Minoan marvel

Print edition : March 26, 2010

At Santorini, whitewashed houses perched on a vertical cliff layered with multicoloured lava rocks.-

THE Greek island of Santorini in the Aegean Sea, known by its ancient name Thira, is believed to be the volcanic island whose fury destroyed the ancient Minoan civilisation. A recent theory points to the possibility that the same volcanic eruption may also have contributed to the destruction and disappearance of the legendary Atlantis, a mysterious lost continent hitherto thought to be a fictional location conjured up by the Greek philosopher Plato. Theories emerging in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami venture the hypothesis that Atlantis did exist and was perhaps destroyed by tsunamis generated by the Thiran eruption.

However, what drew this writer to Santorini, a 12-hour ferry ride from Pireaus, the port in Athens, was a stunning picture on the National Geographic channel, of a golden sun sinking into a topaz blue caldera against the backdrop of whitewashed houses perched on a vertical cliff layered with multicoloured lava rocks. Caldera is a cauldron of boiling water formed by volcanic eruption. It is caused by the subsidence of the volcanic mass into the sea. Considering that the eruption occurred more than three millennia ago, the sea has had enough time to cool down to a tranquil, azure expanse. Santorini, with its blue-domed churches that mirror the colour of the surrounding sea, is truly gorgeous, even by the exalted standards of glamour associated with Greek islands.

At the palace at Knossos, which is built over a labyrinth, one is greeted by a majestic bull horn, the insignia of the Minoans, in concrete. The site is a complex of courtrooms, grand staircases, residences, workshops and so on.-

But what makes the island fascinating is that it harbours the volcano whose eruption in the 15th century B.C. could well have been the most destructive in human history, spelling the end of the sophisticated Minoan civilisation which flourished in these parts during that period. In 2006, National Geographic published an article that quoted Heraldur Sigurdsson, a leading volcanologist from the University of Rhode Island in Kingston, as saying that the Santorini eruption could have unleashed tsunamis that might have swallowed even Atlantis, located to the west of the Pillars of Hercules.

At the south entrance of the Knossos palace, a reconstructed relief wall painting of a figure with lilies, believed to be a Minoan prince. He wears peacock feathers and a garland of lilies and is seen leading an unseen animal in a procession.-

But that is still in the realm of conjecture. Scientists working on Santorinis volcano have come upon evidence that the Thira explosion might have been the worst ever in human history, even bigger in scale than the 1883 Krakatoa (Indonesia) explosion, which still sends plumes of thick black smoke into the sky. They believe that the pyroclastic flow from Thira might have been six times larger than that of Krakatoas, and the tsunamis unleashed by it would have been even more devastating in scale. Samples of wood, bone and seed collected from various locations in the Aegean, including Santorini, Crete, Rhodes and Turkey, analysed at three separate laboratories in Oxford, Vienna and Heidelberg, indicate a broad dating for the Santorini event as between 1660 and 1613 B.C.

Minoan women, as depicted in one of their frescoes here, could have come from any modern city today. They appear so stylish and elegant. With the exception of classical Greeks, Minoan art is unparalleled in grace and beauty. Its distinguishing features are delicacy, spontaneity and naturalism.-

Santorini is a quaint town with its own distinct identity, and Mea Kameni, the volcano in question, got separated from it after its eruption. It now lies deflated and defeated in the middle of the caldera, a short boat ride away from Fira, Santorinis capital. A trek through a winding path down Santorinis precipitous cliff and a boat ride through the caldera take one to the charred and still uninhabited island. It is difficult to believe that this mass of black rocks and pumice once spewed so much lava and debris squirting 35 kilometres into the sky, blackening it for weeks and destroying every living thing for hundreds of miles around. It is said the blast was heard thousands of miles away in far-off islands in the Aegean.

Sea daffodils Fresco at Akrotiri, a thriving port town in southern Santorini at the time of itsdestruction.-

Pumice and ash are still scattered all over Mea Kameni and there are some caverns emitting sulphurous smoke. There are quite a few telltale signs that the volcano is still alive. The black earth harbours secrets that have been ferreted out only partially. Mea Kameni exploded last in 1958 and cut off parts of the island, which can now be reached only by boat. While the volcano itself is uninhabited, the 258 inhabitants of the wedge that broke off have chosen to remain on their isolated sliver. A boat sails to it once a week, mercifully sparing the inhabitants the ubiquitous tourist traffic. However, I spy a few cars there glinting in the sun and wonder why they need them at all on this tiny slice of land floating in the caldera. Had Charles Lamb lived today, he would have altered his verse to read, The automobile has entered our soul!

