Chronicle 10. AN ARCHAEOLOGIST’S WATERLOO
Χρονικό 10. ΤΟ ΒΑΤΕΡΛΩ ΕΝΟΣ ΑΡΧΑΙΟΛΟΓΟΥ
A Minoan woman
THERE ARE TIMES in these Voyages and Chronicles, as in similar cases when you have to present a thesis and you need documentation, that you know in general terms beforehand what you are looking for while searching for clues. Some other times, however, the clew you have in hand to find your way in the labyrinth of history leads you to unexpected ends, “into harbours seen for the first time”; and then a 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 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 needed to set forth more information about these emporia after I had referred to Naucratis in the previous Chronicle, realizing that I already used this term several times in connection with colonies or trading posts; but the emporia were in fact neither colonies nor trading posts, though related to both. Writing in the Encyclopaedia of the Hellenic World on Commercial posts and harbours, Elias Petropoulos tried to clear things out:
The term emporion denoting a colony or a type of settlement first appears in ancient literature rather late, during the 5th century BC. According to some scholars, the emporion should be understood as the locale of the emporos (that is, merchant), i.e. the person who travels to buy and sell commodities. The word emporos etymologically originates from the preposition en and the word poros (which means sea route). This word appears in the Odyssey of Homer twice. In both these cases the epic poet obviously means a private individual who travels for professional reasons. So we could suppose that the word emporion originates from the word emporos. This word does not appear on [Mycenaean] Linear B tablets, and this is rather surprising, but it also leads to the obvious conclusion that this word was coined at a later time. Scholarship on the subject argues that the word or the term emporion (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 works of Herodotus in the mid-5th century BC. By the 4th century BC the word is found on an inscription known as ‘the inscription of Pistiros’ which has been unearthed quite recently in a settlement of the modern-day Bulgarian (ancient Thracian) hinterland, close to Philippopolis…
Emporion < Emporos (merchant) < en + poros = one who is on a sea route
According to information coming from Herodotus’ fourth book of the Histories [entitled Melpomene], the Black Sea was home to several emporia, which is the precise word the historian uses to define these settlements… There are also more scattered references to emporia in the other eight books of Herodotus’ work. These are emporia located outside the Black Sea, and are situated in the Mediterranean. Of all these, the case of Naucratis causes puzzlement: the historian refers to it using both the terms emporion and polis (that is, city). Many studies have dealt with this issue, but unfortunately we still cannot determine the early nature of this settlement with certainty. The term usually understood as the opposite of emporion is apoikia (that is, colony), which is considered as a complete form of settlement in the model of the ancient Greek cities, i.e. a settlement featuring a distinct form of political and social organization. A colony was a settlement obviously established in the context of a predetermined plan of action and was carried out under the auspices of a god (or gods) with every formality on the part of the metropolis, possessing an agricultural hinterland and its own coinage… However, in some cases, the emporion may be characterized as a proto-polis or a proto-settlement, in the sense that it can act as the early stage in the establishment of a colony or a city.
Egypt with Alexandria, Naucratis, Avaris, Sais, Pelusium, Memphis and Thebes mentioned here.
Emporia (sing. emporion, or emporium in Latin), according to Wikipedia, were places which the traders of one people had reserved to their business interests within the territory of another people. Famous emporia in Egypt, except Naucratis, included Avaris and Sais, where the Athenian legislator Solon went in 590 BCE to acquire the knowledge of the Egyptians. Similar emporia were founded in the Levant, such as Al-Mina and Posideion in Syria. Sais (Σάϊς, 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. While all Hellenic cities were destroyed during that cataclysm, the Egyptian cities survived. In Plato’s Timaeus and Critias (around 395 BCE), a priest in Sais entrusted to Solon the story of Atlantis, its military aggression against Greece and Egypt, and its eventual defeat and destruction by natural catastrophe.(a)
Taureador: Fresco fragment from Avaris, 16th BCE
Avaris (Αὔαρις, 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 that there was a busy harbour catering to over 300 ships during a trading season. Artifacts inside the precinct of the palace, possibly a temple, have produced goods from all over the Aegean world. 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 representing the frescoes allowed the Minoans 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.
Minoan Ladies in Blue fresco, ca 1525-1450 BCE
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 with Mediterranean culture and not adopt Syrian and Mesopotamian styles of art like other cities in Canaan did. Alalakh was a late Bronze Age city-state in the area where Seleucid Antioch was to be founded at the end of the 4th century BCE. It was occupied from before 2000 BCE, when the first palace was built, and likely destroyed in the 12th century by the Sea Peoples, as were many other towns of coastal Anatolia and the Levant. The city was never reoccupied, the nearby port of Al-Mina taking its place during the Iron Age.
