Archaeological finds in Knossos, Heraklion

Knossos is the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete and has been called Europe's oldest city.

Settled as early as the Neolithic period, the name Knossos survives from ancient Greek references to the major city of Crete. The palace of Knossos eventually became the ceremonial and political centre of the Minoan civilization and culture. The palace was abandoned at some unknown time at the end of the Late Bronze Age, c. 1380–1100 BC. The reason why is unknown, but one of the many disasters that befell the palace is generally put forward.

In the first palace period around 2000 BC the urban area reached a size of up to 18,000 people. In its peak the palace and surrounding city boasted a population of 100,000 people shortly after 1700 BC.

From an archaeological point of view, the terms, "Knossos," and "palace," are somewhat ambiguous. The palace was never just the residence of a monarch, although it contained rooms that might have been suitable for a royal family. Most of the structures, however, were designed to serve a civic, religious and economic center. The term palace complex is more accurate. In ancient times, Knossos was a town surrounding and including Kephala Hill. This hill was never an acropolis in the Greek sense. It had no steep heights, remained unfortified, and was not very high off the surrounding ground. These circumstances cannot necessarily be imputed to other Minoan palaces. Phaestos, contemporaneous with Knossos, was placed on a steep ridge, controlling access to the Mesara Plain from the sea, and was walled. To what degree Minoan civilization might be considered warlike remains debatable. It can, however, be said that Knossos bore no resemblance to a Mycenaean citadel, whether before or during Mycenaean Greek occupation.

The complex was constructed ultimately around a raised Central Court on the top of Kephala Hill. The previous structures were razed and the top was made level to make way for the court. The court is oblong, with the long axis, which points north-northeast, generally described as pointing "north." Plot plans typically show the court with the long axis horizontal, apparently east-west with the north on the right, or vertical with the north on the top. Either arrangement is confusing unless the compass points are carefully marked. About 5 km (3.1 mi) to the north of the palace complex is the sea at the Port of Heraklion. Directly to the south is Vlychia Stream, an east-west tributary of the north-south Kairatos River. Kephala Hill is an isolated hill at the confluence.

The Kairatos River reaches the sea between the port of Heraklion and Heraklion Airport to the east. In ancient times the flow continued without interruption. Today the stream loses itself in the sewers of Heraklion before emerging from under a highway on the shore east of the port. It flows down from higher ground at Arkhanes to the south, where part of it was diverted into the Knossos Aqueduct. The water at that point was clean enough for drinking. When it reached Knossos it became the main drain of the sewer system of a town of up to 100,000 people, according to Pendlebury's estimate. Today the population is mainly to the north, but the sewer function continues, in addition to which much of the river is siphoned off, and the water table is tapped, for irrigation. Looming over the right bank of the Vlychia, on the opposite shore from Knossos, is Gypsades Hill, where the Minoans quarried their gypsum. The limestone was quarried from the ridge on the east.

The archaeological site, Knossos, refers either to the palace complex itself or to that complex and several houses of similar antiquity nearby, which were inadvertently excavated along with the palace. To the south across the Vlychia is the Caravanserai. Further to the south are Minoan houses. The Minoan Road crossed the Vlychia on a Minoan Bridge, immediately entering the Stepped Portico, or covered stairway, to the palace complex. Near the northwest corner of the complex are the ruins of the House of the Frescoes. Across the Minoan Road entering from the northwest is the Arsenal. On the north side of the palace is the Customs House and the Northeast House. From there to the northeast is the modern village of Makrotoichos. Between it and the palace complex is the Royal Villa. On the west side is the Little Palace.

The Royal Road is the last vestige of a Minoan road that connected the port to the palace complex. Today a modern road built over or replacing the ancient, Leoforos Knosou, serves that function and continues south. The excavated ancient Royal Road is part of the complex. The junction of the ancient and the modern roads is partly over the Little Palace. Just to the northwest of there, off the modern road, is where Evans chose to have Villa Ariadne built as his home away from home and an administrative center. The villa is on a slope overlooking the ruins. At the edge of the property, on the road, is a pre-excavation house renovated many times as a residence for the official Keeper, called the Taverna. Immediately to the south of the villa, over parts of the Little Palace, is the modern Stratigraphical Museum, a square building. Excavation continues sporadically on its grounds. To the south of the museum is a modern settlement across from the entrance to the west court. Parking facilities are to the north, off Leoforos Knosou. A band of fields has been left on the northwest between the palace complex and the city streets of Heraklion. The east and west are protected by north-south mountain ridges, between which is the valley of the Kairatos.