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Home / About Malia / History & Heritage / Geology of the Area
Geology of the Area

The birth of Crete

Beyond its tourism and its culture, Crete – and the area of Malia in particular – has far more to offer. Take its geological history: impressive, exciting and complex, it is hidden behind breathtaking scenery. It is constantly evolving, even nowadays, though to us human beings, who live to see only a fraction it, geological history is beyond comprehension; the only thing we feel of it is an earthquake once in a while!

Geological history

(145 – 36 million years ago)

Maybe the best spot to read this article would be at the peak of Mt. Selena (1560m.), the highest peak visible looking south towards the mountain range that encircles Malia. But reading this while lying on the beach will do just fine! Imagine a journey through geological history 65 million years back in time, at a point where, for reasons unknown to us, dinosaurs vanish completely, after dominance on earth for more than 100 million years. With them vanishes a considerable number of species of reptiles, birds and mammals, as well as a large part of the vegetation.

At this point Crete wasn’t even born to witness the events that changed the earth’s evolution for good. Crete was still slumbering in the depths of the Tythean Sea that in ancient times existed between the Eurasian and the African continent; it was accumulating immense marine sediments and was caught between 2 tectonic plates, the Eurasian in the north and the African in the south, waiting to emerge.

Huge sideward pressures from each continental mass resulted in a collision of the Eurasian plate with the African one. Because of this pressure from both sides, the marine sediments started to change shape and work their way up to the surface in a rather clumsy, chaotic way (colliding, crumbling, scattering around, one sediment over the other); slowly built up pressure gave way in the form of tremors and occasional earthquakes. This procedure eventually resulted in the formation of the Alpine Mountains (Paleocene – Eocene period, 65-40 million years ago).

(36 – 25 million years ago)

The formation of the Hellenic Island Arc (the bulk of Greek land mass, the Cycladic islands and Crete) was generated during the formation of the Alpine mountains, and due to the withdrawal of the Tythean Sea. This process started in the east during the late Cretaceous (70 million years ago) and ended in the west during the Miocene (25-10 million years ago). To the north of the Hellenic Island Arc lies an arc of volcanoes, including the one on Santorini, whereas to its south lies the deep-sea Hellenic Trench.

(25 – 5 million years ago)

All this was happening until around 25 million years ago. It was about this time that the massif of Mt. Selena began to be formed, together with the other mountain massifs in Crete (though not exactly in the shape that we know them today). For a while there will be peace and quiet, but right in the Miocene, about 12 million years ago, things will change dramatically.

The moving of the tectonic plates, which are not that far under the earth’s surface, causes immense relief differentiations in the south Aegean area: it will be chopped to pieces abruptly by cracks, the sea level rises substantially, leaving large areas to submerge under water and forming numerous islands, Crete being the biggest one. In the area of Malia everything submerges, except for the massif of Selena and some parts on the north-eastern coast.

(5 – 1.5 million years ago)

Towards the end of the Miocene, 5 million years ago, the Mediterranean dries up and an immense drought occurs, the Messinian Salinity Crisis.

Crete was left at the peak of a mountain massif with altitudes comparable to today’s Himalayas and surrounded by vast plains of salt and brine lakes. This was the last time Crete was unified with the rest of the Aegean as one land mass.

Towards the end of the Pliocene, 2 million years ago, the Mediterranean basin partially re-flooded with waters coming from the Atlantic Ocean, resulting once more in the complete covering of all lower regions of Crete and thus creating once again numerous islands. The region of Malia submerged again, naturally. Since this flood Crete has never been re-unified with the rest of the Aegean land mass, leaving it to be isolated as the island we know today.

(1.5 – 0.7 million years ago)

During this period the last major changes in the relief of Crete took place. It was then that one big island was formed, similar in size and shape to the Crete we know today. This happened due to hefty vertical movements of the non-submerged areas and due to the withdrawal of the sea. Only minor parts near the shore line, like the northern part of the Malia plain, stayed under sea level a while longer.

(700,000 – 130,000 years ago)

The last period of the Middle Pleistocene proved to be a rather quiet period for Crete from a tectonic point of view. It was the time of the glaciations, though Crete only formed small glaciers on its highest mountains. It was around this time that Crete’s biggest mountain massifs obtained their final altitude; for the area of Malia the massif of Selena develops the relief it has today while phasal retreat of the sea brought to the surface marine marls, sandstones and clays that had accumulated at the base of the mountains when they were submerged.

These sediments subsequently became the substratum of today’s plain of Malia. The drop in sea level reduced the gap between Crete and the mainland, but never closed it. The geological evolution described above determines Crete’s geographical context and the place it will claim as the Mediterranean cradle of civilization at a later stage.

Did you know that?

  • Crete is imbalanced east – west, rising every year in the west and sinking every year in the east.
  • Crete is travelling towards Africa with a speed of 8cm yearly.
  • The Eurasian tectonic plate meets the African one right under Crete.