Knossos: 27.163122 E, 35.297778 Ν
Phaistos: 24.814633 Ε, 35.051103 Ν
Malia: 25.493153 Ε, 35.292869 Ν
Zakros: 26.261061 Ε, 35.097981 Ν
Kydonia: 24.019375 Ε, 35.516278 Ν
Crete, prominently and strategically located in the East Mediterranean Basin, formed the bridge between the peoples and cultures of three continents, Europe, Africa and Asia, and was the cradle of a splendid prehistoric civilisation in the land of Greece, the Minoan civilisation.
The civilisation was named “Minoan” by Arthur Evans, the excavator of Knossos, which, according to myths preserved by ancient writers, was the seat of King Minos. The Minoan civilisation is connected to a great chapter in Greek mythology: the abduction of Europa by Zeus in the form of a bull, the ingenious Daedalus and his son Icarus, the Minotaur and the Labyrinth, the seven youths and seven maidens sent from Athens as tribute to Minos, the Athenian hero Theseus - who, with the assistance of Ariadne, rid his city of this blood-tax - the bronze giant Talus and the Argonauts, are all inextricably linked with the civilisation of Crete and its palaces, and have been a source of inspiration not only for ancient Greek culture but also for world art, music and literature.
The archaeological excavations carried out on Crete from the 19th century onwards continue to reveal, from one end of the island to the other, from east to west and north to south, this age-old civilisation in all its glory. Its elements have been identified even outside its geographical boundaries, since the maritime superiority of the Cretan seafarers and their expansion across the Mediterranean brought them to prominence, at the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC, as a leading power. From their contact with the peoples of the Mediterranean coast through the flourishing transit trade, they absorbed elements of contemporary civilisations, shaping a singular and special cultural foundation that exercised a tremendous influence on the Mycenaean and, through it, the later Greek civilisation.
The Minoan civilisation that developed over the course of two millennia (2800-1100 BC) culminated in a high peak for its time, boasting marvellous buildings, a ground-breaking water and drainage system, equal participation of men and women in religious and social life, and masterpieces of art. The major earthquakes that hit Crete shortly before the end of the Middle Bronze Age resulted in the destruction of many Minoan centres, but also led to the rebuilding of yet more splendid palaces in the immediately ensuing period.
The palatial centres played a vital part in the evolution, development and propagation of Minoan civilisation and marked the social transformation from the proto-urban communities of the Early Bronze Age to a multifaceted and hierarchical society. The political, social, economic and religious reorganisation, the transformation of private life, and the unprecedented cultural development that emerged from the gradual centralisation of power and the accumulation of wealth, were focussed on the palatial centres, each of which covered a large populated area of Crete.
The Minoan palatial centres stand out for their unique monumental architecture, with its complex internal organisation, which passed into ancient Greek memory as the “Labyrinth”. They constituted the administrative, economic and religious centres of a wider geographical area and housed multiple activities. They not only contained the residences of the rulers and the priesthood, but were home to a multitude of people: artisans (metalworkers, potters, weavers, etc.), merchants, scribes. Various events and contests were held around the palaces.
Most of the palatial centres share common architectural features. They consist of a large, rectangular central court, around which are set multi-storey wings (sometimes reaching four storeys), which house the various activities: residential apartments, reception areas, archives (which have produced tablets incised with the famous Linear A and Linear B scripts, the oldest forms of writing in Greece), treasuries, sanctuaries, large storerooms, kitchens, workshops, theatral areas, all providing a picture of a small, vibrant city.
The wings were furnished with propyla (porticos), verandas and colonnades that opened onto light wells and inner courtyards, ensuring that the inner rooms were well lit and aired. The walls were faced with marble orthostats and brilliant frescoes. In the workshops, the palace artisans produced masterpieces in gold and ivory, bronze and faience, sealstones, figurines, clay and stone vessels, many of which were destined for export to the countries of the Aegean and the East Mediterranean.
Notable centres of power in the Minoan age were the palatial centres of Knossos, Phaistos, Malia, Zakros and Kydonia, which are distributed in different geographical units, from the eastern to the western end of Crete.
1) PALATIAL CENTRE OF KNOSSOS
The palace of Knossos, the most important centre of the Minoan civilisation, is located in the Regional Unit of Heraklion. It stands on the “tou Tselebi i Kephala” hill, west of the River Kairatos, and covers an area of approximately 20,000 sq.m. Originally uncovered by Minos Kalokairinos in 1878, the palace was excavated by Sir Arthur Evans in the first three decades of the 20th century, and is still being investigated by the British School of Archaeology today. The earliest human habitation was in the Neolithic period, on the site later occupied by the Minoan palace.
The palace was founded circa 2000 BC (Protopalatial period) and, following many destructions, was rebuilt on the same site and flourished in the Neopalatial period (1750-1430 BC). In the Postpalatial period (1400-1100 BC) it was the only Minoan palace that was still partly inhabited. It even preserved its administrative character, as the discovery of an archive of Linear B writings indicates.
