As a student of European Studies, I have read my share of academic articles which begin with the founding myth of Europe and its symbolism in present day EU. According to Greek mythology Zeus fell in love with a Phoenician princess named Europa. While Europa and her maiden friends were out picking flowers by the sea, Zeus approached from the sea in the disguise of a beautiful white bull. As Europa petted the bull, it laid itself down in front of her. Though timid, she placed herself on its back, whereafter Zeus abducted her and brought her across the sea to the island of Crete. Here they made love (some argue that this happened while he was disguised as an eagle) and she ended up as the first Queen of Crete. One must conclude that the ancient Greeks had some wicked stories.
Though no one can truly explain the connection between the Queen of Crete and the landmass to the North and Northwest of Greece, the name Europa gradually came to be used of that barbarian continent which was so different from Hellas. As such, Crete is central to the idea of Europe as the place of its founding myth.
But Crete is known for another famous tale, namely that of Minos, the son of Europa and Zeus, whose wife fell in love with another beautiful bull. Apparently, they really did love their bulls in Crete. This particular bull however was the very one which Hercules had to kill as one of his 12 tasks. But before Hercules came into the picture, Minos’ wife dressed up in a Trojan structure of a cow and had the bull give her a good old rump in the hay, where after she gave birth to the mythical creature – the Minotaur. The story does not mention how Minos reacted to his wife giving birth to a half human/half bull, only that he immediately imprisoned it in a labyrinth on the grounds of his palace, Knossos. Wicked, wicked stories.
And here we are at the very reason that I am rambling on about Greek myths and beautiful bulls.
For centuries Knossos was considered a mythical place, but in 1878 a large palace structure was discovered not 5 kilometres from Heraklion where it was thought that Knossos should have been. There is however still some disagreement amongst sscholars as to whether any definite proof has been found that the ruins near Heraklion are in fact Minos’ ancient and mystical palace. What does however seem to be definite is that Knossos is considered the main tourist attraction on Crete. In all the research and reading we have done about Crete, Knossos has ranked as the number one attraction on the island.
In my view, Knossos might historically and archaeologically hold meaning for European history and culture, but Crete has other attractions which far surpass Knossos. It seems it has become one of those places that the tourist is told is a must-see, so they come, walk around and leave – crossing it off their list of wonders of old. Thus, it is not unlike Petra, Acropolis or Alhambra, but I find that it fades in comparison. Heraklion Archaeological Museum however is up amongst the best I have seen, but more about that later.
One of the rather interesting things about Knossos is that it is one of the few if not the only Ancient Greek site where archaeologists have attempted to recreate parts of it – a project which has caused large disagreement in archaeological and historical circles for the last hundred years. My boyfriend’s dry remarks somewhat hit the spot for my issue with the colourfully painted and reconstructed site, as he noticed that suddenly the history of Knossos is a history of its discovery and the ideas of Arthur Evans rather than its original function in the Minoan Era.
It seems as if Arthur Evans is the true ruler of this historic site. All information is given based on his observations, ideas and names. Thus the Throne Room is named such because he arguably found an old wooden chair during his excavation and figured it was a throne. The information at the site explains this making Evans speculations central to how the rest of us observe it, adding the story of how people of his own time disagreed with his renovation of Knossos.
As we walk through the sites, the controversy surrounding his excavations suddenly become as important to us as the ancient stories which Knossos might tell on its own. One can only wonder what Knossos would have been without Arthur Evans and whether it would have been better or worse off.
Or perhaps I should just stop contemplating all this and enjoy the atmosphere here. Maybe I should follow the lead of the group of second graders from Western Crete who are walking ahead of us. They are dancing their way through the ruins. At each stop their guide teaches them a new step in the dance. Right now they are moving around like fish with clasped hands stretched out in front of them. Watching this excited group of second graders being taught the history of their island in such an adorable way is amazing, and makes Knossos so much more than archaeological discussions on the use of paint.
Heraklion and the Archaeological Museum
After getting seriously beaten by the sun at the ancient site of Knossos and contemplating how much worse it must be for those who come in July and August, we head off towards the main city on Crete – Heraklion.
Unlike Chania, Heraklion or Iraklion as it is also spelled in Latin letters, is a vibrant cosmopolitan city. This is where the young people gather to study, to shop, to go out. While at first glance it seems rather boring for the tourist in comparison to romantic Chania, it wins you over by further acquaintance. We have found a particularly charming area which seems rather hip and full of young people sitting in groups at the cafés, enjoying the wonderful weather. Here we stop to have a well-deserved gyros after the long walk around Knossos.
And while eating our gyros, I might just tell you about the marvellous Heraklion Archaeological Museum, which we visited just after arriving from Knossos. The collection is stunning and visually pleasingly displayed, the museum is newly renovated and feels open and welcoming. In all a great experience and quite the contrary to the Maritime Museum of Crete in Chania. It seems inevitable that we get caught up in the beauty of every little piece of pottery, every sculpture spending much more time here than we planned.
After a long day in Knossos and Heraklion we made our way home by bus to Chania, ready for another adventure tomorrow.