Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
One of the most famous figures of Greek mythology is the Minotaur, a fearsome half-human, half-bull creature that lurked inside the fearsome Labyrinth, a massive maze built for King Minos of Crete. It's a terrifying image, and as it turns out, it may be based in some reality. No, not the half-bull, half-human part; that wasn't real. As for the Labyrinth itself, however, that may have some basis in reality.
Back around 1700 BCE, more than a millennium before the first recorded story of the Minotaur, the Greek island of Crete was home to a mighty and mysterious civilization. We don't know what they called themselves, but the later Greeks called them the Minoans, after the legend of King Minos. The Minoans were the first truly urbanized culture of Europe, and at the center of their civilization was a massive architectural program. Not only would this serve as the basis for the later architectural wonders of ancient Athens, but to people of the time, the Minoan buildings were so large and complex they seemed to be labyrinths. That's where the legend most likely comes from, these buildings that appeared to be mazes of inconceivable complexity. The thing is, they weren't that far off from the truth.
Overview of Minoan Architecture
The Minoans were the first culture to introduce large-scale architecture into Europe, something they probably learned from trading with people along the eastern Mediterranean coast. Even still, archeologists are amazed at how fast and widespread complex building became on this Aegean island.
There are a few main types of Minoan architecture that we can still see today. Many of the remaining ruins are from villas, large houses most likely owned by bureaucrats who served the king. These multi-storied houses had large courtyards for receiving and shipping products, and seem to have served as commercial centers.
Of course, these villas were only as good as the towns they were in. Minoan towns seem to have been roughly planned and organized, with evidence of paved streets. The most famous ones that haven't been built over in the proceeding millennia are those of Gournia and Palekastro, both of which suggest organized urban planning and control of resources. These towns were connected by a uniform road system, as well.
This level of sophistication and organization suggest that the Minoans must have had a strong centralized government to organize people and resources on this scale. Minoan houses, towns, and roads were all defined by their relationship to a centralized palace. These palaces are the foremost accomplishments of Minoan architecture, unprecedented in their size and scale. The four major palaces we know of are Knossos (the largest), Malia, Phaistos, and Zakros.
So, what makes these palaces so great? Built of stone, brick, and mortar, the largest is roughly 150,000 square feet in size, which is big enough to contain 2 football fields. Some sections of the palaces were as tall as four stories. Aside from these impressive dimensions, Minoan palaces were surprisingly sophisticated as well. Colonnades of red and black painted wooden columns supported the weight of the wood-beam roof. Rubble in the walls may have been used as a shock absorbent to reduce the risk of earthquakes. Pipes under the floor provided efficient drainage for water. Vertical shafts, or light wells, brought sunlight into the interior rooms, even on bottom floors.
Not only were the Minoan palaces impressive individually, but they also form an interesting set. Each of them is built on the same basic layout, which again indicates a strong system of organization. At the very center of the palace was a large, open court. The length and width of this court, without exception, was built on a ratio of 2:1 and oriented on a north-south axis. Greek architects in Athens would later obsess over the mathematical ratios within their buildings.
From the central courtyard, rooms were added outward in every direction. Minoan rooms tended to be small and interconnected. They were also multi-purpose in that the Minoans were actually able to rearrange them. The wooden doors separating rooms could be pushed back into recesses in the walls, creating a larger room.
Let's imagine this from an outsider's perspective. You approach this massive structure, larger than anything else in Europe at this time. After walking up a grand and colorful staircase, you enter through a dramatic door and find yourself winding through a twisting nexus of small and changing rooms. Each room leads into another room, and another, and another. Finally, you make it into the massive and open courtyard, likely bustling with bureaucratic and commercial activity. Can you see where the legend of the Labyrinth could have developed? It would have been an impressive sight; one that must have felt like it came straight out of mythology.
By around 1700 BCE, the Minoans of ancient Crete were building up the first major architectural program of Europe. Minoan towns, well organized, full of large houses connected through uniform roads, suggest a strongly centralized government on the island. This is confirmed by the four massive palace complexes of Knossos, Malia, Phaistos, and Zakros. Up to four stories high, these centralized administrative centers were remarkably sophisticated with irrigation, light wells, and even earthquake resistant construction. The walls were made of stone, brick, and mortar, while the flat, wooden roof was supported by countless painted wooden columns.
Each palace was built around a centralized courtyard, with small, connected rooms branching outwards. Reaching this courtyard from outside may have felt like navigating a maze, and in fact these palaces are likely the inspiration for the Greek legend of the Labyrinth. While we haven't found any Minotaurs, the Minoan construction techniques and fascination with monumental architecture seem to have deeply impacted the development of ancient Greek, and therefore Western, civilization. That's no myth.
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