History of Crete

Neolithic Age in Crete

Archaeological finds confirm the presence of man on Crete for at least 8,000 years (areas shown on map). The first inhabitants lived in caves and used tools made from stone. This Neolithic or “New Stone Age” Period lasted from about 5000 B.C. to 2600 B.C. Religion in this period was dedicated to the goddess of fertility and evidence of this in the form of numerous clay figurines of stout females has been found not only in Crete but throughout the eastern Mediterranean.

The first Cretans were a primitive people, arriving perhaps from Asia Minor or North Africa. They developed very slowly over the next 3,000 years, practising rudimentary agriculture and learning to domesticate animals. Crude pottery was made over an open fire, and this process very gradually became more sophisticated.

Minoan Age in Crete

The long period of the Neolithic Age was succeeded by the Minoan period (archaeological areas shown on map). Sir Arthur Evans, the archaeologist who excavated the palace of Knossos, named this age after the mythological ruler of Knossos, King Minos. This period lasted for about 1,500 years and included the “Golden Age” of Crete. Evans further divided the period into Early Minoan (3000 – 2000 B.C.), Middle Minoan I & II (2000 -1700 B.C.) Middle Minoan III and Late Minoan I & II (1700 -1400 B.C.), and Late Minoan III (1400 -1100 B.C.).

The Minoans ruled not only Crete but other Aegean Islands and various cities on the mainland. New buildings replaced the cave dwellings of the previous age and, during the Late Minoan Period, architecture reached near perfection. The great palaces that we see today at Knossos, Festos, Malia and Zakros were constructed during this period. Arts and crafts also reached their pinnacle also during this “Golden Age”. At this time, the great Minoan fleet ruled the Mediterranean, providing wealth to the island from trade and commerce as well as providing protection from invaders. The Minoans were a peaceful people with a love of life and equality between men and women. The Minoan cities have no evidence of fortifications around them, revealing an era of tranquillity and security on the island. A major earthquake hit Crete about 1700 B.C., completely destroying all the palaces; but the palaces were rebuilt soon afterwards and the Minoan civilization continued to flourish.

A new disaster hit Crete around 1450 B.C., causing large-scale destruction to the palaces and settlements and resulting in the total demise of the great civilization. The palaces were smashed and burned, while smaller settlements were devastated. The factors leading to this destruction are still unknown and still widely debated. One theory is that a volcanic eruption on the island of Thira (Santorini) was powerful enough to devastate Crete. Whatever the cause, the Minoan civilization came to an abrupt halt. The Minoan fleet was destroyed, the settlements were levelled, and the population reduced. At almost the same time, Mycenean (Ahaean) Greeks from the Peloponnesus migrated to Crete. We do not know if there was a massive invasion of the devastated island or a gradual immigration over a number of years, supported by intermarriages between the old and the new ruling families. Minoan and Mycenean art and culture were now mixed. New cities and palaces appeared, especially in the west of Crete.

Sub-Minoan and Hellenistic Era

Greek mainland tribes have migrated to Crete over the years. The form of writing in Knossos (Linear B) was later proved to be Greek language, although the symbols used for its writing are not Greek letters. The great Minoan civilization started its final decline after 1300 B.C. following new earthquakes and fires on the island.

The next wave of settlers, the Dorian Greeks, destroyed Mycenae on the mainland and invaded Crete about 1100 B.C. They established an aristocratic form of rule. Under the Dorians, Cretan society was divided into three social classes: the free citizens, those who submitted to the invaders; the landholders, those who kept their land and paid exorbitant taxes; and the slaves. The famous Law Code of Gortyn, indicates the absolute authority of the rulers in all aspects of life.

Minoan civilization still lived in isolated cities and villages, particularly in the eastern part of Crete. Cities like Karfi in the mountains of Lassithi were inhabited by Minoans calling themselves Eteocretans (true Cretans). Other powerful cities, like Praisos (in Lassithi), blended gradually Minoan and mainland Greek culture. Praisos maintained its own language (not deciphered yet) and remained powerful until the third century B. C.

For some time around the seventh century B.C., Crete once more became an important centre, but it declined again when the major emphasis of the Greek civilization was shifted to the centres of Athens, Sparta, and Macedonia.

The Greek city-states, such as Lato, Gortyn, Praisos, Itanos, Kydonia, Aptera and Knossos, were in constant strife among themselves, and civil wars raged continuously across the island. However, when a foreign enemy made advances, the island’s people stood united. Despite this unity, the island fell to the Romans in 69 B.C.

Roman Period

Crete was a strategic point in the eastern Mediterranean and one that the Roman Empire needed. In 74 B.C. the consul Mark Antony began a campaign against the island, but the Cretans were well-prepared and defeated him at sea. Yet, in 69 B.C., Crete fell to the Romans and was a Roman province until 369 A.D.

Gortyn, which had always been an ally of Rome, became the island’s capital. Other important Roman cities existed in Eleftherna, Polirinia, Limin Hersonisou and Aptera. Living conditions slowly improved and the population increased. But the Cretans did not play an active role in the political and cultural activities of the Roman Empire.

