The two oldest cities included here, Knossos in Crete and Mycenae, flourished in the 2nd millennium BC. We tend to associate them with ancient Greece, largely because they are both situated in the Greece that we know today; in fact, however, they were two quite different cultures, and far earlier. By the time the pyramids were being built in Egypt, the people of Crete were already trading, and by 2000 BC the island seems to have been the crossroads of the Mediterranean. In the mid-2nd millennium BC, the Minoan civilization was succeeded by that of Mycenae, whose King Agamemnon fought in the Trojan War, or so Homer informs us; and that was still seven centuries before the days of Periklean Athens.

Of the seven cities remaining, three are Greek. Two of these, admittedly, are on Italian soil, but the Greeks had colonized the Mediterranean as far west as Sicily. They were never an empire, in the sense that Rome was to be; Magna Graecia, as it was known, consisted simply of a number of small city-states. Paestum and Akragas certainly felt themselves every bit as Greek as Athens, because being Greek was a concept rather than a nationality. There was no precise definition. If you felt Greek and spoke the Greek language, then Greek is what you were.

Rome was very different. St Paul could – and did – boast that he was a Roman citizen, and indeed the Roman Republic and Empire represented the most formidable political organization the world had ever seen. Our last four European sites are consequently Roman. Three of the four remain thriving cities today; the exception is of course Pompeii, which would probably also have survived to the present day had it not been for the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79.

Our last city is Trier. According to an inscription in the Market Place, it existed thirteen hundred years before Rome. In fact it is a Roman foundation that dates from only the 1st century BC; but that alone is enough to qualify it as the oldest city in Germany, as well as being the oldest seat of a Christian bishop north of the Alps. Relatively few tourists visit it; as for those who do not, it can be said only that they have little idea of what they are missing.

A fragment of a fresco depicting a dancer from the palace of Knossos, Crete. The palace, with its surrounding settlement, flourished in the 2nd millennium BC and was at the centre of an international network of trade and exchange.

© DEA/G. Nimatallah/


Palatial Centre of Minoan Crete


There is a land called Crete, in the midst of the wine-dark sea, a fair, rich land, begirt with water, and therein are many men, past counting, and ninety cities.… Among their cities is the great city Knossos, where Minos reigned …


Knossos may have been a flourishing Roman colony by the late 1st century BC and even a tourist attraction by the 4th century AD, but it was in the 2nd millennium BC that the city achieved its greatest glory and pre-eminence. A vibrant ceremonial, religious and economic centre, with an impressive ‘palace’ at the core of an extensive settlement, Knossos enjoyed far-reaching international connections. Even then it was an ancient city, with origins going back to the Neolithic period, when the first permanent settlers arrived on Crete between 7000 and 6000 BC. Probably because of this great antiquity, Knossos was always held in special regard, and remained the most important and largest city on the island until around 1300 BC, when the palace was destroyed by fire.

We owe much of our knowledge of this great Bronze Age city to Sir Arthur Evans, who spent 40 years excavating and publishing his finds in the early 20th century. He also restored, or as he called it ‘reconstituted’, many of the structures he uncovered, to produce the Knossos visitors experience today; while his reconstructions were firmly based on his excavations and observations, they are not without their critics. It was also Evans who gave the name Minoans to the early Cretans, after the mythical King Minos of Knossos who ordered Daedalus to build a labyrinth for the Minotaur – the half-man, half-bull offspring of the king’s wife, Pasiphae.

The North Entrance of the palace of Knossos with a copy of the reconstructed relief wall-painting of a raging bull and olive tree. This was the main entrance to the palace for people coming from both the Minoan harbour town of Poros (just west of modern Heraklion) and the main town of Knossos by way of the Royal Road. To the left is the reconstructed Throne Room complex.

Photo Colin F. Macdonald.

The heyday of the real rather than the mythical Knossos began with the construction of the first palace at the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC on the Kephala Hill, in a river valley some 5 km (3 miles) from the north coast of Crete. There had probably long been an open space for communal gatherings in the midst of the settlement on this hill, but the palace that was now built around it, on level ground on the west and terraced into the slopes elsewhere, made it the central court of a new kind of monumental building in the Aegean region that may have owed something to contemporary Near Eastern palatial complexes. On the west side of this court were at least 18 storage magazines with massive gypsum door jambs inscribed with mason’s marks in three main groups – ‘double axes’, one of the recurring motifs at Knossos, ‘stars’ and ‘gates’. The rooms were ranged along a long corridor, across from three sets of ground-floor rooms with corresponding groups of mason’s marks: the Central Palace Sanctuary, where the faience snake goddess and her votaries were found; the complex that included the Throne Room, the oldest known in Europe, with an early sunken lustral basin; and another room, less well defined, between. In addition there was already a second, smaller, court to the west and a residential or domestic quarter.

The heavily reconstructed Throne Room – the floor slabs, gypsum benches and the throne itself are original. The wall-paintings originally showed palm trees with the wingless griffins. Several flat stone vessels, alabastra, which may have contained perfumed oils, were found as left on the floor near the throne when the palace was destroyed in the 14th or earlier 13th century BC.

Photo Colin F. Macdonald.

