On Sunday, just before 7.30am, we climbed aboard the coach we'd booked on Friday morning and travelled towards Crete's capital, Heraklion. Although only a 64 mile drive from Chania, the journey to the south of the island takes around three hours as it involves navigating numerous winding - but beautifully picturesque - mountain paths. Our first destination was Knossos and the Palace of King Minos, a settlement built around 1800BC, making it more than three and a half thousand years old.
|Sir Arthur Evans (1851 - 1941)|
Knossos is primarily associated with the British archaeologist, Sir Arthur Evans, often referred to as the real Indiana Jones. Whilst searching for antiquities at an Athens flea market, Evans came across some seal stones inscribed with mysterious writing, which he believed originated from Crete and, after his beloved wife's untimely death in 1894, made it his life's work to travel to the island and uncover the whereabouts of the Palace of King Minos. Civilisation on this site dates to around 7000BC although Minos's Bronze Age palace dates to 1800BC.
|Theseus & The Minotaur in the Labyrinth - Edward Burne-Jones,1861|
I'm sure many of you will have heard of Knossos from the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur. King Minos was the son of Zeus and, along with Crete, ruled all the other islands of the Aegean Sea. Every year he would sacrifice his best bull to honour the sea god, Poseidon but one year decided his finest bull was too magnificent to kill and slaughtered another instead. Poseidon was furious when he discovered Minos's deception and, in revenge, ordered Eros, the god of love, to fire an arrow at Minos's wife, Queen Phasipae, causing her to fall in love with the first creature she set eyes upon, which so happened to be the bull. Phasipae subsequently gave birth to the Minotaur, a monstrous creature with a man's body and the head of a bull with a thirst for human blood. Minos instructed Daedalus, a craftsman famed throughout Greece, to build a labyrinth to contain the minotaur and appointed King Aegus, the Athenian king he had defeated in battle, to select seven young boys and seven young girls which were then sent to the labyrinth to be sacrificed to the monstrous creature every nine years. Theseus, the son of King Aegus, was one of those chosen. Whilst at Knossos, Theseus and King Minos's daughter, Ariadne, appointed by her father as the guardian of the labyrinth, fell in love. She handed him a sword and a ball of golden thread enabling him to slay the minotaur and escape the labyrinth.
But, if the story of Theseus and the Minotaur really is a Greek myth, how do you explain the existence of the labyrinth Evans discovered during his excavations or the significance behind the bull's horns seen throughout Knossos from the towering statutory to the designs on Bronze Age ceramics found amongst the ruins?
We had to smile at the British, Canadians and Americans we overheard exclaiming, I can't believe how old these things are!
For me, the star of the show was the solid gold Malia Pendant, also known as the Bees of Malia, said to be the single most important piece of Minoan jewellery in existence. Excavated by the French in a tomb at Crysolakkos, near Malia, in 1930, it dates to 1800BC and takes the form of two identical insects thought to be bees, joined head-to-head with their abdomens touching. The circular disc in the centre represents honey whilst the three discs below are said to represent the Mediterranean herb Hartwort, popular in Minoan times. Straight to the top of my souvenir shopping list went a replica of a four thousand year old necklace...did I find one? Watch this space!
After a twelve hour Greek epic and a bellyful of food and drink, we slept soundly that night!
I'll be back soon with the grand finale of our Greek Odyssey. In the meantime do check out the superb Knossos documentary by our favourite TV historian, Bettany Hughes.