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Minoan Civilization of Crete

The first public education in Crete

Prerequisites for the formation of states in Crete

The oldest center of civilization in Europe was the island of Crete. According to its geographical position, this elongated mountainous island, which closes the entrance to the Aegean Sea from the south, is like a natural outpost of the European continent, extended far to the south towards the African and Asian coasts of the Mediterranean Sea. Already in ancient times, the sea routes connecting the Balkan Peninsula and the Aegean Islands with Asia Minor, Syria and North Africa crossed here. The culture of Crete, which emerged at one of the busiest crossroads of the ancient Mediterranean, was influenced by such diverse and widely separated cultures as the ancient “river” civilizations of the Middle East (Egypt and Mesopotamia), on the one hand, and the early agricultural cultures of Anatolia, the Danube Lowlands and Balkan Greece, on the other. But the culture of the Cycladic Archipelago, which is considered to be one of the leading cultures of the Aegean world in the third millennium BC, played a particularly important role in the formation of Cretan civilization.

The time of the Minoan civilization-the turn of the III-II thousand BC. e. or the end of the Early Bronze Age. Up to this point, the Cretan culture did not stand out in any noticeable way against the general background of the ancient cultures of the Aegean world. The Neolithic age, as well as the Early Bronze Age that followed it (VI-III thousand BC), was in the history of Crete a time of gradual, relatively calm accumulation of forces before a decisive leap to a new stage of social development. What prepared this leap? First of all, the development and improvement of the productive forces of Cretan society. As early as the beginning of the third thousand. The production of copper, and later bronze, was developed in Crete. Bronze tools and weapons are gradually replacing similar products made of stone. Important changes occur during this period in the agriculture of Crete. It is now based on a new multicultural type of agriculture, focused on the simultaneous cultivation of the three main agricultural crops (the so-called “Mediterranean triad”), namely —

  • cereals (mainly barley),
  • grapes,
  • olives.

Productivity and population growth

The result of all these economic shifts was an increase in the productivity of agricultural labor and an increase in the mass of surplus product. On this basis, reserve funds for agricultural products were created in individual communities, which not only covered food shortages in lean years, but also provided food for people who were not directly engaged in agricultural production, for example, skilled artisans. Thus, for the first time, it became possible to separate handicrafts from agriculture, and to develop professional specialization in various branches of handicraft production. The high level of professional skill achieved by Minoan artisans already in the second half of the third millennium BC is evidenced by the finds of jewelry, vessels carved from stone, and carved seals dating back to this time. At the end of the same period, the potter’s wheel became known in Crete, allowing for great progress in the production of ceramics.

Palikastro, XVI century BC. Sea style.

Palikastro, XVI century BC. Sea style.

At the same time, a certain part of the community reserve funds could be used for inter-community and inter-tribal exchange. The development of trade in Crete, as well as in the Aegean basin in general, was closely connected with the development of navigation. It is no accident that almost all the Cretan settlements we now know were located either directly on the sea coast, or somewhere not far from it. Having mastered the art of navigation, the inhabitants of Crete already in the III millennium BC. They entered into close contacts with the population of the islands of the Cycladic archipelago, penetrated into the coastal areas of mainland Greece and Asia Minor, reached Syria and Egypt. Like other maritime peoples of ancient times, the Cretans willingly combined trade and fishing with piracy.

The progress of the Cretan economy during the Early Bronze Age contributed to rapid population growth in the most fertile areas of the island. This is evidenced by the emergence of many new settlements, especially accelerated in the late III-early II millennium BC. e. Most of them were located in the eastern part of Crete and on the vast central plain of Messara. At the same time, there is an intensive process of social stratification of Cretan society. Within individual communities, an influential stratum of the nobility is distinguished. It consists mainly of tribal leaders and priests. All these people were exempt from direct participation in productive activities and occupied a privileged position in comparison with the mass of ordinary community members. At the other end of the same social system, slaves appear, mainly from among the captured foreigners.

At the same time, new forms of political relations began to take shape in Crete. Stronger and more populous communities subdue their less powerful neighbors, force them to pay tribute and impose all sorts of other duties. Already existing tribes and tribal unions are internally consolidated, acquiring a clearer political organization. The natural result of all these processes was the formation of the first “palace” states at the turn of the III—II thousand, which took place almost simultaneously in various regions of Crete.

