The long Neolithic presence on the island gives way to the wonders of the Minoan. The name is bestowed upon them by modern scholars with reference to the mythical King Minos, ruler of the kingdom and palace of Knossos.
Minoan culture developed, flourished and declined between 3500/3000 BC and 1000 BC – close to two millennia. . Five periods make it up:
- Prepalatial (3500/3000-2000 BC)
- the First Palaces (2000-1750 BC)
- the Second Palaces (1750-1500 BC)
- the Final Palace (1500-1350 BC)
- the Postpalatial (1350-1100/1000 BC)
That is three palatial periods (2 native succeeded by one dominated by mainlanders), sandwiched between periods without any palatial organization.
The excavations of the British archaeologist, Sir Arthur Evans and his colleagues from several nations alongside the Greeks and Cretans brought to light a culture the existence of which was to then only known from Homeric epic and Greek myth (especially the Minotaur cycle). Evans at the start of the 20th century revealed the ruins of the great Palace at Knossos – the foremost city in Crete from Neolithic times down through the Bronze Age.
The Palace at Knossos, and indeed Minoan towns generally, enjoyed a standard of water management and sanitation that would have remained an envy for all Europe until the Hellenistic and, in particular, Roman times.
Their walls were decorated with elaborate and colourful frescoes, in which the Minoans come across as a people with a love for life and peaceful in the main, at one with the natural world around them. A folk inclined to dancing and the enjoyment of large public spectacles and athletic contests (but note these are often violent!).
The complex structure of the Palace at Knossos is perhaps responsible for the birth of legends about the famed Labyrinth. It certainly is a maze of corridors, stairs and rooms – at times four or five stories high!
All this was supported by a dependence on the so-called Mediterranean triad of crops – cereals, vines and olives. Then as today oil and vine products are the main agricultural products grown in and exported from Crete.
The Minoans swiftly understood that the sea surrounding them was their best friend.
During the course of the growth and zenith of their civilization, they almost never had to build walls around their cities (Malia is an exception, of sorts). Other defences and warning systems based on beacons, as well as efficient roadways and perhaps manned fortlets served in their place. Defence in depth.
The sea was an avenue of communication with other cultures. Gradually they became skilled shipwrights: they are the first culture in the Mediterranean to base their expansion on a trading fleet.
Quickly they established colonies on the nearby islands of the Aegean... the Cyclades, as well as beginning trade-exchanges with Egypt and Syria/the Levant. It is believed that eventually they reached Sicily and beyond to Sardinia perhaps. The rewards of trade and the experiences gained overseas in conducting trade enabled them to create large harbours, organize water-management and build the impressive Palaces.
Even the self-orientated Egyptians admired Minoan sea-faring activity. On several Egyptian tombs are scenes of some Aegeans (the Keftiu are likely to be Cretans) bearing ‘gifts’ to Pharaoh.
For the most part, the Minoans are portrayed as ‘good’ foreigners from the Great Green... many others from beyond Egyptian shores are collectively termed HaUnebu .. People from beyond the Seas, barbarians in effect.
The Minoans developed an effective, centralized bureaucracy to monitor and manage their trade-exchanges and daily life.
Their daily records were on clay tablets. The first scripts are hieroglyphic and certainly owe much to Egypt in concept. Later a syllabic script emerges under the stimulus of the Palatial life-style – first Linear A (Minoan, and undeciphered still) and then Linear B (an old form of Greek, readable... and introduced by the Mainlanders).
The Minoans did not cover their walls with scenes of battle and warlike achievements, nor have any writings come down to us describing military events and feats.
Favoured themes on frescoes are broadly two - scenes of Minoans in everyday life, albeit of the sort with a ritual dimension to them (this includes the ‘athletic’ events); and scenes of the natural world, flowers, fishes and dolphins, birds and animals, though these too are probably references to mythical landscapes. Frescoes are never wallpaper! In their art, the human figures are one and all glamorous – long black hair, lissome wasp-waists, all clad in beautifully patterned and multi-coloured costumes.
