Palace of Knossos
Palace of Knossos information
Crete’s most famous historical attraction is the Palace of Knossos (k-nos-os ), the grand capital of Minoan Crete, located 5km south of Iraklio. The setting is evocative and the ruins and re-creations impressive, incorporating an immense palace, courtyards, private apartments, baths, lively frescoes and more. Excavation of the site started in 1878 with Cretan archaeologist Minos Kalokerinos, and continued from 1900 to 1930 with British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans who controversially restored parts of the site.
A visit to the Heraklion Archaeological Museum in Iraklio and taking a guided tour add needed context. Guides congregate at the entrance and charge around €10 if they can join you up with others; up to €80 for a private tour.
Knossos was the setting for the myth of the Minotaur. According to legend, King Minos of Knossos was given a magnificent white bull to sacrifice to the god Poseidon, but decided to keep it. This enraged Poseidon, who punished the king by causing his wife Pasiphae to fall in love with the animal. The result of this odd union was the Minotaur – half-man and half-bull – who was imprisoned in a labyrinth beneath the king's palace at Knossos, munching on youths and maidens, before being killed by Theseus.
Knossos’ first palace (1900 BC) was destroyed by an earthquake around 1700 BC and rebuilt to a grander and more sophisticated design. It was partially destroyed again between 1500 and 1450 BC, and inhabited for another 50 years before finally burning down. Evans’ reconstruction methods continue to be controversial – with many visitors and archaeologists believing that he sacrificed accuracy to his overly vivid imagination. His reconstructions focus on the palace’s most significant parts, and over the course of 30 years of excavations, Evans unearthed the remains of a neolithic civilisation beneath the remains of the Bronze Age Minoan palace. He also discovered some 3000 clay tablets containing Linear A and Linear B script.
The first treasure to be unearthed in the flat-topped mound called Kefala was a fresco of a Minoan man, followed by the discovery of the Throne Room . The archaeological world was stunned that a civilisation of this maturity and sophistication had existed in Europe at the same time as the great pharaohs of Egypt. The Minoans’ highly sophisticated society is further revealed by details like the advanced drainage system and the clever placement of rooms to passages, light wells, porches and verandahs that kept rooms cool in summer and warm in winter.
As you tour the site, keep in mind, the names and uses ascribed to the buildings do not necessarily reflect Minoan reality. The first section of the palace you come across is the West Court , which may have been a marketplace or the site of public gatherings. On your left is a trio of circular pits, called kouloures , that were used for grain storage.
Walk north along the palace’s western wall to the theatral area , a series of shallow steps whose function remains unknown. It could have been a theatre where spectators watched acrobatic and dance performances, or the place where people gathered to welcome important visitors arriving by the Royal Road , which leads off to the west. Europe’s first road was flanked by workshops and the houses of ordinary people. Also here, on your right, is a lustral basin where, so Evans speculated, Minoans performed a ritual water cleansing before religious ceremonies.
Near the north entrance to the palace, stop to admire the Charging Bull Fresco before continuing to the heart of the palace, the massive Central Court , which in Minoan times was hemmed in by high walls. As is typical of a Minoan palace, rooms facing the western side of the courtyard had official and religious purposes, while the residential quarters were on the opposite side.
The central court gives way to the palace’s most important rooms, including the Throne Room . Peering through security glass, you can make out a simple, beautifully proportioned alabaster throne and walls decorated with frescoes of griffins, mythical beasts regarded as sacred by the Minoans. The room exudes an aura of mysticism and reverence and is thought to have been a shrine. The Minoans did not worship their deities in great temples but in small shrines, and each palace had several.
A lustral basin is in a separate room to the left of the Throne Room, but you’ll get a better look at it from above in a moment. Walk past the Throne Room and up a staircase to the first floor. Inspired by Italian Renaissance palazzos, Evans called this the Piano Nobile , for this is where he believed the reception and staterooms were located. From up here you also have a great perspective on the west magazines , or storage rooms, where giant pithoi (clay jars) once held oil, wine and other staples.
The restored room at the northern end of the Piano Nobile looks down on the aforementioned lustral basin and also houses replicas of the most famous frescoes found at Knossos, including the Bull-Leaper , the Ladies in Blue and the Blue Bird . The originals are now in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. At the far south end of the Piano Nobile, a staircase leads down to the South Propylaion , where you can admire the Cup Bearer fresco .
Backtrack to the Central Court and cross it to get to the impressive grand staircase , which leads down to the royal apartments. Study their layout from above, then walk to the lower level past the Prince of the Lilies fresco on the south side of the central court.
Much of the royal apartments is inaccessible but you can still catch glimpses of the king’s quarters (megaron) in the Hall of the Double Axes , a spacious double room; Evans proposed that the ruler both slept and carried out court duties there. The room had a light well at one end and a balcony at the other to ensure air circulation. It takes its name from the double axe marks (labrys) on its light well, a sacred symbol to the Minoans and the origin of our word ‘labyrinth’.
A passage leads from the Hall of the Double Axes to the queen’s megaron . Above the door is a copy of the Dolphin Fresco , one of the most exquisite Minoan artworks. A blue floral design decorates the portal. Next to this room is the queen’s bathroom, complete with terracotta bathtub and a water closet , touted as the first ever to work on the flush principle; water was poured down by hand.
To beat the crowds and avoid the heat, get to Knossos early before tour buses arrive, or later in the afternoon when it's cooler, though budget several hours. The cafe at the site is expensive – you'd do better to bring a picnic.
Getting here is easy; all roads lead to Knossos it seems. Bus 2 leaves Bus Station A or from outside Hotel Capsis Astoria in Iraklio every 20 minutes for Knossos (€1.50). If driving, from Iraklio or the coastal road there are signs directing you to Knossos. There is free parking across from the souvenir shops but the spaces fill quickly.