First class societies and States

Palace-style pythos. Knossos, 1450 BC

Palace-style pythos. Knossos, 1450 BC

Already at the beginning of the second millennium BC, several independent states were formed on the island. Each of them included several dozen small communal settlements grouped around one of the four large palaces now known to archaeologists. This includes the palaces of Knossos, Festus, Mallia in central Crete and the Palace of Kato Zakro on the east coast of the island. Unfortunately, only a few of the “old palaces” that existed in these places have survived. Later developments have erased their traces almost everywhere. Only in Festus has the great western courtyard of the old palace and part of the inner rooms adjacent to it been preserved.

Among the palace utensils of this period, the most interesting are clay painted vases of the Kamares style (their first samples were found in the Kamares cave near Festus, from which this name comes). The stylized floral ornament that adorns the walls of these vessels creates the impression of non-stop movement of geometric figures that combine with each other: spirals, disks, rosettes, etc.Here, for the first time, the dynamism (sense of movement) that will later become a distinctive feature of all Minoan art makes itself felt. The color richness of these paintings is also striking.

Vessel " Kamares". Palace of Festus, 1850-1700 BC

Vessel ” Kamares”. Palace of Festus, 1850-1700 BC

Already during the period of the “old palaces”, the socio-economic and political development of Cretan society advanced so far that it created an urgent need for writing, without which none of the known early civilizations can do. Pictographic writing, which appeared at the beginning of this period (it is known mainly from the short-from two or three characters — inscriptions on seals), gradually gave way to a more advanced system of syllabic writing — the so-called linear letter A. Inscriptions of a dedicatory nature made in linear A script have been preserved, as well as, although in a small number, documents of economic reporting.

The rise of Cretan civilization. The preponderance of Knossos

Around 1700 BC, the palaces of Knossos, Festus, Mallia, and Kato Zakro were destroyed, apparently as a result of a strong earthquake accompanied by a large fire. This disaster, however, only briefly halted the development of Cretan culture. Soon, new buildings of the same type were built on the site of the destroyed palaces, mostly apparently retaining the layout of their predecessors, although surpassing them in their monumentality and grandeur of architectural decoration. Thus began a new stage in the history of Minoan Crete, known in science as the “period of the new palaces” or the Late Minoan period.

Knossos Palace

Knossos Palace. Reconstruction.

Knossos Palace. Reconstruction.

The most remarkable architectural structure of this period is the Minos Palace in Knossos, discovered by A. Evans. The extensive material collected by archaeologists during the excavations in this palace, allows you to get an idea of what was the Minoan civilization in its heyday. The Greeks called the palace of Minos “labyrinth” (the word itself, apparently, was borrowed from the language of the pre-Greek population of Crete). In Greek mythology, the labyrinth was described as a huge building with many rooms and corridors. A person who got into the maze could not get out of it without help and inevitably died: in the depths of the palace lived a bloodthirsty Minotaur-a monster with a human torso and the head of a bull. The tribes and peoples subject to Minos were obliged to amuse the terrible beast with human sacrifices every year, until it was killed by the famous Athenian hero Theseus. Evans ‘ excavations have shown that the Greek stories about the labyrinth had a certain foundation. In Knossos, indeed, an outstanding building or even a whole complex of buildings with a total area of 10,000 m2, including about three hundred rooms of various purposes, was discovered.

Modern view of the Knossos Palace. Built around 1700 BC.

Modern view of the Knossos Palace. Built around 1700 BC.

The architecture of the Cretan palaces is unusual, peculiar and unlike anything else. It has nothing in common with the ponderous monumentality of Egyptian and Assyro-Babylonian buildings. At the same time, it is also far from the harmonious balance of the classical Greek temple with its strictly mathematically verified proportions. The interior layout of the palace is extremely complex, even confusing. Living rooms, utility rooms, connecting corridors, courtyards and light wells are located, at first glance, without any visible system and a clear plan, forming some kind of anthill or coral colony. Despite the chaotic nature of the palace building, it is still perceived as a single architectural ensemble. This is largely due to the large rectangular courtyard that occupies the central part of the palace, with which all the main rooms that were part of this huge complex were connected in one way or another. The courtyard was paved with large plaster slabs and, apparently, was not used for household needs, but for some religious purposes.

