The Ancient Minoans Aegean Empire

Around 1500 BC, the great Minoan civilization thrived on the islands of Crete and Santorin in the eastern Mediterranean. A guided tour of the legendary sites at Akrotiri, Phasestus, Ayía Triáda and Knosses culminates in a visit to the palace of Minos, famous for its mythical labyrinth.

Minoans were traders, and their cultural contacts reached far beyond the island of Crete — to Egypt’s Old Kingdom, to copper-bearing Cyprus, Canaan, and the Levantine coasts beyond, and to Anatolia. In late 2009, Minoan-style frescoes and other Minoan-style artifacts were discovered during excavations of the Canaanite palace at Tel Kabri, Israel, leading archaeologists to conclude that the Minoan influence was the strongest foreign influence on that Caananite city state. These are the only Minoan remains ever found in Israel.

Minoan techniques and styles in ceramics also provided models, of fluctuating influence, for Helladic Greece. Along with the familiar example of Thera, Minoan “colonies” can be found first at Kastri on Cythera, an island close to the Greek mainland that came under Minoan influence in the mid-third millennium (EMII) and remained Minoan in culture for a thousand years, until Mycenaean occupation in the 13th century. The use of the term “colony”, however, like “thalassocracy”, has been criticized in recent years. The Minoan strata there replace a mainland-derived culture in the Early Bronze Age, the earliest Minoan settlement outside Crete.

The Cyclades were in the Minoan cultural orbit, and, closer to Crete, the islands of Karpathos, Saria and Kasos, also contained Minoan colonies, or settlements of Minoan traders, from the Middle Bronze Age (MMI-II). Most of them were abandoned in LMI, but Minoan Karpathos recovered and continued with a Minoan culture until the end of the Bronze Age. Other supposed Minoan colonies, such as that hypothesised by Adolf Furtwängler for Aegina, were later dismissed by scholars. There was a Minoan colony at Ialysos on Rhodes.

Minoan cultural influence indicates an orbit that extended not only throughout the Cyclades (so-called Minoanisation), but in locations such as Egypt and Cyprus. Paintings from the 15th century BC in Thebes, Egypt depict a number of individuals, who are Minoan in appearance, bearing gifts. Inscriptions record these people as coming from Keftiu, or the “islands in the midst of the sea”, and may refer to gift-bringing merchants or officials from Crete.

Certain locations within Crete emphasize it as an “outward looking” society. The Neopalatial site of Kato Zakros, for instance, is located within 100 metres of the modern shore-line, situated within a bay. Its large number of workshops and the richness of its site materials indicate a potential ‘entrepôt’ for import and export. Such activities are elaborated in artistic representations of the sea, including the ‘Flotilla’ fresco from room 5, in the west house at Akrotiri.