First Byzantine Period

The first period of Byzantine rule lasted from 395 A.D. until 824 A.D. During this period Crete was part of the Byzantine Empire, which had its capital in Constantinople. It became a separate province in the empire and had a Byzantine general as its governor. This allowed Crete to participate in the building of the Greek Byzantine Empire. Christianity spread to the island and became established. Fine churches and basilicas were built. There is evidence of 40 or more basilicas from this period: Gortyn, Limin Hersonisou, Sougia, Elounda and Itanos are some of the more important ones.

Arabic Occupation

Arab Saracens conquered the island in 824 A.D., destroying the capital Gortyn and building a new one in present day Iraklion. They dug a moat (Khandak) all the way around the city and named it El Khandak.

Thus began almost a century and a half of Arab rule. Crete became the stronghold of the Saracen pirates in the eastern Mediterranean. The native Christian population was persecuted but continued to survive, especially in the mountainous areas.

Second Byzantine Period

The Byzantine general, Nikiforos Fokas, liberated Crete from Arab rule in 961 A.D. Iraklion fell into Byzantine hands after a four month siege, with Arab losses estimated at 200,000. Fokas built the Byzantine castle of Temenos (Kanli Kastelli) and attempted to move the city of Iraklion there. This did not materialize and the city remained where it was. Christianity flourished again and Iraklion became the seat of an archbishop. Churches and monasteries sprang up all over the island. Some of the more important churches are: the Panagia Kera Church in Kritsa; the Rotunda of Michael Archangelos, Episkopi; Ai Yannis Kyr-Yannis Church, Alikianos; Agios Nikolaos Church, Kyriakoselia; Agios Fanourios Church of the Moni Varsamonerou; Agios Pandeleimonos Church, Pigi; and Agios Fanourios Church, Kitharida. Some of the important monasteries of the period are: Moni Arkadiou, Moni Palianis, Moni Gouverniotissa, Moni Agias Triadas, Moni Gouvernetou, Moni Vrondisi, Moni Agarathou, Moni Toplou, Moni Halepa, and Moni Preveli.

Also, during this time, Byzantine noble families and many of General Fokas’ troops settled on the island and built new villages.

Venetian Rule

In 1204 the Crusaders took Constantinople and dismantled the Byzantine Empire. Crete fell into the hands of Boniface of Monferrat, who then sold it to the Venetians for about 1000 pieces of silver. Crete was necessary to the Venetians as a cross-road for their commercial interests in the East. The Genoese, traditional rivals of the Venetians, opposed the occupation, along with the native Cretan population. During the first centuries of Venetian rule there were continuous rebellions.

The Venetian system of rule was oppressive and strictly maintained. Overlords, appointed directly from Venice, efficiently exploited the resources of Crete. Heavy taxes, low fixed prices for produce, and the confiscation of private land caused continuous local opposition and unrest.

Slowly, the Venetians relaxed their regime and permitted intermarriage and freedom of settlement anywhere on the island. With these changes, the social and economic life of many Cretans improved. During the Middle Ages, exports of corn, oil, and salt kept ports busy. Cretan wine was also widely exported and became famous throughout Europe. However, the system of serfdom and statutory labour lasted until the end of the Venetian rule.

After the final fall of Constantinople in 1453, Byzantine scholars took refuge in Crete. Thus, the island became a centre for Byzantine arts. Soon, the influences of the Italian Renaissance were combined with the principles of classical aesthetics and with Byzantine characteristics, and a new school of painting, the Cretan School, was formed. During this time the renowned icon painter Damaskinos studied with Dominikos Theotokopoulos, “El Greco”, at the school of Agia Ekaterini in Iraklion.

Education advanced with the development of lower and middle schools similar to those in Venice. Many Cretans studied at the universities of Venice and Padua and returned to Crete as doctors and lawyers. Monasteries, such as Moni Agarathou and Moni Vrondisi also became centres for learning and the scholar-monks of Crete became significant officials in the Orthodox Church.

As education flourished, so did the written word. The main literary figures during this time were Georgios Hortatzis, author of the dramatic work Erophile and Vincezos Kornaros with his work, Erotokritos. This is a masterpiece of Cretan literature that is still recited throughout the island.

During the Venetian occupation, Italian architecture spread rapidly across the island. Cretan towns (Iraklion) began to resemble Venetian towns, with buildings, fortresses, harbours and churches designed by Italian architects.

In the sixteenth century, with the threat of Turkish invasion imminent, work began on rebuilding the large fortresses. Over the course of a century, forced labour built the “Megalo Kastro” — the fortification of Iraklion, still standing today. All the major towns and harbours of Crete had such fortresses.

Turkish Occupation in Crete

Crete was under constant threat of invasion by Turkey during the last years of Venetian rule. The invasion began in 1645 with the attack on Chania. Sixty thousand Turkish troops landed from a fleet of 400 ships and Chania soon fell. Rethimnon was the next target and in 1646 fell into Turkish hands. By 1648, the Ottoman Empire was in control of Crete, except for Iraklion where the siege lasted twenty-one years. Finally, on 27 September 1669, Iraklion surrendered. The lengthy battle had cost 117,000 Turkish lives and nearly 30,000 lives among the Cretans and Venetians.

