Love Crete or not—and I have yet to meet anyone who has spent much time there and doesn’t—it is hard to think of anywhere else on earth where so many firsts and mosts are crammed into a space so small. At scarcely more than 3,000 square miles in area, it comes only fifth in order of size among the islands of the Mediterranean. But this patch of land, most of it rock, was home, something like 5,000 years ago, to the first society in Europe developed enough to be regarded as a distinctive civilization. We call the pre-Greek people who lived here Minoans, without knowing what they called themselves.
Most visitors, upon arriving in Crete, head directly for Knossos, indisputably one of the greatest prehistoric sites in the world. Sometime after 2000 B.C., the Minoans built a great palace at Knossos (as they did at Phaistos, Mallia and Zakros), which lasted approximately three centuries, when it was leveled by a devastating earthquake. It was Sir Arthur Evans, the first man to carry out extensive excavations in Crete, who unearthed the palace’s remains.