Some Thoughts on the Demise of Minoan Civilization
One of the favorite themes for discussion among scholars is the possible causes for the destruction of the Minoan Civilization. Evidence of a violent end through fire and demolition is clear, but the clues to what caused such destruction have been elusive.
Professor Marinatos was the first to suggest in 1939 that the eruption of Thera, along with the associated effects, was the cause for the catastrophe. The theory argues that the earthquakes destroyed the palaces, tsunamis obliterated the fleet and peers of the Minoans, and the volcanic ash of Thera covered the whole island destroying crops and suffocating animals.
Many geologists have argued that the Thera eruption was of a colossal scale, and the effects described by Marinatos were possible. Others have disagreed. Recent data places the bulk of the ash deposits of the volcano to the East caried by the easterly jet streems of the area, with little effect upon the island of Crete (D.M. Pyle, "New estimates for the volume of the Minoan Eruption". Thera and the Aegean World III, see bibliography)
The biggest blow to this theory came in 1987 from studies conducted at the Greenland ice cap. Scientists dated frozen ash from the Thera eruption and concluded that it occurred in 1645 BC, some 150 years before the final destruction of the Minoan palaces.
Even so, the tsunamis and earthquakes associated with the Thera eruption could have still caused much physical damage to the Minoan fleet and infrastructure, and it would have affected the climate, the economy, and the politics of the region. However, it is doubtful that it could have caused in itself the end of the Minoan civilization. After all, the Minoan society had exhibited acute reflexes in its past history when it rebounded from other physical disasters to elevate its culture to even higher levels. So why did it not recover after the destructions of 1450 BC?
Another factor that might have contributed to the end of Minoan civilization is the invasion and occupation of Crete by the Mycenaeans. Their documented invasion took place around 1400, and in combination with the effects of the Thera eruption present a likely scenario for the final destruction of the Minoan civilization. In this theory, the Minoan fleet and ports were destroyed by the 50 foot waves and were never rebuilt. Possible climatic changes affected crops for many years, which in turn could have led to economic downfall and social upheaval. In this background, the foreign invaders from Mycenae provided the conclusion to a splendid culture which flourished for 1600 years.
One question still remains however. How did the inhabitants of Mycenae escape the effects of the volcanic eruption, when the Minoan civilization was brought to its knees by them? Considering the topography of the Aegean, and accepting the enormity of the volcanic eruption of Thera, it is hard to understand how the Mycenaeans who were just as vulnerable were able to overcome the destruction, while at the same time they were able to preserve (or rebuilt) their fleet and to mount an ambitious expedition to conquer the vast island of Crete.
The questions regarding the destruction of the Minoan civilization linger precariously as the historical records do not provide a definitive answer, and it is these persistent questions which have shrouded prehistoric Crete with an aura of seductive enchantment.