By Betty Gordon
© 2019 text and photos. All rights reserved.
This is the fifth in a series about my October 2018 trip to Athens, Greece; and Crete. See my October 21 post about a fast-paced Greek cooking class in Athens; October 30, 2018 about the destruction of the Jewish community on Crete during World War II; February 7, 2019, about the Minoans’ Palace of Knossos on Crete; and February 19, about a thick soup and appetizer called fava puree.
The Palace of Knossos, just to the southeast of Heraklion, is the most-visited sight on Crete, drawing more than 600,000 tourists a year, as of 2017, according to the Hellenic Statistical Authority.
The site gives a glimpse into the sophistication of the Minoan civilization that occupied the area from about 3000 B.C. to 1050 B.C.
As I wrote in my February 7 post, parts of the Knossos site are restored, with its frescoes and structures echoing the vision — some say imagination — of Sir Arthur Evans, the Englishman who directed the excavation of the ruins over a period of 30 years in the early 20th century.
But to be able to appreciate many of the artifacts — and marvel at the craftsmanship and ingenuity of the Minoans — tourists should pair their Knossos experience with a stop at the 27 rooms of the Heraklion Archaeology Museum, Crete’s second-most popular attraction with more than 400,000 visitors in 2017.
While the frescoes are re-created at Knossos, the originals uncovered by the many Cretans in Evans’ employment reside at the museum, where an extensive renovation was completed in 2014. The frescoes are displayed one floor up from ground level, and it is here that visitors can get a much closer look at how from just a few fragments nearly complete paintings were extrapolated.
No other museum in the world has such a wealth of Minoan artifacts — thousands of objects — though Evans did leave part of his personal collection to the Ashmolean at Oxford University in England, where he had formerly been a director.
Beyond the Minoan collection, the museum showcases Cretan art ranging from the Neolithic period through Roman times (7000 B.C. to the third century AD). The non-Minoan collection is particularly strong in large pieces of pottery, funeral art, and figural sculptures large and small.
Crete’s strategic Aegean Sea location meant that there was trade with other wide-ranging cultures, and as a byproduct, the importation of goods, ideas and a sharing of technical abilities.
Among the most famous Minoan artifacts is a realistic-looking stone bull’s-head rhyton, which, despite its menacing face, was used as a drinking vessel. It dates to 1600 B.C. to 1450 B.C. and was found at Knossos.
The rhyton would have been filled through a hole in its neck, with the liquid exiting through the nose, which is delineated with inlaid seashell.
The horns have been restored, as has the left side of the face, but the rock crystal left eye surrounded by red jasper is original.
The male bovine motif is found again in the bull-leaping fresco depicting the action of an ancient sport — or was it a religious rite? Two female athletes bookend the animal, above which is a feet-in-the-air somersaulting brown male figure. The female on the left holds the bull by the horns to slow its speed, while the one on the right, with outstretched arms, waits to catch the tumbling leaper.
This fresco, and other fragments, were found on the east side of the Palace of Knossos and date 1500 B.C. to 1400 B.C.
The life-size “Prince of the Lilies” fresco in three vertical sections holds its own secrets: With a crown of peacock feathers and papyrus lilies, was this a likeness of the ruler of Knossos, as Evans posited, a priest-king with religious and secular power?
Other scholars present arguments that the figure (circa 1600 B.C. to 1450 B.C.) represented an athlete — possibly a boxer — or that the figure was a female priest or maybe even a sphinx.
Found at Knossos in the Corridor of the Procession (just south of the rectangular Central Court), where a re-created fresco stands, the figure’s outstretched left hand holds a tether, possibly indicating that it was leading an animal.
As would befit a palace population, a handsome board game testifies to leisure pursuits. Known as the Minoan Chessboard, it is believed to share similarities with a game from the Egyptian court.
Materials such as ivory, blue glass paste, glazed ceramic ware and gold and silver leaf adorn the busy board’s pattern. It was found in a corridor to the northeast of the Central Court (where the above mentioned bull-leaping game might have taken place) of the Palace of Knossos. Religious celebrations might also have been staged in the Central Court.
Still posing a mystery to experts is the clay Phaistos disk, which contains 45 distinct stamped symbols — some repeating such as a plumed head and shield — in a spiral configuration on both sides of its 16-centimeter (about 6.25 inches) surface. It was found in 1908 south-central town of Phaistos (also spelled Phaestos), site of another Minoan palace, and dates to the early 17th century B.C.
Gareth Owens, a linguist at researcher at the Technological Educational Institute of Crete, and John Coleman, a phonetics professor at Oxford, believe the disk may be a prayer to a Minoan goddess.
Other interpretations range from an adventure story to a possible game board.
Also from Phaistos are pieces of polychrome pottery known as Kamares ware, showcasing decorative flourishes such as scrolls, leaves and imaginative sea creatures. A lovely example is the Kamares crater, a large footed bowl with attached white blossoms and a checkerboard band around the central body.
Quick reference: Ruins at Knossos, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. April to October; 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. November to March. Holiday hours may differ. 16 euros for combo ticket with Heraklion Archaeological Museum; museum alone is 10 euros. Ticket is valid for two days after Knossos entrance. To avoid the summer heat and the busloads of cruise line passengers, arrive early. There is very little shade at the site, so bring a hat, water, sunglasses and sunscreen.
Parking is severely limited. Instead, catch Bus 2 from Heraklion, which makes the 10-minute journey almost continually. Buy a 1.70 euro ticket (two for round-trip) from a machine or tobacco/newsstand kiosk. It’s 2.50 euros if buying on the bus.
Heraklion Archaeological Museum, in March: 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays; closed some holidays, summer hours not yet available, see website; Xanthoudidou 2, Heraklion, heraklionmuseum.gr/