Knossos and the South Coast


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Crete - Heraklion and Knossos

 Ivory bull-dancer in flight (full size, 1600 BC). This small, weathered figure in the Museum of Heraklion is one of the most beautiful pieces from Knossos.

We traveled for two weeks through Crete with Norm Cohen, a friend and colleague of mine at Aerospace Corporation. We had met him in Athens and then flown to Heraklion from there.


 Minos' bull horns and the entry to the lower level of the palace. Click here for a map of Knossos.


 A reconstructed part of the palace.


After Sir Arthur Evans had found and excavated Knossos (1900-1925) he reconstructed large parts of it using concrete to fill the gaps. This method, now scorned on by archeologists, created a kind of Minoan Disneyland, but has the advantage that the layman sees something. In the newer excavations like in Phaistos one finds only fundaments and has to imagine the palaces that once stood there - but the power of the spiritus loci of Phaistos is much stronger than that of Knossos....

Storage pots, part of the palace and the hills surrounding Knossos . - What we see today was built between 1700 and 1500 BC. It is estimated that at that time the settlement had a population of 100 000 inhabitants. The explosion of the volcano of Thira-Santorini in 1450 BC destroyed also Knossos. The Mycenian Greeks, who had arrived in Knossos before the Thira catastrophe, found the location indefensible and abandoned Knossos thereafter. It was never rebuilt.

The location of Knossos is indeed remarkable. It lies in a valley and seems to never have been protected by a defense wall, as if the Minoans never had to fear any enemies. The original purpose of this city is unclear (a few archeologists argue that it was a city of the dead). More instructive is a comparison with the cities of Yucatan: like there Knossos appears to have been primarily a sacred district, which simultaneously served as the royal palace of the kings of the Minoan empire. All indications seem to show that Minoan religion was a matriarchal cult of the Great Goddess, the images from Knossos and Akrotiri on Thira show only priestesses.

 Barbara among the ruins.


 The entry and staircase to the lower level. the walls are covered with frescoes of "shields" which have the shape of a violoncello, an early shorthand for the Great Goddess, marble idols of this shape were found, e.g., in the contemporary Minoan graves in the Cycladic Islands.

 An extensively in situ restored fresco of bull dancers. The darker spots are the few remnants of the original. For an excellent historical reconstruction of the life in Knossos read Mary Renault's novel "The Bull from the Sea."

The "Megaron of the Queen" (#25 on the map of Knossos) with frescoes of Dolphins. The door leads to the "bedroom of the queen", and.... 

 ... her bathtub next door - supported by an almost modern system of water pipes and sewage channels....


Storage pots in the magazines below the palace where the Minotaur must have lived... 


 The seemingly inverted columns at Knossos were designed to withstand earthquakes, and were made from wood for the same reason - today they are cast concrete.


The Museum of Heraklion

is one of the best appointed museums in Greece with uncounted treasures.

 Minoan sarcophagi from Aghia Triada decorated with the double-axe, the sign of transcendence and the afterlife,

One of the many beautiful Minoan jugs.

 A collection of priestesses of the Great Goddess


Late-Minoan gold ring (Archeological Museum, Athens, from a museum slide) Minoan priestesses, a man, and two altars. These rings are lively miniatures depictring the sacred rites in Minoa.

Late-Minoan gold ring (Archeological Museum, Athens), three priestesses, the double-axe, and a tree representing the Goddess 

 Mycenian-Minoan gold ring (Archeological Museum, Athens), four emissaries from the other world (or Egypt?), wearing animal masks, bring ritual presents to the Queen of Minoa? or the High-Priestess?



South of Knossos, overlooking its valley rises Mount Profetis Elias, a steep hill with a magnificent view. Below it, at Arkhanes, a Minoan farm has been unearthed, an idyllic place and no tourists. Nearby, then unknown to me, a small temple has very recently been excavated in which two priests were found sacrificing a bound young man on the altar. They had been buried by a violent earthquake. Closer investigation showed that the human sacrifice was only half-complete when the the earthquake struck, in the lower body parts of the victim the bones and tissues were still filled with his blood.... This is the first and only proof of the age-old conjecture that in pre-Hellenic times young men were sacrificed to the Goddess. A practice, which according to Pausanias, was occasionally still secretly performed in remote Arcadia until the 2nd-century AD!

 The chapel of Profetis Elias above Arkhanes, south of Knossos


 View of the valley of Knossos and the sea from Profetis Elias


The hills across the valley from Phaistos.  Driving south from Herakleion on the way to archeological sites of Phaistos and Aghia Triada we stopped at Gortys to inspect the inscription recording the earliest Greek city law (written alternately from left to right and inverted from right to left in the next line). Most beguiling was the beauty of the letters of this incription.... 

 From there we drove west, across the Plain of Lassithi with its windmills to Aghia Nikolaos. Very close to Aghia Nikolaos is the pretty but highly touristy town of Kritsa, with a notable late-Byzantine church.... Kritsa is famous largely because The Temptation of Christ (after Katsantsakis' novel) was filmed here.

Barbara (barely discernible on the left) looking into the church at Kritsa. Crete is dotted with small churches which are covered with late Byzantine murals (14th to 15th century). Many were painted by refugees from Constantinople. El Greco came from Crete, his teacher had been one of these painters.

The murals of Kritsa, Christ in Majesty and church fathers. It is difficult to photograph the murals in the Byzantine churches, because they are not frescoes, and their surfaces reflect the light from the photo flash, moreover they are often in very poor condition. 

 Kritsa, a New Testament story: Christ calling Peter who is seen netting fish.



Southern Crete

 After Norm had left for home we went to Aghia Galini by bus. My idea had been to hike west along the coast from Chora Sfakeion to visit a number of small, but significant Byzantine churches adorned with murals from the 14th-16th century. Fate and weather conspired against us. We never completed that hike.

 The waterfront of Aghia Galini.


 From Galini we took another bus to an intersection from where we walked. The first curiosity we came across was this sinister ruin of a former monastery (Ag. Ioannis or Ag. Vasileos).

 Part of it was used as a sheep pen, but then I came across a whole group of drugged out young people who occupied another dingy room...! We fled before they became aware of my presence. 

Eventually we arrived at Plaka Bay, where along a river several dozen of completely nude young northern Europeans lived an "alternative" life in palm huts.... The place had become famous, German TV had filmed the scene a few months earlier. We hung around for a while, the place was truly idyllic. We spent the night on a nearby beach....  

At the end of another long march with our backpacks next day, I came down with a bad case of dysentery - I had drunk the water at Plaka Bay. We got a room with this view, and the good lady who owned the place brewed herb tea for me for two days. Barbara explored the rocks at the point and found a cave above the sea, where she meditated and I later recovered for another day. 

Restored, we continued our hike through lovely country, a thunderstorm brewing over the mountains. A bad, hot wind from Africa blew next day. Hiking became a real chore. So we decided to take a boat from Chora Sfakeion to Aghia Roumeli at the mouth to the Samaria Gorge. Why not walk up for some distance instead of down like everybody else?

 But that night the weather got really ugly.


 ...finally collapsed exhausted a mile east. We decided to abandon our ambitious hike and took a room in Ag. Roumeli. When we woke next morning the village was suffocating in smog produced by burning tourist trash. That decided the matter for good. We returned to Chora Sfakeion with the next boat and took a bus to Rethymnon from there. We fled Crete for Paros for the rest of our vacation.