The Palace of Knossos has four significant firsts: the oldest European throne, the first paved road in Europe, coloured frescoes 3000 years before the technique was rediscovered in the Renaissance, and Europe’s first toilet.
Located on the North coast, about 5km from the town of Heraklion, most of what can be seen today is part of the second palace that was built on the site.
An earthquake destroyed the first palace in around 1700 BC, but the Minoans quickly rebuilt it. Further excavations of the first palace aren’t currently possible because of the damage it would cause to the later palace.
The oldest throne in Europe
The oldest throne in Europe is a little underwhelming now that modern comparison is to the Iron Throne. Back in 1450-1400 BC, when the throne was likely built, women were 150cm tall on average and men were 160cm.
The throne is on the North wall, surrounded by griffons, with the head of an eagle, body of a lion and tail of a snake. The actual use of the room is unclear, but the bowl in the middle was probably for purification before talking with the King.
Myth: King Minos was one of three sons of Zeus and Europa who ruled over Crete. Each had a palace of their own, and Minos ruled in the palace of Knossos, the larger of the four palaces on the Island. It’s unclear who ruled the fourth palace.
Reality: The term “King Minos” was actually a title, much like “Pharaoh.” It passed down the male line, with each son claiming the divine right of being the son of Zeus when he was crowned.
The first paved road in Europe
The first paved road in Europe is still intact 4000 years later! It isn’t level any more due to the earthquakes which shook Crete and ultimately destroyed both palaces.
The courtyard at the end is likely to be a theatre where boxing matches happened in front of crowds and the royal box. Alternatively, it could have been an entrance square for tradespeople bringing goods into the customs house of the palace. Or, it could even have been both at different times of the year.
Myth: King Minos had Daedalus build a labyrinth under the palace to contain his Minotaur son.
Reality: The complex is 22,000m2 and had over 1000 rooms split over five storeys. It would have been home to thousands of people, with hundreds more living in the surrounding city and entering the palace to work each day. It’s labyrinthine, but there’s no actual labyrinth here.
Frescoes before Italy
The frescoes at Knossos are one of its main attractions. The West Entrance would have been plastered and covered in a painting of 400 life-size figures partaking in everyday activities and festivities.
The originals are in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, with replicas in the palace. The colours are so vibrant because they were made using dyes from plants, stone and blood painted onto wet plaster, sealing them into the material as it dries.
Europeans lost this technique for centuries until the Italian Renaissance and Michelangelo used it to paint the Sistine Chapel.
There are frescoes of monkeys because in 4000 BC, at the time of the first palace, Crete had a sub-tropical climate.
The primates are painted blue, men are red, and women are white in all the paintings.
Scenes of war and weapons are noticeably absent from the frescoes. Similarly, the palace didn’t have any city walls. The kings didn’t fear a revolution from its people, who lived in the surrounding hills and would have regularly come into the complex for work or trade.
The Minoan navy protected the sea, which is where any external threat to the nation would have come from.
Europe’s first toilet
The final impressive first is Europe’s first toilet, complete with a complex cleaning system which flushed with water. Found in the Queen’s Rooms, it’s unfortunately closed to visitors now due to the structural weakness of the ceiling above.
In fact, Knossos had three drainage systems; one for rainwater, one for drinking water taken from the nearby springs and one for sewage and dirty water. These were made of both stone gutters and clay pipes. The queen also has a pot for body lotion made of donkey milk and honey.
Myth: King Minos’ wife had a son who had the body of a human and the head of a bull. He was imprisoned in the labyrinth under the palace.
Reality: Archaeologists have uncovered a sequence of rooms next to the Queen’s rooms which don’t have any windows or doors to the outside. It’s possible that the King hid a child away, perhaps because of a disability. The secrets that the palace held probably led rise to the myth.
It wasn’t just the water systems which were technologically advanced for the time, Knossos architects also had a way to provide air conditioning to a room.
Even small rooms have 7-9 doors and windows to circulate the air, causing them to be significantly cooler than outside. Residents would shut the doors to increase the temperature in cooler times of the year.
Later alterations by Arthur Evans
When visitors see the palace now, it is with the additions made by English archaeologist Arthur Evans. He came to the palace in 1900, just two years after the Cretan revolution had repelled the Ottoman Empire.
Evans controversially used concrete in the renovations. At the time, this was a revolutionary material that had only just been invented in France. Another reason for its use? The trees in 1900 simply weren’t big enough anymore.
Each column would have originally been made from a single tree, stood upside down so that the thicker end was at the ceiling. The Minoans used wood because of its elasticity and resistance against earthquakes. Concrete provides a similar protection from seismic activity.
Myth: The Minotaur lived on the sacrifice that Athens made of 7 boys and 7 girls each year.
Reality: It’s likely that Athens did send the children to be sacrificed in the kingdom. The West Entrance to the palace was the religious/ceremonial entrance and it’s paving with two altars and triangular markings show that sacrifices and religious offerings were likely to take place here. Archaeologists have found animal bones on the altars.
Mystery cloaks the destruction of the second palace.
Historians are sure that an earthquake destroyed the complex, but no one has ever found any skeletons found in the ruins. People must have been warned of the event in time enough to escape.
However, they left in such a hurry that they left all their personal belongings and even left the oil lamps burning. When they fell in the earthquake, fire spread throughout the buildings but particularly in the 18 storerooms which contained cereals, wine and olive oil which fuelled the fire.
The blackened scars of this can still be seen on the stone and marble walls and pillars.
Also, check out my Guide to Northern Crete.
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