Knossos, Greece: Separating Fact From Fiction
by Keith Kellet
The eruption of the volcano of Santorini, in the Aegean Sea, in 1450 BC, has been the subject of many television documentaries. All propose different theories of what really happened, and nobody can really contradict them, because people had better things to do than make records at the time.
I’ve been curious about the ancient Minoan palace of Knossos, on nearby Crete, ever since I visited Santorini. Was a whole civilisation centred upon Knossos really wiped out at a stroke by the eruption of the volcano and the resultant tsunami in? A guide thought not, although she said it may have been a major contributing factor.
‘We don’t know for sure’ she said ‘but it’s highly likely a series of ‘nuclear winters’ followed the blast, and, possibly, invasion by the Mycenians was the final straw’.
Most of the evidence of the Minoan civilisation had been uncovered on the site of Knossos in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Before that, only legend remained of the first civilisation in Europe. But, the stories of the Minotaur, the fabled half man, half bull with a taste for human flesh, could now be explained by the frescoes of the sport of ‘bull-leaping’ found at Knossos; the Labyrinth, or maze, where he lived, by the extensive foundations and cellars of the Palace.
So far, though, nothing has been found to explain the story of Daedalus, the legendary designer and builder of Knossos, and his son, Icarus. Imprisoned at Knossos by King Minos, angry at the killing of the Minotaur, they are said to have made their escape with wings made from wax and feathers. Icarus flew too close to the sun, which melted the wax of his wings, thus making him the world’s first aviation fatality!
Legend aside, there was a lot of ‘first in Europe’ at Knossos. The first flushing toilet; what may have been Europe’s first shower: the first multi-storey buildings and the first structure built with regard to light and coolness.
Sir Arthur Evans discovered Knossos about a hundred years ago. He had heard the legends, and wanted to prove that there was some substance to them. However, some people thought that Evans made his discoveries fit his beliefs, rather than the other way around.
Another thing that split the opinion of the day was Evans’ “reconstruction” of the site. What we see at the palace is not necessarily as it was, but how Evans thought it was. However, many people think that he wasn’t far out, and it does make for a more interesting visit than just an excavated foundation would.
The guides made no secret of the reconstruction, and they emphasised the difference between “genuine” and “authentic.” If it’s concrete or wood, they said, it’s a reconstruction; if it’s stone, it’s original. All the pillars, we were told, were modern ones. The wooden ones the Minoans used were long gone
The Minoans were given their name by Evans, after the legendary King Minos. One theory has it there may have been several kings called Minos. It’s even possible that it may have been their word for ‘ruler’.
What’s hard to believe is that Knossos was a palace, not a city. But, if you can imagine Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, the Law Courts, Wembley Stadium and the Stock Exchange in one building, maybe the idea isn’t so far-fetched?
So, what happened to the Minoans? Why did only legends survive of what seemed to be a sophisticated and powerful empire?
There aren’t any military fortifications at Knossos, which indicates a prolonged peace. The powerful Navy may have kept any foes well away from Crete.
Although many people say it was the eruption of Santorini, about 70 miles away, that ‘wiped out’ the Minoan civilisation, they didn’t actually go immediately. They were around for at least another century, but it was the explosion that triggered the decline of their society.
Most of Santorini was pulverised and thrown into the upper atmosphere, where it remained for several years. This would have produced a “nuclear winter.” The temperature would have fallen dramatically, causing crops to fail and cattle to die. And, Crete is close enough to Santorini for much land to be rendered useless by a covering of ash.
It’s possible, too, that the mighty Minoan navy was largely destroyed by the resultant tsunami, rendering the empire almost defenceless.
The invasion theory is given credence by the discovery of deliberate burning, about 50 years after the eruption, at some Minoan sites. Around this time, the Myceneans, from what is now the Greek mainland, forerunners of Ancient (and modern) Greeks, began to settle on Crete, displacing what was left of the Minoans.
Concerning events of 4000 years ago, it’s a foolish person, usually, who can state what happened without a lot of ‘probably’, ‘possibly’, ‘may have’ etc. All of this is theory and conjecture, and no two theories, no matter how authoritative, are precisely the same.
So, why not do some reading or watch some TV documentaries about it? Better still, visit Knossos and the Iraklion Museum, and talk to the guides … and maybe form your own theory!
If You Go:
Ferries (including high speed) sail daily from the port of Pireaus. There are also connection ferries from the islands of Naxos and Santorini. Flights are also available to Crete on Olympic Airways.
For More Information:
Ancient Greece: Knossos
Knossos Tours Now Available:
Knossos Palace Guided Walking Tour
Knossos Palace and Heraklion Town Private Half-Day Tour
Knossos – Lassithi visit Zeus Cave
Ancient Palace of Knossos Tour
Private Tour: Ancient Palace of Knossos, Heraklion Archaeological Museum and City Tour
About the author:
Having written as a hobby for many years while serving in the Royal Air Force, Keith Kellett saw no reason to discontinue his hobby when he retired. With time on his hands, he produced more work, and found, to his surprise, it ‘grew and grew’ and was good enough to finance his other hobbies; travelling, photography and computers. He is trying hard to prevent it from becoming a full-time job! He has published in many UK and overseas print magazines, and on the Web. He is presently trying to get his head around blogging, podcasting and video.