In our blog today, guest lecturer Dr David Price-Williams considers the emergence of the Minoans in the Mediterranean – perhaps Europe’s first city builders. With a strong focus on Greece and how civilisation in Europe developed earlier than first thought, and a look at the work of British archaeologist Arthur Evans and his role in discovering early Greek life, this story offers a fascinating glimpse into the ancient world.

Detail of the Procession Fresco, Knossos.

The beginning of city building in the ancient world is a by-product of the beginning of agriculture, the domestication of wheat and barley, stimulated further by the use of irrigation in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley in modern day southern Iraq. The earliest cities here go back six or seven thousand years and with the huge increase in population came such developments as government, kingship and writing – all the benefits of civilisation. The same energy, and Nile irrigation, drove a similar movement in Egypt – by 2800 BC, societies were sufficiently well organised that the pyramids were being built. But in Europe, nothing like that had yet emerged. People lived only in small farming communities, little more than extended family hamlets, with no evidence of a literate society.

And then, quite suddenly, out of that Mediterranean darkness a civilisation emerged as if from nowhere, fully-fledged and with all the trappings of an advanced society. It happened on the island of Crete, in the hills behind Europe’s modern-day Heraklion. At the very beginning of the 20th century, a British archaeologist who had been fascinated by the island for decades began to excavate a mound among the olive groves of Knossos. Within a few short weeks, Arthur Evans uncovered what he would go on to describe as a palace – an impressively huge complex of over 1,000 interconnected rooms, corridors, courtyards and storage magazines. Built up to five storeys, connected with monumental staircases, the Palace of Knossos, Evans was sure, was Europe’s first urban centre, demonstrating a complex culture and governmental hierarchy, along with all the tithes, taxes and multifaceted interaction of a structured society. And he even discovered that they had writing, proof positive of an advanced way of life. At the time, he couldn’t understand what they were writing about, but he was certain that it signified the arrival of urban society.

Palace at Knossos

Evans uncovered glorious frescoes painted on the walls of the palace chambers – beautifully dressed ladies and effete young men, monkeys playing in fields of crocuses and multi-coloured geometric designs. But there was a problem. Were these Europeans or had the people of Knossos come from Asia, perhaps from Anatolia? No trace of this new culture, which we now date to around 1800 BC, had been found on the European mainland. And Evans’ clay tablets, on which the people of Knossos had recorded the transactions of their life in scripts he called Linear A and B writing, remained mute and untranslatable. It was not until much later, in 1952, when Linear B was finally translated, that it was recognised as a form of early Greek. So European urban society had finally come of age.

Evans named his new culture ‘Minoan’, after the stories of the legendary King Minos of Crete – he of the labyrinth and minotaur. Later, more ‘palatial’ sites were uncovered in other parts of the island, with similar features to Knossos. Even more remarkable, in the 1960s, a wonderful new Minoan urban site was found almost intact 70 miles north of Crete on the island of Santorini at Akrotiri. This was more recognisably urban, with streets, squares, houses two and three storeys high, and yet more beautiful wall paintings depicting, for example, young women gathering flowers whilst swallows flit overhead. There were even paintings of the Akrotirans enjoying pleasure cruises at the seaside – an idyllic life, a life of artistic quietude and bliss.

The excavation site at Akrotiri

Then this world came to an abrupt end. Santorini was a dormant volcano, and in 1620 BC it erupted so violently it totally buried Akrotiri and, presumably, other cities on the island too, and the resultant tsunami seems to have destroyed the ports along the coast of the islands nearby. On Crete, the Minoans didn’t disappear at once, but slowly the magnificent society they had created crumbled, such that by 1500 BC it had all but vanished.

By then a new power had taken over the central Aegean, and the last palace of Knossos was not Minoan at all, but Mycenaean, a Late Bronze Age people who hailed from mainland Greece, from sites in the Peloponnese and Boeotia. Their art described a very different kind of society – warriors protected by large shields, with broad bronze swords and helmets decorated with wild boar tusks. Their sites, like Mycenae, Tiryns, Pylos and Thebes, were heavily defended with vast stone ramparts and dramatic gateways. With their military might they conquered the ailing Minoan peoples and established across the Aegean an empire that for two centuries traded in copper from Cyprus, glass ingots from half way down the Nile, and even in tin from as far away as Afghanistan, not to mention other luxury products like elephant ivory and blackwood for inlay from central Africa.

Mycenae

But it too was not to last. Sometime around 1200 BC, at the end of the Late Bronze Age, this first experiment in European urban imperialism came to a crashing halt. What happened we still don’t know for sure. Pillaging barbarians? Environmental disaster? There is evidence that all the Mycenaean cities were burnt to the ground and their people irrevocably scattered. All city building stopped, and Europe was suddenly plunged into a new dark age of illiterate peasant societies from which it was not to emerge for a full 700 years, with the Classical Greeks.

Strictly speaking, the first European cities are said to have appeared with those Mycenaean warriors of the Late Bronze Age. But if you ask me from whom, as a European, I am descended, I would prefer the gentle and artistic folk of the Middle Bronze Age, like the inhabitants of Akrotiri on Santorini. They would be my wished-for ancestors.

Niokastro Castle, Pylos.

David Price-Williams will accompany several sailings aboard Aegean Odyssey in 2018 and 2019. The 13-day Aegean Experience & Cairo itinerary, departing 18 October 2018, makes a stop at Heraklion (for Knossos) and also includes Athens, Delphi, Epidaurus, Mycenae, Rhodes, Alexandria and a two-night overland tour to Cairo and Giza. All of our Greek sailings can be found on our website.