Crete is to Greece what Scotland is to the UK, the Deep South is to the US, or Bavaria is to Germany: a country-within-a-country, with its own traditions, unique character and history, and even linguistic idiom, but an integral part of a unified national whole. |
Although fiercely nationalistic and protective of their Greek national identity, Cretans are also extremely proud and particular about coming from Crete. And for good reason. The island, at about 12,500 sq.km. the largest in the country and the third largest in the Mediterranean, has always been just "a little different" than the mainland.
The first Greek territory to establish an advanced civilization, centered around Minoan Knossos and Faestos, Crete was the last piece of what is today Greece to fall under Ottoman rule, with the conquest of Heraklion in 1669.
Throughout the centuries, Cretan history is an almost never-ending stream of defensive wars and rebellions against the various conquerors the waves of history have washed upon its shores. The islands position, on the shipping routes between Europe, Africa and the Middle East has meant a constant stream of suitors, for the better part of 30 centuries, bent on establishing their control over the Eastern Mediterranean.
As a result, the island is dotted with monuments and traces of both the passing of various civilizations through its mountainous terrain and of the Cretans struggle to oust them and regain their independence. Minoan ruins, Classical temples, Venetian castles, Ottoman Mosques, and Allied and Wermacht cemeteries, make Crete a live theme park of the whole history of the Mediterranean region.
If the unsuspecting visitor does not decide to take a refresher course on the history of Antiquity and the Middle Ages after leaving Crete they never will.
Besides fighting against invaders, the Cretans have also spent a good part of the last 3 thousand years painting, writing, and composing. El Greco ("the Greek") was born Domenico Theotocopoulos, in Fodele, before leaving for Italy and then Spain, to create some of the greatest art of the Rennaisance combining Byzantine austerity with Western forms in his haunting paintings of Spanish nobles and landscapes.
Niko Kazantzakis immortalized the Cretan mentality in "Zorba" and portrayed a human Jesus in the still extremely controversial "The Last Temptation", which was made into a major motion picture by Martin Scorsese in 1988.
Greeces two greatest modern composers were born to Cretan fathers, albeit they never lived on the island. First, Manos Hadjidakis, the composer of, among others, the score for Jules Dassins "Never on Sunday", which won him an Academy Award in 1960 for original song in a motion picture, and which epitomizes modern Greek music to the foreign ear. Then, Mikis Theodorakis, the Greek "national composer", whose works include the scores for Sidney Lumets "Serpico" and Costa-Gavras "Z" and "State of Siege" as well as the sublime musical rendering of 1980 Literature Nobel Prize laureate Odysseas Elytis poem "Axion Esti".
Crete, today, is one of the most prosperous regions of Greece, largely relying on mass as well as luxury tourism for its wealth and growth. From the package holidays hotels of Hersonisos, east of Heraklion, to the ultra-luxury, self-contained resorts of Elounda, north of Agios Nikolaos, and to the basic-but-charming accomodations that can be found in the dozens of isolated beaches and bays of southern Crete, the island caters to every taste and pocketbook.
In addition, a thriving agricultural sector serves as Greeces year-round vegetable garden and produces perhaps the finest quality olive oil in the world. The island is also home to one of Greeces most distinct regional cuisines, with pies of every kind and roast lamb at its core.
Cretans are among the highest-life-expectancy groups in the world, and that is mostly due to their diet, which includes all the elements of the Mediterranean diet: balanced parts of vegetables, fruits, seafood, and free-range lamb, all grilled or cooked in olive oil, and washed down with generous portions of locally-produced, ancient-variety wines and raki (or tsikoudia).
The combination of a 7-month tourist season, year-round sunshine and mild weather, stunning physical beauty and fascinating local culture has attracted thousands of expatriates, from across Europe and the world, that now call Crete their home.
The islands cosmopolitan north shore, tradition-bound and agriculture-based inland mountain ranges, and the stunning beaches in the south make Crete a must-visit destination.
The prefecture (nomos) of Chania covers the western section of the island. It has an area of 2,376 square km. Chania is subdivided into five provinces (eparhies): Kydonia, Kissamos, Apokoronas, Selino, and Sfakia. The main cities of the prefecture are Chania, the capital, and Kastelli in Kissamos. The main towns are Paleohora and Kandanos in Selino, and Hora Sfakion in Sfakia.
