KNOSSOS, the largest and most important of the Minoan palaces, and the most visited, lies some 5km southeast of Iráklion. The mythological home of King Minos and the Minotaur, it dates from the second millennium BC, and its vast interconnected rooms and corridors provide a fitting backdrop to the legend.

The discovery of the palace is among the most amazing tales of modern archeology. Heinrich Schliemann, the German excavator of Troy, suspected that a major Minoan palace lay under the various tumuli here, but was denied the permission to dig by the local Ottoman authorities. It was left for Sir Arthur Evans who excavated and liberally “restored” the palace from 1900 onwards. His restorations have been the source of furious controversy among archeologists ever since. Even so, his guess as to what the palace might have looked like is certainly as good as anyone’s, and it makes Crete’s other Minoan sites infinitely more meaningful if you have seen Knossos first.

The site

As soon as you enter the Palace of Knossos through the West Court, the ancient ceremonial entrance, it is clear how the legends of the labyrinth grew up around it. Even with a detailed plan, it’s almost impossible to find your way around the complex with any success, although a series of timber walkways channels visitors around the site, severely restricting the scope for independent exploration. If you haven’t hired a guide and are worried about missing the highlights, you can always tag along with a group for a while, catching the patter and then backtracking to absorb the detail when the crowd has moved on. You won’t get the place to yourself, whenever you come, but exploring on your own does give you the opportunity to appreciate individual parts of the palace in the brief lulls between groups.

For some idea of the size and complexity of the palace in its original state, take a look at the cutaway drawings (wholly imaginary but probably not too far off) on sale outside.

Royal Apartments

The superb Royal Apartments around the central staircase are not guesswork, and they are plainly the finest of the rooms at Knossos. The Grand Stairway itself is a masterpiece of design, its large well bringing light into the lower storeys.

In the Queen’s Suite, off the grand Hall of the Colonnades at the bottom of the staircase, the main living room is decorated with the celebrated dolphin fresco – it’s a reproduction; the original is now in the Iráklion Archeological Museum – and with running friezes of flowers and abstract spirals. Remember, though, that all this is speculation; the dolphin fresco, for example, was found on the courtyard floor, not in the room itself, and would have been viewed from an upper balcony as a sort of trompe l’oeil, like looking through a glass-bottomed boat. A dark passage leads around to the queen’s bathroom and a clay tub, the famous “flushing” toilet (a hole in the ground with drains to take the waste away – it was flushed by throwing a bucket of water down).

The much-perused drainage system was a series of interconnecting terracotta pipes running underneath most of the palace. Guides to the site never fail to point these out as evidence of the advanced state of Minoan civilization.

The Grand Stairway ascends to the floor above the queen’s domain, and the King’s Quarters; the staircase opens into a grandiose reception chamber known as the Hall of the Royal Guard, its walls decorated in repeated shield patterns. Immediately off here is the Hall of the Double Axes (or the King’s Room); believed to have been the ruler’s personal chamber, its name comes from the double-axe symbol carved into every block of masonry.

The Throne Room

At the top of the Grand Stairway you emerge onto the broad Central Court; on the far side, in the northwestern corner, is the entrance to another of Knossos’s most atmospheric survivals, the Throne Room. Here, a worn stone throne – with its hollowed shaping for the posterior – sits against the wall of a surprisingly small chamber; along the walls around it are ranged stone benches, suggesting a king ruling in council, and behind there’s a reconstructed fresco of two griffins.

The rest of the palace

Try not to miss the giant pithoi in the northeast quadrant of the site, an area known as the palace workshops; other must-see areas and features include the storage chambers (which you see from behind the Throne Room), the reproduced frescoes in the reconstructed room above it, the fresco of the Priest-King looking down on the south side of the central court, and the relief of a charging bull on its north side. Just outside the North Entrance is the theatral area (another Evans designation), an open space a little like a stepped amphitheatre, which may have been used for ritual performances or dances. From here the Royal Road, claimed as the oldest road in Europe, sets out. Circling back around the outside of the palace, you can get an idea of its scale by looking up at it; on the south side are a couple of small reconstructed Minoan houses which are worth exploring.

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