Stepping on History: Crete’s Knossos Palace

Humans are fascinated by cataclysmic events. The lost city of Atlantis was once an oasis for humanity, an idyllic Shangri La. But of course it was destroyed…somehow. There’s a theory suggesting the Greek islands of Crete and Santorini were once a single island, and home to Atlantis. Allegedly a massive volcanic eruption split Crete and Santorini in two, and sunk Atlantis in the process. There is some geologic evidence of this, but it’s not a foolproof theory. What is foolproof is a visit to the Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete is a must if you’re in the region.

The Palace of Knossos was one of four original palaces built 4,000 years ago as cultural and spiritual hubs across the island. I arrived with the throngs of people to view this amazing complex during the stillness of a hot July day as the sounds of cicadas and peacocks offered a counterpoint to the various languages from visitors all over the world. Approaching the Palace it initially looks unimpressive; just a bunch of large flat stones atop a small mountain. But as you make your way across said flat stones you begin to realize the depth of this multi faceted building, literally. This was a four-story behemoth.

At 22,000 square meters (75,000 square feet) Knossos was built with the sense of proper architecture, order, and a desire to live life in connection with ones surroundings. The King and Queen of Minos ruled here as part of the Minoan Empire and their respective living areas were built to allow air to flow through upper clerestory openings, taking advantage of the mild evenings keeping the ruling couple cool during the hot days. Okay, so they are the rulers and sure, they’re supposed to have the finer things. But hold on. The Minoans on Crete, all of them, had sewage systems, running water, toilets, even central heating over 1,000 years before the Greeks. A nearby stream once flowed, which provided water for the Palace and also took their effluent away.

This staircase is 4,000 years old and you can walk on it
What is mind boggling, and one of a handful of utterly unique experiences in life, is walking stone staircases created four thousand years ago, seeing the clay plumbing pipes, vessels and vases that have withstood the test of time, some partially reconstructed, some still in their original form. Portions of the Palace have been rebuilt, anything over three feet tall won’t be original, and there was a lot of anger in the 1920s when the Palace was partial reconstructed. It disrupted the natural order of things, and by a British archeologist no less, they said. It violates the organic nature of the historical context, and yes that’s partly true. But the small reconstruction also helps us comprehend what the Palace might have looked like and how it functioned. Originally unearthed in the 1880s, the Palace’s most thorough excavation was done by Sir Arthur Evans, who spent 30 years on Crete uncovering the Palace in all its glory; he unearthed 1,500 rooms in total.

As was true then and is true today we seek to beautify and embellish our world and the Palace has visible storage areas, pedestrian thoroughfares, and living quarters with colorful and decorative motifs. Of particular note to me were the winemaking capabilities the Cretans had, the bathtubs and all the needs for a working society. There is an amphitheatre, which many believe is the oldest in Europe. These are ultimately not the remnants of a forgotten society, but a stepping-stone to our current world since all that has come before us impacts on our lives today, even if we don’t readily comprehend it. And that’s the lesson of visiting Knossos; you innately understand that, though 4,000 years have passed, the needs of a society to be remembered, to build not just an architectural marvels, but to construct a society which includes the arts, spiritual and cultural enterprises, is no different than today.

The King's throne room
The Queens room
You can tour the Palace on your own, spending as much time as you wish and signs are in Greek and English. You can hire a private guide who will give you a two-hour history intensive tour, as I did. One is not necessarily better than the other; however a guide will give you insight you won’t have, and answer your questions. If you forgo a guide make certain you do some research in advance to understand the how and the why of the place you are in. The Palace is a modern day museum – a place to ponder how much has changed in the last four millennia, and yet how similar life’s fundamentals are. It was thrilling to be here, to walk across streets that have been traversed for thousands of years by probably thousands of people, and to be part of a continuum of history.

Getting to the Palace
From Heraklion, Crete’s capital, it’s 30-minutes by car. There’s a Knossos Palace city bus, and tour buses, which are full day excursions, which include the Palace as part of a longer itinerary. Admission is €6. 

Arrive early to beat the heat and the crowds, and bring water with you, as there is minimal shade. If you hire a private guide the cost is about €150 and it’s best to hire them in advance via a reputable travel agency not on site. There’s a small gift shop to purchase a walking guide, there’s a café and a few other eateries across the street. The Palace opens at 8 a.m. and closes as early as 3 p.m. and as late as 5 p.m.

4,000 year old clay plumbing pipes...not bad!
READ my other post about Crete Wine: The Comeplling Wines of Crete
WATCH my video I shot in Crete: My Big Fat Crete WIne

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