During its centuries-old history, the Palace of Knossos has been rebuilt many times. Parts of it and the whole building probably had to be rebuilt after every major earthquake that occurs in Crete about once every fifty years. At the same time, new premises were added to the old, already existing ones. The rooms and storerooms seemed to be strung together, forming long rows-enfilades. Detached buildings and groups of buildings gradually merged into a single residential area, grouped around the central courtyard. Despite the well-known haphazardness of the interior, the palace was abundantly equipped with everything necessary to ensure that the life of its inhabitants was calm and comfortable. The builders of the palace took care of such important elements of comfort as water supply and sewerage. During the excavations, stone gutters were found, through which sewage was removed from the palace. A water supply system was also discovered, thanks to which the inhabitants of the palace never suffered from a lack of drinking water. The Palace of Knossos also had a well-designed ventilation and lighting system. The entire thickness of the building was cut from top to bottom by special light wells, through which sunlight and air entered the lower floors of the palace. Large windows and open verandas served the same purpose.

A significant part of the lower, ground floor of the palace was occupied by storerooms for storing food supplies: wine, olive oil and other products.

Gold Cup No. 2 from Wafio. XV century BC.

Gold Cup No. 2 from Wafio. XV century BC.

During the excavations of the Palace of Knossos, archaeologists have recovered a wide variety of works of art and artistic crafts. Among them are magnificent painted vases decorated with images of octopuses and other marine animals, sacred vessels made of stone (the so-called ritons) in the form of a bull’s head, wonderful faience figurines depicting people and animals with unusual verisimilitude and expressiveness for that time, jewelry of the finest workmanship, including gold rings and carved seals made of precious stones. Many of these items were created in the palace itself, in special workshops where goldsmiths, potters, vase painters and artisans of other professions worked, who served the king and the nobility around him with their work (the premises of the workshops were found in many places on the territory of the palace). Of particular interest is the wall paintings that decorated the inner chambers, corridors and porticos of the palace. Some of these frescoes depicted scenes from the life of nature: plants, birds, marine animals. Others depicted the inhabitants of the palace itself: slender, tanned men with long black hair arranged in whimsically curly curls, with a thin” wasp “waist and broad shoulders, and “ladies” in huge bell-shaped skirts with many frills and tightly tightened bodices. Two main features distinguish the frescoes of the Palace of Knossos from other works of the same genre found elsewhere, such as in Egypt:

  • first, the high coloristic skill of the artists who created them, their characteristic sharpened sense of color and,
  • secondly, the art of transmitting the movement of people and animals.
"Games with the bull". A fresco from the Palace of Knossos.

“Games with the bull”. A fresco from the Palace of Knossos.

An example of the dynamic expression that distinguishes the works of Minoan painters is the magnificent frescoes, which represent the so-called “bull games” or the Minoan tauromachia. We see a bull rushing at full speed and an acrobat performing a series of intricate jumps right on its horns and on its back. In front of the bull and behind it, the artist depicted the figures of two girls in loincloths, apparently” assistants ” of the acrobat. Apparently, it was an important religious ritual associated with one of the main Minoan cults — the cult of the bull god.

The scenes of Tauromachia are perhaps the only disturbing note in Minoan art, which is generally characterized by serenity and cheerfulness. He is completely alien to the brutal bloody scenes of war and hunting, so popular in modern art in the Middle East and mainland Greece. This is not surprising. From the hostile outside world, Crete was well protected by the waves of the Mediterranean Sea that washed it. There was no significant maritime power in the immediate vicinity of the island at that time, and its inhabitants could feel safe. This is the only way to explain the paradoxical fact that struck archaeologists: all the Cretan palaces, including Knossos, remained for almost all of their history undefended.

Religious views of the ancient Cretans

In the works of palace art, the life of Minoan society is presented in a somewhat embellished form. In fact, it had its own shadowy sides. The nature of the island has not always been favorable to its inhabitants. As already noted, there were constant earthquakes in Crete, often reaching destructive force. To this should be added frequent sea storms in these places, accompanied by thunderstorms and heavy rains, dry years, periodically hitting Crete as well as the rest of Greece, famine and epidemics. In order to protect themselves from all these terrible natural disasters, the inhabitants of Crete turned to their many gods and goddesses for help.

The serpent goddess from the Palace of Knossos. Ca. 1600-1500 BC.

The serpent goddess from the Palace of Knossos. Ca. 1600-1500 BC.

