Map courtesy of Wikipedia, click to enlarge
Crete is the fith largest island in the Mediterranean. It measures approximately 200 Km from east to west, and between 12 to 58 Km from north to south at its narrowest and widest distances.
Crete’s largest modern town and modern capital is Heraklion, Rethimno and Chania being the two other principle towns. The landscape varies between tall, rugged mountains, gentle slopes, and plateaus, with the Aegean coast to the North and the Lybian Sea to the south.
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 were the Minoans, named after King Minos, who had 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.
The Minoans 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 sometimes credited as the first European civilization.
Archaeological 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.
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 island.
Prepalatial Minoan Crete (2600-1900 BC)
Neolithic 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)
The 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.
Around 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 centres 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 perhaps slaves.
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)
The 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.
During this 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 around Pylos.
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 the Aegean.
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)
With 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.
An 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.
This 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.
Under 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 centres of the island which continues to trade with Cyprus, Syria, and the Aegean. The art of Doric Crete exhibits oriental 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.
The demise of Minoan Civilisation
Evidence of a violent end through fire and demolition is clear, but the clues to what caused such destruction have been elusive.
One theory argues that 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. Another factor that might have contributed to the end of Minoan civilization is the invasion and occupation of Crete by the Mycenaeans. Their invasion took place around 1400, and combined with the effects of the Thera eruption present a likely explanation 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 had flourished for 1600 years.
One question still remains however. How did the inhabitants of Mycenae, unlike the Minoans, escape the effects of the volcanic eruption. 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.
The 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.