Sunday, December 9, 2007

The History of Civilization

Chapter Seven: Minoan Civilization

"There is a land called Crete, in the midst of the wine-dark sea, a fair, rich land, begirt with water; and therein are many men past counting, and ninety cities." Homer (not Simpson, the ancient Greek one) wrote these lines almost three thousand years ago. By this time, Crete already hosted the vast and thriving Minoan civilization, which controlled the Aegean Sea, and often parts of mainland Greece as well. The rediscovery of that lost civilization is one of the major achievements of modern archaeology. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries BC  are the zenith of the Aegean civilization, the classic and golden age of Crete.

The power of the king is based on force, religion, and law; and is symbolized by the double-headed axe shown at the left. The king employs a staff of ministers, taxes his subjects, and pays his men. We call him Minos, but we do not know his name. Minos was probably a title like Pharaoh or Caesar, and covers a multitude of kings.
At its height, this civilization is surprisingly urban. The Iliad speaks of its "ninety cities," and the Greeks who conquer them are astonished at their teeming populations. Knossos, the capital city, features a palace so vast that one could get lost in the maze-like passageways. It features running water and an elaborate sewer system.

The palace at Knossos was destroyed, probably by an earthquake, around 1700 BC, an event which marked the end of phase one of the early history of Crete. A new dynasty developed an even more brilliant culture. The palace was rebuilt on a more elaborate scale; it rose four stories and featured a luxuriously decorated throne room. The ruins also include many beautiful sculptures and pieces of metalwork. Evidence suggests that the Minoans also used money and a system of weights and measures. Hundreds of clay tablets are inscribed with mysterious, undecipherable languages called Linear A and Linear B.

The Minoans had achieved their greatest power by 1600 BC, when they traded extensively with Egypt. The destruction of Knossos and the collapse of Minoan culture coincides with the flourishing of the Mycenaean civilization in Greece. This coincidence suggests that the warlike Mycenaeans attacked and destroyed the Minoan civilization. Sadly, this was one of the most artistic and dignified cultures of the Mediterranean Bronze Age. Its legends include the story of Daedelus, who imprisoned the Minotaur in a labyrinth; and his son Icarus, who fell to his death after flying too close to the sun.
Although Minoan civilization vanished, it passed its culture to the inhabitants of southernmost Greece, called Sparta.

To be continued...

For my previous posts on civilization, click here.

There's an outstanding book on ancient history up to the rise of Rome called A History of the Ancient World, by Chester G. Starr. It's a classic and the standard for the subject. Check it out. It belongs on your shelf.

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