The prefecture of Chania offers a wide variety of tourist services and activities of all classes and types. The city of Chania has also maintained characteristics of the Venetian era. The Lefka Ori rise behind Chania and drop to the Libyan Sea in Sfakia and contain many gorges and canyons for the nature or hiking enthusiast. The sandy beaches and clear waters of Falasarna, Paleohora and Georgioupolis offer pleasant swims. The Minoan, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Turkish archaeological sites attract those seeking cultural and historical information.
The province of Kissamos in the northwest of the prefecture of Chania lies between the two peninsulas of western Crete. It extends west to the sea and south to Elafonisi Island. Kastelli is the main city of this area. The city has a variety of tourist services. On the coastal road from Kastelli to Elafonisi Island you can see the wild beauty of western Crete. The beaches at Elafonisi, Falasarna, and Gramvousa are among the finest in Crete. The many Byzantine and Venetian churches, as well as the ancient cities of Polirinia and Falasarna, may be of interest to tourists. The peninsulas of Gramvousa and Spatha are mostly inaccessible by car. Hikers can enjoy some parts.
The province of Sfakia occupies the southeast area of the prefecture of Chania. The Lefka Ori cover most of the area. The province includes the plateaus of Krapi, Askifou, Niatos, Anopolis, Aradena, and Kalikratis. Sfakia has the highest peaks of the Lefka Ori: Pahnes (2,450m); Kastro (2,218m), and Troharis (2,409m). This wild terrain is one of the most impressive in Crete. The visitor may enjoy the panoramic view going from Chania to Sfakia by road. Very impressive also is the Samaria Gorge excursion and the subsequent boat trip to Hora Sfakion.
There are many interesting things for a visitor in the area of Sfakia. The beaches near Loutro, Agia Roumeli, and Frangokastello offer the clear waters of the Libyan Sea. The Byzantine churches of Agios Pavlos (in Agia Roumeli), Michael Archangelos (Aradena), Agii Apostoli (Hora Sfakion), and the Panagia Thymiani and Agios Georgios (Komitades) are of cultural interest. The ravines and gorges through Samaria, Aradena, Imbros, and Kalikratis afford excellent hiking opportunities. The mountain hike to the refuge and plateau at Niatos, 1,500 metres above Askifou, may interest the visitor. With more than 40 peaks above 2,000 metres, the Lefka Ori offer numerous superb hiking possibilities.
The province of Selino is in the southwest part of Crete. It borders the Libyan Sea and the south side of the Lefka Ori. The two major towns are the capital, Kandanos, and Paleohora on the south coast. The name of Selino is derived from the Venetian castle, Selino, in Paleohora. Near Kandanos there are many interesting Byzantine churches.
Rethimnon is one of the four prefectures (nomos) of Crete. It lies between the prefecture of Iraklion and the prefecture of Chania, and consists of four provinces (eparhies): Rethimnon, Milopotamos, Amari, and Agios Vasilios. The province of Rethimnon is in the northwestern part of the prefecture. Milopotamos is on the eastern side, bordering the prefecture of Iraklion. Amari is in the uplands, bordering the other three provinces, and Agios Vasilios is Rethimnon s province on the Libyan Sea. The main cities of the Nomos are Rethimnon, Agia Galini, Anogia, Amari.
These two provinces of Rethimnon and Milopotamos occupy all the area on the north coast of the prefecture of Rethimnon. The entire area is easily reached from the city of Rethimnon. The roads in the provinces are good, usually paved, but narrow and winding. The excursions in this area go east and west along the picturesque Old Road between Rethimnon and Chania and Rethimnon and Iraklion. The construction of the National Road isolated these small villages in the 70s but this adds to their attraction. Hidden among these villages are Minoan sanctuaries, cemeteries, villas, and palaces.
There are many Byzantine churches in the prefecture of Rethimnon. Some of the later churches have interesting frescoes such as the Panagia Kardiotissa in Miriokefala. The church in Moni Arkadiou is one of the finest examples of Venetian influence on the architecture of the time and the monastery a symbol of the love of and sacrifice for freedom. There are many caves where objects from Neolithic times have been found. More recently, the Cretans used these caves during the Turkish and German occupations.
Rethimnon is an area of traditional villages (Anogia), Byzantine churches, and ancient sites. The Oropedio Nida, one of the most beautiful and historic plateaus in Crete, is high in the Psiloritis Mountains. The Ideon Andron Cave in Nida is reputed to be the birthplace of Zeus or the place where Zeus was raised, according to others.