Incredibly extensive material destruction followed the conquest: some churches were levelled, others were converted into mosques, and roads and fortifications fell into disrepair.

Many inhabitants fled Crete to escape the persecution of the Ottoman government, while thousands of others became prisoners or fled to the mountains. Large numbers of Turkish settlers arrived and added to the misery of the shrinking Christian population. The Cretans suffered under higher taxes than those in other regions of the Ottoman Empire, farmers became serfs, and private property was seized.

These slave-like conditions led to almost constant uprisings against Turkish control. Daskaloyannis led the first major rebellion in 1770, which was initially successful but was eventually put down by the Turkish forces. Severe reprisals against the Christian population followed this and most other uprisings.

The Greek War of Independence began in 1821 and Cretan participation was extensive. The Turks responded by seeking the aid of the Pasha of Egypt, and brutal campaigns crushed the island’s resistance. In 1832 a Greek state was established which, however, did not include Crete and the island passed to the Egyptians, in acknowledgement of their assistance.

Aided by volunteers and reinforcements from free Greece, the “Great Cretan Revolution” began in 1866 and the rebels scored a series of victories. However, as more Turkish forces landed on the island, reprisals, usually against non-combatants, became common. The holocaust at Moni Arkadiou in 1866 became a tragic symbol of Crete’s struggle for independence: hundreds of women and children took refuge in the monastery and, refusing to surrender to Turkish forces, blew up the powder magazine, burying themselves and 1,500 Turkish soldiers under the rubble.

Finally, after years of struggle, the Great Powers (Britain, France, Italy and Russia) decided that Turkey could no longer maintain control and intervened with the expulsion of Turkish forces in 1898 which led to the formation of the independent Cretan Republic.

Independence and Union with Greece

In 1898 a Cretan government was set up in Crete with Prince George, the younger son of King George of Greece, as High Commissioner. However, the goal of most Cretans was unity with Greece. Angry reaction followed whenever the High Commissioner imposed restrictions on the people’s freedoms or changed methods of administration.

This unquenchable revolutionary spirit led to the “Revolution of Therisos” in 1905. The leader was Eleftherios Venizelos who had fought in the earlier independence struggles and had become Minister of Justice to Prince George. The revolution was short-lived, but support for Venizelos was widespread enough to force the resignation of Prince George.

The Great Powers withdrew their forces from Crete, the post of High Commissioner was abolished and after elections Venizelos emerged as the leader. When the Military League of Athens came to power, Venizelos was asked to become Prime Minister of Greece.

Finally, in 1913, union with Greece was realised. Under the Treaty of London, Sultan Mohammed II relinquished his formal rights to the island. In December, the Greek flag was raised at the Firkas fortress in Chania, with Venizelos and King Constantine in attendance, and Crete was unified with mainland Greece.

World War II and German Occupation

The Cretan desire for independence, combined with the tendency for resistance, resurfaced in 1940. The Cretan Division took part in the fight to repel the Italian forces of Mussolini from northern Greece. After Mussolini’s failure, Greece became the target of Hitler’s forces. In April of 1941, Nazi Germany began its attack against mainland Greece, rapidly penetrated the Greek defences, and occupied the country.

With Cretan troops trapped, the Germans began their assault on largely unprotected Crete. The elite German airborne forces landed by parachute and glider on 20 May 1941. Only about 30,000 poorly equipped troops of the British Commonwealth and 12,000 Greeks defended the island along with the local population.

The Battle of Crete lasted only ten days, but produced enormous losses on both sides. Although heavily outgunned, the Commonwealth troops and local fighters effectively wiped out the German airborne division. The German capture of the airfield at Maleme near Chania, provided them with a strong foothold on the island. On 30 May the battle ended and Allied forces retreated across the mountains to Hora Sfakion and other southern areas and evacuated to Egypt.

The German occupation lasted for four years, a period once again marked by constant local opposition (such as in the villages of Kanadanos and Koustogerako in western Crete and the area of Arvi in central Crete). English and Commonwealth intelligence officers landed as Allied soldiers evacuated, and they organized extensive resistance networks. Most of these men were hidden in the mountains, in caves, and in monasteries, protected by the Cretans at enormous risk. A high point for the resistance movement came with the abduction of the German commander, General Kreipe, in 1944. The kidnapping was spectacular not only for its boldness, but because of the relatively amateurish group that successfully carried it out. However, reprisals to any resistance were swift and brutal.

Recent Past and Present

At the end of World War II, Crete began reconstruction while the rest of the country was embroiled in a civil war. Due to this period of peace and also due to its favourable climate, the island became one of the most prosperous areas of Greece with agricultural products becoming a mainstay of Cretan economy.

Today, tourism provides another economic boost to the island. Infrastructure built in the last twenty years accommodates this latest influx of foreigners. The superb climate and diverse beauty of the island beckon to visitors from all over Europe.

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TOUTnetThe above text is copied from CreteTOURnet, a site with tourist information about Crete, and you can find it there at French and German as well.

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