Crete: A Walk Through History

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Crete is an Island roughly the size and shape of Long Island that lies approximately halfway between the Peloponnese and the coast of North Africa.  Steep mountains, some rising two thousand meters, make up more than half the land. They divide the Island into deep fertile valleys and create an intricate coastline of bays and coves as they plunge into the sea. Most of Crete is limestone raised far above the ancient sea beds. Alabaster quarries are still active.

Central Crete, Looking South from Gioutas

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The economy has and remains largely agricultural-the olive and the grape.  Olive groves and vineyards lie patchwork across the landscapes, punctuated by deep green cypress.  More recently, greenhouses that supply Northern Europe with tomatoes and cucumbers during the winter months have been built on the southern slopes. The population of the Island is about 600,000. The capital Herlakilion, centrally located on the North is the largest city of about 200,000.

Crete like many of the large Mediterranean Islands has a richly layered history including Neolithic peoples, Mycenaean and Doric Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Venetians, Ottomans, and modern Greeks. Unique to Create is the Minoan civilization beginning as early as 3000 BC and ending in cataclysm in about 1450 BC with echoes up to 1,000 years later.  History here is subtle.   Much lies under the earth, shaken to the ground by persistent and powerful earthquakes, some amongst the strongest know to history. Again and again what was built was shaken to the ground. It is through the tireless work of patient archeologists and historians that we know the history of this remarkable island.

Neolithic Period: 6,800-3,200 BC

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Neolithic 6,800-3,200 BC. Late Neolithic people arrived on the Island about 8,000 years ago. They brought sheep and goats and were farmers and lived in small settlements. They made advanced stone tools and were sophisticated potters.  At this time there was a well developed urban culture of Neolithic peoples in the Danube Valley and presumably throughout the eastern Mediterranean. I saw no megaliths on Crete similar to those of Malta. Either they were not here or have disappeared. There is a strong tie to Cycladic art.
                         
The Prepalatial period: 3,200-2000 BC

The Minoan civilization is unique to Crete. An influx of new peoples merged with the existing Neolithic peoples to lay the foundations of what would become the Minoan civilization. These people were seafarers, traders and crafts people.  They worked with silver and bronze. Luxury goods both made on the Island and imported are found in their tombs. The rise of the Prepalatial period in Crete occurred about the same time as the Old Kingdom of Egypt. At this time there were few peoples who seafaring traders. The Prepalatial sea traders may have preceded the Phoenicians by several hundred years. Artifacts from this period are mostly those excavated from tombs.
 
Old Palace Period: 2000-1700 BC

The first great Minoan palaces were built between 2000 and 1700 BC. These include palaces at Knossos, Phaistos, Malia and others. The palaces were administrative and religious centers as well residences for local rulers. Typically the palaces were built 10-15 kilometers from the sea on hilltop promontory protected on three sides by hills. A stream ran nearby and the towns were located on the sides of the adjacent hills. Each palace drew support from the fertile agricultural lands nearby. Each was served by a port. Where possible, goods were shipped overland to Southern ports for export to Egypt to save days of perilous sea voyage around the island.

The palaces served as collection and transshipment points for import and export. Prominent features of both the early and later palaces are large basement storage facilities for olive oil, wine and other agricultural products. The clay jars were enormous and highly decorated with multiple handles for easy movement. These rested above a hollow space with a drain to collect and spillage.  It is believed that local farmers paid tribute to the rulers in the palace in the form of agricultural goods that were then traded these products with Egypt  and other peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean for precious objects,  tin and copper ingots,  as well as gold and ivory. Jewelry design and manufacture was a well developed craft at this time.
The palaces were oriented towards sacred sites, usually large caves in the surrounding mountains. Legend holds that Zeus and possibly his father Chronos were born on Crete. There are two large caves, both known as the birthplace of Zeus.

The view from the Psychro Cave of Dictation Mountain overlooking a fertile mountain valley.
 
The palaces are ceremonial centers as well. Well developed roads and stairways lead to ceremonial plazas.  New period palaces lie below the later structures which were built above them. The basement structures are well preserved. It is believed they were destroyed simultaneously across Crete in 1700 BC by a great earthquake and fire.

New palaces and cities were quickly built after the near universal destruction of 1700BC. The new palaces were built directly atop the old. The ceremonial style architecture was preserved and enhance. Outstanding murals depicting the bull dance ceremonies and processions survive. Stairways lead to large public plazas. Extensive storerooms comprise the rear of the palace. What are called kings and queens apartments abut one another. They each have a small private chamber behind the living quarters, and outside columned portico and an exterior plaza. These were excavated at the turn of the 19th century by British, French, Italian and American archeologists. The great excavations at Knossos were carried out between 1904 and 1936 by the British Archeologist Sir Arthur Evans.

The ceremonial Frescoes of Knossos are amongst the most famous images of the ancient world. Of these none are more celebrated than the famous scenes of young men and women dancing with the bulls. Other frescoes of ceremonial processions, beautiful young men and women and playful scenes of dolphins are also celebrated. These were found in fragments and painstakingly restored. Careful inspection of the images below will reveal what is original and what is restored.
 

The Phaistos Disc:

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The Minoans developed writing. The script is called linear A. There are few extant examples. Most of the writing was done on unbaked clay tablets, now destroyed. There is too little of the text to decipher at present. One exception is the Phaistos disc. It was impressed with what are believed to be prefabricated letter stamps (heirographic) and then baked. If so this is an example of an early type face printing technique.
 
The cemetery at Aydia Triada:

A beautiful cemetery lies above Knossos high on a hill overlooking the ancient city, the town. Far in the distance is the sea. Today it remains a place of rest. The cemetery was used for many centuries, first by the Minoans  and later by the Mycenean and Doric Greeks. Many of the graves are remain intact and are yet to be excavated.  One of the most remarkable finds is a sarcophagus from the period. It clearly depicts ceremonial scenes including the ritual sacrifice of a bound bull. It dates to the post palatial period, around 1300 BC.
 
The Post Palatial period: 1350-1100 BC

A catastrophe hit the island of Crete about 1450 BC from which the Minoan civilization never recovered. Simultaneously, palaces from one end of the Island to the other were razed and burned. The most likely explanation is the explosion of the nearby Island of Santorini followed by a massive earthquakes and tidal waves. Invasion by the archaic Greeks, the Mycenaeans seems to have occurred about the same time.  There is some evidence of looting on the Eastern end of the Island at Zakros. The Mycenaeans brought with them their warrior ways, bronze and iron weapons, and boar toothed helmets. The traditional palace sites were stripped and abandoned. Fortified cities were built high on the peaks of mountains, in the acropolis style, surrounded by massive stone walls. The linear B of the Mycenaeans appears about this time.
   
Geometric-Archaic Times 1000-480 BC

The Geometric Archaic period marked the assimilation of Crete into greater Greece. The mainland Greeks increasingly brought their culture and their religion.
The next 2500 years on the Island was exciting. Stayed tuned.
 
Geometric-Archaic Times 1000-480 BC

The Geometric Archaic period marked the assimilation of Crete into greater Greece. The mainland Greeks increasingly brought their culture and their religion. Despite this influence, very little of this period remains to be seen. I saw no classical Greek temples with fluted columns. There are some sites that were Greek , and later occupied by the Romans followed by the Byzantines. What we associate with high Greek culture, of Athens and Hellenistic Greece is largely absent.
 


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William Haseltine is a former professor at Harvard Medical School, where he researched cancer and HIV/AIDS. He is the founder of Human Genome Sciences, where he served as chairman and CEO, and the president of the William A Haseltine Foundation for Medical Sciences and the Arts. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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