the Egyptian island of the dead?
Crete has been
the home to an enigmatic civilisation for more than 3000 years.
Could it be that the island, however, was an Egyptian colony,
with care for the dead their primary occupation?
island of Crete, south of mainland Greece, is popular with many
modern sun worshippers who seek out the island for their holidays.
But it is also the mythical birthplace of many Greek deities,
including the head of their pantheon, Zeus. Crete’s Minoan
civilisation – a Bronze Age culture that flourished from
approximately 2700 to 1450 BC – predated tbullhe Greek civilisation
by several centuries. Though it took until the 20th century before
Crete was recognized as a major civilisation, it should have been
obvious that this centrally located island in the Mediterranean
Sea was an ideal port of call for all traders and travellers,
if only because the island itself was rich in iron. Unsurprisingly,
artefacts from the Middle East, Mesopotamia, Mycenae (Greece)
and Egypt have all been found on the island. Archaeologists pose
that the island traded with all of these civilisations, benefiting
as a result in its own, distinct civilisation, personified in
the “palace culture” of Knossos and other towns.
The man who put Crete on the archaeological map was Arthur Evans,
an English archaeologist who excavated Knossos from 1900 onwards,
having purchased the site on which the ruins were located. As
excavations progressed, the palace, located in the hills south
of the capital Heraklion, was quickly identified with the legendary
site of the “Palace of King Minos” – the “Minoan
civilisation” was coined.
Evans’ time, it is accepted that the palace culture of Crete
was that of a trading empire, typified by lavish and large palaces,
which can therefore often be found along the coastline, rather
than in the heartland or mountainous regions.
But according to the German geologist Hans Wunderlich, Crete’s
history has been harshly misinterpreted. Whereas there is a now
a more common consensus that the initial conclusions reached by
Evans about the Minoan civilisation are part modern invention,
part based on archaeological discoveries, the framework of the
“Minoan civilisation” has not been publicly criticised
as much as it perhaps should have been. Wunderlich, however, spoke
up against that status quo in the 1970s, and rather than just
argue against the conclusions, also put forward a theory of his
own about what Crete might have been. Three decades later, Wunderlich’s
interpretation has remained a hot topic of debate, though as it
does not involve aliens or Atlantis, it has not captured the attention
it should perhaps deserve.
“Minoan legacy” is the presence of several immense
and complex buildings – palaces – built over several
floors. One problem is that there is more than one palace –
it is unlikely that all of these were palaces for a central king.
It has therefore been argued that these were “secondary”
palaces that controlled “regions”.
All palaces all adhere to the same design: they are situated on
lowlands, are close to the seashore, often aligned to important
mountains, or more particularly: mountains with important caves,
sometimes mythically connected with the birthplace or the place
of burial of deities, Zeus in particular.
These observations allow for the argument that the “palaces”
could more likely be “temples” – that their
purpose is more religious than residential. For sure, archaeologists
are quick to point out that certain parts of the palaces definitely
had a religious function. But some go further. In fact, archaeologist
Oswald Spengler stated in 1935 that these “palaces”
were temples for the dead. The Minoan royal throne to him was
not the seat from which the king held audiences, but instead the
seat for a religious image or a priest’s mummy.
His opinion was not taken seriously, as it went against the –
still – accepted belief and Spengler himself could not pursue
his own line of thinking as he died the year following the publication
of his thesis. Hans Georg Wunderlich continued where Spengler
had left off.
Wunderlich and Spengler noted that the state of the palaces was
particularly bizarre. Thousands of people are believed to have
roamed the corridors of the Palace of Knossos, but the staircases
throughout the complex look as if they have never been used! Most
sections of the complex reveal no sign of usage, or age. This
in itself is bizarre. It is all the stranger as the material used
was gypsum, a very soft material. Why they used this inferior
material to the widely available marble-like limestone, is a great
mystery – if the palace was meant for the living.
Still, some argue whether the dead had any need for a sewage system,
of such complexity that it would take until Roman times before
a similar construction could be seen. There is apparently even
a bathroom with a flushing toilet, though there is some discussion
whether this is an original find, or an “addition”
made by Evans. Evans did many reconstructions throughout the complex,
and some of these have been labelled “unfortunate”,
as they are felt to be more in line with the early 20th century
culture than with that of the ancient Minoans. But the problem,
once again, is that the so-called bathrooms are faced with gypsum
too – and that substance and running water are mutually
exclusive, as it is not resistant to it.