The central figure of the Minoan pantheon was the great goddess-the “lady” (as the inscriptions found in Knossos and in some other places call her). In the works of Cretan art (mainly in small plastic: the goddess appears before us in her various incarnations. Sometimes we see her as the terrible mistress of wild animals, the mistress of mountains and forests with all their inhabitants (cf. the Greek Artemis), sometimes the benevolent patroness of vegetation, especially cereals and fruit trees (cf. Greek Demeter), sometimes a sinister queen of the underworld, holding writhing snakes in her hands (such is her famous faience statuette “the goddess with snakes” from the Palace of Knossos, cf. with her Greek Persephone). Behind all these images, one can guess the features of the ancient deity of fertility — the great mother of all people, animals and plants, whose veneration was widespread in all countries of the Mediterranean since the Neolithic era.

Next to the great goddess-the personification of femininity and motherhood, a symbol of the eternal renewal of nature, there was in the Minoan pantheon a deity of a completely different plan, embodying the wild destructive forces of nature — the terrible element of an earthquake, the power of a raging sea. These terrifying phenomena were transformed in the minds of the Minoans into the image of a powerful and ferocious bull god. On some Minoan seals, the divine bull is depicted as a fantastic creature — a man with a bull’s head, which immediately reminds us of the later Greek myth of the Minotaur. According to the myth, the Minotaur was born from the unnatural relationship of Queen Pasiphae, the wife of Minos, with a monstrous bull, which was given to Minos by Poseidon, the lord of the sea (according to one version of the myth, Poseidon himself reincarnated as a bull). In ancient times, it was Poseidon who was considered the culprit of earthquakes: with the blows of his trident, he set the sea and land in motion (hence his usual epithet “earthshaker”). Probably, the same kind of ideas were associated with the ancient inhabitants of Crete with their god-bull. To appease the terrible deity and calm the angry elements, he was offered abundant sacrifices, including, apparently, human ones (an echo of this barbaric rite is preserved again in the myth of the Minotaur). Probably the bull games already mentioned served the same purpose — to prevent or stop an earthquake. The symbols of the divine bull-a conventional representation of bull horns-are found in almost every Minoan sanctuary.

The young man among the lilies ,the "Priest-King". Relief, painted in the technique of frescoes, height 2.2 m. Knossos, 1600 BC.

The young man among the lilies ,the “Priest-King”. Relief, painted in the technique of frescoes, height 2.2 m. Knossos, 1600 BC.

Religion played a huge role in the life of Minoan society, leaving its mark on all spheres of its spiritual and practical activities. This shows an important difference between Cretan culture and the later Greek civilization, for which such a close interweaving of “divine and human” was no longer characteristic. During the excavations of the Palace of Knossos, a huge number of all kinds of religious utensils were found, including

  • statuettes of the great goddess,
  • sacred symbols such as the bull horns already mentioned,
  • the double axe-labris,
  • altars and tables for sacrifices,
  • various vessels for libations.

Many of the rooms of the palace were clearly not intended for household needs or for housing, but were used as sanctuaries for religious rites and ceremonies. Among them are crypts-caches in which sacrifices to the underground gods were arranged, pools for ritual ablutions, small domestic chapels, etc. The architecture of the palace itself, the paintings that adorn its walls, and other works of art were permeated with complex religious symbols. In essence, the palace was nothing more than a huge sanctuary, a palace-temple, in which all the inhabitants, including the king himself, performed various priestly duties, participating in the rites, the images of which we see on the palace frescoes. Thus, it can be assumed that the king-the ruler of Knossos-was at the same time the high priest of the god-king, while the queen — his wife — occupied a corresponding position among the priestesses of the great goddess — “lady”.

Tsarist power

According to many scientists, there was a special form of royal power in Crete, known in science as “theocracy” (one of the varieties of monarchy, in which the secular and spiritual power belongs to the same person). The person of the king was considered “sacred and inviolable”. Even the sight of it was forbidden to “mere mortals”. Thus it is possible to explain the rather strange, at first glance, circumstance that among the works of Minoan art there is not one that can be confidently recognized as the image of the royal person. The entire life of the king and his household was strictly regulated and raised to the level of a religious ritual. The kings of Knossos did not just live and rule. They were sacred.

