Discovering History and Hospitality in Crete

Every Greek island has a unique personality. However, Crete—more than any of the others— is inextricably linked to the history of Greece.  Here you’ll find the remains of one of the world’s earliest civilizations.

Giant bull horns standing taller than a man guard the south side of the ancient palace at Knossos, near Heraklion, the island’s capital city.  The horns, representing power and nobility, are appropriate symbols for this great kingdom of the ancient world, dating back to around 2000 B.C.E.  Named for the legendary King Minos and his Labyrinth by archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, who discovered the site in 1900, the “Minoan” palace covers six hill-side acres. There are multi-story buildings, storage facilities, a theater and an open courtyard. At one time, more than 5000 people lived here, with 15000 residing beyond its walls. This sophisticated society boasted indoor plumbing, an advanced central administration, and a peaceful trading economy that reached as far away as Egypt and Turkey.

 As you approach the stairs to the palace on what may be the first-ever paved roads, you see the remains of once-grand structures, still sporting their fresco murals and uniquely Minoan columns that taper downward. The Queen’s room, decorated with reproduction dolphin frescoes, features windows, built-in benches, and an adjoining bathroom complete with clay bathtub and dressing table.

While it is wonderful to walk among the ruins of the palace and to imagine this flourishing early civilization, you must also visit the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion to view many of the Minoan artifacts that have been preserved there. You’ll find the famed (if misnamed) Toreador Fresco, which shows the ceremonial act of Bull Jumping (not fighting) and the small but impressive Faience-glass, glazed pottery statue of the Snake Goddess with her traditional costume: a bare bodice and long skirt.

In addition to the museum, an active harbor, shop-and-gallery-filled center, and friendly residents welcome visitors to the island capital.

As elsewhere in Greece, history influences much of the character of the city. In some of the shops, you’ll see jewelry featuring the squared-Greek key or the S-shaped spirals found painted on the ancient palace walls of Knossos. In one gallery, I met artist Vassilis Politakis. With a beaming smile, he says he studied pharmacy just long enough to learn some chemistry, which he now applies to his pottery making. "The process is quite time consuming,” he says, requiring him to be “on the kiln all the time to guide the entire process.”  Politakis, whose pottery is on permanent display at the University of Richmond's Department of Classical Studies (Virginia, USA), creates much more than the copies of museum pieces that can be found throughout Crete and all of Greece.  Rather, his work reflects the feeling and philosophy of ancient Minoan culture, without imitating it exactly.  His gallery, located just beyond the harbor, which he runs with his wife Calliope, offers a wide variety of traditional-styled vessels, such as a three-handled amphora, with newly interpreted decorations.

The palace of Knossos may be in ruin, but the civilization it spawned continues to flourish. Crete is the destination for ancient history and modern hospitality.


The Art and Writing of Barbara Rizza Mellin