My Trip To Europe. Day 7. Friday, October 10. Crete and Knossos


At Knossos on the island of Crete.  Where Europe began!

I can’t show Minoan coins.  They were before coins!  But I found something relevant anyway.

Coins of the Day:  Greek 2 Euros

10-001For the most part, the Euro paper money and coins strike me as currency only a bureaucrat could love.  The paper money is colorful but the bridges shown on the money (to symbolize bridging all the different cultures of Europe) are generic bridges based off different styles of bridgebuilding that were common in Europe.

The coinage is somewhat better.  There’s a rather boring generic design on one side (shown above), and other than the denomination itself, it’s the same on every denomination.  But each issuing country can do what they want with the other side.  Some are uninspired.  I think that Greece did a pretty good job, and I’ll show some examples.  Grecian Eurocoinage for the smaller denominations can be recognized by the fact that they put the word ΛΕΠΤΟΝ on it.  That was their old minor unit, 100 Leptons = 1 Drachma.  So I suspect they don’t call them EuroCents but rather Leptons.  (Perhaps they’re hoping no one else will notice since it’s in their secret code.)

I saw two distinct 2 Euro coin types of Greek origin while in Greece.  Other countries’ designs also turned up, espeically Spain, France, Germany and Italy.  I also got a couple of Cypriot coins.  But here I am showing the Greek 2 Euro pieces.

10-002The first coin is actually a commemorative issue 2 Euros coin, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Crete joining the modern Greek state.  Very appropriate for today, especially given that I got it in change at the museum in Heraklion, the capital of Crete.  I am ninety percent certain that they pass those out there deliberately.

10-003The other is a more generic Greek 2 Euros coin, showing Europa on the Bull.  The story is that Europa was a beautiful young woman, and Zeus decided he wanted her, so he turned himself into a bull, tricked Europa into getting on to the friendly fuzzy animal, then dashed off, carrying her away.  To Crete!  (Where we now know Europe began.)  And she ended up giving her name to the continent.  So this coin serves as a reminder of who made up the very word “Europe.”

It’s much more heavily circulated, and I didn’t bother with the common obverse because it’s just a more circulated copy of what I just showed you


Today I sneaked a picture of the biggest pair of jugs I have ever seen.  You’ll see them.



The ferry arrived at the port of Heraklion, the capital of Crete, at about 6:30 AM and my actual tour didn’t start until 10 AM.  I grabbed the small bag (clothing for two nights on the ferry) and walked into Heraklion proper.  The tour company had arranged to pick me up at certain hotel, and they had arranged for the hotel to watch that bag while I went on the tour (though if anyone wanted a bag with two sets of clothes, one dirty and one not, that badly, I couldn’t have stopped them).

It turns out that less than a block away was the Archaeological Museum of Crete, which is supposed to be second only to the one in Athens.  They opened at 8, so I just waited an hour or so, bought my ticket, and went in.  I took a ton of pictures, but I’ll hold off until later in the post.

A van picked me and a couple of other people up and took us directly to Knossos.  The other people on the tour had been picked up from other cities on Crete (like Chania), and had already met our guide, Veta (unsure of the spelling).  So without further ado, we proceded into Knossos.


Knossos was more than likely the capital of what we, today, call the Minoan civilization, after the legendary King Minos of Crete.  This is almost certainly the civilization that gave rise to the legend of the Minotaur, where Crete demanded seven young women and seven young men as a sacrifice to the Minotaur, in the labyrinth.  The palace was certainly labyrinthine according to the reconstructions, and in its heyday was certainly the power center in the area.  That Mycenean civilization was just a bunch of barbarians on the fringe.

The civilization apparently was at its height from 2000-1500 BCE, at which point, it apparently was conquered by the Myceneans, in the wake of the disastrous eruptiom of Santorini about 1500 BCE.  We have many of their tablets from this period, written in the Linear B script.

