island of Crete is located in the center of the eastern Mediterranean
at the crossroads of Africa, Asia, and Europe. It measures about 200 Km
from east to west, and between 12 to 58 Km from north to south at its
narrowest and widest distances, making it one of the largest islands in
the Mediterranean sea.
Crete's largest modern town is Heraklion
(35° 20' latitude, 25° 08' longitude) and its landscape oscillates
between tall, rugged mountains, gentle slopes, and plateaus, which are
framed by the Aegean coast line to the North, and the Lybian Sea to the
The temperate climate of Crete with its short, mild
winters and its dry, warm summers, along with the fertility of the
Cretan plains produces sufficient food supplies to support an affluent
local population, and for exports. The inhabitants of ancient Crete
--whom we call Minoans-- produced a decentralized culture based on the
abundance of the land's natural resources, and on intense commercial
activity. While the island appears today completely deforested, in
ancient times timber was one of the natural resources that was
commercially exploited and exported to nearby Egypt, Syria, Cyprus, the
Aegean Islands and the Greek mainland.
Besides timber Crete
exported food, cypress wood, wine, currants, olive oil, wool, cloth,
herbs, and purple dye. Its imports consisted of precious stones, copper
(most likely from Cyprus), ivory, silver, gold, and other raw material.
They also imported tin that was used in the production of bronze alloys.
Interestingly, the nearest known tin mines appear as far as Spain,
Britain, central Europe, and Iran. Besides raw materials, the Minoans
also adopted from the surrounding cultures artistic ideas and techniques
as evident in Egypt's influence on the Minoan wall frescoes, and on
goldsmithing production knowledge imported by Syria.
had developed significant naval power and for many centuries lived in
contact with all the major civilizations of the time without being
significantly threatened by external forces. Their commercial contact
with ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia undeniably influenced their own
culture, and the Minoan civilization in turn appeared as the forerunner
of the Greek civilization. The Minoans are credited as the first
Habitation and Chronology of Crete
evidence testifies to the island's habitation since the 7th millennium
BC After the 5th millennium BC we find the first evidence of hand-made
ceramic pottery which marks the beginning of the civilization Evans, the
famed archaeologist who excavated Knossos, named "Minoan" after the
legendary king Minos.
Evans divided the Minoan civilization into
three eras on the basis of the stylistic changes of the pottery. His
comparative chronology included an Early (3000-2100 BC), a Middle
(2100-1500 BC), and a Late Minoan period (1500-1100 BC). Since this
chronology posed several problems in studying the culture, professor N.
Platon has developed a chronology based on the palaces' destruction and
reconstruction. He divided Minoan Crete into Prepalatial (2600-1900 BC),
Protopalatial (1900-1700 BC), Neopalatial (1700-1400 BC), and
Postpalatial (1400-1150 BC).
We do not have much information
about the very early Minoans before 2600 BC. We have seen the
development of several minor settlements near the coast, and the
beginning of burials in tholos tombs, as well as in caves around the
Prepalatial Minoan Crete (2600-1900 BC)
life in ancient Crete consisted of major settlements at Myrtos and
Mochlos. During this period the Minoans had contact with Egypt, Asia
Minor, and Syria with whom they traded for copper, tin, ivory, and gold.
The archaeological evidence reveals a decentralized culture
with no powerful landlords and no centralized authority. The palaces of
this period are focused around communities, and circular tholos tombs
were the major architectural structures of the time. The manner by which
the dead were buried in these tombs indicate a society without
hierarchical structure. The tholos tombs were used for centuries by
entire villages, or clans and older corpses and offerings were placed
aside to make room for a new burial. Older bones were removed from the
tomb and placed in bone chambers outside the tholos structure. Most of
the tholos tombs were circular while in Palekastro and Mochlos they were
of a rectangular in shape with a flat roof.
