From Chania to Knossos

It is raining when we leave Chania. That makes it a bit easier to leave. We drive to Rethymno, a fortress town that goes back to Neolithic times. That means someone has been living here for at least 8,000 years, maybe longer. The dominating feature of the town is the Fortetsa a fortress built by the Venetians in 1371 to defend the town against pirates (Barbarossa sacked it in 1538) and the Turks. (They captured Crete in 1669.) Nancy is anxious to try a route that the guidebooks say is spectacular. It is not along the main route (E-75) that will get us into Irakleio in an hour. Rather, it veers off into the central mountain range of Crete circling the dominant Mount Ida as it writhes through the Amari Valley.

The problem is we can’t find the way in. Signage in Crete appears to have been designed for the blind. On more than one occasion we have been led by an arrow pointing to this place or that, only to come to a T-junction without the slightest indication whether we should now go left or right.

I would have given up long ago. But Nancy was intrepid. I could sense the disappointment in her voice if we failed to find the right path in. After several feints and false starts, we found a sign that pointed toward the valley she was looking for: Amari. Off we went. The road twisted and turned like a belly dancer. The scenery, that much of it we could see through the rain, sometimes torrential and the clouds, sometimes so low they were fog to us, was spectacular. We were transported into an entirely new country. This was no longer an island. It was the Apennines of Europe, the wilderness of Michaelangelo’s Tuscany. In short it was nerve-wracking.

We passed small villages of barely ten houses and as many neatly laid out sheep cotes. Cultivated hillsides gave way to impossibly steep, stone lined mountainsides. When it looked as if we were leaving civilization altogether, we came upon Potomon Dam, a meticulously constructed stone barrier that created a huge artificial lake in the middle of nowhere, or so it seemed. A pickup truck was parked beside the lake and, despite the downpour, a Greek family was outside inspecting the dam.

“How do we get to Fourfouras?” we asked.

A grizzled old man with a moustache as thick as a hedge hog repeated “Fourfouras,” and then gestured straight ahead with his hand.

Sure enough we found a sign to back him up. And then a T-junction to let us down. No indication which way to turn, left or right. We chose left. It was the wrong choice. We were back in Rethymno before we knew it. I was thunderstruck. It seemed as if we had driven countries away and yet we were never more than a hoot and a holler from Rethymno.

We never found the magical route that Nancy had planned out. But it is still there and one of these days, when the sun is shining and we have a GPS system, we’ll come back and try it.

Back in Rethymno there was no help for it but to speed toward Irakleio. It was 2:30pm and with luck we might be able to get to Knossos. That, after all, is the guidebook’s highlight of Crete, the palace of King Minos (maybe) that was excavated by Arthur Evans at the very beginning of the 20th century.

How did anyone know that Knossos was there? Homer mentions it in the Odyssey:

Among their cities is the great city Cnosus, where Minos reigned when nine years old, he that held converse with Zeus.

Book XIX

But so, too, did Hesiod, Thucydides and Herodotus. There were several palaces built on the site five kilometers south-east of Irakleio, beginning around 1900BC. Basically, the agrarian culture of the Neolithic had merged with the technological breakthroughs of the Bronze Age (around 2800BC) so that by 1900BC a new level of civilization emerged, one capable of producing four story high buildings with a thousand rooms and double flights of stairs connecting the stories, running water, flush toilets for the Queen’s privy, frescoes, pottery-wheeled dishwar, jars taller than most men, a complicated mythology involving Zeus in the shape of a bull seducing Europa and carrying her to Crete where she gives birth to Minos who becomes king of Crete thereby establishing his divine right to rule, in other words, the whole nine yards.

A huge carved set of bull’s horns sat atop the palace at Knossos to signify the connection between the palace and its principal occupants and Zeus.

The first palace at Knossos was badly damaged twice, probably by earthquakes, and repaired twice. But in 1700BC a major catastrophe completely destroyed it. The subsequent period of construction produced the buildings that Evans ultimately uncovered twenty two hundred years later.

All of the artifacts from the excavation have been removed to an archeological museum in the center of Irakleiou, including several masterpieces, a carved bull’s head with golden horns and a 17th century BC gold pendant. The impression they give is of a society more given over to love-making than war-making. Maybe. The Minoans (as Evans named the civilization) were masters of the South Aegean. On the other hand, the palace at Knossos was not walled. Indeed, none of the six palace sites in Crete seem to have been walled, suggesting a society that felt itself perfectly safe from intruders and from one another.

That is what makes the mystery of Knossos so piquant. Something happened in 1450BC, something major. Whatever it was, Minoan dominance evaporated, first from the mainland and then from Crete itself. Mycenaeans from the mainland literally moved into the palace at Knossos. It was almost as if they were just waiting for the opportunity to squat.

One of the great cultural finds at Knossos was the famous tablets, Linear A and Linear B. Deciphering the latter had to wait until the fantastic breakthroughs of Ventris and Chadwick in the 1950s. They proved conclusively that Linear B was a form of Mycenaean Greek. The connection with the mainland Mycenaeans was sealed. Linear A, written in the script of the Minoans, still awaits its deliverer.

What happened in 1450BC that put an end to it all? Perhaps it was the cataclysmic explosion that produced Santorini and sent earthquakes and tidal waves the like of which no one had seen in the Mediterrannean before or since. Perhaps it was the Myceaneans themselves, taking advantage of those lack of walls, to hit the Minoans while they were down. Whatever it was, Minoans stepped down and the Mycenaeans stepped up. Since there was definite evidence of Minoan influence on Mycenae well before the cataclysm, it is likely the two cultures were connected, perhaps even by intermarriage. So it wasn’t an accident that the Mycenaeans replaced the Minoans, though it was an accident of nature that let them do it.

This was the first major step in the rise of the Mycenaean Empire. Sometime around 1300BC they went to war with Troy, thanks to Paris stealing Helen from Menelaus. That gave rise 500 years later to Homer and the beginning of the literature of Western civilization.

It had to start somewhere. Knossos seems as good a starting point as any.