Chronicle 27. AN ARCHAEOLOGIST’S WATERLOO
/ΕΛΛΗΝΙΚΑ/ Χρονικό 27. ΤΟ ΒΑΤΕΡΛΩ ΕΝΟΣ ΑΡΧΑΙΟΛΟΓΟΥ
● Emporia in Egypt and the Levant ● Leonard Woolley’s Waterloo ● Itinerant Minoan Artists ● Creto-Egyptian Ties ● Differences Between Minoan and Pharaonic Society and Art
… Hope the voyage is a long one…
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbours seen for the first time!
May you stop at Phoenician emporia
to buy fine things…
And may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars…
(Constantine P. Cavafy, Ithaca)
UNDER NORMAL CIRCUMSTANCES, in the process of a research, in order to present a topic, you know beforehand in general terms what you’re looking for, while searching for documentation. Sometimes, however, the thread you have in hand to find your way in the “labyrinth of history” leads you to unanticipated landscapes, “into harbours seen for the first time”! Then a strong desire is born to “stop at Phoenician emporia… | and visit many Egyptian cities | to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars”, as Cavafy advises in his Ithaca. These are, indeed, the happiest moments of a research!
It happened exactly that when from the Aegean emporia in the historical space of the Mediterranean, I ended up following itinerant Minoan artists to distant lands! I felt I was obliged to give more information about these emporia, after referring to Naucratis in the previous Chronicle, when I realized I have already used this term several times in connection with colonies or trading posts; but the emporia were not exactly colonies or trading posts, though related to both. Writing in the Encyclopaedia of the Hellenic World about Commercial posts and harbours, Elias Petropoulos tried to clear things out:
“The term emporium denoting a type of settlement or colony first appears in ancient literature rather late, in the 5th century BC. According to some scholars, an emporium should be understood as the locale of the emporos (or merchant), i.e. the traveller carrying commodities. The word emporos etymologically originates from the preposition en and the word poros, meaning sea route. The word appears in Homer’s Odyssey twice. In both cases the epic poet obviously meant a private individual who travelled for professional reasons. Hence we could suppose that the word emporium originated from the word emporos. Unfortunately, this word does not appear on [Mycenaean] Linear B tablets, and this is rather surprising, but it also leads to the obvious conclusion that the word was coined at a later time. Scholarship on the subject argues that the word or term emporium (in the sense of a colony or settlement and not that of a simple commercial transaction or exchange of products) appears first in writing in the work of Herodotus in the mid-5th century BC. By the 4th century BC the word is found written on an inscription (known as ‘the inscription of Pistiros’) which has been unearthed quite recently in a settlement of the modern Bulgarian (ancient Thracian) hinterland, close to Philippopolis…
Emporium < Emporos (< en + poros) = a voyager on a sea route
“According to information we can extract from Melpomene, Herodotus’ fourth book [of Histories], the Black Sea was home to several emporia, as the ancient historian described them… There are also more scattered references in the other eight books of Herodotus. These emporia were located outside the Black Sea, and situated in the Mediterranean. The case of Naucratis among them really puzzles us: the ancient historian mentions it as both a polis and an emporium. Many studies have dealt with this issue, but nevertheless we still cannot determine the early nature of this settlement with certainty. The term usually understood as the opposite of emporium is colony, which is considered as a complete form of settlement in the model of the ancient Greek polis, featuring a distinct form of political and social organization. A colony was obviously established in the context of a predetermined plan of action, and under the auspices of a god (or gods) through an oracle, with every formality on the part of the metropolis, possessing an agricultural hinterland and its own coinage… However, in some cases, an emporium may be characterized as a proto-polis or proto-settlement, in the sense that it could act as an early stage in the foundation of a colony or polis.”
