The mystery of Europe’s oldest throne room in the Cretian Palace of Knossos

Petra Bjelica
 
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The Minoan civilization flourished during the Bronze Age on Crete and other Aegean islands between 2600 and 1100 BC. It preceded the Mycenaean civilization and was given its name after the mythical King Minos by Arthur Evans, the English archaeologist who rediscovered it in the beginning of the 20th century.

It was the first advanced civilization of its kind on the soil of Europe and it marks the beginning of European culture as we know it. King Minos, the son of Zeus and Europa, known in legends for the labyrinth he built in order to conceal the Minotaur, a monstrous creature that had a bull’s head and a body of a man who was the son of Minos’ wife Pasiphae and a bull.

Evans connected the discovery of the palace of Knossos with those myths and the unveiling of the old world from the centuries of darkness had begun. At the time, he was a famous and well-respected archaeologist who was quite wealthy and thus had the remarkable ability to control his excavations by simply buying the site where the palace was first found. It was first discovered by Greek merchant and antiquarian Minos Kalokairinos in 1878.

Throne Room at the Palace of Knossos, Author: Olaf Tausch, CC-BY-3.0

Evans was also lucky enough as well to wait to begin his dig until the declaration of Crete as an autonomous state freed from Ottoman rule in 1899. The excavation of the site near the city of Heraklion lasted until 1929, even though the majority of the Knossos Citadel was excavated in 1903. What he found there was remarkable.

The palace of Knossos was a great labyrinthine complex of 20,000 meters, a ceremonial, religious and political center that reflected great wealth, power, and highly advanced architecture. It was based around a central courtyard with more than a thousand interlinked, maze-like halls and chambers. The sections were up to 5 stories high, and it had a plumbing system. The society had developed concepts of social equality and their frescos depicted only young or ageless men and women engaging in joyful activities such as dancing, gathering flowers, or leaping over bulls – no traces of any military culture or violent deeds. The demise of this civilization is entirely mysterious. It has been speculated that a tsunami destroyed it in the 17th or 16th century BC, which suggested Knossos as a possible basis for the myth of Atlantis.

The Throne Room, Author: Olaf Tausch, CC-BY-3.0

One of the most intriguing findings inside the palace was the chamber called the Throne Room, which is thought to have been built in the 15th century BC. It is believed to be the oldest throne room in Europe, and most certainly the oldest alabaster throne of the Aegean region. In the beginning of his research, Evans thought of it to be the seat of King Minos. But since then, there have been doubts about this idea, as it seems the main purpose of the chamber was the performance of religious ceremonies. The room consists of a throne, gypsum benches on three sides, and a lustral basin in front of the throne seat. It is big enough to accommodate around thirty people. The seat is 48cm tall and the throne 138cm tall overall, and carved out of a single stone. Today it is plain, but it is believed that it was once elaborately decorated.

The lustral basin. Author: Olaf Tausch, CC-BY-3.0

On both sides of the throne near the room’s entrance, there are painted frescos of crouching griffins, palm trees, and papyrus leaves. On the south side of the room, in front of the throne, there is a bench, balustrade, and a lustral basin – a sunken rectangular room first discovered in Knossos by Evans. It was believed they were used for lustration, a form of religious purification through bathing. The ceiling above it was open, and it is thought that the opening continued to the roof.

The purpose of these basins has yet to be conclusively proven; their lack of drainage has led many to doubt that they were ever used for bathing, but perhaps instead were meant for water storage. Recent findings indicate that the room was used only at certain times of the day when the light fell on it in a specific manner.

The throne, Author: Jebulon, CC0 BY 1.0

However, more recent theories suggest that the room was not used as the king’s throne room. There are many signs that suggest it was actually a sacred space, a sanctuary for a high priestess or embodiment of a goddess during rituals. If the room was used for sacred ceremonies, the stone benches might have been there for a court or type of council. The presence of the griffins gives credence to this hypothesis. They represent mythical creatures that combine a lion and an eagle – two beasts that rule the land and the earth and symbolize divinity and kingship. The griffin emblem comes from the Near East, where they are regarded as protectors of the divine. In Minoan civilization, however, they are almost always associated with female figures and goddesses, never a male one. However, these griffins are unusual: although they are beautifully elaborated with collar and something like a crown, they do not have wings.

Fresco of the griffin, Author: Paginazero, CC-BY-SA-3.0

But the main problem with these frescos, as with many aspects of the palace, is the fact that it cannot be certain what is original and what was later added by Evans. In an attempt to restore the ruins to their former glory for the benefit of modern visitors, he hired artists Piet De Jong and Gillérons to reconstruct some of the sections of the palace. Many of these restoration attempts were closer to vandalism and directed according to Evans’ own interpretations. Some of the pictures were completely made up, especially the paintings of griffins. Thus, it has become even more difficult for modern archaeologists to deduce the purpose of the Throne Room. Archaeologists, scholars, and visitors all agree on one thing without a doubt: Knossos is a magical place of profound beauty and fascinating history.