Al-Mina (“The Port” in Arabic) is the name given by archaeologist Leonard Woolley to this ancient trading post in the estuary of the Orontes. 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 Al-Mina is to be regarded as a native Syrian site, with local architecture and pots and a Hellenic presence, or as a Greek trading post, has not been resolved. Al-Mina served as an entrepôt for cultural influences that accompanied trade 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 Hellenic 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 give “Rivers of Emporia”.
Sumerian silver lyre 2600-2400 BC
Woolley identified Al-Mina with Herodotus’ and Strabo’s Posideion, but more recent scholarship places the latter at Ras al-Bassit, located 53 kilometres north of Latakia (the Hellenistic Laodicea) on the Mediterranean Sea. Excavations revealed a small settlement back to the late Bronze Age, when it may have functioned as an outpost of Ugarit to the south. Unlike Ugarit, Bassit survived to 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.
One of the two figurines Ram in a Thicket. The excavation at Ur was a joint venture of the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania sharing the booty!
Woolley began work at Al-Mina in 1936, after the excavation at Ur in Mesopotamia, where he discovered Sumerian royal tombs of great wealth. He decided to work by the Mediterranean coast because he was interested in finding ties between the Aegean and the Mesopotamian civilizations, and wished to throw light, as he wrote, “upon the development of Cretan civilization and its connections with the great civilizations of Nearer Asia”. Disappointed in not finding a Bronze Age port at Al-Mina, 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”. The clues on the “connections” he was interested in were there, of course; but, having already in mind an elaborate scenario, and possibly a hidden ambition to turn Arthur Evans’ work in Crete upside down, he was led 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 and help every equally short-sighted scholar learn his/her lesson.(b)
Lawrence (left) and Woolley at Carchemish
Having already in mind an elaborate scenario, and possibly a hidden ambition to turn Arthur Evans’ work in Crete upside down, Woolley was led 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 and help every equally short-sighted scholar learn his/her lesson.
The Knossos palace reconstructed
In his Minoan Artisans Travelling Overseas: The Alalakh Frescoes and the Painted Plaster Floor at Tel Kabri (Western Galilee), the German archaeologist Wolf-Dietrich Niemeier explained:
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”.
“There can be no doubt but that Crete owes the best of its architecture, and its frescoes, to the Asiatic mainland… We are bound to believe that trained experts, members of the Architects’ and Painters’ Guilds, were invited to travel overseas from Asia to build and decorate the palaces of the Cretan rulers”. (Leonard Woolley)
Charging bull and olive tree, relief in Knossos
Woolley’s main argument for this theory, which has been accepted by eminent scholars[!],(c) 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 circa 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 Hammurapi of Babylon, but a younger brother of King Abban of Yamhad who gave Alalakh to him as an appanage principality…(d) The dates recently proposed by different scholars lie between ca. 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 ca. 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.
Papyrus fresco on Thera
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 ca. 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. Thus, 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.
“The sense of movement detectable in the wall-painting fragments is characteristically Minoan and in opposition to Near Eastern tradition… Technique, style and iconography indicate that their resemblances to the Cretan wall-paintings worked in the reverse direction as that thought by Woolley… Kabri and Alalakh do not have only single Minoan motifs foreign to ‘Greater Canaan’ but they show a purely Minoan iconography as well as technique. This can only mean they were executed by travelling Minoan artisans.” (Wolf-Dietrich Niemeier)
Ritual sprinkler in rock crystal from Kato Zakros, Crete
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.(e) 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”.(f) 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?
Knossos: the Throne Room with the griffins reconstructed
In “Greater Canaan”… there are two other sites which can contribute to the problem: Qatna and Tel Kabri.(g) 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, the later so-called Via Maris [Way of the Philistines]…(h) 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… ln Crete painted plaster floors imitating slab-paved floors are known from [ca 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…
Asherah, Canaanite fertility and motherhood goddess
La Petite Parisienne de Crète…
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)(i) to build a splendid palace for god Baal and to furnish it with precious works of art. 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.
Minoan fresco frieze at Avaris reconstructed
After the discoveries in Alalakh and Kabri, the Minoan frescoes in Avaris excavated by Manfred Bietak “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”, Wolf-Dietrich and Barbara Niemeier commented in another paper on Minoan Frescoes in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Minoan gold ring depicting bull leaping
“From 1990 on, we suggested that the Kabri and the Alalakh frescoes were painted by travelling Aegean specialists, and [some time later] Bietak and Nanno Marinatos did the same for the Avaris frescoes”. There is 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 [Thutmosid] Dynasty’. Bietak himself 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.”
Ahmose fighting back the Hyksos
Even a pharaoh with a fleet of his own would surely prefer to have the far more experienced Cretan navy by 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.
