Cult and multiculturalism

A shared sanctuary at Early Iron Age Kommos

In Early Iron Age Kommos, joint participation in religious activity by Cretans and Phoenicians may have fostered a shared identity and ensured peaceful collaboration and coexistence.

Chris Adamson

Kommos, located on the southern coast of Crete and at the western edge of the Mesara Plain, was a Minoan harbour town and administrative centre. Whilst not equipped with the full political infrastructure of the palaces, it nonetheless seems to have been a key node in the network of trade across Crete, and was probably the primary port linked to the palace at Phaistos and the nearby major trade centre at Agia Triada.

Like a number of sites in the Aegean, Kommos was abandoned around 1200 BC in the closing stages of the Bronze Age, and for almost two centuries there is little sign of activity. When the site was eventually reoccupied the inhabitants found a landscape still prominently marked by the monumental structures that had formed the Late Bronze Age town, such as Building T, probably an administrative centre, and Building P, identified by excavators as a set of shipsheds. A sanctuary was established at the site towards the end of the eleventh century BC with the construction of a small shrine, known as Temple A, which was in use until around 800 BC, when it was replaced by Temple B.

Map of Bronze Age Crete with some key sites. Kommos is shown on the southern coast. Squares are used to denote major court complexes (Chania has been included, even though the remains of the palace there are obscured by the modern city). Stars indicate cave sanctuaries; triangles indicate peak sanctuaries. Adapted from this map.

Excavations of the sanctuary carried out by Canadian and Greek teams since the 1970s have unearthed evidence of an integrated multicultural community at Kommos in this period and raised thought-provoking questions about the role of identity and memory in Early Iron Age Crete.

Temples A and B

Temple A was a relatively simple structure. It seems to have been a basic rectangular building, around 5.5m wide, and with an estimated length of up to 6.7m. It was entered from an open courtyard to the east, the threshold of the shrine marked by a sill set around 17cm above floor level. Low benches lined the interior walls.

The temple reused walls from the monumental Late Minoan Building T, the north wall actually incorporating parts of the northern facade of the Bronze Age structure, and the south wall recycling blocks from it. Continual use is indicated by the excavation of as many as eighteen levels of soil, some of them burnt, which caused a gradual raising of the floor level by around 33cm (Kommos IV, pp. 9-14, 91).

Temple A seems still to have been in use up to the time its replacement, Temple B, was built almost directly over it in around 800 BC. The northern wall of Temple B corresponds almost exactly with the northern wall of Temple A but, with a width of around 6.40m and a length of 8.08m, the overall dimensions of the new temple are slightly larger than its predecessor’s.

There were new architectural features, such as a central pillar supporting the roof at the eastern entrance and a circle of stones forming a hearth in the middle of the building, but overall Temple B remained in many ways a fairly unremarkable single-roomed building. One new feature, however, makes the sanctuary at Kommos unique. Towards the back of the temple, behind the hearth and in front of a low oval of charred wood, was an unusual shrine composed of three short stone pillars set into a stone base (Kommos IV, pp. 14-23).

The “Tripillar Shrine”

The “Tripillar Shrine” consisted of four stone parts. The largest part was a stone slab, triangular in shape, which lay flat upon the floor of the temple. This slab was incised with three sockets, placed alongside each other from north to south, and in these sockets stood three stone pillars.

Only the northernmost pillar survives intact. It is the same height as the central pillar, though we may assume from the rough top of the central pillar that it did once rise slightly higher but has been broken. The southernmost pillar is slightly shorter than the others, at 20cm, but also appears to have been broken and probably would have matched the northern pillar (Shaw 1989, pp. 165-170).

Where did this unusual feature come from? Director of the Kommos excavations Professor Joseph Shaw notes that, whilst pillar-worship is attested in some later Greek sanctuaries, for contemporary examples we must look to the Phoenicians.

The Tripillar Shrine. After: Shaw 1989, p. 168.

