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You are in:  Top  →  Europe  →  GREECE  →  Crete  →  HERAKLION  →  Knossos  →  Minoan Palaces

Minoan Palaces

A frequent expression encountered by the reader of Minoan Crete is that of the Minoan Palace.
Knossos throne room

The term was used first by the British Archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans who excavated the site of Knossos in the beginning of the century and is maintained ever since.

The truth is that we know nothing about the form of government of Minoan Crete. There may have been a priest-king or priestess-queen or a board of priests. In the absence of written records, it is impossible to tell anything with certainty. Yet we are not helpless because archaeology can tell us something about the elusive Minoan society.

View pictures from the Palace of Knossos.

What emerges from the study of the archaeological remains is that the palaces had two main functions: economic and religious. The former is evident because of the large number of cult equipment distributed in many rooms over a wide area of the palace. In addition, frescoes with religious representations abound in the Palace of Knossos (the other palaces have yielded very little by way of pictorial frescoes).

What is also striking is the connection between religion and economy. This is demonstrable because of the physical proximity of the magazines and workshops to shrines. For example all the palaces have magazines in their west wing, which is also, by general admission, the major cult area of the palaces.

The connection between religion and economy suggests that the system was theocratic, namely since the economy and administration was controlled by the priesthood. Such systems were well known in the Orient, Egypt and Mesopotamia, although they are more difficult for us to grasp. A digression on the Mesopotamian temple -state might be helpful for us to visualize how such a society operated.

The Mesopotamian Temple State

The land of Sumer of the third millennium BC was divided into city-states. Each had at its centre the temple of the deity to whom the city belonged. The temple was not only physically the focus of the city, but it was the centre of all social commercial and administrative activity. Before the emergence of kings, the city governor, the ensi, was the high priest of the temple. He was the representative of the divinity, and all his authority emanated from god. The temple was primarily the dwelling of the god. It was also a ceremonial centre, a treasury, a town hall, a storehouse and a commercial centre. In addition it housed the priestly personnel and the temple workers. Thus it resembled a medieval monastery more than a Greek temple or a Christian church.

A substantial section was occupied by the workshops and magazines (which corresponds exactly to the picture of the so called palaces in Crete). The reason for this is that the Sumerian economy was controlled by the priesthood to a large extent, although some private enterprise surely existed as well. The function of the temple in the economic system of the Sumerians was to act as a redistribution centre. It amassed wealth from the land it possessed and from tribute. This wealth was then redistributed to the population as wages for their services. Some raw material such as wool or leather would be reworked to a finished product by the temple workers. Stone could be carved to make stone vessels or sculpture. These items would be traded or send abroad to a foreign king in exchange for their gifts. Corn, oil and fruit could also be exported, but such produce would also be used as payment for the workers. Rations of flour, beer and even clothing were given as wages, as we can tell from the written records of the temples.

Regarding the rituals and ceremonies that took place in the precinct of the temple, sacrifices and cult meals were among the most frequent ones. Cult meals are represented on some reliefs from the period. As we have seen the high priest was at the same time the governor of the city. Not only he, but his whole family played an important role in the society. There was also a very definite hierarchy in the priesthood. There were higher priests and lower priests, often with very specialized functions. Every person had a fixed position aloted to him by god. Such a system offered stability and a sense of security within its strict and rigid boundaries.

Already in the third millennium, the temple-dominated society of the Sumerians underwent a transformation, which was due to the emergence of kings. The latter became necessary because of the increasing military threat that these people faced from the invading tribes of the dessert and the mountains, who finally subjugated Sumer. It is therefore correct to say that kingship emerged as a response to the need of organised, military leadership. Circumstances were similar in Israel where kings replaced the Judges under the threat of Philistines in the 12th century BC. This is worth mentioning because it may go a long way in explaining why Minoan society was different. The Aegean was not seriously threatened by foreign attacks at the time of the Minoan Thalassocracy.

Despite the existence of kings, the temple continued to play a major role in the Mesopotamian society, even when the Sumerians as a people had eclipsed. In the 16th century, the period in discussion, Mesopotamia was dominated by the Kasites in whose society the temple and the priests continued to be of the outmost importance.

Definition of the Minoan Palace

Back in Crete, the Sumerian model of the temple state is by no means totally applicable to Minoan Society. There are major and most important differences. Still, as an analogy it is illuminating because it helps us to envisage a way of life difficult for us to understand.

The similarities between a Mesopotamian temple and a Minoan palace are striking. Like the Mesopotamian temple, the palaces have workshops and magazines attached to them. Cult meals, which as we have seen, are taking place in the Mesopotamian temples, are attested in the vicinity of the Minoan Shrines.

Kitchen equipment has been found in the southern shrine of the palace of Malia. Evans identified a kitchen behind the so-called throne room of the palace of Knossos. Prof Platon in the shrine complex area of the palace of Zakros has identified a banquet hall. It is also worth pointing out that many Minoan shrines often called "bench sanctuaries" have benches, which may indicate that cultic meals were taking place in them. Such are the protopalatial sanctuary at Phaestos, the bench room in Agia Triada, and the even so called throne room in Knossos. Even more than these particular similarities, the general resemblance between the Mesopotamian temple and the Minoan Palace should be stressed. Both are the redistribution and cult centres. Both play a fundamental role in the society.

Finally, considering the Minoan Palaces as cult and redistribution centres, where the unifying force was religion, is perhaps the right way to look at them.

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