Crete is a literal stomping ground of fascinating history. You can almost hear the rumble of distant horse hooves as you wander the streets once occupied by the most ancient of civilizations. During a 7 night stay in Heraklion, I was here for the two things: the absolute delectable food options whose delicious smells wafted around every street corner and left my stomach bursting with joy, and the historical landmarks that littered the expansive island of Crete. I couldn’t visit this captivating city without visiting the most famous and revered spot. The Palace of Knossos, AKA Europe’s oldest city. So I asked for some professional help from the hotel’s concierge desk to see as much as possible of both Knossos and the rest Venetian sightseeings.
THE HISTORY OF KNOSSOS
Knossos was continually inhabited from the late 7th millennium until the Roman years. Indeed the earliest traces of settlement of Knossos date back to the Neolithic period (7000-3000 BC). With stone tools and textile weights found in excavations. Settlement phases succeed each other. As the site evolved through the Bronze Age and continued through the Pre-Palatial period (3000-1900 BC). Where space was levelled for construction of a large palace.
The first official palace was built in 2000BC, with important settlements built around it. Until the end of 1600 BC, when a major earthquake destroyed the area of Knossos and the palace. Lo and behold, a second, more majestic palace rose from the ruins, and the Minoans had a chance to build bigger and better than before. Around 1600-1550 BC, the palace materialized again and the community came together to rebuild a city, a stronghold that harbored the heart of Crete. Its population skyrocketed to over 80,000. The history of devastation did not end there, however. A second earthquake was thought to be caused by the eruption of the Thera volcano (Santorini). Destroyed parts of the city once again. A great fire then finished it off completely by 1350 BC.
It was left uninhabited for a spell. Though remained a place of sacred importance. A new era was born with the coming of the Romans, and in 67 BC, Quintus Caecilius Metellus Creticus conquered Knossos. Founding a Roman colony under the name of Colonia Julia Nobilis.
Mutiny peppered the island, and amid the Arab conquest in Crete, Knossos again entered the realms of the forgotten as the port of Heraklion rose in importance. A small settlement was built upon the Roman ruins, referred to as “Makritichos” a relic of the Roman Knossos.
The Minoan palace of Knossos is located 5 kilometres on the southeast of Heraklion, in the valley of the river Kairatos. Strategically built to provide advantages in times of war with easy access to the sea, and with the natural grace of being among vineyards, cypress trees, and olive groves. There was no better place to place the unique stronghold.
The river springs from Archanes flows through Knossos and empties into Katsambas, the Minoan port of Knossos. In the Minoan times, the river had running water all year round, and that was worth exploiting from the Minoans!
FACTS OF A UNIQUE CIVILIZATION
The Irrigation system
Minoan plumbing was a historical wonder of simplicity. The water was directed from the areas of ‘’Kounavi’’ and ‘’Archanes’’ through a series of terracotta canals that flowed into an aqueduct. It then distributed through pipes and into the houses, and even the palace of Knossos itself. Making a hefty gravitational reach of 5 floors.
The Minoans were truly skilled when it came to their knowledge of water and its many properties. They were famed for their highly-developed seamanship and trade links, extending from the Middle East to Egypt and the Aegean Islands. Fear of the powerful Minoan thalassocracy is well documented.
At the northern end of the palace is a theatre of striking size. The steps accommodated 400 people from the palace and surrounding villages. To enjoy various shows, re-enactments, and celebrated greek theatre productions.
Knossos Palace is the memorial symbol of the Minoan civilization, and one of the single most important examples of ancient architecture in Greece, and perhaps the world. Luxurious material, architectural design, advanced construction techniques and impressive size were synonymous with the wealth and progression of the time. Architects and engineers are still lost for words by the impressive water management system that was developed in ancient Knossos. Not only did the water reach lavatories over 5 stories in the royal palace, but many stony toilets, fountains, filters throughout the town. Seemingly without a single plumbing issue, but I guess we can’t ask them.
My chauffeur drove me right to the front door of the Palace, or what remains of it. A mere 20 minutes out of Heraklion. Best time to explore? From 8:00 to 10:00 so as to avoid the heat of the day! The stark red pillars stood out like beacons of welcome, beckoning me to explore the mysteries within. I couldn’t wait to get started and went to meet my guide for the day.
Little is known about the day-to-day lives of the ancient Minoans, but it’s clear that at the time Knossos was a place of wonder. The largest of its kind, buildings in the area were incomparable to its majesty. It was first discovered by Minoas Kalokairinos. In the early 1900s, Knossos was excavated and partially reconstructed by British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans. It is also speculated that the spectacular structure may not have been the first. Scholars have uncovered an even older palace may have been destroyed by earthquakes pre-dating 1700 B.C. With the new Knossos built on top of the foundations.
As I wandered from one room to the next through the Piano Nobile, the Grand Staircase, the Tripartite Shrine, the King’s & the Queen’s apartments, and Throne Room, I couldn’t help but marvel at the ornate structures. The workmanship that went into every piece of stone, every column, every fresco was simply breathtaking. The Minoans showcased phenomenal knowledge and skill. Painting with plant dyes directly onto damp plaster has ensured that the dyes soaked into the plaster. Producing vibrant, permanent, indelible colors that are true to this day. This technique is called fresco painting and was used in Byzantine churches thousands of years later. Water systems, painting murals, the Minoans did it first, and better.