Most remarkable, however, is the fact that the ancient Minoans
did not leave much behind – little waste, not many utensils,
etc. have been found within the ruins… perhaps because no-one
Palace of Knossos is famous for its depictions of white women
and red men. The scenes depict processions, the men dressed in
skirts. But the most remarkable aspect of these scenes is that
they are identical with scenes – and equally old –
found in Egyptian temples. They speak of an island, identified
in Egyptian sources as “Keftiu” – Crete.
For a very long period, it was felt that the Minoan and Egyptian
civilisations evolved independent from one another, a thesis still
adhered to by some historians. But these discoveries contradicted
this assumption. It revealed that in the 18th Dynasty (ca. 1600-1500
BC), when Crete reached its apogee, there was an intense exchange
between the two civilisations.
Some archaeologists have interpreted the processions as nothing
more than “state visits” and exchange of gifts, i.e.
forms of diplomacy, between Crete and Egypt, thus trying to keep
the status of an independent Crete intact. But there is evidence
that does not support this conclusion. The scenes were depicted
in Egyptian graves and the processions were clearly linked with
the dead. This makes Crete directly linked with the Egyptian dead.
It was such evidence that led Wunderlich to revisit Spengler’s
opinion. He came to the conclusion that the palaces were not built
for a living king… but for a dead one; that sections of
the palace were clearly designed to allow for the storage of the
remains of the dead. And Wunderlich argued that this was the main
reason behind the close alliance between Crete and Egypt, going
as far as to suggest that the practice of mummification in Egypt
was performed by Cretans – and that the mummification itself
might have occurred in Crete.
The bull was important both in Crete and Egypt. In Egypt, the
animal is linked with the deceased king, whereas the bull is depicted
on all Minoan monuments, though its specification function is
unclear, because of the absence of any knowledge on the Minoan
religion. The palaces depict lilies and lotus flowers, plants
that had an important, religious function in Egypt.
The Minoan palaces have a depiction of what is known as “bull
leaping”: people performing acrobatics on a leaping bull.
Experts have identified that this form of acrobatics is physically
impossible – humans and bulls cannot interact in such a
manner. The question is therefore whether these scenes depict
“imaginary” scenes, i.e. scenes that might occur in
Wunderlich also noted that the name of king Minos is identical
to the first king of the Egyptian First Dynasty, Menes. But in
the Homeric legends, Minos is not so much king, as a judge, “wielding
a golden sceptre while dispensing laws among the dead.”
If Minos ruled Crete, Crete was therefore an island of the dead.
archaeological evidence cementing a link between Crete and Egypt
comes in the form of the Haga Triada sarcophagus – the perfect
object in discussing funerary similarities. It depicts a griffin
wagon and the sacrifice of a bull, but most importantly, offerings
being made to the dead, shown in upright posture. The ceremony
was performed in the open air, before the deceased was moved to
an underground vault, where he received the horns and the blood
of the bull. Likely not coincidentally, models of sacrificed animals
have been found in great number in the Cretan palaces. Though
the scene shows the mummy upright, later, the position seems to
have been changed to sitting – the reason why Spengler speculated
the “royal throne” might have accommodated a mummy.
Wunderlich asks – rightfully – why “the selfsame
cult objects depicted on the sarcophagus should have been found
in, of all places, the so-called domestic quarters of the king
in the Palace of Knossos? If so, that the king was no longer among
the living when he dwelt in these rooms! For the rooms identified
by Sir Arthur Evans as living quarters evidently served for the
performance of a ceremony such as is depicted on the Hagia Triada
sarcophagus: the invocation and ritual veneration of a dead, not
a living, person.” Indeed, Wunderlich argues that what Evans
interpreted as a bathtub was actually an oval sarcophagus. The
ventilation openings in the bottom, to help preserve the dried
mummies, Evans took as drainage holes for the bathwater.
himself saw the strong Egyptian artistic influence: “This
accumulating evidence of early intercourse with the Nile Valley
cannot certainly surprise the traveler fresh from exploring site
after site of primeval cities which once looked forth from the
southern spurs of Dikta far across the Libyan Sea, and whose roadsteads,
given a favourable wind, are within forty hours’ sail of
the Delta.” Wunderlich went even further and suggested that
Crete in essence was no civilisation, but a “vassal state”
Still, Evans was reluctant to endorse the Egyptian theme, even
when in March 1904, a tomb was discovered that contained an Egyptian
basalt bowl, many Egyptian alabaster bases, an Egyptian lapis
lazuli necklace with pendant figures, with the tomb itself –
known as the Royal Tomb of Isopata, destroyed in 1942 –
resembling the rectangular layout of the tombs of Egyptian nobles
at Thebes. Still, writing to his father, he did remark: “It
is curious what an Egyptian element there is.” J. Alexander
MacGillivray has commented how Evans “continued to maintain
that Minoan culture was independent of Egypt, even as he personally
continued to gather evidence to the contrary.”
