Minoan architecture, as known from the new palaces, megara and villas, exhibits a number of general principles:
- A tendency towards mobility, the graphic, and variety and charm, aided by the different planes of the horizontal and vertical surfaces.
- Centripetal and centrifugal movement within the buildings.
- Peripheral movement, used to create an impression.
- The alternation of light and dark, through the use of lightwells and courtyards.
- The extensive use of bright colours on external wall surfaces, which were white washed or painted an ochre colour, and on wooden structural features, such as columns and beams.
- The decoration of interior surfaces with white or bright colours, achieved by the use of marble revetment, paving, floor plaster, and paintings on the walls and ceilings. It is difficult today to reconstruct the world in which the Minoans moved. It is fairly certain, however, that man, with his filial relation to deified nature, was the ‘measure of all things’. Palaces and houses intruded into dense groves of trees, which in turn intruded into the palace courtyards (Zakros, Knossos, Phaistos, etc.). Architectural designs served this principle, and exhibited rare originality. The palaces and megara of Minoan Crete are without doubt the earliest, pioneering creations of the ‘Greek’ spirit in the spheres of the environment, regional and urban design, town planning, and architecture. The legend of the Labyrinth is associated with the idea of the ‘house of the double axe’ (labrys), and also has reference to the complex layout of the palace rooms. Externally, Minoan architecture was influenced to some extent by the corresponding architecture of Mesopotamia (Mari), Syria (Alalak), Phoenicia (Ugarit) and Asia Minor (Beytse Sultan). The internal principles informing Minoan buildings were different, however.
Dr Andonis Vasilakis
Palaces and Palace Buildings
The new Minoan palaces were erected on the same sites as the old and, like them, to designs drawn up by capable architects who were implementing a comprehensive building programme. The main aims of the architect were to lay out the necessary rooms in such a way as to serve the predetermined needs of the palace.
This is evident from the technical specifications of the palaces:
- Area: Knossos 2.2 hectares, Malia and Phaistos 0.9, Zakros, together with what are thought to be its annexes 0.8 (palace proper only 0.4), Ayia Triada 0.6, and Galatas 0.45. The palace at Archanes is reckoned to have covered 1 hectare, while that at Kydonia has not been fully revealed.
- All the palaces had from two to at most five storeys, through the latter figure, for Knossos, is undoubtedly exaggerated.
- All the palaces followed the same basic principles of construction and architecture. A fundamental feature shared by all is the central courtyard, on all four sides of which the building complexes were laid out. The central courtyard acted as the lungs and main ligthwell of the densely occupied buildings, for which it provided ventilation and light.
The palaces were generally oriented north-south and the most fully developed wings were on the west and east.
The surfaces of the facades were broken up in all the palaces, and the play of light and shade, along with the colour used for the structural elements, gave a multi-coloured effect. The picturesque variety was further enhanced by the different heights of the various quarters.
In addition to the central court, there were other open courtyards of varying size. Of these, the west court had an important function, since it formed the main, official access to the palace. Official rituals and festivals also took place here, and it was crossed by processional ways that were used during these ceremonies.
The palaces had entrances facing in all directions to serve their needs for communication with the surrounding areas. The west (Phaistos, Knossos), north (Malia, Knossos), and south (Malia) entrances usually had an official character, as did the entrance at which the road from the sea ended (Malia, Zakros, and Ayia Triada), while the others were of secondary importance.
The location of the various quarters within the palace was determined on the basis of local conditions and needs. The shrines, for example, were in the west wing (Knossos, Phaistos, Malia, and Zakros), while the royal quarters occupied the best position in terms of view and communications, normally with the north (Phaistos, Malia, and Ayia Triada) or east (Knossos, Zakros).
The layout of the storerooms depended on their purpose: the larger ones, which were under the protection of the sanctuary, were mainly located in the west wing near the shrines, and there were others near the royal quarters or the various workshops.
