June 8, Knossos

WAAAY BACK IN TIME

Before Shakespeare, before Julius Caesar, before the Trojan War, before Abraham, there were the Minoans. They lived on Crete, traded around the Mediterranean, and used tools of bronze. Yes, they helped bring us out of the Stone Age, making possible Facebook and Diet Coke.

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I had heard of the Palace of Knossos and the amazing stuff they’d found inside, but didn’t know exactly how excited to be when it was offered on this trip’s itinerary. After all, you’ve seen one excavated ancient site, etc.

The day actually started the day before, at the last stop in Chania. They’d suffered an earthquake there in the 1970s, and various residential areas were rebuilt at different times. By the time the less touristy area behind the harbor was to be rebuilt, the rubble had revealed the remains of Kydonia, a fancy Minoan neighborhood. An entire square block has now been excavated and is open to the public. The original foundation blocks, stairways, altars, and other features were as clearly laid out as your local supermarket.

From 2500BC. It was the oldest thing I’d ever seen outside a museum.

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There was more of that to come today. After a drive east across northern Crete, we stopped at the Palace of Knossos, parking alongside a horde of busses.

Although my trusty guide Emmanuel could whisk us in ahead of the enormous queue of cruise-shipped, bussed-in people, he couldn’t make the people already up on the site disappear. Despite 95-degree heat, the enormous site was covered with selfie-taking, name-tagged (“Group 9, Jurgen”), guide-following, sandal-and-sock-wearing, sweating (as was I), nattering (as I was NOT), toilet-needing (as was I), tourists, herded from one amazing pile of ancient stones to another.

(Memo to self: do not reveal prejudices about people blowing into tiny remote sites on cruise ships that carry 6,000 people, overwhelming local harbors and delicate cultural treasures that can’t possibly accommodate them.)

Ahem. The 4,000-year-old Palace was discovered a century ago by British adventurer Arthur Evans. Using the era’s physical tools, primitive professional standards, and his own can-do enthusiasm (and family fortune), he hired gangs of locals and dug up the site, larger than all of Yankee Stadium. And “restored” all over the place with artists and oh, no—poured concrete.

Bad move. Like discovering half the Mona Lisa and “restoring” the other half with magic marker. Or discovering half of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and asking Miley Cyrus to “restore” the other half. The concrete expands over time (sun, rain, repeat thousands of times), breaking the old stone. Or hides and damages everything beneath it.

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But Evans didn’t loot the place, he meant well, and he generally loved the site and all it revealed. So today we have access to it. The site—again, it’s over 4,000 years old and a city of 18,000 people—is remarkable: A working sewer system. Multiple stories, terraced into a hill. Fronted by the first paved road in Europe. Fifteen hundred rooms (the source of the word “labyrinth”). Perfectly oriented north-south to take advantage of the sun’s rays, with gently sloping flat roofs to capture rain water.

Thanks to no-looting Evans, many artifacts are on view in the newly-refurbished museum in modern Iraklion, just a few minutes from the excavation. We went straight there (ignoring the old Venetian-era town—ho hum), had a quick lunch (Greek salad in a crepe, which tasted exactly like all the other Greek salads I’ve been eating here), and entered the museum. Fortunately, most of the tourists I’d seen at the site were either in town shopping or had headed back to their respective Love Boats.

I never thought I’d say this, but two-and-half hours in the museum flew by like minutes. Artifacts that might have been mildly interesting in New York or London were riveting here, just minutes from where they’d been uncovered back in 1900.

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The gold jewelry—exquisitely delicate. The pottery—amazingly fluid and expressive. The bookkeeping tablets in Linear B (the precursor of ancient Greek)—absolutely thrilling, just hours after Emmanuel had pointed to the royal clerk’s room where they’d been found. Reliefs of the Minoan Bull that was the center of their religion—practically breathing right in front of me, eyes and nostrils bulging. A vibrantly painted sarcophagus featured scenes incorporating many of these images into a farewell scene.

My feet hurt and my shirt was sticking to my body. I was anchored firmly in 2500 BCE, and almost nothing could dislodge me. Except I had a plane to catch.

Which is exactly how modern life works.

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