We call it the Minoan civilization, because we have no idea whatsoever what they called themselves.  This is because the Mycenaeans left no record of it, and because we can’t read anything the Minoans themselves wrote.  Their writing comes in two styles, the older heiroglyphics, and “Linear A.”  Neither have been deciphered; they are a complete mystery.  Some of the symbols used in Linear B appear in Linear A.  When the archaelogists go out on a limb and posit that maybe the symbols stood for the same syllables in both scripts, and try to “read” (sound out) Linear A, they get words resembling nothing in any known language, so either the Minoans spoke a language that’s related to nothing extant, or the assumption is wrong and the similar-appearing symbols stand for totally different things.

We don’t know.  And never will, absent the discovery of something like the Rosetta Stone.

What we do know is based on study of the ruins of this and other “palaces” on Crete, and another settlement discovered on Santorini, buried by the eruption there.  And we have the objects found at all these sites.

I put “palace” in quotes because it’s pretty clear that thousands of people lived in these structures; though there were certainly places for the royalty, it appears the entire community lived in the structure, it was almost an arcology.  It’s believed it was several stories high (five or six if memory serves).  Here’s a modern wood model from the museum.

10-004a(In the background, just to the left of the woman with the backpack, you can see the Phaistos Disk, about which, more later.)

And a closeup.

10-004bLittle to no sign of weaponry or fortifications have been found, quite unlike Mycenaean civilication with its heavy fortifications.  Some take that to mean it was a peaceful society, but most think that they projected power so effectively they felt safe on their island.  Again, we’ll never really know.

For all the mystery, the Minoans are the oldest civilization we know of in Europe.  You can justly think of this as “Where Europe Started.”


10-005Here’s the first shot of the actual ruins, and you’ll note they don’t look all that ruined.  Sir Arthur Evans, the man who first excavated the site in the earlier part of the 20th century, actually rebuilt a lot of things, trying to be faithful to what he had discovered.  So, much of what you will see here is not original, but hopefully close to what it did look like, once. Veta was careful to point out what was original and what was not.  In some cases she didn’t even take us to some of the more visually interesting places, because they were completely not original.  This is a good thing, giving us an understanding of what’s real and what might be a fanciful reconstruction.  (I still found the skipped-over reconstructions interesting in their own right and had twenty minutes at the end of the tour to dash around on my own to catch a few of them.)

The famous hall of columns:

10-009 10-010

Yet other reconstructions:
Next we came to the “Throne Room,” so named by Evans, though there’s doubt that it was actually used the way a throne room would be understood today.  It is likely the king did preside over some ceremonies here.


There’s an anteroom, which we are allowed to walk through, and an inner room.  I couldn’t get a clear shot of the whole anteroom (lots of people), but I got a bench and of course the wooden chair.  There’s a stone chair in the inner room.  This is a modern copy of it, placed in the anteroom.

10-014I’m told the chief justice of the European Court sits in another copy of this chair, since Minos is supposed to have been an impartial ruler.  Nothing like tradition.

10-015Here is the inner room, notice the stone seat at right, in front of it of some sort of basin.  This looks more like a place to hold religious ceremonies.

10-016Here we see to the left, where you can tell the original decoration from later restorations.Now leaving the “throne room.”
10-017More restored artwork.  If memory serves the original of this was found fallen to the floor.Now off to the “Queen’s Bedroom”
And here’s a reconstruction of a more typical part of the complex, we are standing in a light well, looking through a bunch of openings.  Apparently there were doors here that could be closed to form this into a wall and create separate spaces.

10-01910-020The reconstruction used a lot of concrete with faux woodgrain to simulate long-decayed wood structural members.

Next we toured some of the more “mundane” parts of the ruins; what remain of old storage areas.  And now, as I promised you, the largest pair of jugs I have ever seen.

10-021They’re about seven feet tall, by my estimate (I didn’t manage to get all that close to them).


The oldest plumbing in Europe, beating the Romans by over a thousand years.


Part of the huge complex of store-rooms, which probably inspired the “Labyrinth” portion of the Minotaur myth.  This was part of my post-tour dashing around, and may be completely reconstructed.