The province of Agios Vasilios is one of four in the prefecture of Rethimnon. It stretches west, from the prefecture of Chania, south along all the coast of Rethimnon to the prefecture of Iraklion. The eastern portion of the province contains the Kedros mountain range with the highest peak at 1,777 metres above sea level. The easiest and shortest road from Rethimnon to southern Crete is through Agios Vasilios. In the area there are ravines, Byzantine churches and pleasant villages that are relatively unaffected by the tourist population moving through them. There are also spectacular views of the bay of Plakias and southern Crete from the road.
The Amari Valley, southeast of Rethimnon runs from north to south Crete for 25km. The valley is 400 - 500 metres above sea level. The peak of Psiloritis (2,545 metres above sea level) is on the east and Kedros (1,777 metres above sea level) is on the west. It is a major north - south pass and has seen a great deal of action throughout history. The Amari Valley is a fertile valley where many varieties of fruit trees are grown and a great number of well - preserved Byzantine churches may be seen.
The prefecture of Iraklion is the largest in area, has the greatest population and the highest per capita income of Crete. There are seven provinces (eparhies) in this prefecture: Malevizi, Temenos, and Pediada on the north coast and Pirgiotisa, Kainourio, Monofatsi, and Viannos in the centre and on the south coast. The main cities are Timbaki, Ano Viannos, Matala, and Mires.
The northwestern area of the prefecture of Iraklion is comprised of the three provinces of Malevizi, Temenos, and Pediada. The main city is Iraklion. This area is the largest of grape - producing areas of Crete and its main products are sultana raisins, Malevizi (Malmsey) wine, and table grapes (Rosaki). In these valleys Sir Arthur Evans, the British archaeologist, excavated the Minoan Palace of Knossos, the remains of a great civilization.
A low mountain range rises in the middle of the prefecture and descends into the Mesara Plain. These fertile plains have been cultivated for thousands of years and have important Minoan, Greek, and Roman archaeological sites -- Festos, Agia Triada, and Gortyn are the major ones. The imposing peak of Psiloritis, 2,456 metres above sea level, is visible from almost all points of the prefecture of Iraklion. It is especially impressive during the winter months when it is snow-capped.
The prefecture of Iraklion has many cultural and historical features to offer the visitor. The finest collection of Minoan artefacts in the world and the sites of one of history greatest civilizations may be of interest as well as the numerous Byzantine churches and Venetian castles and fountains.
The historical aspects combine with the scenic landscapes of mountains, valleys, and sea to make this a beautiful and fascinating area. The beaches of Agia Pelagia and Limin Hersonisou on the north coast and Matala and Kali Limenes on the south coast will attract the visitor with their warm, clear seas. There are many fine restaurants and tavernas offering Cretan specialities throughout the area.
The eastern part of the Iraklion prefecture has some major resorts near the sea (Limin Hersonisou), some major archaeological sites (Malia), and many important Byzantine churches.
The southern area of the prefecture of Iraklion includes the four provinces of Pirgiotisa, Kainourio, Monofatsi, and Viannos. The most prominent physical feature here is the Pediada Mesaras. It stretches east from Timbaki to Ano Viannos. The plain is between the low mountain ranges of the south and north. The main products of Mesara are cereals, olives, and fruits. and cultivation goes on year-round, aided by the use of hothouses to increase productivity.
The prefecture of Lassithi covers the eastern end of the island. The mountain range in this area is the Dikte. Its tallest peak is Mount Dikte, 2,148 metres above sea level. The prefecture has four provinces: Mirabelo, Lassithi, Ierapetra, and Sitia. The major cities are Agios Nikolaos, Ierapetra, and Sitia. The earliest settlements in Crete are in this prefecture, including the palaces of Zakros, Praisos, Mochlos, Vasiliki, and Gournia. An important early Greek city, Lato, is near Kritsa. The fine Archaeological Museums of Agios Nikolaos and Sitia display some of the artefacts from these and other excavations.
According to legend, the Dikteon Andron Cave, on the Lassithi Plateau, was the birthplace of Zeus. The area around Agios Nikolaos is not only the most developed area for tourism but one of the most interesting. The church of the Panagia Kera near Kritsa contains some of the best-preserved Byzantine frescoes in Crete. Elounda has one of the strongest Venetian forts built on Crete. The area of Sitia is full of Byzantine churches and Venetian villas, as well as ancient Minoan sites. The famous Toplou Monastery has a museum displaying its well-known icon collection. The area also has very good beaches with many coves between Ierapetra and the Kapsa Monastery that offer excellent swimming. The area of Vai has a unique palm grove that attracts many people.