While the complex structure we see today went through numerous stages of development, it is fairly certain that these features belonged to the original plan, and this fundamental layout was retained throughout its existence. The most monumental phase at Knossos belonged to the late 18th to early 15th centuries BC – the Second or New Palace period – when the finest ashlar or dressed masonry was introduced for exterior walls. Interior rubble walls were veneered in alabaster-like gypsum or decorated with wall-paintings on plaster. The lively paintings of scenes from nature, ceremonies and processions, along with other objects made by skilled Minoan artists, including stone vases and engraved sealstones, metal vessels and decorated pottery, give us insights into Minoan aesthetics as well as the symbolic and ritual aspects of this building that was at once an economic power-house and a centre of cult and ceremony. Among all the subjects depicted in the paintings, however, noticeably absent are rulers or identifiable, ‘historical’ people, in direct contrast to pharaonic Egypt.

The palace always stood at the heart of a dense urban settlement, which is now being explored by survey – estimates of the population range from 14,000 to 18,000, making it the equal of other major centres in the eastern Mediterranean. There were three main directions from which to approach the palace. From the west, where the town lay with its modest and mansion-like houses, the visitor arrived by the Royal Road. An ancient paved way, this was flanked by various structures, including houses and a grandstand to watch processions to a stepped theatral area. Another approach was from the south, past the aptly named Caravanserai, with its delightful frescoes of partridges and migrating hoopoe, arriving at the southwest corner of the palace, whose façade must have shone dazzlingly white as the sun reflected from the gypsum slabs. From the north and the large harbour town of Poros, the river Kairatos would have been the most important artery of communication. From this valley visitors would have ascended the great terraces of the east slope by steps that led eventually to the North Entrance, with its bastions of ashlar masonry carved with trident signs and perhaps surmounted by a relief wall-painting of a raging bull, a symbol, along with the double axe and trident, of both Knossian and Minoan power. Another distinctive symbol found in art and also adorning buildings is the so-called ‘horns of consecration’, the precise meaning of which is uncertain, though it may perhaps be derived from the Egyptian hieroglyph for horizon.

The North Entrance led into the great Central Court, with the sanctuary and the Throne Room complex on its west side. Major events and ceremonies under full palatial control took place here. Whether this was also the arena where youths somersaulted over bulls, famously depicted in a series of wall-painting panels and sculpture, we cannot now say, except to note that the stone paved court would have made a very hard landing for the acrobats. The foodstuffs stored in great pottery jars in the series of magazines on the west side of the court would have fed the assembled company on feast days. The court was probably surrounded by shady stoas supported by columns and pillars. Arthur Evans convincingly reconstructed an upper storey of more spacious apartments and halls above the small ground floor rooms. A great hall overlooked the more public West Court, an open paved area where more communal occasions, such as harvest festivals, could be celebrated.

Copy of a reconstructed fresco now on the north wall of the Queen’s Hall or Megaron, though found to the east. It has been proposed that this was in fact a floor fresco, with dolphins and fish of various kinds, all within a border of red porphyry, originally situated on an upper floor of the Residential Quarter.

Photo © Tom Dempsey/

On the east side of the Central Court was the Grand Staircase that gave access to three storeys conventionally called the residential quarter. It was here that Evans did some of his finest conservation work. One can still escape from the glare of the sun-baked Central Court down the broad and shallow gypsum steps on one side of the light-well of the Hall of Colonnades, with its wall-paintings of figure-of-eight shields, reconstructed (though perhaps here mistakenly) on one landing.

Evans’s greatest structural achievement was to resurrect the Grand Staircase so that the shallow steps lead upwards once more for two storeys to the level of the Central Court. Sockets in the gypsum balustrade allowed Evans’s first architect, Theodore Fyfe, to estimate the heights of the red-brown painted wooden columns.

© Leonid Serebrennikov/

Evans’s restored interior of the Hall of the Double Axes (published in 1930) showing a ‘Minoan Lord’ seated beneath a Homeric and hypothetical row of ‘figure-of-eight’ shields, as a servant tends a painted tripod hearth. A stone rhyton, double axe on a stand and painted vase have been spirited in from elsewhere to complete his vision of winter in the palace.

Ashmolean Museum/The Art Archive.

The arrangement of the rooms on the ground-floor here appears to reflect a ceremonial function. Access for some was directly into the main hall, while the object of the ceremony – a priestess or priest, a young person about to experience a rite of passage – would have passed through specialized preparation rooms. One was equipped with a water closet, the waste from which was removed by the sophisticated drainage system that ran under all the floors of the quarter, a remarkable construction that goes back to the early years of the palace. Other small rooms, not unreasonably assigned to the ‘Queen’ and the women of the palace by Evans, may also have been preparatory stages before a final entrance into the grand Hall of the Double Axes, the most spacious reception hall in Crete containing the finest examples of Minoan architectural embellishment of the New Palace period, consisting of gypsum dado and floor slabs and a frieze of painted spirals.

Significant changes, for which the gigantic eruption of Santorini (Thera) may have been an important catalyst, took place at Knossos from about 1450 BC, including the adoption of a new language for records written on clay tablets – Greek written in the Linear B script replacing the earlier, undeciphered, Linear A. Also evident are new cemeteries, tomb types and burial customs comparable with those found at Mycenae on mainland Greece. Knossos, under Mycenaean influence, like Chania in the west, flourished economically and to a certain extent artistically until sometime around 1300 BC when the palace was finally engulfed in flames, preserving much archaeological information that has allowed us to begin disentangling the real palace of Minos from its myth.

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