Octopus Fresco at the Knossos palace.-

Santorini, the southernmost island in the Cyclades, an island group in the Aegean Sea, is tiny but boasts three museums, including one dedicated to wines. Apart from Minoan artefacts, they contain dazzling Minoan murals preserved by pumice and volcanic ash. These were excavated from Akrotiri, the ancient Minoan site in southern Santorini. At the time of its destruction, Akrotiri was a thriving port town in touch with the major trading centres of the Aegean and the Near East. In fact, both Akrotiri and the larger Minoan settlements in nearby Crete were equidistant from Africa, Anatolia and Greece and benefited immensely from trade with all three regions.

The spring Fresco, depicting the landscape of Thira with volcanic rocks, red lilies and swallows in flight, at Akrotiri.-

The artefacts unearthed at Akrotiri have given the site the sobriquet Pompeii of the Aegean. Professor Spryndon Marinatos, who led the excavation of the site from 1939 until 1974, surmised that the Minoans in Santorini came from Crete between 2000 and 1700 B.C. Frescoes and pottery recovered from the site speak of a very refined people with an evolved lifestyle. Of special importance is the graceful gazelle fresco housed in the museum. The people of Akrotiri built artistic urban centres and had paved roads, buildings and sewers at a time when Europeans lived in primitive huts as hunter-gatherers. There is ample evidence to show that a very aesthetic people flourished in the Aegean a thousand years before the classic Golden Age of the Greeks.

Pottery was a major Minoan industry. Exquisite specimens of pottery, can be seen at the site at Knossos and in the museums. Huge terracotta jars and vases carved with designs have survived intact for 3,600 years.-

One hundred and ten kilometres from Santorini lies Crete. A powered catamaran takes one to Heraklion in northern Crete, site of the largest Minoan palace excavated so far. The Minoan site in Knossos in Crete is the product of the singular efforts of a British archaeologist, Arthur Evans. In 1894, he decided to follow a lead by an earlier explorer who had uncovered parts of a palace in todays Heraklion and began systematic excavation of the site, which turned out to be a splendid Minoan palace. He published his findings in four volumes entitled The Palace of Minos at Knossos. But in his eagerness, Evans reconstructed damaged parts of the palace in his own conception of what the original palace might have been. He discovered many frescoes, mostly intact, and these were moved to the museum in Heraklion, while copies supplanted them in the original location. His method of reconstruction elicited considerable criticism and perhaps compromised the authenticity of the artefacts to some extent. Yet, they do give us a glimpse of an ancient and glorious civilisation that might otherwise have been lost to posterity forever.

At Knossos, built over a labyrinth, one is greeted by a majestic bull horn in concrete, the unmistakable insignia of the Minoans. But on closer inspection I realise it is a recent reconstruction on an earlier site. The site is a sprawling complex of courtrooms, grand staircases, kitchens, workshops, residences and bathrooms. At the core of this complex is the throne room which originally had a wooden throne. Now a stone throne mimics the original. Fragments of original frescoes depicting plants and griffins, mythical beasts with a lions body and a birds head, were found in this room. Stone vases for ritual use, possibly containing olive oil, were found. At the south entrance is a reconstructed relief wall painting of a figure with lilies, believed to be a Minoan prince. He wears peacock feathers and a garland of lilies and is seen leading an unseen animal in a procession. A fresco, now in fragments, depicting dancing ladies and dolphins is believed to have embellished the queens chamber. The women depicted in this fresco look so contemporary that a French visitor viewing them is said to have exclaimed, Cest une parisienne!

The Minoans were a seafaring civilisation, perhaps the earliest civilisation that was organised not militarily but on the basis of economic activity. They had virtually no army, no fortifications, no garrisons, no armada, nothing that would define and signify any major power as much then as it is today. Mercantile commerce was what defined the Minoans. Since land was limited, prosperity was sustained mainly through seafaring trade with Greece, Egypt and Anatolia, among other places. Knossos was administered by a complex system of palace bureaucracy that controlled the distribution of goods through multiple seals on clay. Records of clay tablets have been found, although their script, named Linear A, is yet to be deciphered.

