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The Minoan Civilisation of Crete

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Crete, the largest island in Greece, was home to the first civilisation in Europe. Dubbed the 'Minoans' by the archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, who discovered them, these people lived a remarkably sophisticated life nearly 4000 years ago on this Greek island. Towns, harbours and palaces have been unearthed and are now on display to the public. Any visitor to Crete should take some time to visit the ruins of one of the Minoan palaces and also the museum in the capital, Iraklion, where all the artefacts recovered from the ruins have been assembled for viewing.

The following description is based on current theories. Some of it is speculative, so it may be proved wrong if new evidence is uncovered.

History of the Minoan Civilisation

In 3000 BC, Europe could only be described as uncivilised. The indigenous people were hunter-gatherers, living off the land by hunting and collecting food. Over the next few hundred years, a civilisation arose on the Greek island of Crete. Crete is the southernmost island in Europe, right on the edge of the continental plate. Very quickly, communities grew up around the coast on the eastern and southern parts of the island. People suddenly learnt advanced practices such as agriculture, pot-making, metalwork and so on. It is assumed that these people migrated to Crete from somewhere on the coast of the Eastern Mediterranean, but we have no idea from where exactly.

At that time, there were no Greeks in Greece. The Cretans were not Greek and did not speak any form of the Greek language, as far as we can tell. We don't know what these people called themselves, as we know nothing of the language they spoke. Later Greek legends spoke of a King Minos living in Crete, so Evans coined the fanciful term 'Minoan' - meaning literally, 'the people of Minos.' This name stuck and has been used ever since.

The First Palaces

By about 1900 BC, the Minoan civilisation had progressed to a remarkably sophisticated extent. They undertook the building of enormous palaces with hundreds of rooms. These palaces were presumably inhabited by the rulers of the island, but had space for kitchens, metal workshops and all sorts of trade people as well, so they were more like small towns than big houses. So far, the ruins of four major palaces have been uncovered in different parts of the island. They are listed here in order of size, with the biggest first:

  • Knossos is on the north coast near present day Iraklion.

  • Festos is in the south - near the sea on the plain of Messara, the best agricultural land on the island.

  • Malia, on the north coast, is on another agricultural plain.

  • Zakros, on the easternmost end of the island, was in an ideal position for overseas trade with Egypt and the Middle East.

It is not clear why Knossos, the biggest palace, was positioned where it was - the land around it is not particularly good for agriculture.

The Minoan palaces are remarkable in that they are completely devoid of fortifications and no weapons were ever found in them. This suggests either that the Minoans were a peace-loving people, or more likely, that they had total control of the seas around Crete and that no marauders were allowed close to the island.

The Arrival of the Mycenaeans

At about the same time as the building of the palaces, the first Greeks arrived in Greece. These people set up a stronghold in the town of Mycenae on Mainland Greece, so they have been called the Mycenaeans. These are the Greeks described in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, who engaged in a war against the Trojans. Such a warlike people would be expected to invade Crete, but this did not happen at this time, so it seems likely that Crete was well defended by a naval force. It also appears that the Mycenaeans learned a lot from the Cretans. They quickly developed an advanced culture of their own, with many Cretan fashions mixed in.

The Earthquake and the Second Palaces

In 1700 BC, disaster struck. A massive earthquake shook the island, destroying all of the palaces and many of the towns around them. However, the Minoans were at the height of their power, so this destruction does not seem to have deterred them. Instead, they rebuilt the palaces to an even grander plan. These second palaces are the ones whose ruins are on display today. They were wonderful buildings, all built with a massive central courtyard surrounded by colonnades, rooms, stairs, workshops and so on. The walls were decorated with frescoes, which show the Minoans at work and play, fishing, harvesting, dancing and making music. Intricate gold jewellery has been discovered in the ruins, as well as the utilitarian pots and jars.

The Minoans seem to have worshipped a Mother Goddess, as was common with many religions of the time. Priestesses wearing flounced skirts and with bare breasts are shown in many of the frescoes. Processions of people bearing gifts are shown in the frescoes, which may be religious ceremonies. The Minoans also held bulls in reverence. Stylised bulls' horns were used to adorn the palace at Knossos. Hundreds of earthenware models of bulls were found in the ruins, and frescoes show what appears to be a ritual bull dance, where acrobats grab the bull by the horns and then leap over its back. It is perhaps these exploits that led to the legend recorded hundreds of years later by the Greeks about the Labyrinth of King Minos, containing the Minotaur, a monster which was half-man and half-bull.