The” Holy of Holies ” of the Palace of Knossos, the place where the priest-king “condescended” to communicate with his subjects, offered sacrifices to the gods and at the same time decided state affairs, is his throne room. Before entering it, visitors were led through the lobby, in which there was a large porphyry bowl for ritual ablutions: in order to appear before the “royal eyes”, it was necessary to first wash off all the bad things. The walls of the hall were lined with hammered benches, on which sat the royal advisers, high priests and dignitaries of Knossos. The walls of the throne room are painted with colorful murals depicting griffins-fantastic monsters with a bird’s head on a lion’s body. Griffins recline in solemn frozen poses on either side of the throne, as if protecting the lord of Crete from all misfortunes and misfortunes.

Socio-economic relations

The magnificent palaces of the Cretan kings, the riches stored in their cellars and storerooms, the comfort and abundance in which the kings themselves and their entourage lived – all this was created by the work of many thousands of nameless peasants and artisans, about whose lives only a little is known.

A steatite vessel from Agia Triade. Ca. 1550-1500 BC.

A steatite vessel from Agia Triade. Ca. 1550-1500 BC.

The court masters, who created all the most remarkable masterpieces of Minoan art, apparently had little interest in the life of the common people and therefore did not reflect it in their work. As an exception, we can refer to a small steatite vessel found during the excavations of the royal villa in Agia Triada near Festus. The elaborate relief adorning the upper part of the vessel depicts a procession of villagers armed with long fork-shaped sticks (with the help of such tools, Cretan peasants probably knocked down ripe olives from the trees). Some of the participants in the procession sing. At the head of the procession is a priest, dressed in a wide scaly cloak. Apparently, the artist who created this small masterpiece of Minoan sculpture wanted to capture the harvest festival or some other similar ceremony.

Some insight into the life of the lower strata of Cretan society is provided by the materials of mass graves and rural shrines. Such shrines were usually located somewhere in remote mountain corners: in caves and on the tops of mountains. During excavations, uncomplicated dedicatory gifts are found in them in the form of crudely sculpted figures of people and animals made of clay. These items, as well as the primitive inventory of ordinary burials, indicate the low standard of living of the Minoan village, the backwardness of its culture in comparison with the refined culture of the palaces.

The bulk of the working population of Crete lived in small towns and villages scattered across the fields and hills in the vicinity of the palaces. These villages, with their squalid mud-brick houses pressed close together, and their crooked narrow streets, make a striking contrast to the monumental architecture of the palaces, the luxury of their interior decoration.

Rock crystal rhyton. Kato Zakros Palace, ca. 1700-1450 BC

Rock crystal rhyton. Kato Zakros Palace, ca. 1700-1450 BC

A typical example of an ordinary settlement of the Minoan era is Gurnia, located in the north-eastern part of Crete. Its area is very small — only 1.5 hectares (this is only slightly more than the area occupied by the Palace of Knossos without adjacent buildings). The entire settlement consisted of several dozen houses, built very compactly and grouped into separate blocks or blocks, inside which the houses stood close to each other. The houses themselves are small — no more than 50 m2 each. Their design is extremely primitive. The lower part of the walls is made of stones held together with clay, the upper part is made of unfired bricks. The frames of the windows and doors were made of wood. In some houses, utility rooms were found: storerooms with pithos for storing supplies, presses for squeezing grapes and olive oil. During the excavations, quite a lot of various tools were found, made of copper and bronze.

In Gurnia, there were several craft workshops, the products of which were designed, most likely, for local consumption, among them a blacksmith shop and a pottery workshop. The proximity of the sea suggests that the inhabitants of Gurnia combined farming with trade and fishing. The central part of the settlement was occupied by a building that vaguely resembles the layout of the Cretan palaces, but is much inferior to them in size and in the richness of the interior decoration. It was probably the residence of a local ruler, who, like the entire population of Gurnia, was dependent on the king of Knossos or some other lord of the great palaces. Next to the ruler’s house, an open area was arranged, which could be used as a place for meetings and all kinds of religious ceremonies or performances. Like all other large and small settlements of the Minoan era, Gurnia had no fortifications and was open to attack from both sea and land. This was the appearance of the Minoan village, as far as it can now be imagined from archaeological excavations.

