The magic of the ancient Aegean civilizations

By Wu Jin
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, October 12, 2019
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The Phaistos Disc [Photo by Wu Jin /]

A man, whose curly black hair cascades from a crown decorated with precious stones and three peacock feathers, is set against a maroon background with lilies in full blossom.

The magnificent fresco, named "Prince of Lilies," was actually excavated around 1900 and is among the ancient gems found in the archaeological discovery of the Knossos Palace. This is a colossal architectural compound that signaled the rise and fall of the Minoan Civilization, in Crete, Greece. Other than the "Prince of Lilies," there are also images of dolphins and bull-leaping sporting games painted on walls, though, many are now partially restored with replicas.

This particular ancient site, found by British archaeologist Arthur Evans (1851-1941), is considered to be the cradle of European civilization. It dates back almost 5,000 years ago and the now preserved remains of its stones, columns, tunnels, halls, thrones and murals, all indicate a prosperous era in ancient times.

The two-storey complex revealed not only that a highly civilized society had developed around the Bronze Age, but also that ceramic relics from 7,000-3,000 BC, found beneath the ruins of Knossos, symbolized that communities had begun emerging from the Neolithic Period.

Based on the unearthed articles displayed at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, the Minoan Civilization probably rose four millennia before the Chinese Civilization. Despite its early development, Minoan kilning techniques and art designs were astonishingly sophisticated. They showcased the imaginativeness, wisdom and dexterity of local craftsmanship which can be seen in pottery art, such as a vase with decorative ceramic flowers below its brim and a household utensils bearing a symbol resembling a swastika.

In addition to pottery, gold pendants, necklaces, bracelets, coins and tiny marble seals meticulously inscribed with sophisticated carvings reveal the affluence of the Minoan Civilization. However, the glorious achievements of the Minoans ended abruptly, some experts say, after a massive volcanic eruption around 1400 BC.

Nevertheless, its tragic end takes nothing away from the Minoans' enigmatic power. The Phaistos Disc bearing 45 pictorial signs uncovered there still remains undecipherable and historians are yet to reach a definite conclusion on whether it is closely linked to the Cretan script. Many believe it is possibly a hymn or a text of characters with magical symbolism.

In spite of its mysterious extinction, the Minoans exerted great influence on the Mycenaean Civilization, the first civilization that emerged on the Greek mainland. It was here that familiar stories of the Trojan War took place, which are widely-known to the Chinese and people from around the world.

The cultural relics exhibited at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens corroborates the influence of the Minoans. Both civilizations share many similarities such as the style and form of gold jewelry, the painting of dolphins on pottery jugs and ceramic discs. In addition, the Mycenaean people might have been particularly fond of animals as the museum is teeming with household utensils painted or modeled in the shape of living creatures such as octopuses or hedgehogs.

From 1100-800 BC, following the decline of the Mycenaean Civilization, the history of Greece was shrouded in mystery perhaps due to a lack of historical writings and records. However, around the 8th century BC and onwards, the sanctuary of oracles dedicated to the God Apollo took shape in middle of Mt. Parmassus in Delphi, about a two-and-half-hour drive from Athens. The area, which was excavated around the 1800s, has witnessed the vicissitudes of fortunes faced by Aegean Civilizations from what were depicted in Homer's epic poems, the Hellenistic Classical Period, to the reigns of Alexander the Great, the Roman empire and the Ottoman Turks. Originally, there stood an eight-meter-tall Three-Headed Serpent Column, commemorating the Greeks' decisive victory against the Persian Empire at the Battle of Plataea. However, the sculpture was moved to Istanbul, Turkey, by Emperor Constantine in 324 AD.

From 500 to 336 BC, the Classical Period of Greece produced a constellation of great philosophers, sophists, physicians and historians such as Socrates, Hippocrates, Herodotus, Plato and Aristotle. The arrival of the Golden Age after the defeat of the Persians enabled Athens to flourish. This can be witnessed by the rise of the Acropolis with the Parthenon Temple at its center.

Coincidentally, in China, a host of great thinkers and strategists, including, Confucius, Laozi, Mo Tzu, Mencius, Han Feizi and Sun-Tzu, also emerged during the same period. According to German Philosopher Karl Jaspers (1882-1969), this fortuitous convergence gave rise to an Axial Age approximately between 800 to 200 BC with a proliferation of great thinkers and ideas from the two different hemispheres.

Although, left with only several columns, stones and an amphitheater, the Acropolis never stops inspiring the imagination. Its temples, fountains, marble stairs and divine sculptures preserved or re-made at the Acropolis Museum still bring back the memory of Athens’ past glory that with glows magically with each rising and setting sun.

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