Feature Articles – Crete: 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?
by Philip Coppens
The 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. Since 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. The “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. Both 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 lived inside? The 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. (above) scenes of the “Keftiu” at Egyptian courts. (below) scene from Cretan palaces. 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 the Afterlife?
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. Hard 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. Evans 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” of Egypt.
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.” In 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 discovered. Minoan artefact found in Avaris More 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. The 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.