Ierapetra is one of the four provinces of Lassithi. Its capital is the city of Ierapetra. The province of Ierapetra has many good examples of Byzantine churches with frescoes in them There are two monasteries of note, Exakousti Monastery and Faneromeni Monastery. East of Ierapetra there are many fine beaches in the Makrigialos Bay.
Sitia is the largest province of Lassithi in area and population. Its capital is the city of Sitia. The mountains are lower then in other parts of the island, but have a distinctive and varied landscape. The earliest Minoan settlements are here at Mochlos, Palaikastro, and the Minoan palace of Zakros. The Kilada ton Nekron (Valley of the Dead) in Zakros and the Hellenistic site of Itanos near Vai are also of interest. There are many Byzantine churches in the area. Evidence of the Venetian era may be seen in the villages of Etia and Handras. The monastery of secluded Kapsa offers visitors a view of monastic life; there is much to see and do in this province.
All the major cities of Crete are on the north side of the island beside the sea. From west to east they are: Chania with a population of around 50,000; Rethimnon with about 23,000 people, Iraklion with 115,000; Agios Nikolaos with 8,000 people and Sitia with 7,000 people. The total population of the island is more than 500,000.
Three mountain ranges form a sort of spine stretching across the island. In western Crete, the Lefka Ori or White Mountains occupy a large area within the prefecture of Chania and contain more than 40 peaks over 2,000 metres high. The highest peak in this area is Pahnes, at 2,452 metres above sea level. The Idi or Psiloritis Range in the centre of the island contains the highest peak in Crete, Mount Idi (Psiloritis) at 2,456 metres above sea level. At the eastern end of the island are the Dikte Mountains with several peaks above 2,000 metres high.
Plateaus and Plains
Several upland plains are situated among the mountain ranges of Crete. The Oropedio Lassithiou (Lassithi Plateau), with its distinctive windmills, is surrounded by the peaks of Dikte and it lies at a height of 850 metres above sea level. Located at the head of the famous Samaria Gorge, the Oropedio Omalou (Omalos Plateau) lies in the Lefka Ori at a height of about 1,000 metres. Two other noteworthy plateaus are Nida, at the base of Mount Psiloritis and Askifou, in the Lefka Ori.
The Pediada Mesara (Mesara Plain) is the largest plain in Crete, measuring 50km in length and 7km in width and is on the south side of the island, in the prefecture of Iraklion. This southern location, in combination with the fertile soil, allows crops to be grown that cannot be cultivated in other places in Crete.
The same geological forces that created the mountain ranges also created awe-inspiring gorges throughout the island. Faragi Samarias (Samaria Gorge) is the most famous with a length of 16km, making it the longest gorge in Europe as well as one of the most impressive thousands of tourists take the 6- to 7- hour walk every year. Another less well-known gorge is the Faragi Imbrou (Imbros Gorge) that begins at the plain of Imbros and ends at the Libyan Sea beside Hora Sfakion. The Kotsifou Gorge and the Kourtaliotiko Faragi (Kourtaliotiko Gorge) are only a few kilometres away from one another, near Plakias in the prefecture of Rethimnon. In the western part of Crete there is also the Faragi Agias Irinis and in eastern Crete, the Kilada ton Nekron (Valley of Death), named because of the Minoan graves found there.
There are more than 2000 caves on the island. Many of these were used in ancient times, some possibly as far back as 3000 B.C. The Spileo Eilithias (Eithilia Cave) was a cult centre devoted to the goddess of childbirth, Eilithia. Relics found here date back to Neolithic times. The Spileo Dikteon Andron (Dikteon Andron Cave) on the Lassithi Plateau, is the legendary birthplace of Zeus. According to legend, Zeus stayed in the Spileo Ideon Andron (Ideon Andron Cave) on Psiloritis during his youth. Another cave, Spileo Melidoniou (Melidoni Cave) was the site of a tragic episode in the struggle for Cretan independence: In 1824, 300 villagers took refuge from Turkish troops in this cave. When they refused to come out, the Turkish troops barricaded the opening with combustible materials and set fire to them. None of the villagers survived. The Spileo Sendoni (Sendoni Cave) near ancient Axos, is one of the most beautiful in Crete. The Spileo Agiou Ioanni (Agios Ioannis Cave) is the place where the saint lived and died.
Limni Kourna (Kournas Lake) is one of two freshwater lakes in Crete, in the prefecture of Chania. It has an area of 160,000 square metres, which varies seasonally. Sheltered by surrounding hills, the lake has an idyllic setting that contains interesting flora and fauna.
