Thursday, August 14, 2008

Palace of Minos

Probably the best known of all Cretan architecture, the ruins of the Palace of Minos at Knossos stand near the River Kairatos on the north side of Crete, about 3 miles (5 kilometers) inland, near the modern city of Iráklion. The complexity of its buildings defies verbal description, and its sophisticated planning and lively decoration separate it from its contemporaries anywhere in the world.

Crete is naturally fortified by the sea and was protected by a powerful navy, so the town site was chosen probably for reasons other than defense: an elevated position, a good water supply, access to the coast, and a forest providing building lumber. At the height of its glory, around 1650 b.c., Knossos extended its boundaries. The English archeologist Arthur Evans, perhaps a little generously, claimed that the population reached 80,000.

It is generally thought that Crete was first inhabited in the seventh or sixth millennium b.c. by migrating neolithic farmers from Asia Minor. By around 3000 b.c., they were using bronze tools, and over the next 800 years or so, a sophisticated society emerged that traded with Egypt and invented its own hieroglyphic script. What is known as the Age of the First Palaces has been dated at 2200–1700 b.c. Four large sites have been identified: Phaestos, Mallia, Zakros, and Knossos. Each took the same general form, comprising a number of multistory wings grouped around a central courtyard and built of substantial timber frames, filled with plastered stone blocks. The complex layouts included luxurious living quarters, dining halls, artists’ workshops, basement warehouses, and other rooms with a religious purpose. The First Palaces were all destroyed by an earthquake around 1700 b.c., and the so-called Second Palaces rose on their ruins. Over the next two centuries Crete became the preeminent Aegean Bronze Culture site and the first center of European civilization. By about 1580 b.c., through profitable trade, its influence had spread to neighboring islands, the Greek mainland, and beyond. Its dominance was in part due to its location at the crossroads of Africa, Asia, and Europe, and in part to its naval power.

The new palace at Knossos became the center of Minoan government, traditionally regarded as the seat of King Minos. Some ancient writers identify several kings named Minos, and the term may have described the office of ruler, like Egypt’s pharaoh. The historical basis of this person is impossible to discover. The later Greeks accepted him only in myth, as the son of Zeus and Europa. Myth also has it that he asked the engineer Daedalos to build a labyrinth so cunningly designed that it could be used to imprison the monstrous Minotaur. There is a clear connection with the complicated layout of the second palace. Little is known about their form of government: whether they had a priest-king, priestess-queen, or some other form of ruler gives rise to the question, Was the Palace of Minos only a palace?

Archeologists have discovered two main and connected functions of its many parts: economic and religious. We can only speculate. Why the Minoans should have produced an architecture and interior design so different from their regional contemporaries remains enigmatic. With an area of 211,000 square feet (20,000 square meters) the palace at Knossos was larger and grander than those at Phaestos, Mallia, and Zakros. Perhaps that expressed Minos’s domination of other Cretan kings; perhaps the smaller palaces were his alternative residences. Without any obvious fortifications, the palace at Knossos was approached along a ramped road leading to a western outer court, then through a complicated, defensible ceremonial gateway that occupied most of the south wing and gave access to the rectangular central court that formed the nucleus of the plan. The court was surrounded by four multistory wings of varying height. The east wing housed the nobles’ quarters, the queen’s elegant two-story apartment, workshops, and a shrine. The west wing, also two stories, comprised long, narrow store-rooms, more shrines, and the throne room; its upper level, reached directly from the gate, housed a number of large halls. The north wing contained a hypo-style hall (now known as the Customs House), a basin for ritual washing, and a square, stepped structure that may have been an open-air theater.
Everywhere, shrines were provided for the worship of a mother goddess, for whom no specific temple was built, and of whom no monumental sculptures were made. Associated with that worship was the double ax (labrys), frescoes of which appear on some of the palace walls. And everywhere connections were made to other parts of the palace and the buildings beyond it, through imposing porticoes, broad stairs, and processional paths. Archeologists have coined evocative (and sometimes speculative) names for the parts of the complex: the Royal Villa, the House of the Frescoes, the Caravanserai, the Unexplored Mansion, the Temple Tomb, the House of the High Priest, and the South Mansion. Knossos was connected to other Cretan centers by paved roads.

Elsewhere in the Mediterranean basin, grand buildings, domestic or otherwise, adhered to a formal axiality of plan that allowed direct and easy movement through them; they seem to have been thought of as maps or patterns on the ground that were simply extruded to form space. By contrast, the Palace of Minos was quite clearly conceived in terms of space. There were intriguing changes in floor level. Some rooms were narrow (perhaps as a result of the building materials used); others were wide with central columns. Some were comparatively low; others soared through two stories. Some were windowless and dim; others were lit from above or through light wells. Some were enclosed; others could be opened by means of movable partitions so that fresh air could circulate. A network of conduits, pipes, and drains supplied running water for bathrooms (there was even a flush toilet in the queen’s apartment)—a sanitation system that would not be seen again in Europe for 4,000 years. This spatial and technological experimentation was enhanced and enlivened by a celebration of color and decoration. Frescoes adorned the gypsum-faced walls with informal, vivacious scenes in an explosion of deep red, ochre, green, and blue. In the gateway there was a procession of marching youths bearing offerings; in the throne room, a frieze of griffins in a forest; and in the queen’s apartment, fish, coral, and frolicking dolphins. Other recurrent themes included the bull and the dangerous Minoan sport of bull leaping. The distinctive downward-tapering Minoan columns, owing their shape to that of the cypress trees of which they were made, were plastered and painted red or black.

The Palace of Minos was partly damaged by earthquakes in about 1600 b.c. and again around 1500. Real disaster struck in the mid–fifteenth century b.c. when Santorini exploded, sending devastating shocks and tidal waves throughout the region. Soon after, Mycenaean raiding parties from the Greek mainland—perhaps Athenians under the legendary Theseus—overthrew Minoan domination of the Aegean. The other palaces were left deserted, but the invaders rebuilt Knossos and occupied it as their seat of government until about 1380 b.c., perhaps even longer. After about 1000 b.c. it was subjugated by the Dorians, and it became a Roman colony in the third century b.c. Surviving as a city well into the Christian era, Knossos later became the see of a bishop. During the Middle Ages it was reduced to a small village named Makrys Toihos.

The Cretan antiquarian Minos Kalokairinos uncovered part of the palace’s west wing in 1878. Many tried to extend the excavations, but because the land was then privately owned they were forced to discontinue. When Crete achieved independence in 1898, its antiquities became state property, and two years later Evans initiated systematic excavation. By the end of 1903 almost the entire palace had been exposed. Work continued until 1912, extending the dig to adjacent areas of the ancient city, and was again resumed in 1922–1931. Evans has been criticized by some scholars for the speculative nature of some of his restoration, the accuracy of which has rightly been questioned. After 1941 responsibility for the excavations passed to the British School of Archaeology, and since 1952 conservation work has continued in conjunction with the Greek Archaeological Service.

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