Though they did not use this name themselves, and indeed it’s not clear that they thought of themselves as a specific people at all (Quinn 2018), the “Phoenicians” refers to a group of city-states on the Levantine coast, corresponding roughly with what is now Lebanon. They were proficient sea-farers and travellers, and in the Early Iron Age they established trading posts and settlements throughout the Mediterranean.

Shaw offers the Phoenician temple dedicated to Tanit-Ashtart in Sarepta for comparison with Kommos. In the eighth century BC the cult there featured a stone pillar, one metre tall, in the middle of a small temple building furnished with benched walls. Since there is no Cretan parallel for this, Shaw argues that the placement of low benches around a central divine pillar may indicate the implementation of a distinctly Phoenician design in the construction of Temple B (Shaw 1989, pp. 172-181).

The “Phoenician” homeland in the Levant. Major settlements are indicated on the map. The Aegean lies further to the (north) west; Egypt and the rest of North Africa lie to the south. Sarepta, a city mentioned in this article, is sandwiched between the cities of Sidon and Tyre. Adapted from this map.

We find evidence for such designs not only in the Phoenician homeland in the Levant, but also at sites which are known to have been Phoenician settlements in the western Mediterranean. A stele from Nora in Sardinia, for example, depicts a tripillar construction. Archaeologist Prof. Ora Negbi highlights that the examples from the western Mediterranean, such as the stele from Nora and other similar items, are mostly found in funerary contexts, and those from the eastern Mediterranean in straightforward sacral contexts. Kommos is therefore the most western example of what she calls “Phoenician cult at home” (Negbi 1992, p. 609).

Foreigners at Kommos?

The hypothesis of a Phoenician presence at Kommos is supported by pottery evidence. An amphora fragment dating to the first phase of Temple A is the earliest Phoenician item found at the site, and is in fact one of the earliest Phoenician finds anywhere in the Aegean. One amphora fragment does not necessarily indicate a presence at the sanctuary at this early stage, but it does tell us that by the end of the eleventh century or beginning of the tenth century Kommos was at least “on the radar” of Phoenician traders.

Considerably more Phoenician pottery, particularly fragments of heavy-duty transport vessels, was found dating to later phases of Temple A, in the ninth century, and the first phase of Temple B, in the first half of the eighth century (Bikai 2000, pp. 302-303). Taken together, Negbi takes the pottery and the installation of the Tripillar Shrine as indicative of the “foundation of a permanent post at Kommos” by Phoenician traders (Negbi 1992, pp. 607).

In the second half of the eighth century, 50-100 years after Temple B was built and the Tripillar Shrine installed, things got even more unusual. Two faience human figurines and a bronze horse figurine were wedged between the pillars. The bronze horse figurine, 12cm tall and 13.3cm long, was placed facing east between the southern and central pillars. Above it, also forced into the space between the pillars, was one of the faience figurines, female, 14.3cm tall, lion-headed and bearded, holding an ankh in the right hand and a staff in the left, and accompanied at the right foot by a small cat. Between the central and northern pillar was found the other faience figurine, less than half the height of the other at 6.3cm, male, with a triangular face and beard, standing with left foot forward and fists clenched at the sides.

The human figurines have been identified as the Egyptian goddess Sekhmet and her son Nefertum, and are not local copies, but original Egyptian productions. These deities form two-thirds of the “Memphite Triad” in Egyptian religion, the final member being Sekhmet’s husband, Ptah, who usually accompanies them. (On the figurines, see Shaw 2006, pp. 139 and Kommos IV, pp. 188-189.) So what’s going on? Are there Egyptians at Kommos now?

On the one hand, there must have been a sufficient level of exchange and an adequately far-reaching network of trade links for expensive and exotic items such as these Egyptian figurines to make it to a small sanctuary in southern Crete. In addition, the local population must have had a certain level of comfort with eastern Mediterranean imagery and cult practice to allow it to take such a central place in their temple.