The other is Limni Agias (Agia Lake) in Kydonia, also a wild life refuge, where many birds nest and wildflowers abound in spring. Agia Lake is in the middle of the fertile plain of Kydonia near the village of Agia.
Crete has 155km of sandy beaches along its coastline. The prefecture of Chania contains two outstanding beaches in the west side, Elafonisi in the southwest and Falasarna in the northwest. One of the longest stretches of sandy beach is at Georgioupolis, between Chania and Rethimnon. Via in the northeastern point of the island, is a heavily visited beach and is the site of the only natural palm grove in Europe. South of Iraklion, Matala, is famous for its caves and has a pleasant sandy beach. There are also pleasant beaches in Frangokastello, Makrigialos, Kato Zakros, Preveli, Paleohora, Agia Pelagia, Istro and Malia.
The climate of Crete is probably the mildest in Europe. The strong northwesterly wind, the meltemi, moderates even the hottest months of July and August. Rainfall is rare during the summer months. Autumn is Crete s mildest season, when temperatures are often higher than in spring. The mountains that run across the island act as a barrier to the weather, often creating different conditions in northern and southern Crete.
Crete is the home of a rich variety of flora that contain, among many hundreds of others, 130 species of wild flowers and herbs which are unique to it. Among these are dictamo (Organium dictamus), an herb made famous by Aristotle for its medicinal value. Another unusual feature is an evergreen variety, Varietus cretica.
Spring is the best time to enjoy the flora of Crete, after the generous winter rainfall. The fields are ablaze with red poppies and the air is heavy with the scent of orange and lemon blossoms. Dry scrub predominates the landscape in the summer, and oleander and osier bloom in the ravines. During winter, anemones are abundant.
The rarest Cretan plants grow in the ravines or on the steep mountain slopes, such as in the Faragi Imbrou (Imbros Gorge), near the Kalergis Mountain Refuge, and on the Oropedio Spiliou. These include Ebenus cretica, Linum arboreum (flax), Campanula pelviformis (bellflower), Staechelina arborea, and Petromarcula arboreum. Plants flourishing on the plains and high peaks include: Tulipa bakeri and Tulipa saxalitis (tulips), Anchusa caespitosa (alkanet), Scabiosa alborincta and Scabiosa minoana (scabious). The Cretan palm (Phoenix theophrastii), unique in the world, grows along the beach at Vai. Rare plants found along the shore include: Pancratium maritime (sea daffodil), Centaurea pumilio (knapsweed), Anthemis tomentell and Anthemis filicaulis (chamomile).
The fauna of Crete are as varied as the flora. The unique Cretan wild goat (Capra aegagrus-cretica) has a distinctive and impressive appearance. Protected by the government, the agrimi or "kri-kri" is found in the Lefka Ori, in the Samaria National Forest, and on the islets of Dia, Thodorou, and Agii Pandes.
The Cretan "prickly rat" (Acomus mimus) is also unique in the world. Other interesting mammals include the Cretan marten (Martes foina-bunites), the Cretan badger (Melesmeles-arcalus), and the Cretan wildcat (Felis silvestris agrius).
Several kinds of lizard inhabit the island. The brightly coloured Balkan green lizard can grow to be over one metre in length. There is one poisonous snake, although locals claim that St. Titus drove all poisonous snakes off the island.
Bird life on the island is extensive. The Cretan golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetus) and the lammergeyer (Gypaetus barbatus), a subspecies unique to Crete, are distinctive among the birds. The mountains and ravines are home to griffon vultures. Warblers and swallows are common and goldfinches are occasionally seen. Migratory birds make Crete a stopover each spring on their way from Africa to Europe and on the return trip each autumn.
The Birth of Zeus
Many ancient myths are associated with Crete. According to one, Gaia (Mother Earth)emerged from Chaos and bore Uranus as she slept. Uranus (the sky) fathered several children, among them the seven Titans. The last of them, Kronos, married his sister Rhea. It was prophesied by Mother Earth and Uranus that one of Kronos sons would dethrone him. Kronos swallowed the children whole that Rhea bore each year, among them were Estia, Dimitra, Hera, Hades and Poseidon. When Rhea bore Zeus, Mother Earth hid him in the Spileo Dicteon Andron on Lassithi Plateau of Crete. Kronos believed that he had swallowed Zeus, but, in fact, he had swallowed a stone given to him by Rhea to trick him and spare this son.
