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Cultural Exchange in the Minoan World: Egypt and Others

Today, it's not at all uncommon to see people in New York wearing fashions from Paris, or kids in California watching Japanese anime TV shows (and kids in Japan watching American TV shows). It's called cultural exchange, and it has always happened, as long as people have traveled and traded and interacted with each other.

The way ancient cultures are presented in the history books often makes them sound as if they were completely separate from each other, sealed away in some sort of etheric ziptop bag, as if the borders of the various empires and cultures were non-permeable. But that's far from the case. During the Bronze Age - the time when the Minoans were being all Minoan-y - the whole eastern Mediterranean was one great big cultural exchange area, with people trading objects, ideas, styles, and fashions from one spot to another as fast as the ships could ply the seas.

One of the Minoans' biggest trading partners was Egypt. Sir Arthur Evans originally thought Minoan society had been founded by Egyptians (he was a racist who was looking for a "white" basis for European civilization, instead of the "cradle of civilization" in Mesopotamia that was full of brown-skinned people, and it was a popular - though incorrect - idea in his time that the Egyptians were white). Evans turned out to be very wrong about the origin of the Minoans; DNA evidence tells us that the Minoans descended from people who migrated to Crete from Anatolia during the Neolithic era.

But he was right to notice some Egyptian influence in Minoan culture. Papyrus shows up in Minoan frescoes and seal stones and may have been imported to Crete and grown there (there's a stand of it in front of the Heraklion Archaeological Museum today). Egyptian carved stone jars are among the many funeral goods found in Minoan tombs. One of the standard "back-bend" poses of Egyptian acrobats turns up on a Minoan seal and on the gold pommel from a bronze sword found at Malia. And the Minoans also appear to have borrowed the Egyptian goddess Taweret into their pantheon, though they changed her up a little in the process.

The influence went the other way as well. Minoan ceramics have been found in Egyptian tombs, and Minoan-style frescoes appear at Egyptian sites. The palaces at Tell el-Daba, the ancient Egyptian city of Avaris, sported several Minoan-style frescoes, and Amenhotep III's palace at Malkata has also yielded fragments of Minoan-style paintings. We don't know whether Minoan artists traveled to Egypt to create these works, or whether Egyptian artists traveled to Crete to learn the art style. But regardless, it was popular in more places than just Crete - not just Egypt but also the Levant and the Aegean islands as well.

Minoans also show up in Egyptian art, specifically in the tombs of Egyptian government officials such as Rekhmire, who was the governor of Thebes and a Vizier during late Minoan times, the 18th Dynasty in Egypt. These works of Egyptian art always show the Minoans, in their characteristic brightly-patterned kilts, bringing tribute to the Egyptians. It's possible that these depictions show us the usual kind of "greasing the wheels" exchanges that were common among ancient empires. But it's also possible that the Minoans borrowed from the Egyptians (among others) to rebuild their cities and temples after the Thera eruption, so they may have had debt to pay off.

Most of the Minoan cities that people are familiar with are along the north coast of Crete: Knossos, Malia, Palaikastro. But there were also sizeable settlements on the south coast, including Phaistos, Hagia Triada, and Kommos. Kommos is especially interesting because it was a big port city that included big ship sheds for storing the sailing vessels during the winter. Kommos was probably the main port that saw trade with Egypt, and evidence suggests that traders from the Levant used the port as well.

The Minoans were, above all, traders - that was the main source of their culture's great wealth. So it makes sense that they developed a strong relationship with Egypt, as well as the cultures of the Levant, the Aegean islands, and mainland Greece. The more markets for your goods, the better! And with trade goes cultural exchange, because it's human beings who are doing the trading, and they take their gods, their fashions, and their ideas along with them. That's one way we're no different from the ancient Minoans. People are people, no matter where (or when) you go!

In the name of the bee,

And of the butterfly,

And of the breeze, amen!

 

Image: "Reconstructed Minoan Fresco from Avaris, Egypt. Now Archaeological Museum Iraklion, Crete, Greece." by Martin Dürrschnabel is licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.5.

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I'm an artist, writer, and lover of all things ancient and mysterious. The Minoans of Bronze Age Crete have been a particular passion of mine since a fateful art history class introduced me to the frescoes of Knossos back in high school. My first book was published in 2001; one of my most recent works is Labrys and Horns: An Introduction to Modern Minoan Paganism. I've also created a Minoan Tarot deck and a Minoan coloring book. When I'm not busy drawing and writing, I enjoy gardening and giving living history demonstrations at local historic sites.

Comments

  • Tyger
    Tyger Friday, 09 November 2018

    What are your thoughts on 'cultural appropriation'? I've been hearing that a lot lately.

  • Laura Perry
    Laura Perry Friday, 09 November 2018

    Cultural appropriation is an issue with living cultures, such as Native Americans, and it's a very real problem that I wish more people in the Pagan community would pay attention to. Simply put, it means the co-opting of cultural markers from a culture the person doesn't belong to, often in order to make money or develop a public persona, but sometimes just for personal use. It's harmful because the cultures whose markers are appropriated are usually minority cultures, oppressed and endangered, and the people appropriating them are from privileged cultures. In the case of the Minoans, Minoan civilization ended about 3000 years ago, so cultural appropriation doesn't apply.

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