In one of the rooms was a giant fresco with dolphins and fish swimming above the doorway. A sense of calm drew over me and I sat a while staring at the stunning image. It has been copied in absolute accuracy to its original glory and maintained by the painter, Giannis Politis. The original wall paintings such as “The celebration in front of the sanctum ‘’, ‘’ The ladies in blue ‘’, ‘’ Bull leaping ‘’, the ‘’Argonaut ‘’, the ‘’ Blue Ape ‘’, the ‘’ Blue Bird ‘’, are exhibited in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion.
I was now in the depths of the maze-like structure. Excited beyond belief when my guide started explaining the Palaces link with the Greek legend of the Minotaur. One of my absolute favourites! The myth of the Minotaur is a strange and macabre tale of a half man- half bull. Legend has it that the greek god Poseidon sent a snow-white bull to King Minos intended for sacrifice. In an act of rebellion, he kept it and left Poseidon in a rage. As punishment, he caused Minos’ wife Pasiphae to fall in love with the bull and she had a son. Half man, half-bull, the strange, lonely minotaur was imprisoned by King Minos within a labyrinth in the palace grounds. A fierce game of wits began each year as Athenian children were thrown into the labyrinth to battle the minotaur. Eventually, the hero Theseus offered himself as a tribute, killed the minotaur, and ended the massacres of the ancient day Hunger Games. There is a giant fresco of the minotaur right on the front of the palace. Challenge him to a battle if you dare.
The Iconic Archaeological Museum
When my time was up lamenting the death of an iconic figure in Greek history. It was time to hop back into the taxi with my chauffeur and onto the guided tour of the archaeological museum. I spent too much time looking at old coins and fascinating clay tablets. Wishing I knew how to read the strange language in which they were inscribed.
The permanent exhibition of the Heraklion Arch is one of the most esteemed collections in the country. Many of the incredible items on display were found among the ruins of history. Rescued in excavations across the central and eastern parts of the island. Salvaging treasures over roughly 5,500 years. Stretching from the Neolithic (5000 BC) to the Late Roman period (late 4th century AD).
The items on display such as pottery, carved stone objects, seals, small sculpture, metal objects and wall paintings. Were all discovered in palaces, mansions, settlements, funerary monuments, sanctuaries and even caves dating back centuries. It’s surprising and astonishing how they have been preserved over time.
The twenty rooms inside the museum are set out in chronological order, showing the dynamic development of Minoan civilization as it evolved and developed through different regions and events.
Some early pieces are the famous Kamares vessels (2000- 1700 BC).
They were named after Kamares town and found in a nearby cave. So close to history, seeing them in person. Bright and vibrant still, they looked like they could have been made merely weeks ago. Yet they had survived centuries, timeless and wonderful.
A curious and unique attraction of the Heraklion Archaeological Museum is the clay disc of Phaistos with hieroglyphics and ideograms inscribed in a spiral from edge to centre. No one has yet managed to decipher it. Who knows what mysteries it holds within.
The snake goddesses are as formidable as they are enchanting. Ready to launch angry snakes at anyone who defies them, they’re also a great representation of the fashion style of Minoan women.
The Minoan Jewels
I found myself mostly enamoured by the Minoan Jewels. Found in burial sites with their revered owners, these items were beyond beautiful. Each piece delicately gilded in gold. Even everyday items like combs and hairpins were created with such care and attention, no doubt cherished by their wealthy owners. The “Bees” jewel was my absolute favourite. Two bees clasped together over droplets of honey in a filigree of pure craftsmanship. I adore bees and just had to get a selfie with the jewel next to my bee tattoo.
“La Parisienne” Minoan fresco
The upper floor is awash with painted frescoes. I could have spent hours looking into the minute details that went into each one. Again marvelling at the powerful vibrancy they still held after centuries in existence. They represent the Minoan’s love for nature and the joy of life, with “La Parisienne,” being a particular favourite.
I also noticed a heavy number of double axes around the many rooms. I learned the double axe used to be a holy symbol of the Minoan civilization. Safe to say it would have been best to keep on the good side of the Minoans lest you face a double-edged axe!
I was back outside in the sunny afternoon. My nose to the sky, breathing in the fresh salty air and the faint, enticing smell of my favourite greek snack, loukoumades! I followed the scent to Lions square, a place bursting with great snacks and treats. The souvlakia on the corner smelled divine, and I would have to try the bougatsa (custard pie) from cafe KirKor. (I reminded myself I had a week to try everything.) Before long had a whole bag of the warm, gooey honey puffs I had been craving. The weather was ideal, a light breeze cooled me down as I sat by the bubbling jets of the Morosini Fountain in the square. The light spray from the fountain was even more refreshing.
Venetian Harbour & St Peter’s Church
Revitalized, I took a short (10 minutes if you walk slowly) wander towards the Venetian Harbour. The perfect spot to sit on the old walls and watch the world go by. The boats bobbing on the water, the pretty houses and the old arches glowing in the sunlight. The iconic Koules fortress sitting proudly at the edge of the Peninsula like the sentry to the city. I walked along the promenade as far as the lighthouse. Then headed to the other direction of the coast, to the Church of St Peter and St Paul. Heraklion is quite compact and a lot of the sights are within walking distance. The church is a basilica, with the green dome perched on top. It too was destroyed by an earthquake in 1856. But it is so beautiful, who would not want to rebuild it?
St Titos & The Venetian Loggia
Ready to discover more of the city’s secrets, I checked the map and set off back towards the center. To see the Agios Titos Church and Venetian Loggia. The Loggia is a beautiful arched city hall that provides countless photo opportunities in and out of the ornate arches and cloisters. I could never tire of the architecture on this gorgeous island.
Before I knew it, the sun had started to set, the lights were popping on around the building, and I was starving. Time to head back to my hotel to change for dinner.