We spent three days on Crete, visiting the Minoan “palaces” at Knossos and Phaistos, the smaller administrative and domestic complexes at Haghia Triadha and Archanes, the cemetery at Fourni and the museum at Heraklion.
The “palaces”, a term we quickly came to problematize, gave us plenty of food for thought and discussion. Knossos, while very much worth exploring, is largely reconstructed in concrete and elegant ruby-red pillars, and we had to break through the excavator Arthur Evans’s jargon of “lustral basins”, “king’s megaron”, and “horns of consecration” before we could start thinking properly about the architectural features which these terms are supposed to designate. The next day at Phaistos, which has undergone far less reconstruction and was far emptier of tourists (for much of our visit we seemed to be the only ones on site) we were able to make more sense of the various parts of the complex, and the visit ended with the students leading the profs on a guided tour round the site. They pointed out the similarities to and differences from Knossos and tried to work out what went where and why: why were the archives near the “king’s megaron”? What were the huge grain pits (if that’s what they were) doing in the gathering space to the west of the palace? Was there really a tripartite shrine (as the sign told us), complete with cooking facilities, right outside the main entrance to the palace? Some of the questions we thought we could find answers to; others we leave for the next band of Maymesterers to answer!
One of the archaeological gems of the whole trip was the site of Fourni. To get there we had to crowd into the back of a pickup truck (no coaches round those narrow corners!) and travel a couple of kilometers up a dusty road overhung with pines. The site itself is a Minoan hillside cemetery, in use for over a millennium and with a whole array of different funerary practices spread across the slope. There were tholoi, ossuaries, and Mycenaean-influenced shaft graves buried in the long grass and the olive trees, and we looked down the hillside onto the rich vineyards of Archanes, famous for its wine. To the west we could see Mount Juktas, the site of the peak sanctuary used by the residents of Knossos. On the northern end of Mount Juktas is a temple called Anemospilia (“caves of the wind”), and in the local museum we found a reconstruction of a supposed human sacrifice which had just taken place in the temple at the moment of its destruction by earthquake, the priest charging out through the temple doorway, still clutching the vase which held the victim’s blood…. I leave it to my readers to search out the excavation report on this one!
The jutting mountains and sheep-scattered slopes of Crete were without a doubt as important as the monumental ruins in forming our impressions of the Minoans and the Cretans who followed them; staring out of the bus window, for once, was Time Well Spent. Three of us hiked up the hillside overlooking Matala Bay one free afternoon, emerging onto huge bare rocky outcrops jutting over the sea; on our way we came across various very definitely post-Minoan ruins: abandoned shepherds’ huts made of stone taken from from the hillside, an underground cavern accessible by ladder, and various impromptu summer dwellings in the caves which dotted our sightlines. Matala Bay has found a profitable tourist niche in catering to born-again German hippies (i.e. those who did it the first time round in the seventies and, very reasonably, want to recreate the dream in the noughties), and by the time we returned to level ground again, the occasional cave painting of a dayglo Buddha or a sunset chained to the sea had come to seem a remarkably natural accompaniment to the usual goatbells and thyme of a Cretan mountainside.
We had two stand-out social experiences while on Crete. The first was in Archanes, and followed our visit to Fourni; our pickup truck brought us down from the shaft graves and up to the doorway of a shady courtyard on a quiet street, where we were greeted by the extremely generous hospitality of the staff and sixth form of the local high school. We had a lovely slow lunch, learning new phrases in Greek, drinking seemingly endless rounds of tsipouro, and making new friends.
Our second encounter with Cretan hospitality was at the Paliani Monastery near Heraklion. We had come to visit the monastery’s holy myrtle, an enormous and ancient tree, at whose centre is supposed to lie the icon of Panagia Myrtidiossa. The branches are hung with little tin tokens brought by worshippers, each impressed with a human figure or body part to be placed in the care of Mary Theotokos. After we left the tree we were received by one of the monastery’s sisters, who welcomed us into a little cell off the main courtyard and treated us to little sweet biscuits and a short and sometimes surprising lesson in Cretan cultural identity. There was no pacifistic pussyfooting here; Crete, Sister Theofilakti (“guarded by God”) told us, was a land of fighters, and must at all times be prepared to defend its coasts. I think we all did a slightly bemused doubletake when she began to talk about the gun she had chosen so carefully (American, shoots seventeen rounds) for this purpose, but it was also a reminder of how deeply the successive occupations of Crete are engraved into the island’s memory. Sister Theofilakti was one of the people who really enriched our experience of Crete and its history, and we were greatly honoured by her welcome.