Minoan Crete

Introduction to Minoan Crete Part 6


Last week, we toured part of the palace of Knossos and I mentioned the significance of pillars to ancient Minoans. This week, I'll continue the tour of this magnificent palace.


The palace of Knossos must have been an imposing sight to any visitor. As discussed in the last article, pillars were a mainstay of the belief of Minoans and there was no lack of them in the palace. A great pillar stood at the western entrance which consequently led up to a huge reception hall. It's not possible to say with any certainty what was on this floor but Sir Arthur Evans compared it to the principle floor of Italian medieval palaces.

This "piano nobile" was never on the ground floor but on an upper floor. To the right in the palace of Knossos, would have been the throne room (with both a religious and civil purpose) and to the left would have been rooms reserved for religious ceremonies. This room lay behind a pillared shrine. However, the private quarters of the royal family hold the greatest interest.

A common feature of the palaces of the time was to keep the privacy of the noble occupants by cutting away part of a hillside against which the palace stood and to form an artificial terrace about twenty-five feet below the central courtyard. The architects then built up towards the courtyard itself. In building the palace this way, it maximized exposure to the morning sun and to favorable winds while protecting that side from less hospitable winds and also kept the noise down from the northern entrance where public business was conducted.

What primary features can archeologists be certain of in the palace's private quarters? A grand stairway led away from the public area and into the privacy of the family quarters. This staircase is by no means as wide as the one visitors find in Versailles but for Minoan Crete architects, it was a major accomplishment.

The staircase allows for several people to move horizontally behind the king. When the king and his retinue traveled downwards, they could travel to the Lower Hall or the Upper Hall of the Colonnades. Both rooms had pillars running through the floor and were lit by a light shaft. The light was effective but mild and the same principle is used today in modern office buildings.

An interesting part of Knossos was the drainage (few visitors can pass through the palace and fail to ask the question about how the palace was rid of its waste). The underground drains were so wide that, according to Sir Arthur Evans, Minoan workmen could spend days within the drain pipes without suffering any inconvenience.

The ancient toilet had a seat about 22.4 inches wide and to the right, a vessel of some sort was probably used to flush the basin, leading to a duct which in turn led to the main drain. The terra-cotta pipes were slightly tapered and easily fit together allowing the water to flow with a rush to prevent sediment from being accumulated.

The queen's bathroom was about twelve feet by seven feet, with a pillar, wooden beam and gypsum floor. (Gypsum, a crystalline and white stone, was used extensively in Knossos.) A disadvantage to the bathroom was that it must have been a dark place and lit only partially by some light from the queen's megaron.

Another disadvantage was that the bath itself must have been quite small, measuring 39 1/3 inches long. The queen must have had her baths sitting up and cramped in the bathtub while her attendants poured water over her. It couldn't have been a very comfortable way of bathing.

The palace of Knossos can in no way be compared to the palaces of Mallia and Phaistos, which must stand alone on their own merits. Mallia was excavated by the French about the time Evans began excavating Knossos and Phaistos wasn't excavated until recently by the Italians.