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Home / About Malia / History & Heritage / History of Crete
History of Crete

Home to the first European civilization that flourished from 2000 to 1400 BC, Crete has always been a temptation to foreigners. Lying on a crossroad between Europe, Asia and Africa, its temperate climate and earthly riches have made many a peoples greedy for its possession. On one hand, Crete was the cradle of an incredibly distinguished culture that marked the history of mankind, on the other hand though it has really paid a heavy price for carrying this legacy.

As it turns out, it were the invaders time and time again who shaped the course of Crete’s history and moulded Crete’s and the Cretans’ character which it has today: new forms of social societies arose, new spiritual values and cultural creations appeared, leaving their traces scattered on Crete’s soil. It is this tangible legacy that allows archaeologists to reconstruct Crete’s history as best they can, because stones sometimes do tell a story…

Crete before human settlement

Crete never had native human settlers. Its first inhabitants were various strange animals like dwarf hippos, elephants and deer. Like other islands in the Mediterranean it remained uninhabited for a long time, until it was discovered by man around 10,000 BC, maybe even earlier.

Neolithic period (7000 – 3000 BC)

The first settlers to arrive in Crete certainly did not come as conquerors. History suggests that they were driven here by hunger and poverty; it is thought that they came from Asia Minor in the 6th millennium BC or, less likely, from Syria, Palestine or North Africa in simple boats, bringing with them a variety of cultivable crops and tame animals. Whatever large native mammals still existed in Crete had probably faded to extinction by this time.

The Neolithic period was a time of isolation and internal development. In contradiction to popular belief, caves and rock shelters take a secondary place, for man mainly lived in simple rough-stone, mud or wooden-built houses. They lived in small settlements, preferably near springs or in coastal areas but always on a plain. The crucial factor for settlement has always been the availability of water and cultivable soil; very often they’d take advantage of the natural resources, cultivate nearby hinterland, herd their flock and hunt in the hills or fish in the sea. A fully developed Neolithic economy includes wheat, barley, lentils, sheep, goats, pigs and some cattle.

The tools they used were from stone, bones or horns of animals. Stone axe heads were rare; towards the end of the Neolithic period the use of copper slowly begins. Pottery evidence dates from around 5700 BC: clay baked in the fires they would light outdoors. As for worship they would turn to female fertility goddesses.

Towards the end of the Neolithic period settlements increased in number and also shifted to higher altitudes, including the plateau of Lassithi. It is also around this time that the cultivation of olive trees was introduced, adding an important item to nutritional diversity.

Minoan civilization

To see more about Minoan civilization click here

Mycenaean visitors (1400 – 1100 BC)

The Mycenaean civilization (1900 – 1100 BC) was the first great civilization on the Greek mainland. It was characterized by independent city-states that were ruled by kings who inhabited palaces with massive walls on hilltops. By the 14th century BC they controlled a large part of Crete, reoccupying some of the earlier devastated sites.

It is considered that the island remained productive, be it in a dependent position to mainland Greek Mycenaean. Fine arts fell into decline, whereas weapon production thrived, emphasizing the new militaristic spirit the Mycenaean brought to Crete. At this time writing was practiced in the form of Linear B, a result of the Cretan-Greek fusion. A forerunner of the later Greek alphabet, it shows that Cretans at this time must have spoken some sort of Greek dialect.

As for its worship, Crete seems to have adopted the legacy of the mixed gods the Mycenaean brought with them (Zeus, Poseidon and the like) and turns away from the fertility goddess it adored until now.

By the end of the 12th century BC Minoan civilization sees its terminal decline, leaving Crete disorientated and confused. Eventually also the Mycenaean, who were weakened by internal strife, had to give in to a new martial tribe that overran Greece in the 12th century BC: the Dorian.

Dorian Crete (1100 – 700 BC)

In Europe a great wave of migration takes place at this time, which is generally known as a dark period in history. The Dorian take control over most of Greece, arriving in Crete at around 1100 BC, probably more in waves than with one conquest.

