The Minoan Palace culture of Crete arose at about 2000 BCE. Early on the Minoans had close contacts with other regions of the eastern Mediterranean including Egypt. Excavations show that the culture was not homogeneous, because the artifacts vary from region to region. Therefore, it is conceivable that some settlements in Crete served as trading bases for various surrounding countries. The downfall of the Minoan civilization is probably due to a conquest by the Mycenaeans around 1430 BCE.
Current State of knowledge
The Minoan civilization on Crete is considered to be the earliest advanced civilization in Europe. At about 2000 BCE, palaces were erected at Knossos, Malia, Phaistos and Petras. They served as domiciles of the political and religious elites, administrative centers with ritual functions and reloading points for commodities. Actual cities with sophisticated drinking water and wastewater systems arose in densely populated areas. The complex society included distinct professions such as fishermen, rowers, captains, soldiers, writers, potters, painters, builders, architects and musicians.
The rise of the palaces was accompanied by the introduction of script and intensified trade relations with other regions in the Eastern Mediterranean. Archaeological finds indicate that the Minoan culture had an impact on the entire Eastern Mediterranean. Cretan influence is visible on the islands of Thera, Kythira, Milos and Rhodes as well as at Miletus in Asia Minor and, possibly, on Cyprus. Close relations also existed with Egypt: Until around 1400 BCE, images of Cretan delegations were painted on Egyptian tomb walls. Inscriptions in Mesopotamia testify to contacts with this region as well.
The so-called Old Palace Period came to an abrupt end in the 17th century BCE. Most researchers suspect that an earthquake caused the destruction. The palaces were quickly rebuilt; only the settlement at Monastiraki remained deserted.
Around 1430 BCE, traces of fires and destruction once again appeared across all of Crete. The majority of researchers now assume that these were signs of conquest by Mycenaean forces. The once popular theory that the coastal cities fell victim to the volcanic eruption of Thera (Santorini) and, possibly, a subsequent tsunami, has now been ruled out. Alternative hypotheses – a number of major earthquakes, the loss of markets, or civil unrest – cannot be substantiated. It is, however, certain that Mycenaean rulers captured the palace of Knossos and continued to govern from there until at least 1375 BCE. The island was not spared from upheavals around 1200 BCE either. Nevertheless the Minoan-Mycenaean culture continued to exist until about 1050 BCE.
Invasions rather than natural disasters
The palace culture, featuring its characteristic architecture, hieroglyphic writing and sophisticated administration system including seals, appeared so suddenly on Crete that a transfer from Asia Minor and/or Syria/Palestine is likely. Apparently, the Middle Bronze Age civilization on Crete was not really homogeneous. The material culture, as revealed through excavations, often differs from site to site or from one region to the next. So it could very well be that the different settlements located on the island were used as bases or mainstays by different cultures from the surrounding mainland (including Luwian territories). Homer, too, speaks of Crete as a place with “peoples of various stems and various kinds of tongues,” including noble Pelasgians (Odyssey 19.172–179) – a tribe whose core area some scholars assume to have been south of Troy.
Appealing to an earthquake to explain the destruction in 1700 BCE does not make sense for a number of reasons. There are no tectonic faults on Crete that would be sufficiently long enough to cause earthquakes across the entire island. In addition, the old palaces show no damage caused by liquefaction of soil, which would be typical for earthquakes. In Apodoulou, dry stone walls, more than two meters high, have remained perfectly intact. In Monastiraki, all valuable portable items, such as jewelry, bronze objects and seals, were removed, and some residents even sacrificed to the gods immediately prior to the disaster. Traces of fires suggest attacks by external or internal enemies, rather than a natural disaster, as the cause of the collapse.
The effects of the eruption of Thera that probably started during the spring of 1628 BCE have been overestimated. The volcanic eruption and the destruction of the Minoan civilization do not coincide. Less well known is the fact that the caldera of Thera could not have collapsed during the Minoan eruption – it probably formed as much as a hundred thousand years earlier. Older stratified sediments were found inside the caldera and the pumice that was ejected during the Minoan eruption is not tectonically disturbed anywhere. Furthermore, the settlement in Akrotiri would have been annihilated by a massive tectonic collapse. Without a collapsing caldera there is no trigger mechanism for a tsunami.
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McCoy, Floyd W. & Grant Heiken (2000): Volcanic Hazards and Disasters in Human Antiquity. Geological Society of America Special Papers 345, Geological Society of America, Boulder, Colorado, 1-345.
Niemeier, Wolf-Dietrich (2009): “Milet und Karien vom Neolithikum bis zu den ‘Dunklen Jahrhunderten’ – Mythos und Archäologie.” In: Die Karer und die Anderen. Frank Rumscheid (ed.), Rudolf Habelt, Bonn, 7-25.
Zangger, Eberhard (1998): “Naturkatastrophen in der ägäischen Bronzezeit. Forschungsgeschichte, Signifikanz und Beurteilungskriterien.” In: Naturkatastrophen in der antiken Welt. Eckart Olshausen & Holger Sonnabend (eds.), Stuttgarter Kolloquium zur Historischen Geographie des Altertums 10, Franz Steiner Verlag, Stuttgart, 211-241.
The Minoans were almost certainly descended from migrants who had arrived from Anatolia.
David Abulafia 2011, 22
It has long been recognized that during the Middle Bronze Age Asia Minor and Crete must also have been in contact. This is indicated by similarities in the architectural design of the palaces in both areas, the relationship between motifs on clay seals … and finally through the fact that the only surviving vessel made of precious metal dating to the Old Palace Period shows an Anatolian vessel type, which was also imitated on Crete in clay.
Wolf-Dietrich Niemeier 2009, 11
Earthquakes … have had little, if any, serious influence on historical developments in the Middle and Near East. … They have never caused the ruin of a culturally advanced state, far less the end of a civilization.
Nicholas Ambraseys 1973, 230