Protopalatial Minoan Crete (1900-1700 BC)
protopalatial era began with social upheaval, external dangers, and
migrations from mainland Greece and Asia Minor. During this time the
Minoans began establishing colonies at Thera, Rodos, Melos, and Kithira.
2000 BC a new political system was established with authority
concentrated around a central figure - a king. The first large palaces
were founded and acted as centers for their respective communities,
while at the same time they developed a bureaucratic administration
which permeated Minoan society. Distinctions between the classes forged a
social hierarchy and divided the people into nobles, peasants, and
After its tumultuous beginning, this was a
peaceful and prosperous period for the Minoans who continued to trade
with Egypt and the Middle East, while they constructed a paved road
network to connect the major cultural centers. This period also marks
the development of some settlements outside the palaces, and the end of
the extensive use of tholos tombs.
The palaces of the period were
destroyed in 1700 BC by forces unknown to us . Speculation blames the
destruction either on a powerful earthquake, or on outside invaders.
Despite the abrupt destruction of the palaces however, Minoan civilization continued to flourish.
Neopalatial Minoan Crete (1700-1400 BC)
destroyed palaces were quickly rebuilt on the ruins to form even more
spectacular structures. This is the time when Knossos, Phaistos, Malia,
and Zakros were built, along side many smaller palaces which stretched
along the Cretan landscape.
Small towns developed near the
palaces and the dead were buried in pithoi and larnakes, along rock-cut
chambers and above-ground tholos tombs.
For the first time
smaller residencies that we call villas appeared in the rural landscape,
and were modeled after the large palaces with storage facilities,
worship, and workshops. They appear to be lesser centers of power away
from the palaces, and homes for affluent landlords.
period we see evidence of administrative and economic unity throughout
the island, and Minoan Crete reach its zenith. Women played a powerful
role in society, and the gold artifacts, seals, and spears speak of a
very affluent upper class. The paved road network was vastly expanded to
connect most major Minoan palaces and towns, and we have evidence of
extensive trade activity.
In the beginning of this era, Minoan
culture dominates the Aegean islands and expands into the Peloponnese.
We see its strong influence in the Argolis area during the Mycenaean
time of grave circles, and in the southern Peloponnese, especially
The Minoan culture's fusion with the Helladic
(mainland Greek) traditions of the time eventually morphed into the
Mycenaean civilization, which in turn challenged the Minoan supremacy in
For the first time, late in the Neopalatial period,
the powerful fleet of the Minoans encountered competition from an
emerging power from mainland Greece: the Mycenaeans whose influence
began permeating Minoan Crete itself. Life on the island became more
militaristic as evident by the large number of weapons which we find for
the first time in royal tombs.
The affluence of the culture
during this period is evident in the frescoes found in the Cretan
palaces and in Thera, Melos, Kea, and Rodos.
The end of this
flourishing culture came with the destruction of most of the palaces and
villas of the country side in the middle of the 15 century, and with
the destruction of Knossos in 1375. During this late period there is
evidence in tablets inscribed in Linear B language that the Mycenaeans
controlled the entire island, while many Minoan sites were abandoned for
a long time.
We cannot be certain of the causes for this sudden
interruption of the Minoan civilization. However scholars have pointed
to invasion of outside forces, or to the colossal eruption of the Thera
volcano as likely causes.
Postpalatial Period (1400-1150 BC)
the destruction of Knossos the power in the Aegean shifts to Mycenae.
While both Knossos and Phaistos remain active centers of influence, they
do not act as the central authority of the island any longer. During
the postpalatial period the western part of Crete flourishes. Several
important settlements developed around Kasteli and Chania, while Minoan
religion begins to exhibit influences from the Greek mainland.
examination of the changes in Minoan society during this period reveals
that most likely Mycenae controlled Crete. During this period, Helladic
god names such as Zeus begin to appear in tablets, new shapes develop
in pottery, and vaulted tholos tombs appear for the first time. The
tablets of Linear B which were unearthed during excavations provide the
more concrete evidence of this theory.
