Noilly Prattle: November 2017

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Europe Summer 2017: Greece 7 – the Palace at Knossos

August 26

Labyrinth of the Minotaur?


     In Greek Mythology the Palace at Knossos near Heraklion in Crete is often associated with the story of King Minos (who gave his name to the Minoan civilization) and the Labyrinth he built for the Minotaur. The Minotaur was the part man part bull offspring of the king's wife and a white bull. Minos had the Labyrinth built as a prison for the unnatural man-eating monster. The Knossos Palace had some 1300 rooms that were connected by passages and hallways that were built in varying directions that led to the disorientation and confusion experienced in a maze. It can thus be thought of as labyrinthine.



       We sailed from Santorini to Crete on a high speed ferry called SeaJets. Instead of propellers it looked to me that the SeaJet had something of a jet engine that pushed water through much the same way as a jet plane pushes air. At 40 knots per hour it took about two hours to arrive at the port of Heraklion. Our hotel, the Megaron was visible from the landing dock and an easy walk. The next day we took a local bus, conveniently located just in front of the hotel, to Knossos about five and a half kilometers away to explore the archaelogical site of the Knossos Palace.



scale model of the Knossos Palace
       We arrived by local bus at high noon with a prepaid combination ticket from the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion purchased the previous day, and so were able to avoid the long queue of people buying tickets and walked right in. There are many signs informing visitors about the various points of interest so a self-guided tour is not only possible, but more relaxed and easier to pace than having to follow the schedule of a tour guide. There are benches scattered here and there among shade trees and a breeze makes the walking comfortable enough, even in the strong sunlight of early afternoon.

first view of the palace from the West looking east

partial reconstruction with
with natural and modern materials
reconstruction with copies of frescoes
of men bearing various vessels
      The archeological site of the Minoan “Palace at Knossos” is something of an amalgam of Art and Archaeology. It is the result of 35 years of devoted excavation by Arthur Evans, a British archaeologist, and his somewhat imaginative recreation of parts of the palace in concrete. For this reason, Knossos cannot be listed in the annals of World Heritage sites. It is, nevertheless, an interesting experience for the layman visitor to the site who cannot visualize the structures that might have risen from the outlines of rock foundations without a few visual clues, a wall here, a column there, rising from those foundation.

A Lot of Bull

stones representing bull's horns
colorful reconstruction in North Gate area
with fresco of charging bulls

fresco depicting bull leaping - a popular sport at Knossos

The North Gate

characteristic reconstruction using
modern materials - with an "Art Deco" feel
as some critics have wryly noted
you must admit Evans' artistic color sense
       So, I accepted the concrete reconstructions in the spirit that I assume motivated Evans—to give the non-specialist layman an idea of how the the palace might have looked in its heyday, and to indulge his own artistic imagination. “Expert” opinions of the reconstruction work vary from “pure fantasy” to “probably a good general facsimile”. [Wikipedia] The truth or reality lies somewhere in between. The visitor is free to accept Evans' vision or create his own within the limits of his own imagination.

the North Gate area, the best known reconstructed section of the palace 
the Throne Room is visible on the upper left

The Throne Room

entrance to the King's throne room
second level of the throne room
a kind of skylight
      The site of Knossos Palace (c. 2000 to 1100 BC) that a visitor sees today represents the Late Minoan features of the palace when the site was definitively abandoned between c. 1380-1100 BC. The site was not as big or unmanageable as I had imagined. Two hours was quite adequate to cover the important parts of the site. It is well laid out with pathways for relatively easy access and comfortable walking around the site.

the throne room
Fresco Reproductions

Ladies in Blue
Prince of Lilies
Blue Monkey -- similar to
the blue monkey fresco found on Santorini



foundation outlines
upper level of "Lustral Basin" -
thought to have been
for purification purposes

lower level of the "Lustral Basin"
pithoi - large storage jars

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Europe Summer 2017: Greece 6 – the Museum of Prehistoric Thera

model of Acrotiri
Krakatoa Explosion 1883
     A must see on a visit to Santorini is the Museum of Prehistoric Thera in the city of Fira. The artifacts on display there are from archeological digs on the island, many, if not most, of them are from the dig at Acrotiri on the southern shore of Santorini. The pieces we saw dated from around 3000 BCE to the 17th Century BCE and the catastrophic eruption of the Thera volcano that destroyed Acrotiri and devastated communities on nearby islands and on the coast of Minoan Crete from tsunamis generated by the explosion. This “Minoan Eruption” (between 1642-1540 BCE ) was “one of the largest volcanic events on Earth in recorded history”. [Wikipedia] The volcano ejected up to four times as much as the well-recorded eruption of Krakatoa, Indonesia in 1883. [Wikipedia] The Krakatoa explosion, 13,000 times more powerful than the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima, destroyed 2/3 of the island and killed at least 36,000 people mostly from tsunamis caused by the explosion. [Wikipedia] Multiply Krakatoa by 4 and it gives you an idea of the magnitude of the Theran event. At any rate, the Minoan Eruption brought an end to Acrotiri and marks the upper limit of the artifacts found there.