Zeus was raised by the nymph Adrasteia, her sister Io, and the goat-nymph Amalthia. The Kuretes clashed their spears against their shields to conceal the noise of the wailing baby. Zeus was nursed by the shepherds of the Nida Plateau in the Psiloritis (Idi) Mountains and lived in a cave, Spileo Ideon Andron on the Nida Plateau. He then approached Rhea and with her help made Kronos drink an emetic poison mixed with a honeyed drink. Kronos vomited up the brothers and sisters of Zeus. Zeus led them in a war against the Titans, which they eventually won.
The above myths were widely accepted by the ancient world. A truly Cretan variation presents Zeus as dying and being reborn every year. The head of the dead Zeus is seen in the shape of a hill (Youktas) behind Iraklion and it is visible from a long distance as one approaches the city. This myth about Zeus death is a continuation and reflection of the beliefs of the ancient Minoans concerning the fertility goddess, who died and was reborn every year.
Zeus and Europe
In the land of Canaan, Agenor and Telepfassa had five sons and one daughter, who was named Europa. Zeus fell in love with Europa and disguised himself as a snow-white bull. Awed by his beauty, Europa climbed up onto his shoulders, allowed him to take her into the sea, and looked back in terror as he swam away. Zeus swam to Crete where Europa bore him three sons: Minos, Radamanthis and Sarpedon. When Zeus left Europa she married Aserius, who adopted these sons.
These myths probably signify actual expeditions from Crete to other parts of the eastern Mediterranean.
Minos, King of Crete
Crete is probably a form of the Greek word "crateia", meaning "strong" or "ruling goddess". After Asterius s death, Minos claimed the Cretan throne. and ruled as King for many years from his palace in Knossos. Crete was powerful and prosperous under his rule and its commercial fleet dominated the Mediterranean, bringing wealth to the island. Minos had the reputation of being a fair man. His brother, Radamanthis, who remained in Crete and lived in peace with him, also had the reputation of a just lawmaker who legislated for Cretans as well as for the islands of Asia Minor, which voluntarily adopted his judicial code. Every ninth year Radamanthis and Minos would visit the cave of Zeus and return with a new set of laws.
Sir Arthur Evans, who excavated Knossos, gave the early Cretan culture the name "Minoan Civilization". Minos may have been the royal title of a ruling dynasty, not a single person. The peaceful acceptance of the law of Crete by the other island dwellers of Asia Minor seems to suggest the expansion of the Cretan civilization all over the Aegean and into Asia Minor. The Cretans built the city of Milatos in Asia Minor. Legend says that another city called Milatos was built by Minoans in Ireland.
Talos is another major mythical figure associated with Crete. Talos was a bull-headed bronze servant given to King Minos by Zeus to guard Crete. Talos was living in the Spileo Melidoniou. He had a single vein that ran from his neck down to his ankle where it was stopped by a bronze pin. Talos travelled three times every day around the island of Crete in order to protect it from attack by foreign ships. He also went to the many villages of Crete to display Minos laws inscribed on brazen tablets. When Sardinians invaded the island, Talos turned himself into a red-hot fire and destroyed them. When the Argonauts tried to approach Crete, Talos prevented them by throwing huge rocks at them. Talos was killed by the protector of the Argonauts, Medea, who pulled out his bronze pin and caused Talos to bleed to death.
Crete and Homer
Some time after the decline of the Minoan civilization, Homer refers to Crete in his poems on several occasions. He calls Crete "hospitable, handsome, and fertile", and a land with many cities where Minos ruled. Homer refers to Cretans of many races: Eteocretans, Pelasgians, Ahaeans, Dorians, and Kydonians. While the Eteocretans (True Cretans) were of Minoan descent, all the others were Greek tribes that inhabited various parts of the island at the time of Homer. Kydonians lived on the west side of the island and even today the name of the province around Chania is Kydonia. Kydon was the son of Minos s wife Pasiphae, and Hermes. The name means "glorious"," proud".
The Cretan fleet also took part in the expedition against Troy. When the Greek fleet was at Aulis, envoys were sent from King Idomeneas of Crete to Agamemnon, the supreme commander of the Greeks, announcing that if Agamemnon agreed to share the command with Idomeneas, one hundred Cretan ships would join the Greek expedition to Troy. Agamemnon agreed to this proposal and thus the expedition against Troy became a Creto-Hellenic enterprise.