1991, in the Egyptian Nile Delta, a team of Austrian archaeologists
led by Manfred Bietak discovered a palace complex in Tel ed-Daba
(Avaris). An area on the western edge of the site, known as Ezbet
Helmi, revealed a large palace-like structure dating to the Hyksos
period (18th century BC). The ancient gardens revealed many fragments
of Minoan wall-paintings, similar in style to those found in the
palace at Knossos in Crete. It was not the first such discovery
as German archaeologist Eduard Meyer had found Knossos-like paintings
in the tombs of the necropolis of Thebes West.
It has been suggested that the Avaris paintings with a distinctive
red-painted background may even pre-date those of Crete and Thera
and possibly have influenced some of the 18th Dynasty tomb paintings
that appear to include Minoan themes such as the “flying
gallop” motif of horses and bulls. In the 18th Dynasty strata
of Ezbet Helmi, Dr Bietak also discovered many lumps of pumice-stone,
which could have come from the volcanic explosion on the island
of Thera, occurring in the 15th century BC and identified as the
cataclysmic event that ended the Minoan civilisation.
That was the end, but are the Hyksos, who ruled from Avaris, linked
with Crete? Indeed, they ruled shortly before the 18th Dynasty,
which saw the exchange of Egyptian and Cretan “goods”.
The origin of the Hyksos was originally attributed to the Middle
East, possibly of Semitic origins – should we look into
the other direction? Indeed, the well-known Israeli archaeologist
Yigael Yadin had reached the conclusion that the Hyksos were connected
with Crete, at a time when the Avaris frescos had not yet been
artefact found in Avaris
recently, the question of who the Hyksos were has been reopened.
Linear A and B are two scripts found on the island of Crete. The
newer Linear B was deciphered in 1953 by Michael Ventras and turned
out to be Greek. Interestingly, in 1971, Dutch archaeologist and
historian Jan Best claimed that he had deciphered Linear A and
had found a connection between Minoan Crete and the Hyksos. Linear
A, he argued, was Semitic, related to the languages of Ugarit
and Alalach in Syria.
There is more evidence. In Knossos, an alabaster lid with the
name of the Hyksos king Khyan has been found. The enigmatic Phaistos
Disc, found in the palace of Phaistos on Crete, might also be
linked with the Egyptian game of Senet and Snake Game. H. Peter
Aleff argues that the depictions are not a script, but are related
to the signs of the board game. Senet was a popular pastime in
ancient Egypt from late pre-dynastic times on and is well documented
because it became an important part of the funerary magic and
then evolved into today's Backgammon. Its pieces simulated the
passage of the player through life and, even more importantly,
through death and its perils. The oldest surviving copy of any
known board game is the Snake Game. It helped at least one king
in the Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts to ascend to heaven and so seems
to have represented the same journey, except that its path was
not folded, as in Senet, but coiled into the spiral of a snake's
rolled-up body. On one of its sculpted stone boards, the tail
of the snake ended in the head of a goose.
During the Middle Kingdom (1500 BC), the dead in Egypt were buried
in valleys – the same practice was adhered to in Crete,
with one of the more famous Valley of the Dead behind the Palace
of Kato Zakros. Namewise, Zakros is similar to Saqqara and Sokar,
an important necropolis and god of the dead in ancient Egypt.
Interestingly, the ancient Egyptians argued that the dead went
to live on an island in the West. Crete is an island in the west.
Furthermore, the concentration of Minoan civilisation is in Eastern
Crete – the part closest to Egypt.
1991 discovery has revealed that there is indeed a close relationship
between Egypt and Crete… and the enigmatic Hyksos. Were
they inhabitants from Crete that departed to Egypt? The Hyksos
period coincides exactly with the time between the Old and New
Palace Period on Crete. When the Hyksos invaded Egypt, the old
palaces were destroyed, probably by an earthquake. Did the Hyksos
(partly) come from Crete? Or did the Hyksos, once out of grace
and power in Egypt, travel to Crete, to continue their culture
there? The right answer will have a lot to do with correct dating
and many have argued that the chronological alignment of the various
cultures in the Eastern Mediterranean has not been a complete
success. Only the future will shed more light on the interrelationship
between Egypt and Crete, but it can no longer be denied that the
two civilisations had intimate contacts with one another.
This article originally appeared in Frontier Magazine
6.1 (January-February 2000) and was adapted twice since.