Crete is an island that's built on a mountainous, monumental scale. Peaks soar to over 8000ft (nearly 2500m), there are deep gorges (Samaria Gorge is Europe's longest), eagles wheel on the thermals. It feels untamed and mysterious. And indeed it does have more than its fair share of mysteries. This was where the Minotaur – a monster half man, half bull – was imprisoned in a labyrinth by King Minos and finally killed by Theseus with the help of the king's daughter Ariadne and a ball of wool. The maze itself had been built by Daedalus and it was made his prison too so he could never give away its secrets. The great inventor made a pair of wings for himself and another for his son Icarus to escape. Unfortunately, Icarus flew too close to the sun, melting the wax in his wings so he plunged headlong into the Med.
The facts are perhaps even more improbable than the fictions.
The real Crete was the birthplace of the Minoan civilisation whose heyday was between 2400-1400BC. Its centre was Knossos, a place that was both a palace and a town and is cited as Europe's first ever city. It was unique in quite a few ways. Knossos was not in any way fortified. No weapons, other than ceremonial ones (and they almost certainly went in for a bit of human sacrifice), have been found. Men and women were treated equally and women had prominent roles in society as queens and priestesses – goddesses outnumber gods by a very long way.
The palace itself was not built on the scale of contemporary Egyptian monuments. Instead it was a somewhat higgledy-piggledy five storey building with rooms opening onto other rooms, lots of gardens and courtyards and an awful lot of stairs. It also featured the unique Cretan column, thicker at the top than the bottom, the opposite of those later developed by the ancient Greeks, and painted dark red. The Cretans – as evidenced by the artefacts that have remained – were great lovers of nature and beauty, games and gardens. The women wore flounced dresses that exposed their breasts and favoured long black ringlets. The men wore a rather fetching short kilt and liked ringlets too. Their favourite game was to have teams of young men and women leaping over the backs and horns of bulls. The walls were painted with male and female beauties, flowers, mythical creatures and leaping dolphins. So, there it was – a kind of Eden, Utopia, Atlantis.
What could possibly go wrong?
How this unique Bronze Age culture disappeared has never been satisfactorily explained. Many theories suggest natural disasters and it would have to have been something pretty substantial that could destroy a population of some 100,000 who lived there at the time of the building of the second palace around 1700BC, the one whose remains can be seen at Knossos today. The most likely possibility now seems to be the eruption of the volcano at Santorini, just 70 miles away and believed to be ten times more powerful than the devastating eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, which could be heard 3000 miles away. It could have caused a tsunami (hence the Atlantis theory), or it could have filled the air with clouds of volcanic dust that blotted out the sun and caused the crops to fail. The weakened Minoans limped along for another 50 years or so and gradually disappeared under the hammer blow of the Myceneans.
And so the people who created the first European written language, the first paved roads, the first city drainage system and a wealth of artists and engineers were quite forgotten for over three thousand years. The first ruins of Knossos were discovered in the 1880s by a local antiquarian soon to be followed by Arthur Evans, Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford in 1900. He was the first to call it a palace but, with well over 1000 rooms, workshops, storage cellars, wine presses, courtyards and gardens, it was probably more of a working town with a ruling and religious elite at its heart. Evans was to lose his entire (huge) fortune in his passion for excavating Knossos. His attempts at "restoration" (more like reconstruction) are frowned upon today but – pace, purists, it does give you an instant feeling of what it would have been like to live here four thousand years ago.
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