Several parts of the Odyssey contain possible references to Crete. The cave of the Cyclops, where Odysseus and his companions were trapped by Poliphimos, may have been in the present-day area of Sougia, on the south coast. In southwest Crete high mountains drop to the sea and strong wild goats (the Cretan "kri-kri") roamed these mountains which contain many caves. One such cave in the mountains above Sougia still bears the name the cave of the Cyclops. During his adventures Odysseus also reached the island of Aeolus, the god who governed all the winds. Homer says that an unbroken wall of bronze encircles this island, and below it sheer cliffs rise from the sea. Aeolus trapped the boisterous energies of all the winds in a leather bag which was given to Odysseus. The Imeri Gramvousa, fits the description of the island of Aeolus with its cliffs bronzed from the setting sun and rising high from the often turbulent sea. In addition, the ancient name of Gramvousa was Korykos, which means "leather bag".
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 islands 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 peoples 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
People and Customs
The true Cretan people are among the tallest in Europe, which can be seen in the isolated mountain areas where the population has remained unchanged by outside influence. Cretans are a proud and independent people and their behaviour reflects their long history and their struggles against occupying forces.
Many traditions are preserved in the villages of Crete, especially in the more isolated ones. Among them are the Cretan wedding and the Cretan baptism. Both are special celebrations that may continue for several days. In the west of Crete they are characterized by the "rizitika tragoudia", which are very old songs, some of Byzantine origin. Dancing, eating, drinking, and shooting guns into the air, are all part of the celebrations.
Grape-gathering, wine-making and tsikoudia-making are activities enjoyed in the autumn every year. Wine-making involves crushing the grapes in special stone constructions called "patitiria". This is done by several people taking turns, walking or running in place on top of the grapes. While recovering from their exercise or waiting for their turn, the people consume food and wine. Tsikoudia is a strong local drink made from the remains in the patitiria, after most of the grape juice has been removed. This is allowed to ferment and then is distilled. Traditional methods and machinery are still used. The licensed owner of the still will often take time off his regular work to fulfil his function as village distiller in the autumn. Very often this still has been in his family for generations. People who come to make their tsikoudia often bring food to barbecue on the fire and the fresh tsikoudia is sampled copiously.
To see the real people and customs of Crete, one must visit the villages of Crete. Typically, the more isolated the village, the more the local customs are preserved. The manifestations of the old traditions and customs are easy to observe in the local celebrations of the saints of each village, the panigiria, on the name day of the saint whose name was given to one of the churches of the village. The celebration varies from village to village, but typically, it involves long church liturgies attended by the people of the village. Many people who have moved away use this as an opportunity to visit their former villages and sometimes combine it with a baptism or wedding of their own. Music, dancing, and eating often take place in the centre of the village the night before.
There are many local feast days, especially during the summer months, and it is easy to find one nearby to attend. Some of the celebrations are particularly interesting because they involve large groups of people hiking or taking small boats to a church or monastery in an isolated location.
On Agios Georgios Day (Saint George s Day) in Asigonia, Chania, the shepherds bring their goats and sheep from the high mountain pastures, (some taking 4 or 5 hours to reach Asigonia) to be blessed by the priest. In this celebration the animals are milked in front of the church, and the milk is boiled and served to the people. The Agios Georgios celebration is held before the Lenten season or on the day after Easter.
Traditional Villages and Buildings
Interesting modern architectural sites in Chania include the neoclassic buildings of Venizelos house and Prince Georges residence in Halepa, Chania.
Villages of Crete amalgamate architectural features from the Minoan era to the present time. It is easier to see the traditional architectural style in villages which are uninhabited today. One such village is Aradena in Sfakia, and another is Mili in Rethimnon. The village of Maroulas, near Rethimnon, has remnants of many different eras. The pleasant village of Argiroupolis has been built on top of an ancient city (Lapa) and has integrated features of many different historical eras.
A peculiar style of architecture in some parts of Crete is the mitata (hut for cheese production): a circular stone hut that has been made by piling the stones on each other with each consecutive circle being closer to the middle.
Minoan Writing and Inscriptions
The original Minoan script appeared about 2000 B.C. and was ideographic. An ideographic script consists of ideograms which are drawings of objects or concepts. Although their meaning can be recognized by people, the ideograms do not have any phonetic significance. This ideographic Minoan script is called Hieroglyphic, but it bears no relationship to the Egyptian hieroglyphics. The Minoan hieroglyphs were representations from the animal world, from the human body, and from everyday life. Evans listed 135 hieroglyphic signs. The hieroglyphic script of the Minoans has not been deciphered. The most important hieroglyphic inscription in Crete is the famous Disk of Festos, a clay disk covered on both sides with hieroglyphs arranged in a spiral which were impressed on the clay when the disk was still wet. The disk contains forty-five different types of signs, some of which can be identified with hieroglyphs of the Old Palace Period.
