)
Iraklio (Heraklion)
17. Heraklion - Rethymnon (coastal road)
18. Heraklion - Rethymnon (travelling inland)
19.Heraklioon - Agios Nikolaos (coastal road)
20. Heraklioon - Agios Nikolaos (travelling inland)

Routes starting from Agios Nikolaos
Agios Nikolaos
21. Agios Nikolaos - Zakros

Source of the information on this page : “Unexplored Crete”, Road Editions. For more guidebooks and maps of Greece, click here.


Tip of the day

Rethymnon (2). • Argyroúpoli: 27km far from Réthymno you will find Argyroúpoli, a village built on the remnants of the ancient city of Láppas. Numerous springs, the cave and the chapel bearing the same name are all well worth a visit.
 Gorges of extraordinary beauty traverse the mountains of the region: the ravine of Kourtaliótis, 3km long, ends at the famous Lagoon of Préveli; the ravine of Kotsifoú starts from the village of Kánevos and ends near the village of Sellía; the gorge of Patsós, in the Amári district; the gorge of Prassés, which ends at the village of Plataniás at the north coast east of the town of Réthymno; finally, the gorge of Arkádi and a number of smaller ones.
 The mountains of the region are exceptionally rich in caves. The most famous caves are those of Geráni, Simonélli west of the town of Réthymno, Áyios Antónios in the district of Amári, Melidóni, Moúgri Sissón and Sfendóni near the village of Zonianá.

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