The Minoans

(2600 BCE-1100 BCE)

On Crete the Neolithic period is generally accepted as ending around 2600 BCE. This then also marks the beginning of the Minoan era on Crete. For about 1.500 years this remarkably sophisticated culture flourished on the island and this civilisation is what has caused some to name Crete: 'The Cradle of Europe'.

The palace at Malia. Third largest palace of Minoan Crete after Knossos and Phaistos. Around 1.900 BCE. The Minoan society is probably the oldest civilisation in Europe in the sense that this seems to be the first European society which practised agriculture and settlement in cities and whose members were was organized into a division of labour and had a social hierarchy.

The Minoan culture was very different from the later Greek cultures and has therefore been classed separately. The classification used here is that of Professor Nicolas Platon. He divided the Minoan era on Crete into four periods based on what is known about the destruction and reconstruction of the Minoan Palaces on Crete.

Prepalatial Minoan Crete (2600-1900 BCE)

The major settlements in Crete during the Neolithic were at Myrtos and Mochlos. It seems to have been by then a decentralized culture with no landlords or centralized authority.

The palaces of this period are less impressive than those of later times. The most significant architectural structures of the time were circular 'tholos' (pl. 'tholoi') tombs.

They were used jointly for centuries by entire villages, or clans. Sometimes older corpses and offerings were put aside to make room for new burial. And older bones were removed and placed in bone chambers outside the tholos. This manner of burials indicates a society without hierarchical structure.

Protopalatial Minoan Crete (1900-1700 BCE)

The protopalatial era began with social upheaval, external dangers, and migrations from mainland Greece and Asia Minor. During this time the Minoans began establishing colonies at Thera, Rodos, Melos, and Kithira.

Around 2000 BCE a new political system was established with authority concentrated around a central figure - a king. The first large palaces were founded and acted as centres for their respective communities, while at the same time they developed a bureaucratic administration which permeated Minoan society. Distinctions between the classes forged a social hierarchy and divided the people into nobles, peasants, and perhaps slaves.

After its tumultuous beginning, this was a peaceful and prosperous period for the Minoans who continued to trade with Egypt and the Middle East, while they constructed a paved road network to connect the major cultural centres. This period also marks the development of some settlements outside the palaces, and the end of the extensive use of tholoi tombs.

The palaces of the period were destroyed in 1700 BC by forces unknown. Speculation blames the destruction either on a powerful earthquake, or on outside invaders. Despite the destruction of the palaces however, Minoan civilization continued to flourish.

Neopalatial Minoan Crete (1700-1400 BCE)

The destroyed palaces were rebuilt on the ruins to form even more spectacular structures. This was the time when Knossos, Phaistos, Malia, and Zakros were built, together with many smaller palaces.

Small towns developed near the palaces and smaller residencies (today called villas) appeared in the rural landscape. The villas were modelled after the large palaces with storage facilities and workshops. They appear to have been lesser centres of power away from the palaces, and probably homes for affluent landlords.

During this period there is evidence of administrative and economic unity throughout the island and Minoan Crete reach its zenith. The paved road network was vastly expanded to connect most major Minoan palaces and towns, and there were extensive trade activity. Gold artefacts, seals, and spears speak of a very affluent upper class. The affluence of the culture during this period is also evident in the frescoes found in the palaces.

In the beginning of this era, Minoan culture completely dominated the Aegean islands and even expanded into the Peloponnesian peninsula. But late in the Neopalatial period, the Minoans encountered competition from an emerging power from mainland Greece - The Mycenaeans. From then on life on Crete became more militaristic as is evident from the large number of weapons which for the first time appears in the royal tombs of this period.

The end of the Minoan culture came with the destruction of most of the palaces and villas of the country side around 1500-1400 BCE, and with the destruction of Knossos in 1375. During this late period there is evidence in tablets inscribed in Linear B language that the Mycenaeans controlled the entire island, while many Minoan sites were abandoned for a long time. Nothing certain is known about the causes for the sudden decline of the Minoan civilization. However, scholars have pointed to invasion of outside forces or to the colossal eruption of the volcano on Thera (Santorini) as likely causes.

Below you can see a video from 2008 about the destruction of the Minoan civilization. The video is in three parts each about 15-20 minutes long.

Postpalatial Period (1400-1100 BCE)

With the destruction of Knossos the power in the Aegean shifted to Mycenae. The previous palaces at Knossos and Phaistos remained active centres of influence, but they were no longer the central authority of the island. During the postpalatial period the western part of Crete flourished and several important settlements developed around Kasteli and Chania.

Minoan religion from this time on began to exhibit influences from the Greek mainland. During this period, Helladic god names such as Zeus began to appear in tablets, new shapes developed in the pottery, and vaulted 'tholos' tombs (beehive shaped graves, Mycenaean style) appeared for the first time. A very well preserved example is to be found at Margarites, close to our holiday house.

Sights from the period in modern Crete

Five Minoan palaces have so far been found on Crete:

But there are many, many more archaeological sites from the Minoan Era on Crete.
Click here to get an overview of more than 30 of the Minoan sites on Crete.

Back to Cretan history.