Museum of Prehistoric Thera
      I will simply list some of my favorite pieces and a short description of them and their dates. They will show an ancient civilization quite advanced in technological and artistic achievement. 

EARLIEST C. 3300-2300 BC

Marble beaker and figurines
c. 3300/3200-2800 BC

Bronze dagger
c.2700-2400/2300 BC

Linear A script incised on tablets
c. 2500-1450 BC

Collared jar and jugs
c. 2200-2000 BC

Nippled ewers
late 18th Century BC
late 18th Century BC


Plaster cast of carved wooden table
17th Century BC

Stone, bronze, obsidian, flint tools
17th Century BC

Stone and clay lamps
17th Century BC
Bronze baking pans
17th Century BC

Bronze one-handled open vessels (frying pans?)
17th Century BC

Clay portable oven
17th Century BC
Firedogs with zoomorphic finials
17th Century BC


Nippled ewer
17th Century BC

Bronze scale pans
17th Century BC

Wall paining of a fisherman
17th Century BC

Bath tub
17th Century BC

Exquisite wall painting of monkeys (resembles an avant garde  modern art design)
17th Century BC

Gold figurine
"Excavation of the find-spot is still in progress and it is therefore to early to draw conclusions about the figurine's significance."

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Europe Summer 2017: Greece 5 – Santorini - Atlantis Revisited

August 22-24

     Travel in the Aegean is like traveling in time as much as in a place.

       We've all heard slogans such as: “We are all _______ (fill in the blank) now,” used politically to sway public opinion in favor of some intervention in foreign affairs. But, people born into the Western cultural tradition, can, in a real sense, say “We are all Greeks!” since much of our Western political, cultural and linguistic heritage comes from the Ancient Greek civilization.

       The Aegean island of Santorini (also known by its ancient name Thera) is often associated with the Legend of Atlantis. Atlantis, a fictional story by the Greek philosopher Plato, was an advanced island civilization destroyed by a cataclysmic volcanic explosion around 10,000 BC. Thera, a volcanic island, was a thriving society of the Minoan period that was subjected to a massive volcanic eruption and explosion around 1,600 BC that left the once oval shaped island with a big hole that filled with sea water forming a caldera and destroying all life on the island. As a result, the modern Santorini is blessed with spectacular cliffs plunging into the caldera that present one of the most unique topologies in the world—and one of the world's best known tourist attractions. The volcano is still active on the small island of Nea Kameni in the center of the caldera. An eruption in 1950s did a lot of damage, but the towns have been rebuilt and are thriving with visitors.

sunset behind Thirassia
view from hotel room terrace
       We arrived in Santorini by ferry from Tinos with stops in Mikonos, Naxos and Paros before arriving in Santorini—a rather long 4-hours sailing. Santorini in summer is very busy and crowded with tourists. (If you don't mind the winter weather a few hotels stay open on the island and you can have it all to yourself.) The main thing for most visitors is the view out over the caldera from the cliffs around Fira, the main city on the island. Although relatively expensive, if you stay for a night or two, it is best to book a hotel on the cliffside with a view to the west where the sun sets behind the caldera and Thirassia Island. 


pedestrian walkway
Mama Thira's Taverna
       There is a pedestrian path that goes along the cliffside that is usually crowded with visitors taking photos of the stunning views over the caldera. The route is, of course, lined with cafes, restaurants and shops of all kinds from souvenir trinkets to high fashion clothing boutiques and is good for photo ops day and night.

Homeric Poems Hotel

Imerovigli town from hotel terrace

our cave style hotel room

along the pedestrian cliffside path

Nea Kameni - still active volcano (middle right)


Ouzo in Oia
       There is a town called Oia (pronounced eeya) on the northern tip of Santorini that is popular for its sunsets. We decided to take the local bus to Oia to get some photos of the famous sunsets. The bus was crowded and the route precipitous as the bus wound its way along the cliff sides with sheer drops only a few feet away. When we arrived at Oia the bus terminal had people lined up waiting for the next bus back to Fira. The town was so crowded that it was difficult to walk freely so we decided it would be really hard to get a bus after the sunset crowds. Oia itself is lovely perched on the northern end of the caldera. We had lunch in a restaurant overlooking the caldera and returned to Fira without taking any sunset photos, but without a long wait in line to get on the bus.

Oia and the caldera (Thirassia upper right)

Fira by night
       All in all, as expected, we found Santorini to be quite different from the relative tranquility of Tinos and felt that a couple days was quite enough for photo ops and visits to the prehistoric and archeological museums displaying artifacts from digs, especially Acrotiri, related to the volcanic disaster that beset Minoan Thera some 3600 years ago.