Ancient, Ageless Crete

Article excerpt

Crete is striking in any season. An island of contrasts southeast of Athens, Crete combines the varied cultures of the eastern Mediterranean.

It is home of the 4,000-year-old Palace of Knossos and the Labyrinth, which, according to Greek myth, was built to house the Minotaur, a monstrous creature with the head of a man and the body of a bull.

By air, the traveler arrives at Canea on the northwest coast or Iraklion in the center of the northern coast.

Iraklion is an ancient seaport that for centuries has been filled with a cacophony of sounds and smells, bustling markets, street vendors and colorful clothes. Today, the largest city in Crete also features upscale designer shops that line the narrow cobblestone streets.

Dating back to Neolithic settlements, the city reflects the imperial cultures - Phoenician, Egyptian, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman - that have occupied the island through the centuries.

The haunting influence of Venetian architecture is everywhere in Iraklion, which was once the port to Knossos. The massive battlements at the entrance to the harbor, known as the Koules fortress, are a wonderful example of the influence of the Venetians who occupied the city from 1204 to 1669.

Phoenician influence survives in today's boat designs, and the Ottoman Turks left their cuisine and other delights. Mainland Greece's metropolitan presence gives focus to the island's government, law and business communities, not to mention its seductive cafe and night life.

Iraklion also is home to the Archaeological Museum, the world's finest collection of Minoan artifacts. This must-see museum is a great find for the amateur archaeologist, the historian or just the ordinary curious traveler. Containing some of the oldest artifacts in Western civilization, it provides a unique perspective on today's Euro-Atlantic culture.

The museum's 20 galleries display artifacts found on Crete dating to 5000 B.C. Exhibits on the lower floor include pottery, miniature sculptures, gold and metal work, tools, weapons and a sacred Minoan ax. Among the earlier artifacts, dating from 2600 B.C., are striking marble figurines representing women with arms folded across their abdomens.

Archaeologists call them Cycladic idols because of their similarity with findings on the Cyclades, a group of Greek islands in the Aegean Sea north of Crete. The scientists believe that the figures represent a Neolithic female goddess.

Historically, the figurines show that Crete had links with the Aegean islands in this early period, because the statuettes were either imported from the Cyclades or are copies of Cycladic works.

The museum also features a unique pottery collection dating from 2000 B.C. Called the Kamares style, many of the pieces were discovered in a single cave at Kamares on the slopes of Mount Ida, Crete's highest mountain. What makes these pieces so remarkable is their high quality, which illustrates the technical sophistication of the period.

The pottery is decorated in a polychrome style, which features white and red vegetable dyes on the vessel's lustrous black background. Each has amazing curvilinear decorative patterns and motifs, often using olive branches and leaves that complement its shape. But what many find most extraordinary is the remarkable technical quality of the "eggshell ware" pottery. The cups in this style have extremely thin, delicate walls, only about a millimeter thick. They are light and their unique surface has both a metallic and luminescent quality.

The museum's upper floor, called the Hall of Frescoes, displays some of the most remarkable Minoan frescoes ever discovered. An important Minoan art form, these paintings that date from 1600 B.C. give us insight into one of the first important European civilizations.

The frescoes depict scenes from a reflective and amusing society that was punctuated with processions, ceremonies and games. …