The palace consists of wings set around a rectangular paved court, while the West Court was an important point of reference in the whole architectural complex. The West Wing housed the storerooms, the sanctuaries and the Throne Room, while the East Wing contained the private apartments and the workshops.
The city spread out over a wide area around the palace, with particularly important monuments and buildings, roads, cemeteries, workshops, quarries and sacred spaces. The wider archaeological area of Knossos also flourished in Historic times.
2) PALATIAL CENTRE OF PHAISTOS
The palace of Phaistos is one of the largest palaces in Crete and is located in the Regional Unit of Heraklion. It came to light during the excavations carried out by the Italian archaeologist F. Halbherr in the last two decades of the 19th century, while the Italian School of Archaeology continues investigations in the area today.
In the Minoan period, Phaistos was the control centre of the south coast of Crete, and is mentioned by Homer as the kingdom of Minos’ brother Rhadamanthys, son of Zeus and Europa, who took part in the Trojan War and later became one of the three judges of the dead in Hades. The palace was originally built circa 1900 BC, at the western end of the Mesara, the largest plain in Crete. In the later Greek world, Phaistos was known as the home of the great sage Epimenides.
The hill of Phaistos was first inhabited during the Late Neolithic period, circa 4500 BC. The first palace was built in the Protopalatial period (1900 BC), covered an area of approximately 8,000 sq.m. and extended over the three stepped terraces of the hill. It was destroyed by an earthquake circa 1700 BC. On the ruins of the old palace was constructed the new palace, which survived until 1450 BC, when it was destroyed and never rebuilt. The city of Phaistos, as a whole, extends over three hills and was already very large in the Old Palace period. It continued in use after the destruction of the New Palaces. It flourished once more in Geometric and Hellenistic times, but was destroyed in 150 BC by the neighbouring city of Gortys, which became the new great power of south Crete.
3) PALATIAL CENTRE OF MALIA
The palace of Malia is located on the north coast of Crete, in the Regional Unit of Heraklion. It is the third-largest Minoan palace and was, according to tradition, the seat of Sarpedon, the youngest brother of Minos. The first excavations were carried out in the early 20th century by the archaeologist Iosif Hatzidakis, but the systematic excavation of both the palace itself and the Minoan city was continued by the French School of Archaeology.
The palace was originally built circa 2000-1900 BC. It was destroyed at the end of the Protopalatial period (1700 BC) and rebuilt circa 1650 BC on the same site, following the basic layout of the old palace. Some alterations were made in later periods. The palace was totally destroyed at the same time as the other palatial centres, around 1450 BC, while there was a brief period of re-occupation in the 14th to 13th c. BC.
The palace of Malia covers an area of approximately 7,500 sq.m. and its layout is similar to that of the palace of Knossos. Various quarters and individual town houses of the town have been excavated, the most important being Quarter Z, Houses E, Da, Db and the major Quarter M. Surviving port installations on the coast indicate that the palace of Malia was a gateway to the Aegean Sea during the Minoan period.
4) PALATIAL CENTRE OF ZAKROS
Zakros is located at the southeast end of the Regional Unit of Lasithi, on a natural bay. In 1961 N. Platon began the archaeological excavation of the site, bringing to light a palace with impressive finds, as it had remained unlooted after its destruction.
The palace of Zakros preserved today was founded in the Neopalatial period (c. 1600 BC). Like all the palaces known to date, it consists of four wings set around a rectangular central court. The building, which was at least two storeys high, was bounded by an enceinte, forming gardens inside.
The economic peak of the palatial centre of Zakros was obviously due to the part it played in the maritime “trade” of Minoan Crete with other centres of the Aegean and the East Mediterranean. Evidence of its links with the East is provided by the discovery, in a storeroom in the West Wing, of four elephant tusks and six bronze talents, imported on the same overseas journey.
Around the palace, on two hills, extended the settlement. Approximately 35 houses have been excavated, considered to be annexes to the palace. Between the houses ran paved stepped streets with rainwater drainage ducts, delimiting large building blocks. The town was densely populated, so there were no open spaces.
The palace and the town were suddenly destroyed in 1450 BC, at the same time as most of the settlements of Crete, marking the end of the Neopalatial period.
5) PALATIAL CENTRE OF KYDONIA
The Minoan palace of Kydonia, discovered by Greek, Danish and Swedish archaeologists, is located in the modern city of Chania in northwest Crete. The low Kastelli hill, rising above the natural harbour and the plain of Chania, was selected during the Prepalatial period (c. 3500-2000 BC) as the most convenient site for the establishment of the first organised Minoan settlement in the Chania area. Present-day Chania lies on the site of Minoan and Classical Kydonia, while the excavation data support the view that the latter was the most important city of west Crete, in both the prehistoric and the historic period.
