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The Minoans of Crete

More than 100 years after it was first discovered, the town of Gournia is once again redefining the island's past

By JARRETT A. LOBELL

Monday, April 06, 2015

Minoans Crete Gournia City

 

I know a place where there are a lot of old things,” a peasant named George Perakis told the schoolmaster of the small village of Vasiliki, on the island of Crete, in the spring of 1901. Aware of a visiting American archaeologist’s anxious search to find a site of her own to excavate, the schoolmaster arranged for Perakis and his brother Nicholas to take Harriet Boyd and her colleague Blanche Wheeler to Gournia, four miles northwest of the village. Over several hours on May 19 Boyd collected a few potsherds and located the tops of several ancient walls, enough to convince her it was worth sending a team of workmen to the site the next morning. When she arrived at Gournia on the afternoon of the 20th, Boyd was astonished to see the men holding a bronze spear and sickle and numerous fragments of stone and pottery vessels, and clearing the threshold of a house and a well-paved road complete with a clay gutter. The following day Boyd returned with 51 workmen, and within three days, additional houses and roads had been uncovered, as well as more vases and bronze tools, making her certain that she had found what she was seeking—a Bronze Age settlement of what she called “the best period of Cretan civilization.” During three seasons ending in 1904, Boyd and her team, which averaged more than a hundred workmen along with a number of local girls whose job was to wash the finds, excavated the remains of an ancient town that had lain buried and unknown for nearly 3,500 years.

 

Boyd couldn’t have come to Crete at a better time. During the years that she worked there at the start of the twentieth century, a new, uniquely Cretan, Bronze Age civilization was starting to be uncovered. In 1900, British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans had begun digging at the site of Knossos on the northeast coast of Crete and, within months, had discovered what he named the “Palace of Minos,” after the legendary king of Crete whose labyrinth was once believed to contain the half-man, half-bull creature known as the Minotaur. Evans later used the name “Minoan” to describe the civilization, a term that had first been employed by the German scholar Karl Hoeck in 1823 in his history of Crete.

 

Although his interpretation of Knossos as the palace of Minos, and indeed some of his characterizations of Minoan civilization, have been disputed or even disproved over the last century, Evans’ pioneering work in Crete and his recognition of Minoan culture as something distinct from the Neolithic culture that preceded it, or the various cultures, including the Mycenaeans, that followed, cannot be understated.

 

Minoans Crete Gournia Archival PhotographWhen Harriet Boyd went looking for that “best period,” then, she wanted to find Minoans. At Gournia, she discovered something of a completely different nature from Evans’ palace. Now, more than a hundred years after she began her search, a new team of archaeologists is continuing what she began, re-excavating some of the spaces she first uncovered, and digging completely new areas in order to add to the picture of a very ancient civilization that developed at the same time as the Great Pyramid and Stonehenge were built, and about which many questions remain.

 

The Cult of Amun

In the epic rivalry between ancient Egypt and Nubia, one god had enduring appeal

By DANIEL WEISS

Friday, April 17, 2015

Nubia Cult of Amun Aerial

 

In its 3,000-year history as a state, ancient Egypt had a complicated, constantly changing set of relations with neighboring powers. With the Libyans to the west and the Babylonians, Hittites, Assyrians, and Persians to the northeast, Egypt by turns waged war, forged treaties, and engaged in mutually beneficial trade. But Egypt’s most important and enduring relationship was, arguably, with its neighbor to the south, Nubia, which occupied a region that is now in Sudan. The two cultures were connected by the Nile River, whose annual flooding made civilization possible in an otherwise harsh desert environment. Through their shared history, Egyptians and Nubians also came to worship the same chief god, Amun, who was closely allied with kingship and played an important role as the two civilizations vied for supremacy.

 

During its Middle and New Kingdoms, which spanned the second millennium B.C., Egypt pushed its way into Nubia, ultimately conquering and making it a colonial province. The Egyptians were drawn by the land’s rich store of natural resources, including ebony, ivory, animal skins, and, most importantly, gold. As they expanded their control of Nubia, the Egyptians built a number of temples to Amun, the largest of which stood at the foot of a holy mountain called Jebel Barkal. This the Egyptians declared to be the god’s southern home, thereby conceptualizing Egypt and Nubia as a unified whole and justifying their rule of both. After Egypt’s New Kingdom collapsed around 1069 B.C., the kingdom of Kush rose in Nubia, with its court based in Napata, the town adjacent to Jebel Barkal. The Egyptian colonizers may have been gone, but their religious legacy lived on, as the Kushite rulers were by this time fervently devoted to Amun. Just as the Egyptians had used the god to validate their conquest of Nubia, the Kushites now returned the favor. During a period of discord in Egypt, the Kushite king Piye first secured Amun’s northern home, in Karnak, Egypt. Then, claiming to act on the god’s behalf to restore unified control of Nubia and Egypt, he conquered the rest of Egypt and, in 728 B.C., became the first in a line of Kushite pharaohs who ruled Egypt for around 70 years.

 

Nubia Cult of Amun Rams HeadThe cult of Amun remained central to religion—and politics—in Nubia for centuries to come. This has been illustrated by the findings of an excavation in Dangeil, a royal Kushite town on the banks of the Nile south of Napata. The excavation, which has been carried out since 2000 with support from Sudan’s National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums, the British Museum, and the Nubian Archaeological Development Organization (Qatar-Sudan), has turned up evidence of what may have been a series of temples to Amun that stood on the same location for around a thousand years in all—from the period when Kushite pharaohs ruled Egypt to the first few centuries A.D., when Kushite civilization entered a new golden age and Egypt served as a Roman colony.

 

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