Above the throne room I showed you earlier is an entirely reconstructed upper story.  They hung copies of original artworks in it (originals are in the museum).  I think the architecture is interesting though, so here you are.

10-02410-02510-026The outside looking in

10-027Interior shot


Looking down into the throne room (compare with the picture I showed earlier of the part with the original decoration)


Up to the skylights we think existed here once.  This would have introduced natural light into the opening in the previous picture, helping to light the throne room.  With no decent artificial lighting, the architects had a challenge lighting the interior of such a complex.


We got a very short tour of Heraklion, walking up its shopping street, to the square of the lions, for this fountain

10-030Crete spent a few centuries under the rule of (believe it or not) Venice, from 1204-1648 before the Ottomans took it over.  They besieged Heraklion for 22 years (!) and took it over in 1669.  You can see venetian influences in the architecture here, much of which I never quite got to see, because this tour included things only in very close proximity to the museum.
10-031This is some edifice in the Lions Square, I just don’t recall what, but you can see that Venetian influence here.

We were on our own for lunch for about an hour.  If I recall correctly, I had a sort of kebab, which ironically, I didn’t ever eat in Turkey!  I also discovered that the only options for hats were: baseball caps which don’t protect your ears, or some straw thing or other, so I bought a white straw hat that I grew to hate almost immediately.  It didn’t absorb perspiration at all.

Then, ironically, we got a tour of the museum.  I know at least one other person in our tour group actually decided to drop out because they had already been there, but I wanted to hear Veta’s take on things.

What I am going to show you are a mixture of photos from my first trip through the museum on my own, and the guided tour.

Loads of pictures of pottery, of course.  I’ll keep it down to one.  These specimens date from 1800-1700 BCE.

10-032Think about that, almost four thousand years ago.

One way the reconstructors like Evans knew what to build is that they actually found clay models of Minoan architecture in the ruins.  Here’s one.


Decorative stonework


A bull’s head, the right side of which (viewer’s left) is reconstructed.



There are two famous figurines of “snake priestesses” and these are in the museum as well.



(Note to those of you who scrolled directly to here because I mentioned jugs earlier:  Nope, this isn’t the place.)10-037(Note the PG-13 rated dress.)

But the single most important thing in the museum is this.  The “Phaistos Disk” is covered on both sides with the heiroglyphic writing.  It’s about six inches across.  And if you can tell the world what it says, your name will be immortalized as the man who deciphered the Phaistos Phrisbee.

10-03810-039It is in a case by itself, prominently placed.

The upper floor of the museum has Minoan artwork, frescoes meticulously removed, restored, and framed to preserve them.  There are between 15 to 20 pieces, so here are some highlights.

10-040This is one of the most famous.  But if you look very closely, you will see it’s almost all reconstruction.

10-041Part of a much larger mural found in very small pieces.


10-042Here’s a smaller rendering of the mural so you can see how all the pieces fit together, along with two other original pieces of it.

10-04310-044They also did scenes of vegetation and wildlife.

So in the end, what do we have?  Clearly, a great civilization with plumbing, talented craftsmen and artists, a robust economy, able to build very complex habitats, that lasted longer than the United States has so far.  Surely their history would make an interesting read.  Yet to us they are silent.  They speak to us not in words but only through the artifacts they left behind.  And, perhaps, indirectly through the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.

Theseus’ adventure ends with him escaping Crete with Ariadne, a Minoan princess who fell in love with him and helped him.  According to Veta, he brought her to another island, and simply abandoned her (the tour group dutifully said “awwwww” and everyone thought Theseus was a cad and a user).  Veta neglected to mention the rest of the story, the extenuating circumstance, which I found out later:  The god Dionysus wanted Ariadne for his wife, and Athena backed him up.  Theseus wasn’t going to argue with one god much less two; in Greek mythology that generally turns out to be a Really Bad Idea.  So Theseus really had no choice in the matter, and one hopes that Ariadne found Dionysus a suitable match.

As for me, I “escaped” Crete on the ferry back to the Piraeus and Athens, getting the mini-cruise-ship experience once again.

Tomorrow–my day in Athens!


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