HERAKLIO & KNOSSOS | GREEK ISLANDS | CRETE
The Minoan palace of Knossos is a splendid example of one of Europe’s oldest and most important civilizations and a place of pilgrimage for visitors from all over the world.
Don’t leave Crete without paying a visit to Knossos and the Archaeological Museum in Heraklio, even if you have no particular interest in antiquities.
MYTHOLOGY AND KNOSSOS
In the late 19th c., the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans brought to light an extremely ancient and exceptionally advanced civilization, that of Minoan Crete. Mythology maintains that its mighty king, Minos, failed to keep his promise to sacrifice a magnificent white bull to Poseidon, thus provoking the god’s rage. In retribution, Poseidon instilled in Minos’s wife, Pasiphae, an uncontrollable lust for the bull which drove her to couple with it. The fruit of this unnatural union was a man-eating monster with the body of a man and the head of a bull, the famous Minotaur. Pasiphae concealed her son in a labyrinth constructed for her by the celebrated Athenian craftsman, Daedalus, and fed him on the bodies of seven young men and women which the Athenians were forced to send every year as tribute to the Cretans. Theseus, son of the king of Athens, entered the labyrinth and slew the Minotaur. With the help of Minos’s daughter Ariadne and her famous ball of twine he managed to find his way out again. The word labyrinth most probably comes from “labrys”, the double axe which was the emblem of the Minoan dynasties. Its two curved sides, like the horns of a bull, symbolized the positive and negative force of the Moon. Minos was either the ruler of Crete around 1600 BC or a mythical personage who gave his name to a dynasty.
HISTORY OF KNOSSOS
The history of the palace at Knossos begins in about 2600 BC and ends in 1100 BC. The site had been inhabited as early as the Neolithic era and later, in the 3rd millennium BC during what is known as the Pre-palatial period, it developed into an important settlement. The first palace was built before 2000 BC and destroyed in 1700 BC, giving its name to the Proto-palatial period. In the Neo-palatial period, between 1700 and 1400 BC, a second, grander and more luxurious palace was erected. Around 1600 BC an earthquake caused some damage but repairs were made and the life of Minos’s subjects continued as usual up to the moment of an even bigger catastrophe, probably the eruption of the volcano on Thera or a savage raid by Achaean invaders from the mainland, which brought to an end the most brilliant era at Knossos. The last, Post-palatial period ended in 1100 BC. During this time the palace was rebuilt as the residence of the Achaean rulers. According to Homer, Idomeneus, the last scion of the Minoan dynasty sailed with 80 ships to join in the siege of Troy. During the Middle Ages, Knossos was a mere village called Makrys Toichos (Long Wall). In 1878 another Minos, Kalokairinos from Heraklio, started the first archaeological excavations. It was up to Evans, however, to attempt the systematic study and partial restoration which gives us today, 3,500 years later, an idea of how the Minoan palaces, centre of the oldest civilization in Europe, looked and functioned.
WHAT TO SEE & DO IN HERAKLIO AND KNOSSOS
ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE OF KNOSSOS
8 am-5 pm
The archaeological site at Knossos covers 20,000 sq m. A massive circuit wall with several entrances encircles the palace, which has no fortifications or walls. Its two harbours were probably situated at the mouths of the Karaitos and Amnissos rivers. The palace was both the residence of the royal family and a major shrine of the Minoan religion.
The West Court, which was paved with flagstones, seems to have been the chief meeting/market place.
The Sacred Storage Pits, three walled pits, were probably the depositories of litter from the shrines.
The West Propylaia or Small Propylaion, in the south-east corner of the court, was the formal entrance for foreigners. This is where the king most probably received his visitors. The two large rooms immediately after this antechamber had a special red mosaic floor, indicating its use by the ruler.
Processional Way was separated from the porch with a double-leafed door and was decorated with frescoes showing 350 young men and women bearing offerings to the goddess. An inverted Greek in shape, its floor was paved with irregular slabs of green slate and their ended at the central court.
South Propylaia on the left side of the corridor led to the formal state apartments; its entrance was closed by three doors.
The South Entrance has a copy of the fresco of the Prince with the Lilies.
The Grand Staircase with its 12 steps led to the first floor and the royal apartments.
The Central Court lies at the heart of the palace; it was paved with flag‐stones.
The Throne Room has the original, simple but anatomically shaped royal throne, made from a single block of gypsum, and the stone benches where his courtiers sat. Wingless griffins decorated the walls.
Tripartite Shrine. The central section, with the sacred horns, was higher than the lateral sections. The Temple Treasury, where the famous figurines of the snake goddess were found. They represent an early lunar divinity worshiped particularly in Crete.
The Queen’s Megaron and her private apartments with the famous “flush toilet”.
The King’s Megaron or Hall of the Double Axes, named for the double axes etched into the walls of the light-shaft.
The East Bastion, with its view of the Kairatos river valley, resembles a tower.
The Storerooms of the Giant Pithoi, the storeroom with its giant jars still in place.
The Customs House, a square hall with large square pillars, which adjoined the palace entrance from the sea.
The Knossos Theatre, perhaps the oldest theatre in the world, has rows of steps on two sides and a royal box. It could seat about 400 spectators.