Emporia, according to Wikipedia, were places that the traders of one people had reserved to their business interests within the territory of another people. Except Naucratis, famous emporia in Egypt included Avaris and Sais, where Solon, the Athenian legislator, went “to gather stores of knowledge from its scholars”, in 590 BCE. Similar emporia were founded in the Levant, such as Al-Mina and Posideion in Syria. Sais (or Zau in ancient Egyptian) was located in the western Nile Delta. The city’s patron goddess was Neith. The Greeks, such as Herodotus, Plato and Diodorus Siculus, identified her with Athena and hence postulated a primordial link to Athens. Diodorus recounts that Athena built Sais before the deluge that supposedly destroyed Athens and Atlantis; all Hellenic cities were wiped out in that cataclysm, but the Egyptian cities survived. In Plato’s Timaeus and Critias (around 360 BCE), a priest in Sais entrusted to Solon the story of Atlantis, with its aggression against Greece and Egypt, and its eventual defeat and destruction by a natural catastrophe.(1)
- (1) The story of Atlantis may be connected with either ice melting after the last Ice Age (but Hellas was non-existent then), or the Sea Peoples’ raids and the consequent Bronze Age collapse. This could have been the “cataclysm” that destroyed Greece, while Egypt barely survived… (See the Chronicles 18, 19, 20, especially the last one).
Avaris (today’s Tell el-Dab’a), the capital of Egypt under the Canaanite Hyksos, was also located in the Nile Delta, in the northeastern region. Its position at the hub of Egypt’s emporia made it a major administrative and commercial centre. Excavations have shown there was a busy harbour catering to over 300 ships in a trading season. Artifacts inside the precinct of the palace, possibly a temple, have produced goods from all over the Aegean. Most impressively, there were even Minoan-like wall paintings similar to those found in Crete at the Palace of Knossos. It is speculated that there was close contact with the rulers of Avaris, whoever they were, and the large building with the frescoes allowed the Cretans to have a ritual life in Egypt. French archaeologist Yves Duhoux also proposed the existence of a Minoan colony on an island in the Nile Delta.
Outside of the Aegean, only three sites have an indisputable record of Minoan civilization, one being Avaris in Lower Egypt, the others Kabri and Alalakh in the Levant. Kabri, in Palestine, near the Lebanese border, is notable for its Minoan-style wall paintings. In the summer of 2009, more Aegean-style frescoes were found at the site. Apparently, the Canaanite rulers of the city wished to associate it with the Mediterranean culture and avoid Syrian and Mesopotamian styles of art that other cities in Canaan adopted. Alalakh was a late Bronze Age city-state in the area where Seleucid Antioch would rise by the end of the 4th century BCE. It was occupied from before 2000, when the first palace was built, and destroyed probably in the 12th century by the Sea Peoples (as were many other towns of coastal Anatolia and the Levant). Alalakh was never reoccupied and its place was taken by the nearby port of Al-Mina during the Iron Age.
Al-Mina (“The Port” in Arabic) is the name that archaeologist Leonard Woolley gave to this ancient trading post in the Orontes estuary. According to Woolley, it was an early Hellenic trading colony, founded a little before 800 BCE in direct competition with the Phoenicians to the south. Large amounts of Greek pottery established its early Euboean connections, while the Syrian and Phoenician ware reflected a cultural mix typical of an emporium. The controversy whether it is to be regarded as a native Syrian site, with local architecture and pots, and a Greek presence, or as a Hellenic trading post, has not been resolved. Al-Mina served as an outpost for cultural influences that accompanied commerce with Urartu and Assyria through the shortest caravan route. Pottery recovered from later levels after 700 BCE shows that a Hellenic presence endured through the 4th century BCE, with pottery imported from Miletus and deftly imitated locally, apparently by Greek potters. Al-Mina is a key to understanding the role of early Hellenes in the East at the outset of the Orientalizing period of Greek cultural history. Robin Lane Fox has made a case for the Greek name of the site to have been Potamoi Karon mentioned by Diodorus Siculus; he suggestively linked it to karu (“trading post”) in an Assyrian inscription, which would result to Rivers of Emporia.
Woolley identified Al-Mina with Posideion mentioned by Herodotus and Strabo, but recent scholarship places the latter at Ras al-Bassit, located 53 kilometres north of Latakia (Hellenistic Laodicea) by the Mediterranean. Excavations there revealed a small settlement of the late Bronze Age, when it may have functioned as an outpost of Ugarit to the south. Unlike Ugarit, Bassit survived the passage of the Sea Peoples and into the Iron Age. It had strong links with Phoenicia and Cyprus, and a Greek presence was attested from the 7th century BCE. Posideion expanded and its acropolis was fortified in the Hellenistic period.