Linear A

Some time in this period, the Minoans developed a form of writing, the first in Europe. This system is known by the inglorious name of Linear A, because the symbols consist of lines rather than pictures. There seem to be about 90 different characters used in the system, suggesting that each symbol represents a syllable, as in the Japanese hiragana system - but since we don't know the language that the Minoans spoke, all attempts to decipher the Linear A texts have failed. Linear A was written on clay tablets which were then left in the Sun to dry. They were reusable - adding water would soften the clay allowing the tablet to be erased. Luckily for us, some tablets were in buildings which burnt down. The fire hardened the tablets so that they survived the millennia and we can now look at them, although we don't know what they mean.

Minoans outside Crete

The Minoan culture was not completely confined to Crete. An ancient town has been excavated at Akrotiri on the island of Santorini. This dates from just before the eruption of Santorini in 1645 BC. The culture was quite clearly Minoan, with the same architecture and frescoes. There are subtle differences - the ladies of Santorini had different hairstyles from their Cretan counterparts, for one. Still, they are quite obviously of the same culture.

The Destruction of 1450 BC

In 1450 BC, all the palaces were again destroyed. All of them, except the palace at Knossos, were also burnt, as were many large Minoan villas. It is not known what caused the destruction this time, but the two leading theories are that the Minoan civilisation fell victim to either civil unrest or invaders.

As well as the palaces, many of the large villas were also destroyed - but in one case, in Mirtos Pirgos, it is quite clear that the villa was burnt down but the surrounding town was left untouched, which appears to rule out any natural disaster. A popular theory in the past was that the catastrophic eruption of Santorini, only 125km away, at about this time, would have caused such wholesale destruction. However, more accurate dating of the volcano's eruption put it nearly two hundred years earlier. Also, tidal waves would have affected only those palaces on the north coast of the island. The palace of Festos on the south coast was also destroyed. The most likely explanation is that people attacked the palaces and burnt them.

Perhaps the lower classes of the Minoan civilisation rose up against their rulers and overthrew them, destroying the palaces. Or perhaps the Mycenaeans from Mainland Greece invaded the island. Whatever the cause, this spelled the end of the Minoan domination of Crete.

After the Destruction

After 1450 BC, Knossos was occupied by Mycenaeans. These may have arrived in the wake of the destruction or they may have been the cause of it. They gradually introduced their culture to the island, spreading outward from Knossos. They rebuilt some of the palaces - Knossos was reoccupied and new buildings were built on top of the ruins of the old ones. Still, these new buildings were never on the same scale as the old palaces. The palace at Malia was never reoccupied; except for one small square building, nothing was built over it, so it can still be seen as it was at the time of the destruction. The Mycenaean culture mixed with the Minoan culture.

Linear B

A new writing system emerged after the destruction. Similar to the original system, it is now called Linear B. This was deciphered in the 20th Century by Ventris and Chadwick based on work by Kober. It is an early form of Greek, the language of the Mycenaeans. It appears that they adapted the Linear A alphabet to allow them to write down their own language, and that the language spoken in Crete at least by the rulers and their officials after 1450 BC was Greek, lending further credence to the theory that the island was conquered by the Mycenaeans.

The End of the Minoans

The Minoan people seem to have lived along with the Mycenaeans for another few hundred years. No doubt the Minoan language continued to be spoken by the working classes. However, the civilisation never really recovered from the disaster and went into a steady decline. In about 800 BC, a new group of people arrived on the scene - the Dorians. These were another war-like Greek-speaking people, who arrived on the mainland and soon afterwards in Crete. They seem to have driven the local people up into the hills because the later Minoan towns are in more and more inaccessible places, the last one being at Karfi, high in the Dikti Mountains. From that time onward, there are no traces of the Minoans.

Now that you know the history, you can read about being a tourist and visiting the Minoan ruins in the entry A Tourist Guide to the Minoan Civilisation.

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