Girl from Acroteri, Thera: detail from the fresco of the lilies
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 belonging to the entourage of a Knossian princess married to the pharaoh, whom he first identified as a Hyksos ruler, then as Ahmose, and much later as Thutmose III. Indeed, who was the Cretan girl’s groom? The Thera eruption around 1600 BCE happened in the middle of the Hyksos period (1650–1550). Thus, most probably a royal wedding in the final years of the Hyksos in Egypt must be ruled out. 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, for in the land of the Nile 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” (A. R. Schulman). At any rate, “Ahmose fits particularly well into the picture of Minoan connections”. Thutmose could well be the groom, as well. Besides, we know that he had three foreign wives: Menwi, Merti, and Menhet. However, there was a problem: one more dynastic change that took place 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 real pharaoh was his stepmother, Hatshepsut.
Whatever the motives, 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 the 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 emblems of the Minoan palace such as the half rosette frieze and the presence of big griffins which are the same size as the ones in the throne room at Knossos. The technique of the paintings is typically Aegean, while the style is very high quality and compares with some of the best paintings from Crete. According to Bietak, the use of specific Minoan royal motifs in a palace of Avaris indicates “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 might suggest a political marriage between the pharaoh and a Minoan princess.
“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 estimate, “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.”
Wild duck on Thera
The technique of using lime plaster in two layers with a highly polished surface, fresco in combination with stucco, all are techniques that are not Egyptian but are first seen in Minoan paintings. Also, the colours used by the artists are clearly Minoan. Using blue instead of grey e.g. is Minoan, with that colour convention being seen in Egypt later, and due to Aegean influences. Besides, there are no Egyptian hieroglyphs or emblems among any of the fragments discovered. The composition of the paintings and motifs also fit in perfectly with those of the Aegean world. Thus the overwhelming evidence seems to point in the direction of Minoan artists having been at work in Avaris.
“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 remark. “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 unfortunately do not have 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 (and ancient Near Eastern) art in its ‘absolute mobility in organic forms’.” (H.A. Groenewegen-Frankfort)
“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.” (M. Bietak)
The Fertile Crescent (that also includes the Nile valley and delta): the cradle of civilization in the time of the Bronze Age collapse (arrows pinpoint all the places mentioned in this Chronicle)
As it turned out the wall paintings in 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 sea, Mari (modern Tell Hariri) was a Sumerian and Amorite city on the Euphrates. It flourished from 2900 until 1759 BCE, when it was sacked by Hammurabi, despite the gifts the king Zimri-Lim had given him. More important was Mari’s strategic position as a relay point between lower Mesopotamia and northern Syria. 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. More than 25,000 tablets were recovered there “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,” as Parrot noted. Qatna (modern Tell el-Mishrife), 18 km northeast of Homs, was also one of the largest Bronze Age towns in Syria. In the 2nd Millennium trade routes developed connecting Mesopotamia with Cyprus, Crete and Egypt. Qatna is mentioned in the tin trade, which went from Mari via Qatna to the Mediterranean; Cypriote copper was transported in the other direction; their alloy, bronze, was most valuable especially during the Bronze Age.
As for 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 with the assistance of Levantine painters trained by them; c) by Levantine pupils of Aegean masters. The idea of mixed workshops seems more appealing, probable and 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 necessarily working with local apprentices.
“It is difficult to decide in each case which of these solutions is the correct one,” according to 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, Tel Kabri, and Avaris frescoes are to be seen ‘in terms of the forging of an élite koiné [common ‘idiom’] – artistic, iconographical, ideological, technological – in the circumstances of the intense maritime interaction between the coastal Areas of the Eastern Mediterranean’,” as S. Sherratt proposed. Marinatos has also 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. “The Minoan artists involved in the painting of all these frescoes”, the Niemeiers agree, “apparently formed an important element in the growth of the so-called ‘International Style’ of the Late Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean.”
And not only of the eastern part of mare nostrum, I would add: according to some fresco experts, similar Minoan-style wall paintings have also been found in Morocco…
There was “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.” (P.P. Betancourt)
The 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.” (S. Sherratt)
Cretans in Egypt, bringing gifts of metal, jewelry etc, facsimile of a painting in Thebes, 18th dynasty, early 15th century BC
Whatever happened to the Avaris wall paintings? One group of them had fallen off the wall of a doorway, and the other 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.
“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. The 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. However, their new works of art are not typified as “Minoan” anymore; they are called “Mycenaean”, sometimes accompanied 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?
Mycenaean women procession fresco
Here we are again at our starting point, having completed the circle that began with Periplus and Minoan thalassocracy and ended with Emporia and Minoan painting. Now we can start anew, going back even before our starting point – before man learned how to work metals, when voyages were made in search of an equally valuable material: the obsidian… Let us go back to the Neolithic era!