Woolley began work at Al-Mina in 1936, after the excavation in Mesopotamia, at Ur, where he discovered Sumerian royal tombs of great wealth. He made up his mind to work by the Mediterranean coast because he was interested in finding ties between the Aegean and the Mesopotamian civilizations, and also wished to throw light, as he wrote, “upon the development of Cretan civilization and its connections with the great civilizations of Nearer Asia”. Disappointed at Al-Mina, as he did not find a Bronze Age port there, he soon moved his interests to the earlier, more urbane site of Alalakh, where he worked before and after World War II (1937-39 and 1946-49). It seems, however, that his “view” was anything but “impartial”, for he, too, was “spectacled”, wearing “Asiatic myopic glasses”. All those clues on the “connections” he was interested in were there, of course; but, having already in mind an elaborate scenario, and most probably the secret ambition to turn Arthur Evans’ work in Crete upside down, he led himself to erroneous conclusions. If Ur had been his Austerlitz, Alalakh turned out to be his Waterloo! His failure to interpret his findings correctly should be taught in every School of Archaeology, helping each equally short-sighted scholar learn his/her lesson…(2)
Wishing to turn Arthur Evans’ work in Crete upside down, Leonard Woolley drew wrong conclusions. If Ur had been his Austerlitz, Alalakh turned out to be his Waterloo!
- (2) “Sir” Charles Leonard Woolley (1880-1960) was knighted in 1935 for his contribution to his discipline, since he was considered as one of the first “modern” archaeologists. Volunteered by Arthur Evans to run the excavation on a Roman site in northern England, Woolley started his career in 1906, later admitting: “I had never studied archaeological methods even from books… and I had not any idea how to make a survey or a ground-plan”. He worked with T. E. Lawrence, the later famous “Lawrence of Arabia”, on the excavation of the Hittite city of Carchemish in 1912-14. His work at Ur, starting in 1922, led to the discovery of the royal tombs and inspired Agatha Christie in writing the novel Murder in Mesopotamia. The writer later married Woolley’s assistant, Max Mallowan. Woolley was one of the first archaeologists to propose that the “great deluge” of the Bible was a local flood, after identifying a flood-stratum at Ur of “…400 miles long and 100 miles wide; but for the occupants of the valley, that was the whole world”…
Wolf-Dietrich Niemeier vs. Leonard Woolley
REFERRING TO MINOAN ARTISANS TRAVELLING OVERSEAS: The Alalakh Frescoes and the Painted Plaster Floor at Tel Kabri (Western Galilee), the German archaeologist Wolf-Dietrich Niemeier, who excavated at Kabri, explained how Woolley’s ambition to upturn Evans boomeranged back on him:
“The uniqueness and seeming suddenness of the emergence of the Cretan palace system in the Aegean has often been explained by connections with and influences from the older advanced civilizations of the ancient Near East. In Alalakh… Woolley thought to have found what he had looked for: in Yarim-Lim’s palace he recognized ‘unmistakable connections’ with Minoan Crete. Similar building techniques… as well as frescoes ‘identical in colouring, technique and style’ at Alalakh and Knossos led him to the conclusion that ‘there can be no doubt but that Crete owes the best of its architecture, and its frescoes, to the Asiatic mainland’, and that ‘we are bound to believe that trained experts, members of the Architects’ and Painters’ Guilds, were invited to travel overseas from Asia (possibly from Alalakh) to build and decorate the palaces of the Cretan rulers’.
“Crete owes the best of its architecture, and its frescoes, to Asia.”
“Woolley’s main argument for this theory, which has been accepted by eminent scholars,(3) [!] was that ‘Yarim-Lim’s palace antedates by more than a century the Cretan examples in the same style’… However, after a long debate on ‘Alalakh and Chronology’, Woolley’s date (‘between c. 1780 and 1730 BC’) proved to be too high. Yarim-Lim of Alalakh was not – as Woolley had thought – Yarim-Lim I of Yamhad, the contemporary of the great Hammurabi of Babylon, but a younger brother of King Abban [Abba-El?] of Yamhad who gave Alalakh to him as an appanage principality…(4) The dates recently proposed by different scholars lie between c. 1650 and 1575 BC. In regard to architecture… the evidence is far from substantiating Woolley’s theory of Near Eastern architects working in Crete… The orthostates of Alalakh are c. 300 years later than the orthostates of the first phase of the Old Palace at Phaistos… Fragments of wall paintings from Yarim-Lim’s palace show characteristic Minoan motifs which appear contemporary or even earlier in Crete. Moreover, the sense of movement detectable in the wall-painting fragments from Yarim-Lim’s palace is characteristically Minoan and in opposition to Near Eastern tradition.