What connected the palaces with their rural surroundings? We have every reason to believe that Cretan society has already developed the relations of domination and subordination characteristic of any early class society. It can be assumed that the agricultural population of the kingdom of Knossos, as well as any of the states of Crete, was imposed duties both natural and labor in favor of the palace. It was obliged to deliver cattle, grain, oil, wine and other products to the palace. All these receipts were recorded by the palace scribes on clay tablets, and then handed over to the palace storerooms, where huge stocks of food and other material values were accumulated. By the hands of the same peasants and slaves, the palace itself was built and rebuilt, roads and irrigation canals were laid.

Labris-a votive golden axe from the Arkalochori Cave. 1650-1600 BC.

Labris-a votive golden axe from the Arkalochori Cave. 1650-1600 BC.

It is unlikely that they did all this only under duress. The palace was the main sanctuary of the entire state, and elementary piety required the settler to honor the gods who lived in it with gifts, giving the surplus of his household supplies to the organization of festivals and sacrifices. However, between the people and their gods there was a whole army of intermediaries — a staff of professional priests serving the sanctuary, headed by the “sacred king”. In essence, it was already a well-established, well-formed stratum of hereditary priestly nobility, opposed to the rest of society as a closed aristocratic class. The priests could use the lion’s share of these riches for their own needs by disposing of the supplies stored in the palace warehouses without control. Nevertheless, the people had unlimited confidence in these people, since “God’s grace”rested on them.

Of course, along with religious motives, the concentration of the surplus product of agricultural labor in the hands of the palace elite was also dictated by purely economic expediency. For years, the food stores accumulated in the palace could serve as a reserve fund in case of famine. At the expense of the same reserves, artisans who worked for the state were provided with food. The surpluses, which were not used locally, were sold to distant overseas countries: Egypt, Syria, Cyprus, where they could be exchanged for rare raw materials that were not available in Crete itself: gold and copper, ivory and purple, rare wood and stone.

Commercial sea expeditions in those days were fraught with great risk and required a lot of money for their preparation. Only the State, which had the necessary material and human resources, was able to organize and finance such an enterprise. It goes without saying that the scarce goods obtained in this way were still deposited in the same palace storerooms and distributed from there among the master craftsmen who worked both in the palace itself and in its surroundings. Thus, the palace served a truly universal function in Minoan society, being at the same time the administrative and religious center of the state, its main granary, workshop and trading post. In the social and economic life of Crete, palaces played much the same role as cities in more developed societies.

The creation of a maritime power. The decline of Cretan civilization

The Rise of Crete

A girl worshipping a deity. Bronze. 1600-1500 BC.

A girl worshipping a deity. Bronze. 1600-1500 BC.

The highest heyday of Minoan civilization falls on the XVI-first half of the XV century BC. It was at this time that Cretan palaces, especially the palace of Knossos, were built with unprecedented splendor and splendor, and masterpieces of Minoan art and artistic craft were created. At the same time, the whole of Crete was united under the rule of the kings of Knossos and became a single centralized state. This is evidenced by the network of convenient wide roads laid throughout the island and connecting Knossos-the capital of the state — with its most remote corners. This is also indicated by the absence of fortifications in Knossos and other palaces of Crete. If each of these palaces were the capital of an independent state, its owners would probably take care to protect themselves from hostile neighbors.

During this period, there was a unified system of measures in Crete, apparently enforced by the island’s rulers. Cretan stone weights decorated with the image of an octopus have been preserved. The weight of one such weight was 29 kg. The same weight was also given to the large bronze ingots, which had the appearance of a stretched bull’s skin — the so-called “Cretan talents”. Most likely, they were used as exchange units in all kinds of trading operations, replacing the money that was still missing. It is quite possible that the unification of Crete around the palace of Knossos was carried out by the famous Minos, about which the later Greek myths tell so much. Although we can well assume that this name was borne by many kings who ruled Crete for a number of generations and formed one dynasty. Greek historians considered Minos the first thalassocrator-the ruler of the sea. It was said of him that he had built up a large navy, eradicated piracy, and established his rule over the entire Aegean Sea, its islands and coasts.

Sacred bull horns. Knossos Palace. 1900-1600 BC.

Sacred bull horns. Knossos Palace. 1900-1600 BC.

This tradition, apparently, is not devoid of historical grain. Indeed, as archaeology shows, in the XVI century BC there was a wide sea expansion of Crete in the Aegean basin. Minoan colonies and trading posts arise on the islands of the Cycladic archipelago, on Rhodes, and even on the coast of Asia Minor, in the area of Miletus.

