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The Minoans
About Crete - The Minoans - The Minoan Palace

A frequent expression encountered by the reader of Minoan Crete is that of the Minoan Palace.

The term was first used by the British Archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans who excavated the site of Knossos in the beginning of the century, and is maintained ever since. The truth is that we know nothing about the form of government of Minoan Crete. There may have been a priest-king or priestess-queen or a board of priests. In the absence of written records, it is impossible to tell anything with certainty. Yet we are not helpless because archaeology can tell us something about the elusive Minoan society.

What emerges from the study of the archaeological remains is that the palaces had two main functions: economic and religious. The former is evident because of the large number of cult equipment distributed in many rooms over a wide area of the palace. In addition, frescoes with religious representations abound in the palace of Knossos (the other palaces have yielded very little by way of pictorial frescoes). What is also striking is the connection between religion and economy. This is demonstrable because of the physical proximity of the magazines and workshops to shrines. For example all the palaces have magazines in their west wing which is also, by general admission, the major cult area of the palaces.

The connection between religion and economy suggests that the system was theocratic, namely the economy and administration was controlled by the priesthood. Such systems were well known in the Orient, Egypt and Mesopotamia, although they are more difficult for us to grasp. A digression on the Mesopotamian temple -state might be helpfull for us to visualize how such a society operated.

The Mesopotamian Temple State
The land of Sumer of the third millenium BC was divided into city states. Each had at its center the temple of the deity to whom the city belonged. The temple was not only physically the focus of the city, but it was the center of all social commercial and administrative activity. Before the emergence of kings, the city governor, the ensi, was the high priest of the temple. He was the representative of the divinity, and all his authority emanated from god. The temple was primarily the dwelling of the god. It was also a ceremonial center, a treasury, a town hall, a store house and a commercial center. In addition it housed the priestly personell and the temple workers. Thus it resembled a medieval monastery more than a Greek temple or a Christian church.

A substantial section was occupied by the workshops and magazines (which corresponds exactly to the picture of the so called palaces in Crete). The reason for this is that the Sumerian economy was controlled by the priesthood to a large extent, although some private enterprise surelly existed as well. The function of the temple in the economic system of the Sumerians was to act as a redistribution center. It amassed wealth from the land it possesed and from tribute. This wealth was then redistributed to the population as wages for their services. Some raw material such as wool or leather would be reworked to a finished product by the temple workers. Stone could be carved to make stone vessels or sculpture. These items would be traded or send abroad to a foreign king in exchange for their gifts. Corn, oil and fruit could also be exported, but such produce would also be used as payment for the workers. Rations of flour, beer and even clothing were given as wages, as we can tell from the written records of the temples.

Regarding the rituals and ceremonies that took place in the precinict of the temple, sacrifices and cult meals were among the most frequent ones. Cult meals are represented on some reliefs from the period. Asd we have seen the high priest was at the same time the governor of the city. Not only he, but his whole family played an important role in the society. There was also a very definite hierarchy in the priesthood. There were higher priests and lower priests, often with very specialized functions. Every person had a fixed position aloted to him by god. Such a system offerd stability and a sense of security within its strict and rigid boundaries.

Already in the third milinium, the temple dominated society of the Sumerians underwent a transformation which was due to the emergence of kings. The latter became necessary because of the increasing military threat that these people faced from the invading tribes of the dessert and the mountains, who finally subjugated Sumer. It is therefore correct to say that kingship emerged as a response to the need of organised, military leadership. Circumstances were similar in Israel where kings replaced the Judges under the threat of Philistines in the 12th century BC. This is worth mentioning because it may go a long way in explaining why Minoan society was different. The Aegean was not seriously threatened by foreign attacks at the time of the Minoan Thalassocracy.

Despite the existence of kings, the temple continued to play a major role in the Mesopotamian society, even when the Sumerians as a people had eclipsed. In the 16th century, the period in discussion, Mesopotamia was dominated by the Kasites in whose society the temple and the priests continued to be of the outmost importance.

