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The palace of Zakros, the fourth largest of the Minoan palaces, was located at a protected bay of the Eastern Crete, an area of strategic importance to the trade and communication with Egypt and Near East. It is also possible that Zakros was one of the major bases of the Minoan fleet in Crete. From the site of Zakros came some of the masterpieces of Minoan art. The wealth of artifacts unearthed and the fact that many of them were made by rare, as well as imported raw materials, such as ivory, faience and copper, indicate the economical growth and vigour of the palace and its significance as the administrative and cult centre of the area.
The first reference to the ancient ruins of Zakros is found in the book Travels in Crete by Th. Spratt, an English admiral and renowned traveler of the mid-19th century. During the first half of the 20th century, excavations at a larger or smaller scale were conducted in the area by Italian and English archaeologists, among them the excavator of Knossos, Sir Arthur Evans. Although their investigations came too close, the discovery of the palace and the revealing of its surrounding city were to be made by Prof. Nikolaos Platon, who began his systematic excavations on the site in 1961.
As is the case with the rest of the Minoan palatial complexes, the palace at the end of the small valley of Kato Zakros was initially built in 1900 BC, while the remains visible today belong to its second phase of construction, the so-called Neopalatial (New Palace period), dated to 1600 BC. The palace was destroyed by fire and abandoned around 1450 BC, sharing the same fate with the other Minoan centers.
Expanding over 8000 m2, the palace of Zakros is five times smaller than that of Knossos, however its plan follows the typical layout of the other Minoan palaces. The main entrance to the palace of Zakros is located at the northeastern side and here ends the long paved road that connected the port with the palace. From the central gate of the palace a stepped corridor leads to the central court. The whole complex is organized as four wings of once multi-storey and frescoed buildings, pinwheeling around the central courtyard, which is actually the nucleus of the palace. The dense and complex arrangement of the in total 300 apartments eloquently brings to mind the Labyrinth myth and explains why Crete was its birthplace.
The west wing was the primary place for worship and rituals. Through a reception hall one enters the grand Hall of Ceremonies, in which were found the two famous libation vessels (rhyta), namely the bull’s head rhyton and the rhyton depicting a peak sanctuary. Among the findings were also large bronze saws 1.70 m long, which only two people together could handle. The ceremonial hall leads to the so-called banquet hall, while in the center of the western part of the wing lies the main sanctuary of the palace. It encompassed the typical Lustral Basin, used for some kind of purification ritual (katharmos), and the treasury, the only one of Minoan Crete that had escaped looting and was found intact during the excavations. Thus, the treasury yielded a spectacular collection of Minoan artifacts, such as magnificent stone ritual vases. On the other hand, the repository of the palatial records, the Archives Room, reserved a momentous discovery for the excavators, as, thanks to the fire that destroyed the palace, 13 Linear A tablets were baked and preserved inside clay caskets mounted on shelves. A later addition to the west wing seem to be the workshops which comprised the handcraft sector of the palace. One of them is in fact interpreted as a dyeing installation.
The east wing gathered the administrative functions of the palace and here are also placed the royal quarters, the so-called Queen’s Chamber and King’s Chamber, the latter being the largest hall of the palace. On this side is also found a structure that has no parallel in the Minoan architecture. This is the Basin Hall, namely a large square space with a circular open-air basin at its center, which collected the waters of a spring. At least five columns surrounded the basin, which reached a diameter of 7 m. and where one descends through eight steps, still preserved today. To the south is a subterranean fountain and to the west a built well, therefore the area must have been related to the water supply of the palace. Inside the well, water preserved wooden pieces of the mangle and a cup full of olives, a truly unique find.
To the south of the central courtyard was a small group of workshops making, among others, perfumes from local herbs. Next to it there was once a garden or an alsos (little forest). The north wing, which faced the courtyard forming a paved stoa with two wooden columns, provided access to the upper floors through a grand staircase. The rooms of the north wing are interpreted as auxiliary to the royal quarters. The cluster included storerooms, a bath and a large room, possibly the kitchen which served the banquet hall of the upper floor.
The palace was surrounded by the Minoan town, in fact the buildings of the settlement that are nearest to the palace are considered its appendices. It is noteworthy that Minoan Zakros had a sophisticated town planning and a complex network of stone paved roads. Each block included 2-4 houses, which, as indicated by their ruins, had two or three floors with many rooms. A particular characteristic found in many houses is the lack of entrance in the ground floor, in which cases the building is entered through a hatch opened on the first floor.
Ancient Zakros’ most well-kept secret, though, was hidden away from both the palace and the town, in the wild beauty of the gorge that leads from Ano to Kato Zakros. The numerous caves opened in its slopes became the burial ground for the prehistoric inhabitants of the area, surprising the archaeological research with a wealth of findings and attributing to the place the awesome name Gorge of he Dead.