The women in particular are drawn wearing eye-catching dresses and bodices that often leave the bosom bare - perhaps to denote beauty, health and fertility. If one can place any credence in the scenes so portrayed then the Minoans were probably the ‘happiest’ people of the Bronze-Age in this part of the world! And uniformly in the prime of life ! (Which skeletal remains show to be quite an exaggeration.)
Women in Crete enjoyed greater freedom than those in any other contemporary culture, even more so than in Egypt. The frescoes in the Palaces and houses show them as apparently independent personalities, dressed elegantly and with make-up. They participated in public spectacles alongside the men, even sporting events!
Indeed in very many of these rituals, it is the Court ladies who took the central role, to the exclusion at times of men.
During the peak of their culture (1700-1200 BC), the population of the island may have reached 250,000 souls: the town of Knossos might have had anything between 15 to 40,000 inhabitants.
The cream of Minoan society were the aristocracy and noble-born, including the priesthood. Below them were the craftsmen, traders and administrators – the most important of whom will have been maintained on rations issued by the palace. Further down the scale are the working folk of the day – farmers, shepherds, fishing folk and unskilled labourers.
It is hard to know whether these less-privileged persons were better off than their equivalents in other cultures of the time.
A thousand years later Aristotle says that these labourers in the times of the Minoans enjoyed all the privileges their society had to offer – except for two: they could not carry weapons, nor could they participate in sports and gymnastic activities.
At this period in the development of human society, the political, the secular and the religious were fully integrated.
The Throne Room of Knossos, with its throne of ‘alabaster’, is beautiful enough, but not especially luxurious: here, in addition to matters political, the priests would often carry out important ceremonies. Sporting events were also probably in part connected with the worship of the natural world.
The sacred animal of Minoan Crete was the Bull: works of art depicting the beast are found on every side in the Palace of Knossos. The most popular and key ‘sport’ was bull-leaping, when the athletes took the bull by the horns and performed complex summersaults and the like over his back.
Little is securely known of their religion. No large and separate temples exist (of course the Palace is in part a sacred edifice); we have no information about powerful priesthoods or large cult statues of the Gods (though these may have aniconic and of wood). The chief deity was some sort of Great Mother, which may perhaps explain the central role of women in their society mentioned above.
Many small figurines show her with elaborate dress, bare breasts and intricate and impressive hairstyles. Some handle snakes.
These ceremonies, sporting events and the sacrifice of bulls were conducted to ensure that the Mother Goddess would protect them from disasters – such as shipwreck, sicknesses, failure of crops and – chiefly – from earthquakes.
Despite their entreaties, the Minoan civilization was quite frequently and severely interrupted by earthquakes: shocks and aftershocks will have put pressure on their society, perhaps economically overstretched even at the height of its confidence and power.
Part of this process was the major volcanic eruption of Thera (mid 2nd millennium BC) – all other problems will have paled into insignificance beside this event that took the heart out of the Cycladic island and covered the rest in tens of metres of fall-out.
Being so close, but 70 nautical miles off to the north, and indeed just visible, Thera lost perhaps half of its size in a caldera collapse: ash from it caused some problems in the east of Crete by blanketing fields and houses, a series of tsunamis generated would have battered the north coast (and to a degree the east and west ends) – spreading death and destruction.
The Minoan fleet could well have been a casualty in all this. Within a generation or so, much of Crete had been ravaged by fire destruction and abandonments: the exact mechanics of this are not known. Civil warfare over resources is one possible factor.
Into this troubled vacuum the Mainland Greeks moved - establishing strong political control in the centre and west: they appear rather more obviously and effectively warlike than the Minoans.
The last Palaces (really just Knossos, Kydonia (Chania) and Aghia Triadha by Festos) flourished for a century or so, before succumbing to other fires. Even so, Crete - now more regionalized - was still able to maintain a strong presence within the Mycenaean world until 1200-1100 BC, after which matters slowly unraveled, more permanently this time.