Located about five kilometers (three miles) south of Heraklion, on the rather low Kephala hill, the Palace of Knossos was the largest of the Minoan palaces in Crete.
It was also at the core of the highly sophisticated civilization that populated the island over 3,500 years ago.
The discovery and later excavation of the palace dates back to the beginning of the 20th century; before then Knossos was a place to be found only in Greek mythology. The first scholar interested in the area was the German Heinrich Schliemann, who in 1870 had excavated the site believed to be Troy.
Schliemann was certain that a major Minoan palace lay hidden near Heraklion, but the Ottoman authorities denied any permission to dig.
Years after, the British archaeologist Arthur Evans, inspired by Schliemann’s ideas, reached Crete to negotiate the purchase of a portion of land in Knossos. He began excavations in 1900 and in a matter of days, he found enough clear evidence to indicate the presence of a huge palatial complex.
Controversial restoration works took place thanks to Evans’ personal ownership of the site and its wealth. He named the civilization “Minoan” after the legendary king and he also took rebuilding liberties that have been discussed by different archaeologists ever since.
He roofed the Throne Room, reconstructed the Grand Staircase and replaced columns. Evans also ordered the reconstruction of walls with frescoes and added a conjectural Piano Nobile (upper story) using concrete.
Even though his works are largely based on personal ideas, it is also true that without his restoration it would have been impossible to deduce what the massive complex could have looked like in the past. Therefore, if visitors want to see one of the most magnificent remnants of the Minoan civilization, they should put up with some controversy and visit the archaeological site of Knossos.
What to see
The West Court
This area believed to be the marketplace was certainly a place devoted to public meetings. There, visitors can find three big circular pits, probably silos or depositories, which were also used as rubbish tips by the end of the Minoan era.
The Central Court
The central area of the palace presents a courtyard where modern paving covers the oldest remains found in the site, dating back to the Neolithic era. Some speculate that this used to be the scenery of the well-known bull-leaping ceremony, while others say that the space would not have been enough for the acrobatic movements required for the performance.
The Piano Nobile
The Piano Nobile is a reconstruction completely made from scratch by Evans, and its main value lies in the sights it offers of the whole complex and the storerooms. Many consider the disposition of the area rather confusing and out of place.
The Throne Room
Easy to spot due to the lines of tourists waiting to visit, the room hosts a worn seat made of stone while next to the walls there are lines with stone benches. Archaeologists believe that the room was rather the seat of a priest or priestess instead of a ruler. This idea is also backed up by the presence of a sunken bath probably used for ritual purification since it has no connection to the palace’s drain system.
The Royal Apartments
The Grand Staircase, a masterpiece which is an integral part of the architectural design, leads visitors to the Royal apartments. The most beautiful rooms in the palace are a clear example of the importance luxury and comfort had for the Minoans. The so-called Queen’s Suite has its main room decorated with the famous frescoes of the dolphins.
Some argue that these rooms would have been too small to fit the royalty, more likely located in the upper areas of the palace. Therefore they can are also identified as residencies for priests or important nobles.
The Queen’s Bathroom has a clay tub protected by a wall with a flushing lavatory with a drain system.
The King’s Room, located above the Queen’s Suite, has a stunning reception known as the Hall of the Royal Guard as well as the ruler’s personal chamber, or the Hall of the Double Axes.
This zone is thought to have been the area where smiths, potters and other craftsmen would manage their trade and skills. In the workshops, it is also possible to see the characteristic huge terracotta vases. This is also a good place from where to admire the Bull relief fresco located in the north entrance.
The Drainage System
Best seen from the back of the Queen’s Suite, the well-known drainage system of the palace consists of interconnecting terracotta pipes running underneath the complex. Whole sections of it are perfectly visible.
Tips for visiting
- You can reach the site by local bus if you are staying in Heraklion (€1.5 / $1.85 per person per route, buses N° 2 and 4). The bus stop is very close to the entrance.
- The Palace of Knossos is the largest Minoan site on Crete making it very popular. During summer it gets very busy and might be necessary to wait in long lines to buy a ticket.
- Combining a visit to the palace with a visit to the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion helps in making the most of the trip. This will allow entry to both places, without waiting in the queue once again and saving a few euro.
- Leave plenty of time to see the site and the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion if you are seriously interested in its history.
- Much of the site is not covered, so it is difficult to find a shady spot. A hat, sunscreen, and mineral water are essential.
- You can take pictures at Knossos but you are not allowed to use a camera with a tripod or a large professional camera.