the island-based Minoan culture suddenly made a leap forward around 2000 BCE and became the first advanced civilization of Europe. The sudden takeoff may have been stimulated by trading contact with Mesopotamia through Levant ports or through contact with Egypt. One theory, suggested by Sir Arthur Evans (the amateur archaeologist who unearthed the ruins of Knossos), postulated that refugees from Egypt may have emigrated to Crete and brought technology and ideas with them. But this notion has been invalidated by scientists studying the mitochondrial DNA of samples taken from the teeth and bones of ancient inhabitants of Crete.
The Minoan culture was centered on the island of Crete, but extended to other nearby islands, including Thera and Rhodes. They may have colonized the Anatolian coast at Miletus and elsewhere. Through the extension of trade, they influenced the developing Greek culture on the mainland and other Aegean islands.
The Palace of Knossos on the Greek island of Crete was the capital of the Minoan civilization. Situated on the Kephala Hill near the modern-day city of Heraklion, the site was first occupied during Neolithic times (c. 8,000 BCE).
Rise to Power
The Minoans were an economic power, not a military one. They preserved their economic advantage by apparently controlling ship traffic in the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas. For approximately 800 years, they dominated trade in these regions. They were so secure on their islands, protected by their ships, that they never fortified their cities.
The great palace at Knossos was also a giant warehouse. The distribution of food and other goods may have been organized from here. The only king whose name survives was Minos. It may be that the word minos referred to the office, not the man, like the Egyptian term pharaoh.
Economy and Trade
Crete was rich in natural resources, including farmland, water supplies, timber, copper, building stone, and access to the sea. The Minoans were prosperous thanks to agriculture and fishing but grew rich primarily on trade.
The Minoans developed a hieroglyphic writing system around 2000 BCE, perhaps following trading contact with the Egyptians. By 1900 BCE they had developed a new script now called Linear A. Linear B (a third script) came into use at Knossos around 1450 BCE.
The Minoans seem to have prominently worshiped a Great Goddess, which had previously led to the belief that their society was matriarchal. However it is now known that this was not the case; the Minoan pantheon featured many deities, among which a young, spear-wielding male god is also prominent. Some scholars see in the Minoan Goddess a female divine solar figure. Although some depictions of women may be images of worshipers and priestesses officiating at religious ceremonies (as opposed to deities), goddesses seem to include a mother goddess of fertility, a goddess of animals and female protectors of cities, the household, the harvest and the underworld. They are often represented by serpents, birds, poppies or an animal on the head.
The Minoans had little apparent need for an army, relying instead on the Minoan Navy to keep any enemies from approaching. Minoan ships were galleys, manned by rowers on both sides. Narrow galleys were fast and maneuverable, allowing them to overtake slower sailing ships of the day. They did not employ rams at this early date, according to the evidence of surviving artwork.
Decline and Collapse
The idyllic life of the Minoans was disrupted by natural disasters. The archaeological remains indicate that the palace of Knossos was destroyed by an earthquake in 1700 BCE and rebuilt. The nearby island of Thera was partially sunk by a volcanic eruption, and the resulting tidal wave probably struck Crete, causing extensive damage. The Minoan culture suffered from recurrent earthquakes and the Thera explosion, but the extent of the damage and its effect on their civilization is debated.
There are two main scenarios for the end of the Minoan culture. According to the oldest theory, mainland Greeks invaded around 1420 BCE, essentially destroying the culture, although it lingered for 250 years more until mainland Greece itself was overrun. In the second scenario, based on more recent research, the Minoans suffered a cataclysmic natural disaster resulting in a loosening of their control of sea trade and movement, but did not succumb to the mainland Greeks. External invasions instead destroyed the Minoans, along with the Mycenaeans on the mainland, as part of the so-called Sea People invasion of 1200 BCE. Evidence suggests that by 1180 BCE the Cretans had moved from coastal towns and palaces to defensive city sites high in the hills. Attacks and the threat of further assaults were the probable cause of this shift.