here to Part I: History of Crete til the Prepalatial Period.
Protopalatial Period (1,900-1,700 B.C.)
The differentiation of social life, which had gradually begun in the last centuries of the Prepalatial period, accelerated with the strengthening of a central authority.
For reasons difficult to determine with certainty, political authority was placed in the hands of a king along with religious authority, and the entire system became a feudal theocracy. New social classes were created and unpaved places were built around the palaces, making it clear that the various local leaders lived in peace with each other.
Large building complexes, which were the forerunners of the great palaces of subsequent times, were erected shortly before 1,900 BC in favorable, fertile regions and their remains were discovered at Festos, Knossos, Malia and Zakros. In addition, there were palaces near Arhanes, south of Heraklion and probably also near Kyonia, today Chania.
The locations of these palaces were no coincidence, as Festos and Malia both dominate fertile plains, while Zakros had an excellent port for trade with the East. Knossos, which occupies a strategic position above another plain south and west of Heraklion, was perhaps originally a religious center as well as the base of secular power.
These palaces had several floors and were built mainly of stone and additionally with wood, presumably as protection against earthquakes. They have hinged doors with windows as well as floor and wall decorations.
The buildings were arranged around a central courtyard and large magazines and places surrounded the unpaved palaces. In addition, large ‘villas’ were built in the countryside.
The palaces were destroyed twice by earthquakes: around 1,820 BC and 1,750 BC and rebuilt with repairs and extensions.
They were not only administrative, religious and economic centers for their own needs, but also centers for trade, exports and the organization of the fleet, which ensured unhindered navigation. Minoan maritime rule ensured trade with Egypt and the Near East, and there were trading settlements in Milos, Kythera, and even Asia Minor.
On Crete at that time perhaps some copper was mined, but there was never tin. The nearest major source of tin was far away and was located in present-day Iran in the east, Central Europe in the north and Italy, Spain, Brittany and Great Britain in the west. While some scientists believe that Minoan ships actually sailed to the Atlantic, it seems more likely that the exotic goods were sourced via stopovers.
Nevertheless, Crete controlled the trade routes in the Mediterranean, imported tin, copper, ivory, gold, silver and precious stones of all kinds, exported wood from its rich cypress forests, olive oil, wine, bronze goods and its fine ceramics, especially to Egypt.
The tomb architecture was characterized by the continued use of Tholos tombs and there were also others with vestibules in which the gifts were deposited. At the same time there were burials in ‘Iarnakes’ (sarcophagi), burial jugs and caves from which openings were made on the sides of hills. This procedure later led to the construction of burial chambers.
The summit sanctuaries were unique and important buildings from this period, erected on the peaks of the mountains near important Minoan centers. Inhabitants from the surrounding regions came there on certain days to pray, celebrate and make offerings to the Goddess of Nature or to the Celestials and Potnia Theron, the protector of plants and animals.
The role of religion became more and more important all over the island and the priests took a high position in the hierarchy of the Minoan society. The places of worship were in palaces, mansions, mountains and caves.
With the introduction of the advanced potter’s wheel there was a spectacular development in the production of ceramics. The vases became more elegant with thin walls in a variety of shapes and inspiring ornaments, designs and ornaments in white and red colors on a dark, mostly black background.
The new style is called Kamares, homonyms to the cave of Kamares, where it was first found. Another style of the time used reliefs and repetitive bulges that formed a rough surface called Barbotine. This brilliant ceramic work was complemented by the large storage vessels and the ceremonial libation vases in the various forms of bulls, birds and bullheads.
Numerous miniature figures from the consecrated offerings were found on the summit shrines, mainly of worshipers and animals. The figures of the worshipers give us information about the clothing of the time. However, not many examples of metal and jewelry have survived their epoch and so the knowledge is incomplete.
A hieroglyphic script was created, which is documented on seals, the stone altar of Malia, the double ax of Arkalochori, the discus of Festos and other found objects.
A severe earthquake around 1,700 B.C. brought the time of the Old Palaces to an end. Possibly also raids from the early Mycenaean mainland of Greece contributed to it, which could have used the opportunity after the natural disasters to attack the island, while it was temporarily defenseless. This may explain the wealth of gold and other treasures – much of which apparently came from Crete – found in the later royal Mycenae shaft tombs.
Neopalatial Period (1,700-1,450 B.C.)
This period is divided into three phases. The first was the reconstruction after the destruction of 1,700 BC with the help of the rise of productive and commercial power. The concentration of all forces in this period was on the reconstruction of the country and the palaces and settlements, which lasted about a century from 1,700 to 1,600 BC. Despite the setback, Minoan culture now reached its ‘golden age’ and climax. What we can see today in the large excavation sites of Knossos, Festos, Malia and Zakros is mostly from this epoch.
There were no fundamental changes in the racial composition of the inhabitants and in the cultural characteristics. The Minoans themselves found the strength to renew their civilization at a superior level, which reached its creative peak in the subsequent period from 1,600 to 1,500 BC. In the following 50 years, the civilization of the Neopalatial period spread outside Crete as well.
The reconstruction of the destroyed palaces had absolute priority, as it was there that the social, political, religious and economic life of the country took place. The new palaces were truly majestic in new designs with extensions and improvements, but with the same architectural forms used in the Protopalatial period. Space, light and air movement were artfully integrated into the architecture.