- (3) You see, the… spectacled parrotlet (forpus conspicillatus) is not an endangered species!
- (4) There were three kings of Yamhad under the name of Yarim-Lim and, of course, far more local rulers with the same name, such as the one in Alalakh. Woolley (more than anyone else) should have known better before he wrote that “Crete owes the best of its architecture, and its frescoes, to the Asiatic mainland”…
“Woolley’s strongest argument for a direct connection between the Alalakh paintings and those in Crete was that they both were executed in true fresco painting on wet lime plaster. But it is exactly this fact which definitely disproves Woolley’s theory of the Near Eastern ancestry of Cretan fresco painting. Until most recently the Alalakh frescos formed the only known example of true fresco painting on the ancient Near East. In Crete, true fresco painting is known at least from c. 1900 BC on. Thus true fresco painting apparently has been first invented on Crete, probably because it was suitable to the temperament of the Minoan artists.(5) Technique, style and iconography of the fresco fragments from the Yarim-Lim palace at Alalakh indicate that their resemblances to the Cretan wall-paintings worked in the reverse direction as that originally thought by Woolley.
- (5) While the Egyptian artists of this period painted their wall paintings in the “dry-fresco” (secco) technique, the Minoans used a “true” or “wet” painting method, allowing the pigments of metal and mineral oxides to bind well to the wall, which required quick execution. The nature of this technique encouraged improvisation, spontaneity, and the element of chance. Since they had to work within the time constrains of the drying plaster, they had to be very skilful, and their fluid brush strokes translated into the graceful outlines that characterize Minoan art. For this reason, this method of painting was most appropriate for the fluid moments of life and nature scenes that the Minoans favoured, which contrasted sharply with the strict stylization and stereotyping typical of frescoes from other Mediterranean cultures of the same time. The figures of Minoan frescoes are depicted in natural poses of free movement that reflect the rigours of the activity they engage in, an attitude characteristic of a seafaring civilization accustomed to freedom of movement, liquidity, and vigour.
“There is much evidence that Cretan objects of art were highly valued in the ancient Near East. In the Mari tablets Cretan imports are mentioned… The prestige character of the Cretan objects in the Mari texts is indicated by the fact that two of them were presented by King Zimri-Lim of Mari to other Mesopotamian Kings. As finds of Kamares pottery at Ugarit, Qatna, Byblos and Hazor demonstrate, this outstanding pottery was highly esteemed in the Levant. Thus, at least from the 19th century BC on, Crete within its relations to the Levant was not only the receiver but developed into an equal partner producing works of art for which there was a great demand in the Near East.(6) These Cretan works of art arrived by some kind of exchange or trade in the Levant. But, as Woolley has stated, ’one cannot export a palace on board of a ship, nor is the «art and Mystery» of fresco-working a form of merchandise’.(7) Do we therefore have to reconstruct just the reverse scenario as that suggested by Woolley, i.e. Cretan artisans travelling to Alalakh for painting the frescoes there?
- (6) I ignore the Levantine contribution to the Minoan culture and, unfortunately, Niemeier gives no information on the subject. What I do know is how much the Cretans were indebted to, and how much they were benefited by learning from, the Egyptians (see Chronicle 17, Minoan Trade and Influence). I can imagine, in addition, how much the Egyptians would have benefited if they were not so stuck-up to let themselves learn from the Cretans…
- (7) I used a similar argument in Chronicle 22, Conclusion, to show the necessity of Hellenic presence in Iberia: “What the Phoenician ships could not transport and, thus, made the Greek presence absolutely necessary in Iberia, was Hellenic culture, art, ideas, models, architecture, burial habits, etc.”
“The sense of movement is characteristically Minoan, in opposition to Near Eastern tradition. Kabri and Alalakh show a purely Minoan iconography and technique. This can only mean they were made by itinerant Minoan artists.”
