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Minoan Musings

Four thousand years ago, Minoans ruled most of the Aegean Sea.

A Restored Minoan Fresco

Their palace cities on the island of Crete had no need of walls because their steep mountains and fleets kept them safe. Minoan culture was fascinating, unique and flourished for much longer than Europeans have been in the Americas.

Eventually, the Mycenaeans took over – until about 1200 BC, when Aegean civilization collapsed and all but disappeared for 400 years. Throughout this time, Egypt continued to look inward, except for a few excursions toward the northeast.

So, where did the Minoans come from, and why did they succumb? I have a theory that fits the lean archaeological record (see this post for more about what I think ‘lean’ implies in this sense).

An 'Over-restored' Part of the Knossos Palace

My view is that the Minoans began as voluntary exiles from the lower Nile who lost a dynastic struggle in the dim past. On Crete, they easily mastered the stone age people there but could not sustain the bureaucratic and religious ‘overhead’ of Egyptian culture. The island environment was just too starkly different. After a few hundred years, their culture had morphed into a powerful, seafaring one with a new form of writing and a barely recognizable religion that was completely devoid of now-useless River Gods.

On the mainland of Greece, the proto-Greek Mycenaeans had arrived and ruled everywhere but in the Minoan coastal towns and the most remote mountains. Over centuries, the Mycenaeans, whom Homer called Achaeans, were driven by geography to learn all that the Minoans knew about seafaring. And then some.

A Palace Doorway

The huge explosion of the Aegean island volcano of Thira (Santorini) around 1625 BC weakened the Minoans at a time when the Mycenaeans were poised to expand. And the cultural momentum shifted to them. First, the Minoans lost their mainland towns, then their central Aegean holdings. After a couple hundred years, Minoan people were subjects of the Mycenaeans.

Restored Fresco

Even so, Minoan culture likely had the same kind of influence on the Mycenaeans as Greek culture would later have on the Romans – an ancient, respected, civilizing and enlightening factor that moderated and shaped a much stronger, ‘modern’, expansionist will.

Outside Heraklion, Crete, are the partly-restored ruins of a famous Minoan palace, Knossos. This is one of several major Minoan centers scattered around the island. A visit there several years ago for some book research so enthralled me that I completely revamped my planned story as a result.

If you get a chance to visit Knossos on a spring or fall day and have any interest at all in archaeology or art, you will be delighted that you did.

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