Heraklio, the capital of Crete and its largest city, has 200,000 inhabitants and attracts another 2 million tourists every year. Unfortunately, the unsightly buildings erected in the past few decades have badly damaged its appearance. The historian Strabo relates that it was the port of Minoan Knossos. In the 9th c. Moors from Spain conquered Crete and in 824 constructed a town surrounded by a huge moat (Greek: Handaka), which became the island’s capital but also a pirate lair.
The Byzantines conquered it in 960 AD in the time of the emperor Romanos II, after numerous attempts. In 1204 the Venetians bought the whole island for one thousand silver marks from the Crusader, Boniface of Monferrat. The town was then renamed Candia and beautiful public buildings were constructed. The Ottomans besieged Heraklio for twenty years by land and sea.
The blockade decimated and exhausted the population, for lack of food. In 1669 the Venetian leader Francesco Morosini decided to surrender to the Turkish General Kioprulu on condition that the city’s defenders and unarmed population would first be evacuated. The next two centuries were characterized by massacres, uprisings and violence until Crete finally won its independence in 1898. Though foreigners continued to refer to the town (and the island) as Candia, the locals themselves called it Megalo Kastro (Big Fort). In 1822, upon recommendation of the Cretan nominees it reacquired its name of Heraklio and was so first referred to by their governor, Michail Afendoulis.
THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM OF HERAKLIO
1 Xanthoudidou St., tel. 00302810226092
8 am-5 pm
The finds exhibited here complete the picture of Minoan civilization that the visitor begins to form after a tour of the archaeological sites, especially Knossos and Phaestos. In room 1 on the ground floor look out for the steatopygian figurines of a female divinity, a marble male figurine, stone vases and seals with peculiar designs. All the finds here are from the Neolithic and Pre-palatial periods. In room 2 the most interesting finds are the series of vessels with unusual shapes and the votive offerings of male and female figurines. Room 3 contains one of the most important finds, the ceramic Phaestos disc and Room 4 has the figurines of the snake goddess, the faience girl, and an ivory figure of the bull dancer depicting the moment he attempts to leap over the bull’s back. Note also an exceptional example of Minoan stonework, the rhyton in the shape of a bull’s head, which was a libation vase.
Vases, silver vessels, seals, lamps and figurines, as well as a terracotta model of a two-storey house from Archanes, are displayed in Room 5, gold jewellery and mirrors, and finds from graves are to be found in Room 6. In Room 7 there are major finds from the Neo-palatial period and interesting jewellery, such as the pendant with the two bees. Room 8 also contains finds from the Neo-palatial period, such as amphorae and vases from the palace at Zakros and a rhyton of rock crystal. In Room 9 you’ll find vases, rhytons, terracotta figurines and examples of miniatures from eastern Crete. In Rooms 10 – 12 there are objects from the Post-palatial, Sub-Minoan, Early and Late Geometric and Orientalizing periods. Room 13 has sarcophagi, large jars and human skeletons. The frescoes from the palace and houses at Knossos are on the first floor. In rooms 14 & 15: the procession of youths, the prince with the lilies, the running bull, the blue ladies, the dolphins, the bull-leapers and of course the so-called “la parisienne”, the priestess who delighted her finders with her elegance. On the same floor, also in room 14, is a wooden model of what the palace at Knossos must have been like and, in Room 16, are the frescoes of the monkey saffron-collector, the leader of the blacks and the dancing girl. Finally, in Room 20, on the ground floor, take a look at the statue of Aphrodite, a copy of Praxiteles’ original, and other sculptures from the Classical to Greco-Roman period.
Built over a period of one hundred years from 1462 to 1562, they measure 4.5
km in length.
At the entrance to the Venetian harbour, built 1523-1540, and impressive
even today despite wear and tear.
On Nikiforo Foka square there is a Venetian marble fountain with four lions
dated 1628, a work commissioned by the governor general of Crete, Frances‐
CHURCH OF ST. CATHERINE OF SINAI
Next to the market. Single-aisled, vaulted basilica built in 1600, which con‐
tains a collection of icons by Michail Damaskinos of the Cretan School.
BEST BEACHES IN HERAKLIO
The area has no beaches worthy of inclusion under this heading, but for a quick dip, the beaches east and west of Heraklio, like Amnissou or Ammoudasa, will do. Otherwise pick a beach from one of the excursions to Rethymno, Matala or Elounda.
HERAKLIO TIPS & INFORMATION
HOW TO GET TO HERAKLIO
Heraklio is connected by direct flights with many European cities. Inquire at your travel agent.
By air from Athens airport El. Venizelos to Chania or Heraklio with Aegean Airlines.
By ferry from Piraeus, Piraeus Port Authority, Tel. 0030 2104226000
HOW TO GET AROUND
The best way to see the sights in town is to walk with map in hand, because the locals have the same passion for mazes as their distant Minoan ancestors.
For more distant destinations, the taxis are among the cheapest in Europe.
BEST SEASON TO VISIT EPIDAURUS
Every time of year is suitable except July and August when the archaeological site of Knossos and the museum are too crowded to be enjoyable.
HERAKLIO USEFUL TELEPHONES NUMBERS
Heraklio Town Hall 00302810227102, 00302810221227
Heraklio Tourist Police 00302810283190
Heraklio Port Authority 00302810244956