Knossos: The Labyrinthine City, Bull-Leapers & The Palace Of Minos

Updated: Jun 16

The first major Aegean civilization flourished on the island of Crete in the Mediterranean. Was Knossos the capital of this Minoan Empire? What was the significance of the bull? How and when did Knossos fall?

The impressive ruins of Knossos
The impressive ruins of Knossos

On a simple earthenware jar in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete, the Greek hero Theseus gazes into the eyes of his beautiful Ariadne. On another jar in the Vatican museum, he grasps the horns of the Minotaur and plunges his sword into its heart. Is the story of Theseus killing the Minotaur just a myth or could it really have happened? This is one of the many mysteries half-answered by the ruins of the Palace of Minos and Knossos.

Approaching the palace from the sea only 4km (2.5mi) away, the visitor sees it as Thesus would have done as he travelled along the walled road to its north entrance. For a nation of seafarers and traders, as the Minoans were 2000 years before Christ, this entrance to the palace flanked by its 'custom halls' would have been the most important. Upon entering here, the eye is caught by the huge relief fresco of a powerful bull struggling with its captors in a terrified frenzy in an olive grove. Behind the bull stretched a veritable labyrinth of 1,500 rooms laid out in an intricate pattern of narrow corridors which would have bewildered all but the most familiar inhabitants of the palace.

There had been a settlement at Knossos since the 5th or 6th millennium BC. A series of magnificent palaces was built towards the end of the third and at the beginning of the second millennium BC. Each was destroyed by earthquakes and each was rebuilt on the ruins of the old. But between 1400 BC and 1250 BC a devastating offshore volcanic eruption on the island of Santorini obliterated the city, palace, and populace for the last time.

Not until 1878 did the work of the Greek archaeologist Minos Kalokairinos and the subsequent comprehensive excavations by the English archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans reveal once again the majesty of the Palace of Minos. The Knossos they discovered evokes an enviable way of life in which function and aesthetics had reached a remarkable harmony.

From The Palace Drains To The Processional Way

The quality of a civilization can perhaps best be judged by its drains. Those of the Minoans, particularly between 1700 BC and the final disaster, have seldom been surpassed. Few of the many wonders at Knossos make more impact than the three nearly dovetailed clay drainage pipes and carefully tapered to slow water flow and, like the parabolic drainage gutters and their settling tanks for sediment beside the paved roads, they are just one of the many examples of the Minoan mastery of hydrodynamics.

The impressive drainage system at Knossos
The impressive drainage system at Knossos

The approach to the palace at Knossos from its western 'commercial' entrance leads to an apparently insignificant trio of walled pits. It was here that, after the Minoan religious ceremonies, the blood and bones of the sacrificed animals, together with the honey, wine, oil, and milk of the libations, were returned to the earth which they sprang. This appositeness, this literal sense of propriety, pervades the site at Knossos.

Little is left of the nearby guardroom whose function would have been primarily administrative rather than military. Indeed, one remarkable feature of all Minoan palaces is that, of the thousands of artifacts recovered, there are few weapons and these are usually of a ceremonial nature. The palaces themselves are in no way fortified and it appears that, for most of their history, the Minoans lived at peace with their neighbours.

The guardroom marks the entrance to the processional way, which ends in a broad flight of stairs leading to the level of a grand courtyard. One of the astonishing life-size frescoes which have captured so much of the Minoan past here greets the eye. A procession of priests and priestesses bearing flasks and pouring out liquid offerings to their deities stalks by with lifelike dignity.

The Acrobatic Bull-Leapers

Beyond the stone cellars lies a room where vivid and dramatic Minoan frescoes have been recreated. The most famous grippingly shows, in a kind of ancient stop-frame photographic reconstruction, the grace and daring of the bull-leapers as they take part in an event which is part sport, part ritual, and part test. As the bull charges, each leaper - they are of both sexes - seizes its horns in turn and flips off to the beasts back before somersaulting nimbly to the ground. A single slip could cost the leapers life.

Bull-leaping fresco from the palace of Knossos
Bull-leaping fresco from the palace at Knossos

As leaper after leaper embraced and then eluded the charging bull in quick succession, it must have been hard to distinguish beast from human and, as a result, easy to see how the image of the minotaur, half-bull, and half man was created. Whether the bull games were performed in the great courtyard is not known, but this area was certainly the focal point of palace life, an eye of open space in the whirling pattern of daily routine. The stark symbolism of the homes of consecration, which dominate the courtyard with all the simplicity of a modern sculpture, suggests that it was more than just the nexus of palace life.

The Heart Of The Palace

Above the level of the courtyard, the east wing of the palace was cut into the hillside. At one end were the Royal Apartments, while at the other end were the workshops of the carpenters, potters, stonemasons, and jewellers who provided the comforts and artistic luxuries evident in the apartments themselves.

The Grand Staircase in the palace of Knossos
The Grand Staircase in the palace at Knossos

The Royal Apartments are reached by the so-called Grand Staircase which, while not particularly grand in scale, is undeniably grand in sophistication and artistry. The black and red pillars, tapering inward towards the base, enclose a light well that not only illuminates the apartments below but provides a kind of bellows for the palace's natural air-conditioning. The 11 pier and door partitions of the King's Hall could be opened and closed to regulate the inflow of the cooler air, scented with wild thyme and lemon, from the colonnade outside as the warm air rose up the stairwell. In winter, the doors could be closed while portable hearths were brought in to provide heat.

The centre of power was the throne room where King Minos held court. Outside it stands a great porphyry basin, placed there by Arthur Evans because he believed it was used in purification rituals before entering the innermost chamber of the palace. Such a placement epitomizes the Knossos that can be seen today: an extraordinary reconstruction of the Palace of King Minos as it was in 1600 BC, as visualized by an English archaeologist whose sole purpose was to capture in time the Golden Age of the Minoan Empire. Now you have learned about Knossos and the Palace of Minos make sure you read about the Wandjina Sky Beings Depicted In Mysterious Aboriginal Rock Art.


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