Sub-Minoan Crete (1150-1100 BC)
Around 1150 BC the Dorians destroyed the Mycenaean civilization in the Peloponnese and by 1100 BC they reached Crete.
period marks the assimilation of all remaining Minoan elements of Crete
into the new Hellenic culture. This new culture eventually transformed
into the Classical Greek civilization which had its center in Athens.
Doric dominance, Crete social structure shifted from monarchy to
aristocracy, and Archaic culture and art permeates the island. The old
Minoan traditions remain influential, and the Spartan legislator
Lykourgos studied the Cretan legal system before he created the laws
that governed the Lakedemonian state.
Knossos, Arkades, Dreros,
Cortyn, Lato, and Lyktos become the most important centers of the island
which continues to trade with Cyprus, Syria, and the Aegean.
art of Doric Crete exhibits orientalizing trends even during the
"Geometric" period, possibly due to the islands proximity and close
commercial ties with the East.
The islands isolation prevented it
from being an important player in the events which forged history
during the classical and hellenistic eras, and eventually its culture
declined and became a Roman province in 67 BC.
Some Thoughts on the Demise of Minoan Civilization
of the favorite themes for discussion among scholars is the possible
causes for the destruction of the Minoan Civilization. Evidence of a
violent end through fire and demolition is clear, but the clues to what
caused such destruction have been elusive.
was the first to suggest in 1939 that the eruption of Thera, along with
the associated effects, was the cause for the catastrophe. The theory
argues that the earthquakes destroyed the palaces, tsunamis obliterated
the fleet and peers of the Minoans, and the volcanic ash of Thera
covered the whole island destroying crops and suffocating animals.
geologists have argued that the Thera eruption was of a colossal scale,
and the effects described by Marinatos were possible. Others have
disagreed. Recent data places the bulk of the ash deposits of the
volcano to the East caried by the easterly jet streems of the area, with
little effect upon the island of Crete (D.M. Pyle, "New estimates for
the volume of the Minoan Eruption". Thera and the Aegean World III, see
The biggest blow to this theory came in 1987 from
studies conducted at the Greenland ice cap. Scientists dated frozen ash
from the Thera eruption and concluded that it occurred in 1645 BC, some
150 years before the final destruction of the Minoan palaces.
so, the tsunamis and earthquakes associated with the Thera eruption
could have still caused much physical damage to the Minoan fleet and
infrastructure, and it would have affected the climate, the economy, and
the politics of the region. However, it is doubtful that it could have
caused in itself the end of the Minoan civilization. After all, the
Minoan society had exhibited acute reflexes in its past history when it
rebounded from other physical disasters to elevate its culture to even
higher levels. So why did it not recover after the destructions of 1450
Another factor that might have contributed to the end of
Minoan civilization is the invasion and occupation of Crete by the
Mycenaeans. Their documented invasion took place around 1400, and in
combination with the effects of the Thera eruption present a likely
scenario for the final destruction of the Minoan civilization. In this
theory, the Minoan fleet and ports were destroyed by the 50 foot waves
and were never rebuilt. Possible climatic changes affected crops for
many years, which in turn could have led to economic downfall and social
upheaval. In this background, the foreign invaders from Mycenae
provided the conclusion to a splendid culture which flourished for 1600
One question still remains however. How did the
inhabitants of Mycenae escape the effects of the volcanic eruption, when
the Minoan civilization was brought to its knees by them? Considering
the topography of the Aegean, and accepting the enormity of the volcanic
eruption of Thera, it is hard to understand how the Mycenaeans who were
just as vulnerable were able to overcome the destruction, while at the
same time they were able to preserve (or rebuilt) their fleet and to
mount an ambitious expedition to conquer the vast island of Crete.
questions regarding the destruction of the Minoan civilization linger
precariously as the historical records do not provide a definitive
answer, and it is these persistent questions which have shrouded
prehistoric Crete with an aura of seductive enchantment.