Another script, called Linear A, was in use concurrently with the hieroglyphic script in Festos, and it was extensively used later in the New Palace Period. Its signs have been derived from ideograms, but they are no longer recognizable objects, but lines grouped in abstract formations. The Linear A script contains about seventy different characters, and it has not been deciphered yet. A deciphered portion of the script involves a decimal arithmetic system with fractions. A script developed in Cyprus between 1500 B.C. and 1100 B.C., called Cypro-Minoan has all of its characters identical to those of Linear A. Linear A inscriptions have also been found in Milos and Thira. Tablets with Linear A inscriptions are displayed in the Iraklion Museum and other archaeological museums of Crete.
After 1450 B.C. a new script, termed Linear B, appeared in Knossos. The symbols of the script have many similarities and common elements with the Linear A script. The script was deciphered in 1952 by Ventris and Chadwick, and it was shown to be the Greek language, which was considered to be proof that the Myceneans were in Crete during this time period. If the decipherment is correct, then the Linear A was the main Minoan script, while Linear B was imported to Knossos by the Myceneans. The tablets found at Knossos provide information about the organization of the kingdom, such as the property of the king, offerings to deities and troop movements. These tablets have been preserved because the fire at Knossos fired the clay, which otherwise would have disappeared. Some tablets with Linear B are displayed in the Iraklion Museum.
The most important Greco-Roman remains on the island, and one of the most important remains of all Greek antiquity is undoubtedly the Law Code of Gortyn. The code, which is still in Gortyn, Kainourio, is written in Greek (Doric) dialect and dates from the first half of the fifth century B.C., making it the most ancient law code known in Greek civilization.
The ancient city of Gortyn in Mesara, south Iraklion, had been in existence from Minoan times but it became particularly strong after the seventh century B.C. In the second century B.C. it defeated Festos and was in continuous war with Knossos or Lyttos. It had two harbours: one in Matala and another in Lendas. The Law Code of Gortyn (in the Odion), the temple of the Apollo Pythios, and the seventh century B.C. temple of Athena on the Acropolis are remains from the Greek era.
Gortyn became the capital of Crete during the Roman era (after 65 B.C.). Extensive Roman remains exist in the area. The Praetorium was the palace of the Roman governor of Crete where many marble columns with capitals of Ionic and Corinthian style may still be seen at the extensive site.
The city of Lato near the village of Kritsa, Lassithi, is probably the most thoroughly excavated Greek city of Crete. It was founded in the seventh century B.C. and destroyed about 200 B.C. Its harbour was in present-day Agios Nikolaos. Lato is located on the top of a hill with an exceptional view of the area around Agios Nikolaos and Mirabelo Bay. The theatre, the agora, the Prytanion, a temple and an altar are among the most important remains.
The site of ancient Aptera in Kydonia, is located near Chania at the top of a hill with a remarkable view of Souda Bay to the north and the Lefka Ori to the south. Aptera was an important Greek city state by the seventh century B.C. The impressive city walls and a temple from the second century B.C. are still visible today. Aptera was also a very significant Roman site with fragment remains of huge Roman cistern complexes, as well as a theatre and other extensive Roman ruins.
The site of Eleftherna was occupied from Minoan times. It became one of the most important Greek cities from the tenth century B.C. An ancient Hellenist bridge still exists at the site, although it is difficult to approach. Massive city walls have also been iscovered as well as a sanctuary from the Greek period. Eleftherna was also an important Roman city. Enormous walls from the acropolis are visible.
The ancient city of Lissos is located near Sougia, Selino and was a significant religious site for the rest of Crete, analogous to Delfi. The remains of a fourth or third century B.C. small Greek temple with an interesting geometric design and a polychrome mosaic floor has been excavated, in addition to many statues from that period. The site was used in Roman times as well, and an extensive Roman cemetery has been discovered.
There are many other Greek and Roman sites on the island but only minor excavation of them has been done so far. The Greek site of ancient Rizinia, on a hill near Prinias, Malevizi, shows expansive remains of the Hellenistic era, and has a spectacular view of the lower parts of Iraklion up to the Lassithi Mountains. The Greek site of Lyttos, on a hill near Xidas, Pediada, has some excavated remains of the Hellenic city and commanding views of the Lassithi Mountains. In Vrises, Apokoronas there is a Greco-Roman bridge. There are Roman remains in Polirinia in western Crete and in Limin Hersonisou there are harbour remains and a mosaic fountain from the Roman era.
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