The basic features of the new palaces were the large, stone-paved courtyard with an axis from north to south. In the most important west wing were the religious chambers, the ‘houses of worship’ dedicated to the deity. In the east wing were the chambers of the royal family, while in the north and south wings were the workshops, other chambers and storerooms.
The palaces were multiform, multi-storey buildings with stately facades of carved stone, marble slabs, polychrome plaster, lavish frescoes, pillar and door arrangements (polytheron), plaster floors, magnificent staircases and loaded door frames, all of which radiated a touch of brilliance and grandeur while at the same time integrating into the natural environment.
Besides the palace complexes, there were many other luxurious buildings of different sizes that could be described as small palaces or villas. Some were located near the palace and can be regarded as the dwellings of princes or high priesthood officials. Others were discovered in many places in Central and Eastern Crete and probably belonged to the local leaders. Most of these were built in the last centuries of the age.
The palace of Archanes on the slopes of the holy mountain Juktas and the villa of Agia Triada in Festos, which was built in the immediate vicinity of these palaces, are said to have been the summer residences of the kings.
Obviously only the leadership elite of the Minoans could enjoy this luxury, but also the living conditions of ordinary people improved. Around the palaces there were cities with multi-storey houses or small houses with flat roofs around irregular squares, narrow alleys with no system or plan. Still other settlements were built as they can be seen on the hill of Gournia or the island of Pseira, with a dense arrangement as in an amphitheater or in Palaikastro near Sitia, which was most successfully built.
Little is known about social structures. Also, the discoverer of their culture, Arthur Evans, called them Minoans because of the legend about King Minos. Presumably, however, ‘Minos’ was merely the name of a dynasty of royal priests, similar to the Egyptian ‘Pharaohs’.
Whether the whole of Crete was ruled from Knossos or whether they were rather independent, individual city states is not known. However, Aristotle called it a caste system at the time of King Minos.
It must also have been an open society, since there were no defenses. The rulers were obviously not afraid of either internal or external enemies, the latter being kept in check by the fleet.
The prosperity must have been distributed to all inhabitants to a certain extent and the simple, probably very religious Minoan peasant must have lived like a Cretan villager fifty years ago.
For a long time, the dead, to whom the Minoans showed special respect, were buried in old or new Tholos tombs, which were rather expensive, such as the carved stones used in their construction, the pilasters at the entrance and the monolith that sealed them.
The burials in caves, however, were continued and the incised chamber tombs appeared.
The frescoes decorating the palaces and houses were one of the greatest artistic achievements of the period. The motifs of the frescoes come from the natural environment as well as from the religious life of the palace and its ceremonies.
While the stepped ceramics at the beginning of the new palace period also showed changes, the poly chrome Kamares vases were replaced by a more natural style with motifs from nature and the marine world.
In the second stage, under the influence of painting, ceramics achieved the highest degree of decorative perfection. The surface of the vase was now a uniform whole. There were new types of rhytons, spherical, conical and ovoid vessels, as well as libations, fruit bowls and incense vessels. The large storage vessels were decorated with reliefs of ropes.
An equally impressive development was shown in stone processing. The techniques were applied to everything except very soft and very hard stone. The shapes of the vases were varied and amazing, with the ritual vases from the treasuries of the palaces of Zakros and Knossos fascinating.
The finest relief rhyton vases come from Agia Triada. The stone rhytons in the shape of a bull’s head are equally magnificent.
The art of miniature sculptures also flourished with the processing of ivory, faience, gold and bronze and the small clay figures became even more elegant with coloured decoration. The perfection of the technique of using faience has left behind masterpieces such as the ‘snake god’, ivory toiletries and mirror handles, of which the young bull jumper is the most outstanding.
Apart from the religious figures there are also finds of metalworking of small animals as dedications, tools and weapons, which are real works of art. The large swords have gold-plated handles with horn protrusions and bronze helmets, cheek pieces, spears with strong points and aft shields have been found.
There are wonderful examples of gold work. With the golden signet rings and their complex religious representations, art reached its climax. New designs such as the amygdaloid, the cylindrical and lenticular form with religious motifs and made of hard stone emerged during the production of seals.
The hieroglyphic writing system of the Protopalatial Period evolved into Linear A in the time of the New Palaces with the schematization and simplification of the hieroglyphic characters, but despite all the efforts of experts, this writing has not yet been deciphered.
It must be the original, unknown language of the Minoans, which was mainly used for administrative purposes. Probably the Minoans already knew the ink and writing on forms of paper from Egypt for the everyday use and none of this has survived the time.
Texts in Linear A were widespread outside Crete and were found in Greece and on the islands of Milos, Kea, Thera and Cyprus, where there was the oldest form of writing.
The conclusions about the religious and worship practices of the Minoans are derived from the numerous archaeological finds, the depictions on the frescoes and the seal stones. These indicate that there was a dominant goddess, the Great Goddess of Nature, the ancient Goddess of Fertility, the almighty nature itself in a living and immovable way and which also has characteristics of war, seafaring and motherhood. Next to her stood the young God, who was born and died every year, which is a symbolic representation of the seasons.
The Minoan culture spread peacefully and had an enormous influence on the civilizations of the surrounding areas. The penetration of Greece with its characteristics was continuous and had a direct influence on its further development.
Here to Part III: Fall of the palaces.