On the other hand, the figurines are somewhat randomly placed, crammed into the gaps between the pillars, and they are of uneven size. One of the triad was missing, and there was an otherwise unrelated bronze horse thrown in for good measure. The people in Kommos may have been comfortable with eastern images, but they don’t seem to have known what they were supposed to do with them.

Certainly we haven’t found Egyptians. The presence of Egyptian items does not on its own indicate the presence of Egyptian people, and there is no evidence for any recognisably Egyptian practices taking place. Furthermore, the cult participants don’t seem to have been following any recognisably Phoenician practices any longer either.

So how does this fit with the other evidence? We mentioned above that the abundance of Phoenician pottery fragments suggest a permanent presence in the ninth century and the first half of the eighth century. By the time the figurines were added to the Tripillar Shrine in the mid-eighth century, however, the amount of Phoenician pottery discovered is considerably reduced, and by the seventh century, the last phase of Temple B, there is almost none (Bikai 2000, pp. 302-303). When the Tripillar shrine was first constructed there was a visible Phoenician presence at Kommos, but by the time the figurines were added that does not seem to be the case.

Kommos during the Early Iron Age

So let’s do a quick recap. In the Late Bronze Age Kommos was a successful port town trading and processing goods, probably on behalf of the nearby palace at Phaistos. In the upheaval accompanying the downfall of the palaces, Kommos was abandoned around 1200 BC. After a couple of centuries, people return to a landscape of monumental ruins, and establish a typical small Early Iron Age shrine building amongst, and in part reusing, the ruins.

Throughout the tenth and ninth centuries people worshipped there, probably including Phoenician traders who had established a presence at Kommos. When the temple was rebuilt around 800 BC, ongoing Phoenician participation in ritual practice is demonstrated by the installation of the Tripillar Shrine, and overseas exchange was still going strong. By the mid-eighth century, however, whilst there were still eastern contacts, the cult practices seem to have been more haphazard and there is little evidence of a resident Phoenician population.

The practice of establishing Iron Age cults amongst monumental Bronze Age ruins is found at several sites in Crete. I have written previously about cult practised amongst the ruins of the Minoan palace at Knossos; a ritual ash altar was also found against a large ashlar wall at Amnisos, the Minoan site which had served as a port for Knossos. At Palaikastro, an Iron Age ash altar was found in the midst of the ruins of the Bronze Age town. At Phaistos and Agia Triada, both associated with Kommos in Minoan times, Iron Age Cretans similarly deposited votive offerings next to Bronze Age ruins.

In a period of social and political change a shared cultural memory of the past can instil a perception of community and stability, and for emerging elites in these societies privileged access to the ruins may have conferred status. In building Temple A with and amongst the monumental ruins of the Minoan Building T, Kommos seems at first to have been following a similar pattern.

In the examples of Iron Age cult at Bronze Age ruins mentioned above the participants in the cult would have had some plausible sense of “ancestral” connection to the ruins. At Kommos too this would have been the case for the Cretans who worshipped there, but at least by 800 BC, and probably earlier, a resident population of Phoenicians had become integral participants of the religious practices. Without a plausible “ancestral” link to the ruins, how would they have connected with the “landscape of memory” that provided the temple’s setting?

It may have been the case that the Phoenicians found common ground with the local Cretans in a collective memory of the ruins as belonging to trade-related administrative hubs, significant for their former function rather than the ethnicity of their former occupants. That is to say, perhaps they did not see themselves as Phoenicians practising cult amongst Cretan ruins, but seafaring traders practising cult amongst ruins belonging to past seafaring traders.

Studies of inter-community conflict find that ecumenism and other forms of shared religious worship are effective tools in alleviating tensions between rival ethnic and religious identities (Appleby 2000; Power 2007). It may be that combining elements of both Cretan and the Phoenician religion and participating in the cult together was a method of ensuring that the two communities enjoyed friendly cooperation in trade and a tension-free coexistence at Kommos.