The artefacts unearthed so far do give us precious insights into the Minoan world. Trade was facilitated through a system of measurements using numerical subdivisions and weights. Olive oil and wine were major items of export, which in turn spawned a major industry in pottery. In fact, some exquisite specimens of pottery can be seen both on the site as well as in the museums. The Minoans also exported gems, seals, knives and daggers and other articles of skilled craftsmanship. Knossos was built out of the profits of trade in wines and olive oil and there is ample proof for it in four-foot-high terracotta jars and vases that seem to have survived miraculously intact for 3,600 years. They are carved with rich and elegant designs and at one time held as much as 19,000 gallons.

There is a mistaken belief that the Minoans worshipped Minotaur, a creature with the head of a bull and the body of a man. The Minoans are named after a legendary Cretan ruler, Minos, and these were people who migrated to Crete from Asia Minor around 3000 B.C. Legend has it that King Minos displeased sea god Poseidon and was cursed with a Minotaur-like creature (half bull, half human) for a son. The Minotaur is believed to have been chained in a labyrinth especially constructed by Daedalus, the architect of the Knossos palace. Minoans worshipped natural forces and venerated the female goddess, a symbol of fertility, much like their contemporaries in Asia. Another striking feature of the Minoan civilisation is that in this ancient period, women enjoyed absolute equality with men in all spheres. There were even women pugilists and bull-fighters. Priestesses administered sacred rites.

The "TAUREADOR" OR "Bull Leaping" fresco (reproduction) depicts a famous Minoan ritual sport during which the athlete does dangerous acrobatic leaps over the back of a bull. In Minoan Crete, bull-leaping was a noble sport in which the bull was not killed, unlike modern bullfighting.-

A sarcophagus and its contents excavated from Knossos throw light on their funerary customs. They might have believed in life after death, much as their contemporaries in ancient Greece and Egypt did, as is evident from the razors, mirrors, tweezers, combs and jewellery cases made of ivory unearthed from the site.

Since the Minoans settled down in a volcanic region, their palaces and cities were destroyed frequently by earthquakes and were rebuilt. The other Minoan palaces were at Phaistos and Kato Zakros on the east coast. These palaces had numerous rooms, thousands of decorative vases, swimming pools and parquet floors, luxuries few contemporary societies enjoyed. In fact, the Minoans were adept at all the principles of modern engineering and sanitation.

The throne room with its stone throne at the palace complex. It originally had a wooden throne. Fragments of frescoes depicting plants and griffins, mythical beasts with a lion's body and a bird's head, were found here.-

Much of what we know about the Minoans comes exclusively from visual and archaeological evidence unearthed at the Minoan sites. There is little doubt that their serene existence was cut short by a volcanic eruption and they disappeared from human memory until excavations at Akrotiri and Knossos revealed their resplendent lifestyle.

The most exceptional feature of the Minoans was their exquisite art. With the exception of classical Greeks, Minoan art is unparalleled in grace and beauty. Its distinguishing features are delicacy, spontaneity and naturalism. Much of what we glean about the Minoan way of life comes primarily from the paintings and frescoes. They depict the joyous life of a society in harmony with its environment. The human figures depict aesthetic proportions, characterised by the small waist, the fluidity of line, and the vitality of character. For instance, the Taureador or Bull Leaping fresco depicts a famous Minoan ritual sport during which the athlete did dangerous acrobatic leaps over the back of a bull. In Minoan Crete, bull-leaping was a noble sport in which the bull was not killed, unlike modern bullfighting. The original of this fresco is in Heraklion Archaeological Museum, while a copy has been placed at the Knossos site. Similarly, their women, as depicted in one of their frescoes, could have come from any modern city today. They appear so stylish and elegant.

If one were to discount cellular phones, computers, cars and other modern means of transportation, the Minoan way of life was not very different from our own present ways. The Minoans wore stylish clothes, travelled on horseback, celebrated festivals, watched bullfights, threw parties, drank wine, indulged in elaborate feasting, engaged in seaborne trade with distant lands and celebrated life much the same way as we do today.

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