“In ‘Greater Canaan’…(8) there are two other sites which can contribute to the problem: Qatna and Tel Kabri. Fragments of wall-paintings from the palace at Qatna show [techniques] in the characteristic Aegean manner. Tel Kabri lay on one of the most important trade routes of the ancient Near East, [Way of the Philistines,] the later so-called Via Maris…(9) In the palace of the local ruler… a threshold was plastered and painted with… similar floor-techniques and designs of the Minoan palaces but not from the Ancient Near East… There is evidence that the walls of this room were also covered with painted plaster of which unfortunately only tiny fragments have been preserved. The plaster floor has been painted in true fresco technique… found also in Cretan and Theran fresco painting but not in tempera and fresco secco. The colours in the floor’s painting are… very similar to those of Cretan and of Theran wall-painting… Originally the floor… imitated the slabs of a stone pavement… In Crete painted plaster floors imitating slab-paved floors are known from [c. 2000 BCE]. Other parts of the Kabri floor were decorated with floral motifs. Among them are chains of stylized linear iris blossoms of a characteristic Minoan type which occurs first in frescoes and vase-painting [in 1700-1500 BCE]. Such kind of decorative mixture is a characteristic feature of Minoan fresco painting… The Kabri floor and also the fresco fragments from Yarim-Lim’s palace at Alalakh do not have only single Minoan motifs foreign to ‘Greater Canaan’ which could be explained as intrusive or incorporated elements arriving by motif transfer, but they show a purely Minoan iconography as well as technique. This can only mean that they were executed by travelling Minoan artisans…
- (8) Greater Canaan: “the area between the Amuq plain [where Antioch was later built] to the north and the deserts to the south and to the east for the middle and late Bronze Age… appears to form a largely uniform civilization with regional variations.” (Ruth Amiran)
- (9) The historical name of the road, sadly for the Israeli Jews, was Way of the Philistines, since it crossed through the Philistine plain, where the Gaza Strip is located. Via Maris was “fished up” out of the Vulgate – “via maris”, meaning “by the way of the sea” – without specifying any road (there was no such Roman name denoting any road anywhere). The modern name was adopted so as to… expel the Palestinians from their homeland, Palestine, even on archaeological terms!
“We have evidence for exchange of information on the equipment of the palaces within the ancient Near East (to which Minoan Crete belonged in a certain sense as a westernmost member). That Cretans actually travelled to the Levantine coast is proved by a tablet from the Mari archives mentioning a Cretan who purchases tin at Ugarit from agents of the Mari palace. A tale in the mythological poetry of Ugarit is of highest interest in our context. In it the goddess Anat is sending the divine messenger over the sea to the god of handicrafts, Kothar wa-Khasis, who is brought from his throne in Kptr (almost unanimously identified as Caphtor = Crete) to build a splendid palace for god Baal and to furnish it with precious works of art.(10) As Arvid Schou Kapelrud has stated, Kothar is ‘the master-builder and the master-smith as he is found in the Near Eastern courts of this time, a highly skilled specialist’. In Canaanite mythology the god of handicrafts was called from Crete to furnish the palaces of the deities with precious works of art; in reality the rulers of Tel Kabri (Rehov) and Alalakh (and other cities, possibly Qatna) asked the rulers of Crete for sending artisans to decorate their palaces with fresco painting. As has been demonstrated by Carlo Zaccagnini, the sending of specialized workers is well-attested in the framework of the diplomatic relations between the rulers in the ancient Near East, their transfers are inserted into the dynamics and formal apparatus of the practice of gift-exchange.”
- (10) “KPTR” may be identified with “Caphtor”; but the latter’s identification with Crete is anything but certain. Biblical Caphtor may refer to: a) Pelusium in the Nile Delta; b) Cilicia; c) Cappadocia; d) Cyprus; e) Crete (see Chronicle 20, Pelasgians and Philistines-Peleset). Egypt fits far better here because in all references to Kothar, except the poetic tale mentioned above, his abode is identified as “HKPT”, which is possibly read as “Hikaptah”, or “House of the ka (soul) of (god) Ptah”, i.e. Memphis. The Hellenes pronounced this Hikaptah as Aegyptos, hence the name of the country in many languages.
AFTER THE DISCOVERIES in Alalakh and Kabri, the absolutely impressive Minoan wall paintings in Avaris with a long frieze of taurocathapsia (bull-leaping) against a labyrinth pattern, griffins or rosettes, recovered during Manfred Bietak’s excavations there,
“instantly created much sensation, since among the scenes depicted on them are spectacular representations of bull leaping so closely identified with Minoan cult and culture”, as Wolf-Dietrich and Barbara Niemeier commented in another paper on Minoan Frescoes in the Eastern Mediterranean.
