The Palace of Knossos is among the foremost archeological sites in the world, located in the suburbs of Heraklion. The first palace at Knossos was built around 1900 BC, but was destroyed by a earthquake in 1700 BC. It was then rebuilt even grander, and stood until 1450, when it was destroyed again. Knossos was the capital of the Minoan empire, which at its height ruled all of Crete and many of the nearby islands. Scholars still debate the exact function of Knossos, but it was certainly an important for many important religious and administrative functions.
The Minotaur and the Labyrinth
Knossos also has a suitable legend. The legendary Minos, which the Minoans have been named after, struggled with his brothers for the right to rule Crete. He prayed to the god Poseidon for a white bull as a sign of approval. Poseidon granted the bull, but instead of thanking Poseidon by sacrificing it, Minos decided to keep it for its beauty. Aphrodite punished Minos by making his wife Pasiphae fall in love with the bull, and she mated with it. The offspring was the Minotaur, with the head of a bull and the body of a man, and it could only feed on human flesh.
King Minos consulted the oracle at Delphi about what to do, and then decided to have the master craftsman Daedalus construct a giant labyrinth near Knossos to house the Minotaur. Minos had defeated the city of Athens in war, and demanded young Athenian men and women as sacrifice to feed the beast. When the third annual shipment of young Athenians was about to be shipped to Crete, Theseus, son of King Aegeus of Athens, volunteered to go and slay the Minotaur. When Theseus arrived at Knossos, King Minos’s daughter fell in love with him, and helped him find his way in the labyrinth by giving him a ball of thread, that he could use to trace his steps. Theseus killed the Minotaur, and found his way out again by following the thread.
Knossos was completely forgotten until it was rediscovered in 1878 by Minos Kalokairinos, a local antiquarian. He made the first excavations at Kephala Hill, and sold the rights to the amateur archeologist Sir Arthur Evans in the year 1900. Evans spent the next 35 years and 250,000 pounds of his own money to excavate the site and reconstruct parts of the palace. Other historians and archeologists have critized Evans’s reconstructions, claiming they owe more to his own imagination than historical evidence, but most tourists seem to appreciate his efforts to visualize the past.
While it’s called a palace, it’s not what we usually associate with a palace. Instead it’s 1300 interconnected rooms, serving all sorts of functions, from sleeping quarters and throne rooms, to storage and crafting areas. Many believe that the palace itself is the mythical labyrinth.
The palace at Knossos is also well known for its frescoes. Many of them are held at Heraklion Archeological Museum, but there are copies of the originals at the site. Columns have also been reconstructed, painted in a deep red with gold and black capitals. As you walk around, notice all the things that shows how much thought has been put into the construction, such as the light wells, porches, verandas and drainage system, helping make the palace as comfortable as possible year round.
The central court is an area of 30 times 60 meters, which was used for audiences and ceremonial purposes. While the palace was still standing, there were high walls on all sides, much different from the open area currently exposed to the sun.
On the west side of the palace is the Piano Nobile, the nobel hall, so called by Evans because he believed this was the audience hall of the Minoan kings. The walls are decorated with copies of leaping bull dancers, the most famous frescoes found at Knossos.
The Grand Staircase leads from the eastern side of the palace to the royal apartments. Out of the five original stone steps, four are still preserved. Three smaller staircases and many corridors would have led off these. The area is decorated with a copy of the shield fresco that was originally found here.
The Hall of the Double Axes is named after the double axe marks, a well known Minoan symbol, found on the light well at one end of the room. At the other end there was a balcony, to ensure air circulation. It was the king’s megaron, used for both sleeping and feasts, sacrifice and council. Connected to the hall is the queen’s megaron, which has a dolphin fresco above the door. The adjacent bathroom has a terracotta bathtub and one of the first examples in history of a water closet, albeit it had to be manually flushed.
The entrance to the so called throne room is from the northwest corner of the courtyard. The rom has a worn stone throne with a fresco of two griffons behind it. There are benches along the other walls, and a ceremonial basin in front of the throne. Evans believed the throne was used by the king or the queen, but it’s more probable that it was the seat of a priestess. The room is closed off for visitors, but you can see it through the glass.
In the northern part of the palace is the storage area, where Evans found more than 100 huge pithoi, storage jars used for olive oil, olives, grain and other supplies. Some of them are up to 2 meters high, with a capacity of 200 litres, and such jars are being used by Greeks up to the present day.
How to get there
Buses number 2 and 4 leave Heraklion every ten minutes, from the bus stops by the eastbound bus station.
If you are driving, you can park at a parking lot outside of Knossos. Be warned that it’s both expensive and tends to fill to capacity as the day goes on.
During summer, the site is open from 8 am to 7 pm. Opening hours the rest of the year are 9 am to 3 pm. There’s a constant flow of tour groups through the site during most of the day. If you want to avoid the crowds, your best bet during high season is the last couple of hours before the site closes.