Main photo: The palace of Knossos (© Mentor in Greece)
A long time ago, in an island far, far away, there lived a bronze giant called Talos. He was an automaton and circled the island three times each day, scanning the open sea for any sign of enemy ships. If an unwanted visitor came ashore, Talos jumped into the fire and when his body was burning hot, he embraced the intruder and laughed, while his victim turned all shades of bronze on the way to carbon black. Fortunately for our Minoan Civilization Study Abroad program, the automaton had a serious design flaw in the form of a nail that sealed his one and only vein. Medea (the one who helped Jason steal the Golden Fleece) managed to remove the nail and Talos died from the loss of his divine blood. Visitors can now land on Crete in search of a bronze tan without having to worry about a bronze embrace.
The comfort of civilization
Crete is the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. It is blessed with fertile plateaus, verdant valleys, imposing gorges, burbling rivers, and safe natural harbors. These attributes made it very attractive to prehistoric populations, who established the most brilliant civilization of Bronze Age Greece on this island. It became known as the Minoan Civilization from the name of King Minos. Over a period of 1500 years, the Minoans erected elaborate palaces equipped with luxurious amenities (including flush toilets), rural altars and peak sanctuaries where mortals conversed with birds, and busy ports for the exchange of goods.
The original labyrinth
The Minoan Civilization is an ambitious 14-day tour of Crete. The course includes an introduction to the history, art, and culture of the Minoans, a comprehensive analysis of ancient Greek religion and mythology, and an exploration of basic features of Bronze Age Aegean art and archaeology. The Minoans were, after all, a maritime people; their vessels visited all the major eastern Mediterranean entrepôts and established colonies across the Aegean Sea.
The tour will allow participants to explore the four major palaces of the Minoan period. Knossos is the most expansive and famous, thanks to its association with King Minos, Daedalus, and the Minotaur. It was excavated by Sir Arthur Evans in the early 20th century and was extensively restored by him in a controversial style. Evans believed that the palace may have been the original labyrinth. Any modern visitor who tries to navigate the countless corridors, rooms, terraces, and storage facilities may feel inclined to agree with him. In Knossos, you can see the face of Zeus, as the supreme deity of the Greek pantheon takes a nap nearby.
Knossos was not the sole administrative center. Zakros is the most isolated of all the Minoan palaces and was a major commercial hub back in the day. Apart from the humble foundations of the old palace, visitors can also explore the so-called “Ravine of the Dead”, named after the numerous burials discovered here. Malia enables us to identify the basic features of Minoan palatial architecture: the central courtyard, the stairwells, the skylights, and the monumental façades. Phaistos is the finest and most exemplary of all Minoan palaces; it is also famous for the Phaistos Disk, a clay disk with stamped symbols whose meaning is an enduring archaeological mystery.
Face to face with a god
Most Minoans did not reside in the palaces. Their towns adorn the Cretan countryside and enable us to discover their daily lives and struggles. Palekastro is a rare example of a village untouched by mass tourism but archaeological research has clearly demonstrated its commercial importance during the Bronze Age. The Palekastro Kouros is an impressive statuette of a male; it is made of gold, ivory, and colourful rocks, indicating its role as a cult image. It is currently on display in the Archaeological Museum of Siteia and is another proof of Crete’s ability to bring visitors in front of the gods. Itanos is a site whose name appears almost unchanged on Linear B tablets, an amazing example of the continuity of settlement in Crete for the past 3000 years.
When the land trembles
Phalasarna is an ancient town with impressive defensive towers and fortification walls. The harbor had stone quays, while artificial channels enabled vessels to reach the open sea. It was such an impressive construction that no ancient geographer worth his name failed to mention it. The people of Phalasarna depended on the sea for their good fortune but also hired themselves as mercenaries when the Macedonians fought the Romans in 168 BCE. The latter were not inclined to forget such audacity, so when they finally conquered Crete, they blocked the port, demolished the walls, and killed all the citizens. Today the ancient harbor lies more than 300 feet from the sea and the coast seems to have risen by at least 24 feet. It is clear that Poseidon, the god of earthquakes, must have had something to do with this dramatic change.
Gortyn is famous for the Gortyn Code, the oldest and most complete code of ancient Greek law. The punishment for adultery depended on the location of the crime, with adultery committed within the household of the female’s father, brother, or husband considered particularly terrible. King Minos may have been born under the plane tree that supposedly still survives in Gortyn.
When you can’t fly, swim
Aptera (meaning “without wings”) is a Minoan city in western Crete. This was the site where the Sirens (the dangerous monsters that lured sailors with their enchanting voices only to kill them when they got close) lost the feathers of their wings and cast themselves into the sea. Kydonia was founded by the daughter of King Minos and remained one of the most important Cretan city-states throughout the island’s history.
The most beautiful archaeological site
Eleutherna is one of the most exciting ancient cities in Crete. It is located on a spur of Mount Ida, the highest mountain in Crete, and has been systematically and methodically excavated since 1984. The archaeological site opened to the public in 2008 but it is the addition of the impressive Museum of Ancient Eleutherna that will truly captivate your soul. The permanent exhibition is continually being enriched by new finds from the ancient city whose remains form part of the museum’s landscaped grounds.
The birthplace of Zeus
Finally, we will explore the most quirky region of Crete, the Lasithi plateau. Winters here can be so cold that olive trees won’t grow (unlike the rest of the island). The plateau is surrounded by snow-capped mountains, so the villagers introduced 10,000 windmills to manage the water supply and grow grains. Today only a fraction of them survives, but their white cloth sails are a Cretan landmark. Further up the mountain is the Dictaean Cave, the mythical birthplace of Zeus, who spend his infancy here protected from the threatening jaws of his own father by the boisterous songs and dance of the Kouretes.
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The Minoan Civilization – Mentor – Study abroad in Greece
This module covers the archaeology of prehistoric Crete, a fascinating period that witnessed the emergence of a complex society.