“From 1990 on, we suggested that the Kabri and Alalakh frescoes were painted by travelling Aegean specialists, and [some time later] Bietak and Nanno Marinatos did the same for the Avaris frescoes”.
There was a minor problem among archaeologists on the date of these frescoes. Wishing perhaps to please everyone,
“Bietak and Marinatos came to the conclusion that ‘Minoan wall painting existed in Avaris both during the late Hyksos period and the early 18th Dynasty’. Bietak had regarded as possible that ‘trade… links between Avaris and Crete… might have survived a dynastic change and might have carried on into the 18th Dynasty, even after the fall of the Hyksos.’ There is indeed enough evidence from history that the kind of diplomatic and economic relations which apparently are behind these fresco paintings can survive the changes of regimes.
“According to Bietak, ‘king Ahmose, the founder of the 18th Dynasty, fits particularly well into the picture of Minoan connections.’ He imagines the possibility of a political deal between Ahmose and the ‘Minoan Thalassocracy’ in which the Minoan fleet helped Ahmose – who had no fleet – against the danger still threatening from the Hyksos harbour bases in southern Palestine. There is no archaeological or textual evidence for the latter hypothesis, and it recalls rather imaginative and today forgotten scenarios connected with the expulsion of the Hyksos, like those according to which Mycenaean mercenaries helped Ahmose in evicting the Hyksos, or according to which fugitive Hyksos princes conquered the Argolid and subsequently were buried in the Shaft Graves at Mycenae. Moreover, Ahmose already had a fleet: he captured Avaris after a series of assaults by both land and water [and then] proceeded to southern Palestine.”
Even a pharaoh with a fleet of his own would surely prefer to have the far more experienced Cretan navy on his side, than against him, allied with the Hyksos! The Avaris paintings indicate an involvement of Egypt in international relations and cultural exchanges with the eastern Mediterranean either through exchange of gifts or even marriage. They additionally point to Minoan authority as being involved in Egyptian affairs, possibly because Crete had a strong naval force to offer the pharaoh, and also to Avaris as a place where these cultural exchanges took place, meaning the city was incredibly important to Egypt.
The marriage of a Minoan princess to an Egyptian pharaoh may be one possible scenario. Bietak has suggested that the Avaris frescoes were painted by Minoan artists who were members of the entourage of a Knossian princess married to a pharaoh, whom he first identified as a Hyksos ruler, then as Ahmose, and later as Thutmose III. At last, who was the Cretan girl’s groom? The Minoan eruption on Thera (c. 1640 – c. 1540) coincides with the Hyksos period in Egypt (1650–1550 BCE). But because the exact moment of the eruption escapes us, we can not speculate if the marriage took pace then and when. There follows Ahmose with his New Kingdom, when the Egyptians considered the Aegean to be part of their “empire”. The term must not be understood literally, because in Egypt, they misinterpreted even the gifts given to the pharaohs: “The Egyptians, with their characteristic egocentric sense of superiority, would have presented such gifts as tribute”, remarks A. R. Schulman. At any rate, “Ahmose fits particularly well into the picture of Minoan connections”. Thutmose could very well be the groom, too. Besides, we know that he had three foreign wives: Menwi, Merti, and Menhet. However, a problem arose: another dynastic change that happened during his reign, in the middle of the 15th century BCE – not in Egypt but in Crete, when the Minoans were put under the yoke of their own “Hyksos” (foreign rulers), the Mycenaeans. Therefore, if there was a wedding, it should have happened in the beginning of Thutmose’s reign, when the actual pharaoh was his stepmother, Hatshepsut, or immediately after her death, in 1458 BCE.
Whatever the case, these unique wall paintings are of Minoan style, technique, and content. There is a long frieze of bull-leaping and grappling against a maze pattern. Marinatos has made a case that the rosette motif, a prominent feature of the “Taureador” paintings, reproduces the Knossian rosettes, and that it is a distinct Minoan symbol. The frescoes also depict griffins, hunting scenes, felines chasing ungulates, several life-sized figures, and a white female wearing a skirt. Especially important are the Minoan palace emblems, such as the half rosette frieze, and the presence of big griffins that are the same size as the ones in the Knossian Throne room. The technique of painting is typically Aegean, while the style is of very high quality and compares with some of the best paintings from Crete. The use of Minoan royal motifs in a palace of Avaris, says Bietak, indicates that “an encounter on the highest level must have taken place between the courts of Knossos and Egypt,” while the large representation of the female in the skirt may suggest a political marriage of a Minoan princess to the pharaoh.