Definition of the Minoan Palace
Back in Crete, the Sumerian model of the temple state is by no means totally applicable to Minoan Society. There are major and most important differences. Still, as an analogy it is illuminating because it helps us to envisage a way of life difficult for us to understand. The similarities between a Mesopotamian temple and a Minoan palace are stricking. Like the Mesopotamian temple, the palaces have workshops and magazines attached to them. Cult meals, which as we have seen, are taking place in the Mesopotamian temples, are attested in the vicinity of the Minoan Shrines.

Kitchen equipment has been found in the southern shrine of the palace of Malia. A kitchen was identified by Evans behind the so-called throne room of the palace of Knossos. A banquet hall has been identified by prof Platon in the shrine complex area of the palace of Zakros. It is also worth pointing out that many Minoan shrines often called "bench sanctuaries" have benches which may indicate that cultic meals were taking place in them. Such are the protopalatial sanctuary at Phaestos, the bench room in Agia Trada, and the even so called throne room in Knossos. Even more than these particular similarities, the general resemblance between the Mesopotamian temple and the Minoan Palace should be stressed. Both are the redistribution and cult centers. Both play a fundamental role in the society. Finally, considering the Minoan Palaces as cult and redistribution centers where the unifying force was religion , is perhaps the right way to look at them.

The Minoan Palace of Knossos lies at a distance of 5 km from the town centre of Iraklion along the road to Archanes. The imposing Palace is built on the hill of "Kefala" next to the river "Kairatos", in a site which was admired for its natural advantages, the strong position, good water supplies, access to the sea and proximity to a large fertile forest. The forest that produced the "Cephalonian Pine" a tree that supplied the beams and the columns for the construction of the Palace.

The site itself includes the Palace of Knossos, The Minoan Houses, the "Little Palace", the "Royal Villa", the villa "Dionysos" with famous Roman mosaics, the south Royal Temple - Tomb and the "Caravanserai". The Palace and the Minoan houses are open for visits to the public.
It is well known that the area lies on a great seismic site. The Palace had been destroyed time after time and always emerged from its ruins more magnificent than before until the last time that there was no recovery.

Excavations showed that the area was inhabited since the Neolithic times (6000 BC and perhaps even earlier) and verified that the Neolithic levels of Knossos are amongst the deepest in Europe. An important Pre Palace already existed on this Neolithic site as far as 3000 BC. while the first Palace was built around 2000 BC and destroyed 300 years later.

On the same site a new Palace was built, more elaborate than the previous, only to be severely damaged from an earthquake one hundred years latter. During this period we see the development of a series of satellite buildings like the "Little Palace", the "Royal Villa" and the "South House". Knossos has now developed into a large city whose population - judged by the adjacent cemeteries - must have not been less than 100 000 inhabitants.

The Palace now lives and prospers until the next disaster of around 1450 BC connected to the volcanic eruption of Santorini. Following this event, it is restored once more and used by the Achaean sovereign until at least 1380 BC although other city states in Crete had already been destroyed.
After its final destruction the palace was not used again except for the "temple of Rhea" in later historical times. Knossos survived through the historical times as a great city - state until the first Byzantine times. Its final decline came during the Middle Ages where it was diminished to an unimportant small village with the name "Makrys Toihos".

The Palace of Knossos is divided by its central court into two wings, the West and the East. The West wing where the visitor enters today is where the religious and official state rooms are found while the East wing is occupied by domestic rooms and workshops. To visit the palace today you can take a bus (No 2 KNOSSOS) from Iraklion main bus station by the port. This bus also stops at Lion's Square.

If you intend to use a tripod with your photographic camera you must obtain a licence from the authority found at the building of the Iraklion Museum. A visit to Knossos must be completed with a visit to the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion where all the items found on the site are on display.

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