On their fast ships, sailing and rowing, the Minoans penetrate into the most remote corners of the ancient Mediterranean. Traces of their settlements, or perhaps just shipyards, have been found on the shores of Sicily, in Southern Italy, and even on the Iberian Peninsula. According to one of the myths, Minos died during a campaign in Sicily and was buried there in a magnificent tomb.

At the same time, the Cretans are engaged in lively trade and diplomatic relations with Egypt and the states of the Syro-Phoenician coast. This is indicated by the fairly frequent finds of Minoan pottery made in these two areas. At the same time, things of Egyptian and Syrian origin were found in Crete itself. The Egyptian frescoes of the time of the famous queen Hatshepsut and Thutmose III (the first half of the XV century) show the ambassadors of the country of Keftiu (as the Egyptians called Crete) in typical Minoan clothing-aprons and high boots with gifts to the Pharaoh in their hands. There is no doubt that at the time to which these frescoes date, Crete was the strongest maritime power in the entire Eastern Mediterranean, and Egypt was interested in friendship with its kings.

The Crete disaster

In the middle of the XV century BC, the situation changed dramatically. Crete was hit by a disaster, the equal of which the island has not experienced in its entire centuries-old history. Almost all the palaces and settlements, with the exception of Knossos, were destroyed. Many of them, such as the palace in Kato Zakro, opened in the 60s of the XX century, were forever abandoned by their inhabitants and forgotten for millennia. From this terrible blow, the Minoan culture could no longer recover. Since the middle of the XV century, its decline begins. Crete is losing its position as the leading cultural center of the Aegean Basin.

The ruins of the palace of Kato Zakros.

The ruins of the palace of Kato Zakros.

The causes of the catastrophe, which played a fatal role in the fate of the Minoan civilization, are still not exactly established. According to the most plausible guess put forward by the Greek archaeologist S. Marinatos, the destruction of palaces and other Cretan settlements was the result of a grand eruption of a volcano on the island of Fera (modern. Santorini) in the southern part of the Aegean Sea. Other scholars are more inclined to believe that the culprits of the disaster were the Achaean Greeks, who invaded Crete from mainland Greece (most likely from the Peloponnese). They plundered and ravaged the island, which had long attracted them with its fabulous wealth, and subjugated its population to their power. It is possible to reconcile these two points of view on the problem of the decline of Minoan civilization, if we assume that the Achaeans invaded Crete after the island was devastated by a volcanic disaster, and, meeting no resistance from the demoralized and greatly reduced in the number of the local population, took possession of its most important life centers. Indeed, in the culture of Knossos, the only one of the Cretan palaces that survived the catastrophe of the mid — XV century, there were important changes that indicate the emergence of a new people in these places. The full-blooded realistic Minoan art is now giving way to a dry and lifeless stylization, which can be exemplified by the Knossos vases painted in the so-called “palace style” (the second half of the XV century).

Rhyton in the form of a bull's head. Chlorite. Kato Zagros. Ca. 1450 BC

Rhyton in the form of a bull’s head. Chlorite. Kato Zagros. Ca. 1450 BC

The traditional Minoan vase painting motifs (plants, flowers, sea animals) on the vases of the “palace style” are transformed into abstract graphic schemes, which indicates a sharp change in the artistic taste of the inhabitants of the palace. At the same time, graves appear in the vicinity of Knossos, containing a variety of weapons: swords, daggers, helmets, arrowheads and spears, which was not at all typical of the previous Minoan burials. Probably, representatives of the Achaean military nobility who settled in the palace of Knossos were buried in these graves. Finally, another fact that clearly indicates the penetration of new ethnic elements into Crete: almost all the extant tablets of the Knossos archive were written not in Minoan, but in Greek (Achaean). These documents date mainly from the end of the XV century BC.

At the end of the XV or the beginning of the XIV century BC, the Palace of Knossos was destroyed and never fully restored. Remarkable works of Minoan art were lost in the conflagration. Archaeologists managed to restore only a small part of them. From this point on, the decline of the Minoan civilization becomes an irreversible process. From a preeminent cultural center, as it has remained for more than five centuries, Crete is turning into a remote, backward province. The main focus of cultural progress and civilization in the area of the Aegean basin is now moving north to the territory of mainland Greece, where the so-called Mycenaean culture reached a high peak at this time.

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