“Dynastic intermarriage was a favoured diplomatic tactic in the Bronze Age Near East,” the Niemeiers point out. The entourage of a foreign princess, some scholars suppose, “would comprise several hundred people, who until the end of their lives remained in the harem of the pharaoh, and that one can well imagine that at Avaris the rooms of the foreign princess and her entourage were decorated according to her desires. [However], at Alalakh and Tel Kabri, the frescoes probably had been attached to the walls of major ceremonial (and possible ritual) halls of the palace, not of the private rooms of queens or princesses.”
The technique of using lime plaster in two layers with a highly polished surface, fresco in combination with stucco, are all techniques that are not Egyptian but first seen in Cretan paintings. The colours used by the artists are clearly Minoan. Using blue instead of grey is Minoan, with that colour convention being seen in Egypt later, due to Aegean influence. Besides, there are no Egyptian hieroglyphs or emblems among the fragments. The composition of the paintings and motifs also fit in perfectly with all those of the Aegean world. Thus the overwhelming evidence seems to point into the direction of Minoan artists working in Avaris.
Differences Between Minoan and Pharaonic Society and Art
“The differences between the styles of Egyptian and Minoan arts have been analyzed by Henriette Antonia Groenewegen-Frankfort and, most recently, by Bietak,” the Niemeiers comment. “According to Groenwegen-Frankfort, Minoan art differs from Egyptian (and ancient Near Eastern) art in its ‘absolute mobility in organic forms’. Bietak aptly explains this with the different cultural patterns of both civilizations. The Minoan society was not – as the Egyptian one – dominated by writing, listing, and absolute order, and therefore Minoan art was not subjected to hieroglyphic clichés and a rigid canonical order. As to a comparison of Canaanite and Minoan arts, we do not have, unfortunately, many objects of art from the middle Bronze Age Levant. But those which are extant show a style distinctly different from the Minoan one. For instance, the bird representations on bone inlays from Megiddo and Lachish seem motionless in comparison to the crane on an ivory plaque from Palaikastro. Canaanite female and male metal figurines appear stiff in comparison to the Minoan female and male metal figurines displaying strong inner tension and dynamics.”
“Minoan art differs from Egyptian art in its ‘absolute mobility in organic forms’.” “The Minoan society was not dominated by absolute order; so
Minoan art was not subjected to hieroglyphic clichés and rigid order.”
(Henriette Antonia Groenewegen-Frankfort and Manfred Bietak)
As it turned out the wall paintings at Avaris, Alalakh, Kabri, possibly Qatna (17th – 16th centuries BCE), were not the older ones.
“Earlier are the painted stone imitations in Zimri-Lim’s palace at Mari [18th century BCE]. The excavator of Mari, André Parrot, compared the stone imitations to those at Knossos. He also asked for possible connections between the Mari and the Knossos murals, and, pointing to the evidence for their connections provided by the Minoan precious objects mentioned in the Mari archives, he apparently tended to see some Cretan influence in the murals there.”
● Located in Mesopotamia, far from the Mediterranean, Mari (today’s Tell Hariri) was a Sumerian and Amorite city on the Euphrates. It flourished from 2900 to 1759 BCE, when it was sacked by Hammurabi, despite the gifts king Zimri-Lim had given him. More important was Mari’s strategic position as a relay point between northern Syria and lower Mesopotamia. The city came to control the trade lanes between different regions such as Iran, Mesopotamia, and Anatolia. The royal palace contained over 300 rooms and was possibly the largest of its time (over 1,000 rooms, they say, had the palace of Knossos)! More than 25,000 tablets were recovered while excavating Mari, as Parrot noted, “bringing about a complete revision of the historical dating of the ancient Near East, and providing more than 500 new place names, enough to redraw the geographical map of the ancient world.”
● Qatna (modern Tell el-Mishrife), 18 km NE of Homs, was one of the largest Bronze Age Syrian towns. Trade routes in the 2nd Millennium connected Mesopotamia with Cyprus, Crete, Egypt. Qatna is mentioned in the tin trade, linking Mari, via Qatna, to the Mediterranean; Cypriote copper was also transported on this route; their alloy, bronze, was most valuable during both the Bronze and Iron Ages.