The Neopalatial (c. 1700-1450 BC) and the Mycenaean (1450-1200 BC) settlement of Chania forms one of the palatial centres of Minoan Crete, on the basis of the large number of tablets inscribed in Linear A and B, and of seals which have come to light, revealing a centralised authority and bureaucratic organisation. The very important buildings of the period indicate the existence of a meticulous urban plan, which includes at least one particularly notable sanctuary.
The location of Chania as the closest major Cretan settlement to the centres of the Peloponnese and mainland Greece, played a determinative part in this. The contacts of the city were not limited to the rest of Crete, mainland Greece and the Cyclades, but extended as far as Cyprus, Canaan, Syria, Egypt, Italy and Sardinia.
A particularly revealing fact as regards the history of Kydonia was the discovery of tablets in Linear B script, one of which refers to a sanctuary of Zeus at which Zeus and Dionysus were worshipped.
The Minoan palatial centres are the main witnesses to the Minoan civilisation, that of a great Bronze Age maritime power which exercised an enormous influence on cultures - both contemporary and later - of the East Mediterranean.
They highlight an early form of complex urban society, with marvellous buildings, a groundbreaking water and drainage system, masterpieces of art and early writing systems (“Cretan Hieroglyphic” and Linear A, which have not yet been deciphered).
Through the Minoan palaces arose the first organised form of exercising foreign policy through diplomacy in the Aegean, leading to the development of relationships with other civilisations of the East Mediterranean, such as those of Egypt and Syro-Palestine, a fact proven beyond doubt by the archaeological finds.
The myths connected to the Minoan palaces (the Minotaur and the Labyrinth, Daedalus and Icarus, Theseus and Ariadne, etc.) exercised a great influence on mythology and the arts throughout the ancient world and remain a source of inspiration for world art, music and literature today.
Criterion (ii): The Minoan palaces bear witness to a very early form of complex urban society and application of complex economic systems, which arose in Crete during the Middle and Late Bronze Age. They constitute an important archaeological testimony to the organisation of towns and cities, and to the development of the monumental architecture, technology and high level of art attained by the Minoan civilisation.
Criterion (iii): The Minoan palaces are the most characteristic and impressive testimonies of the Minoan civilisation that flourished during the Bronze Age (1900-1400 BC). Complex monuments, constructed to serve the various needs and functions of the Minoan cities, they constitute the most important archaeological evidence for the understanding of the Minoan civilisation, its social organisation and its high level of intellectual and artistic development (frescoes, vase-painting, etc.). This complex socio-economic system led to the creation of two protohistoric writing systems, “Cretan Hieroglyphic” script and Linear A, which played an important part in the context of the Aegean civilisations, in both the Middle and the Late Bronze Age. It was from Linear A that Linear B was born in the Aegean world.
Criterion (vi): The myths connected to the Minoan palaces (the Minotaur and the Labyrinth, Daedalus and Icarus, Theseus and Ariadne, etc.) exercised a great influence on mythology and the arts throughout the ancient world and remain a source of inspiration for world art, music and literature today.
The degree of authenticity and integrity of the palatial centres permits the reconstruction of their form and function, elements attesting their Outstanding Universal Value. Public and private buildings decorated with frescoes of exquisite artistry and craftsmanship, structured squares and streets permit the reconstruction of the urban planning, the dimensions, the morphological characteristics and the function of the structures of the palatial centres. The wealth, variety and state of preservation of all kinds of find are truly exceptional.
These monuments are subject to a special protection framework (designations and protection zones), while they are also under the constant care and observation of the relevant Services of the General Directorate of Culture, in order to avert any risks.
Although the early reconstruction work on the palace of Knossos, long before the Second World War, is responsible for the addition of modern materials and insufficiently documented modifications, it does largely approach the original form of the palatial monument at the peak of its development. However, the problematic points of the old reconstructions have been identified and recorded, and the issue of dealing with the older mistaken restorations is handled by a special Committee for the “Conservation, Consolidation and Promotion of the Palace and Archaeological Site of Knossos”. Conservation and promotion work is being carried out on the peripheral monuments of Knossos (Royal Villa, House of the High Priest, Royal Tomb), with funding from a National Strategic Reference Framework programme, and a study on the unification of the peripheral monuments with the core of the palace is in preparation.
At the palaces of Phaistos and Zakros extensive consolidation work is being carried out, with funding from national funds and European Programmes.
Of the monuments on the World Heritage List, there are similarities with the palatial centres of Mycenae and Tiryns, the imposing remains of the Mycenaean civilisation in Greece, which have been greatly influenced by the Minoan civilisation. Minoan and Mycenaean centres dominated the East Mediterranean during the Bronze Age. However, the Minoan palaces are a uniquely significant testimony of the Minoan civilisation, which predates the Mycenaean one and is not represented on the World Heritage List.