Despite these general observations and the features common to the palaces, it cannot be claimed that they were all built alike. Each preserved its own distinctive character, depending on its purpose and the local needs.
Dr Andonis Vasilakis
Small Palaces, Megara and Villas
These terms are usually applied to buildings greater in size than an ordinary house but which were significantly smaller than the large palaces, which they imitated in many architectural details. The distinction between small palace, megaron, and villa is not always a clear one. The megara are the largest and most luxurious of the three and are normally located in towns or near major palaces (e.g. the Little Palace at Knossos, House E at Malia), or are thought to have been the seats of local governors (Myrtos, Pyrgos, Plati). Cretan megara are large residences, and bear no relation to the architectural form known by this name in mainland Greece; they are usually thought to have been luxury residences for wealthy individuals and officials within the settlements (Nirou, Tylisos).
Villas and country villas are large, luxurious buildings usually found in isolation, and are more numerous (Vathypetro, Gortyn, Pitsidia, Pano Zakros and a series of villas in the region of Siteia, Sklavokampos, Nerokourou, etc.).
The majority of the monuments in these categories have basic feature found only in palaces: shrines, storerooms, workshops, lightwells, baths, porticoes, porches with columns pavements, wall-paintings, drainage pipes, cisterns, and courtyards. The existence of these structures is a fundamental feature of the period when Minoan civilization was at its height.
Dr Andonis Vasilakis
Our knowledge of the towns and settlements of New Place Crete is based on about a dozen excavated examples.
The settlements suffered the same fate as the palaces and were destroyed by earthquake and fire in 1450 BC.
Some were completely or partially rebuilt in the following period. The following centres have been excavated to a significant extent: Malia, Knossos, Zakros, Gournia, Palaikastro, Pseira, Kommos, Ayia Triada, and Phaistos. All the towns, townships or settlements are divided into building blocks or neighbourhoods, with wide paved main streets and narrower side streets, and small paved squares.
The large square at Gournia lies in front of the small palace. The megara around the palaces (Knossos, Malia) were normally the residences of officials or members of the priesthood.
Dr Andonis Vasilakis
Burial Buildings and Burial Customs
In the early New Palace period, the old burial places and practices continued in use: interments were in small depressions and large or small artificial burial caves cut into the rock; these, the precursors of the rock-cut chamber tombs of the following phases, were cut into the hillsides around the towns and settlements (Poros Herakleiou). Bodies were sometimes buried on beaches (Pachia Ammos). Both group and individual burials are known. The dead were placed in inverted pithoi or in oval or cist-shaped larnakes, and were sometimes buried in wooden coffins or on biers. In the following phases of the period, burials were made in tholos tombs and rock-cut chamber tombs. The tholos tombs of the New Palace period represent an improved, more advanced form of the old type of Cretan tholos tomb found in the Pre-Palace and Old Palace periods. They were now more monumental and imposing. Some were circular in plan and had a dome (tholos) or roof (Kamilari at Phaistos and Kephala at Knossos), while others were square or rectangular in plan and had a saddle or barrel-vaulted roof (Royal Tomb at Isopata near Knossos, which was destroyed during the German Occupation). They have jointed masonry, an antechamber, side niches, burial pits and a deep entrance.
The South Royal Temple Tomb at Gypsades near Knossos has a unique form. It was a two-storey structure with courtyard, portico, entrance, antechamber, chamber with square pillars, and a burial chamber with a pillar, revetted with large gypsum slabs. The structure recalls the mythological tomb of Minos in Sicily. Unfortunately, both the royal tombs in Crete had been robbed when they were found. The latest burials in both took place in the Post palace period.
The chamber tombs had a circular, horseshoe-shaped, oval, square, or polygonal chamber, a long, cut dromos, and a dressed entrance with doorjambs and a threshold. The entrance was sealed by a single large slab or by stones. Many tombs of this type have been excavated at Knossos and Phaistos, where they are found in groups.
Dr Andonis Vasilakis