Regarding the ethnic composition of the “Minoan” workshops, there are various possibilities: the frescoes were painted a) by travelling Aegean artisans; b) under the supervision of Aegean artists, assisted by Levantine painters, after they were trained by them; c) by Levantine students of Aegean masters. The idea of mixed workshops seems more appealing, probable, realistic. Decorating huge palaces was a great undertaking. However, it would seem unthinkable to imagine Cretan ships full of artists travelling around the Mediterranean for this task. The artistic teams should have been rather small, working necessarily with local apprentices.
“It is difficult to decide in each case which of these solutions is the correct one,” point out the Niemeiers. “We would agree with Philip P. Betancourt that only a very small percentage of the fresco paintings is known and that ‘we are touching the tip of the iceberg of a whole series of interrelated workshops, working in Knossos, the Aegean islands, on the coast of Western Asia and in Egypt, perhaps travelling back and forth, perhaps occasionally exchanging personnel, or going back to Knossos to learn the most recent things’… The Alalakh, Kabri, and Avaris frescoes are to be seen ‘in terms of the forging of an élite koiné – artistic, iconographical, ideological, technological – in the circumstances of the intense maritime interaction between the coastal areas of the Eastern Mediterranean’,” as Susan Sherratt proposed. Marinatos has argued that these paintings are evidence of a koiné, a visual language of common symbols, which testifies to interactions among the rulers of neighbouring powers. This idea is adopted by the Niemeiers, as well: “The Minoan artists involved in the painting of all these frescoes apparently formed an important element in the growth of the so-called ‘International Style’ of the Late Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean.”(11)
- (11) Not only of the eastern part of the Mediterranean: according to some fresco experts, similar wall paintings have also been found in “faraway” Morocco. However, it is not clear if they are painted with the true (wet) fresco or secco technique.
“Interrelated workshops worked in Knossos, the Aegean islands, the Western Asia coast and Egypt, travelling back and forth, exchanging personnel, or going back to Knossos to learn the most recent things.” “An élite koiné – artistic, iconographical, ideological, technological – was forged in the circumstances of intense maritime interaction between the coastal areas
of the Eastern Mediterranean.” (Philip P. Betancourt and Susan Sherratt)
Whatever happened to the Avaris wall paintings? One group of them had fallen off the wall of a doorway, and another group of fragments was found in dumps deposited by the north-east palace. The frescoes seem to have been removed during the later Thutmosid period – when there was no Minoan Crete anymore, after it was taken over by the Mycenaeans.
“Minoan fresco painting apparently was a rather short-lived phenomenon in the Levant and Egypt – in Egyptian terms, covering the Hyksos period and the very beginning of the early 18th Dynasty,” the Niemeiers sum up. “Later, we find again paintings of nature scenes which appear to breathe a Minoan spirit. They were, however, executed in secco technique and certainly were not painted by Aegean artists. Minoan wall painting was a thing of the past at that time.”
Without Minoan Crete there was no room for Minoan art. Minoan workshops were still busy, of course; but the artistic masters worked for the new political masters, the Mycenaeans; there were no Greek artists at that time to compete with them. But their new works of art are not typified as “Minoan” anymore; they are called “Mycenaean”, sometimes with a footnote that they were made by Cretan artistic workshops. Would anyone ever think to describe as “Cretan” the masterpieces of another great Cretan master, who lived more than three millennia later, namely Doménicos Theotocópoulos, the famous El Greco?
Before Tin, it was the Obsidian…
HERE WE ARE AGAIN AT OUR STARTING POINT, my dearest fellow voyagers, having come full circle back: we began with Periplus and Minoan Cretan Thalassocracy, and we concluded with Emporia and Minoan Cretan fresco.(12) Now we can start anew, picking up the thread again, going back even before our starting point – before man learned how to work metals, when he voyaged in search of an equally valuable material: the obsidian. So, let’s attempt to go back to the Neolithic era. Let’s schedule it, at least: our vivid imagination is our strong point!
- (12) See also Chronicles 3, 5, and 17, 18, 19, about Crete, Cretans, Minoan civilization, navigation and trade, thalassocracy, fresco, taurocathapsia, etc.