When discussing the death of the famous King Minos of Crete, who had imprisoned Daedalus and his son Icarus in the Labyrinth of the Minotaur, Diodorus Siculus relates that after their escape (and Icarus’s tragic death), Minos pursued them across all the cities of the Mediterranean.

To find Daedalus, he proposed a riddle to the rulers: he presented a spiral shell and challenged them to thread it completely. King Cocalus of Camico in Sicily brought the shell to Daedalus, who had taken refuge there, and Daedalus tied a thread to an ant, which then traveled through the shell, threading it completely.

Thus, Minos knew that Daedalus was at King Cocalus’s court and demanded that he be handed over. Cocalus agreed, but only after Minos took a hot bath, and drowned him there. According to another version, Cocalus’s daughters killed Minos with boiling water in the bath.

Schematic of the Gurfa caves in Sicily
Schematic of the Gurfa caves in Sicily. Credit: Davide Mauro / Wikimedia Commons

They then buried his body in a monumental tomb dedicated to the worship of Aphrodite, until much later when the bones were discovered and returned to Crete.

Minos, king of the Cretans and lord of the seas at that time, when he learned that Daedalus had fled to Sicily, decided to launch an expedition against the island. After equipping a significant naval force, he set sail from Crete and arrived at the territory of Acragas, in a place that he named Minoa. He disembarked his forces and sent messengers to King Cocalus, demanding Daedalus to punish him. Cocalus invited him for a meeting and, after promising to do everything he asked, received Minos with the rites of hospitality. And while Minos was bathing, Cocalus kept him in the hot water for too long, ending his life. He then handed his body to the Cretans and explained the cause of death by saying that Minos had slipped in the bathhouse and, upon falling into the hot water, met his end. Following this, Minos’s companions buried his body with magnificence; after constructing a double tomb, they placed the bones in the hidden part, while in the open section, they erected a temple to Aphrodite. Thus, Minos was honored for many generations, because the locals offered sacrifices there, believing it to be a temple to Aphrodite. It was only in more recent times, after the founding of the city of Acragas, that, upon discovering the hidden chamber with the bones, the tomb was dismantled, and the bones were returned to the Cretans; this occurred when Theron was the lord of the Acragantines.

Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca historica IV.79

This is the legend echoed by Diodorus, which, according to ancient historians’ dating, would have happened three generations before the Trojan War, that is, between 1334 and 1136 BCE.

Exterior view of the Gurfa Caves in Sicily
Exterior view of the Gurfa Caves in Sicily. Credit: Davide Mauro / Wikimedia Commons

Archaeologists have proposed several sites near Agrigento that could correspond to the supposed tomb of King Minos. One of the most intriguing suggestions comes from archaeologist Carmelo Montagna, who locates it in the grand tholos of the Gurfa Caves.

The Gurfa Caves are situated in the municipality of Alia, in central Sicily, halfway between Palermo and Agrigento. They consist of six chambers carved into the rock, with uncertain dating, though researchers lean towards placing them in the Bronze Age, between 2500 and 1600 BCE, though their later modification and use throughout the centuries make it difficult to establish a reliable chronology.

Nevertheless, interestingly, this age range fits well with the hypothesis linking it to the legend of King Minos, especially considering that the main chamber is an enormous tholos, which some compare to the Tholos of Atreus in Mycenae for its shape.

Top of the tholos of Gurfa
Top of the tholos of Gurfa. Credit: Davide Mauro / Wikimedia Commons

The complex consists of six rooms carved into a sandstone cliff, arranged on two levels. On the lower level, there is a rectangular room measuring 9.59 by 9.15 meters with a height of 4.53 meters, which connects to another bell-shaped tholos room reaching 16.35 meters in height with a 70-centimeter circular opening at the top.

An internal staircase carved into the tholos wall leads to a second level, where four other rooms of varying dimensions are located. The smallest is 6 by 4 meters, while the largest is about 10 by 6 meters. Each room has a window facing the valley.

Some researchers have proposed that the complex was a granary, expanded with smaller rooms during the late Roman and Byzantine periods. Others, however, support the hypothesis that it was actually a monumental tomb, with its original core dating back to around 1500 BCE.

Interior view of the Gurfa tholos
Interior view of the Gurfa tholos. Credit: Davide Mauro / Wikimedia Commons

This was the view of Professor Benedetto Rocco, based on the formal similarity of the main cavity with the famous Tholos of the Treasury of Atreus in Mycenae. The Gurfa tholos, which exceeds 16 meters in height, would thus be the highest in the entire Mediterranean.

According to Rocco, it could have been constructed by Minoan or Mycenaean groups fleeing from the Aegean region after the catastrophic eruption of the Thera volcano (modern-day Santorini), leading to the legend of the tomb of Minos.

Excavations and analyses conducted so far have not yielded significant or conclusive results, except for the presence of an internal patina of black tarry soot adhered to the walls of the rooms.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on May 7, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en La legendaria tumba del rey Minos en Sicilia es el tholos más alto del Mediterráneo


Danilo Caruso, The Death of Minos in Sicily | Grotte della Gurfa (Provincia Regionale di Palermo) | Carmelo Montagna, The Treasure of Minos: The Architecture of the Gurfa Caves of Alia Between Prehistory and Mysteries | Wikipedia

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