The arrival in Crete of the Dorian brought about a rigorous break with the past. In this period we see a decrease in settlements in Crete and abandonment of the eastern coast. The Dorian caused many Cretans to flee to Asia Minor or to retreat to the hills to more protected areas, only to return to coastal regions 200 years later. Writing disappears for a while.

Dorian Crete was not a unified Crete: Its city-states were warring against each other constantly, reorganizing along the way Crete’s political and social system. It was based on a ‘Sparta model’, with rudimentary democracy replacing the monarchical government. Only the Dorian themselves seemed to have been the ruling class, who divided society into 3 layers: the free citizens, who had some political rights and owned property, the merchants and seamen – none of who had political rights – and the serfs and slaves. The established city-states of this time, small and independent as they were, are the origins of many towns and cities of today’s Crete.

Around 800 BC, colonial expansion provided a timely boost for Crete. The extensive trade with Egypt is reflected in the Egyptian influences on Dorian art of this period. It were also the Dorian who brought iron to Crete. All in all we can conclude that Crete, under Dorian influence, came closer to the rest of Greece where language, religion and customs are concerned.

Classical period (700 – 300 BC)

While the rest of Greece enters its Golden Age from the 6th – 4th century BC, Crete remained somewhere in the sidelines and advanced little. Important and powerful centres were now mainland Athens and Sparta, whereas Crete regressed, into a mere province. A number of Cretans migrated to Libya - North Africa, with whom it still had close contact. The Cretans, well trained under Dorian militaristic influence, provided around 7,000 legionnaires for Alexander the Great’s campaign to Asia.

The only importance Crete still retained during these days was its reputation in law; in general, since the times of the Minoans, Cretan law was held in high esteem, influencing philosophers like Plato on their visions concerning law and justice. The oldest preserved evidence is the Laws of Ghortyna, inscriptions on 12 stone tablets, covering in detail civil and criminal matters. Actually written in around 450 BC, they reflect laws that had been in force for hundreds of years.

Hellenistic period (330 – 67 BC)

In the Classical and Hellenistic periods, when Crete fell into a pattern of internal rivalry, it became increasingly impoverished. Additionally Crete had a confused, unstable political situation, which allowed piracy to thrive more and more.

Rome, whose power was growing substantially in the Mediterranean, was annoyed by the piracy that increasingly disturbed trade routes and seafaring. To gain control over this situation – both to ensure the important strategic stronghold, which Crete was and to end the piracy – Rome started to intervene in Crete’s internal affairs.

Roman rule (67 BC – 330 AD)

After several attempts, Crete became a Roman province when it fell into Roman hands in 67 BC. A Roman capital was set up in Ghortys, and although Crete had no international power or influence, it did prosper under Roman rule. The internal strife ended and it was during this period of peace, the Pax Romana, that the Romans did a great job of building a network of roads, bridges and aqua ducts; Ghortys in particular thrived, with an amphitheatre, temples and public baths.

Crete became a major supplier of grain and agricultural produce for Rome (Messará plain) and the Romans even allowed some cities to have their own coins. Christianity appeared in 65 AD with the arrival of Apostle Paul and his disciple Titus trying to convert the island. Until then, the Cretans continued to worship their own gods (Zeus et al) but they had also incorporated Roman and Egyptian influences in their religious rituals. Around the 3rd century AD Crete – as the rest of the Roman Empire – is disrupted by severe Christian persecutions.

Byzantine Crete (330 – 1204 AD)

First Byzantine Period (330 – 824)
With the Roman Empire divided into east and west, Crete finds itself under eastern Roman (Byzantine) control. Crete became a self-governing Byzantine province, with Ghortys as administrative and religious centre. The island continued to prosper, with further development of Christianity and the building of churches.

Arab Intermezzo (824 – 961)
At the beginning of the 9th century Arabs from Andalusia, the Saracens, were expelled from Spain. They settled in North Africa and spread piracy throughout the Mediterranean. With Crete being a convenient home-base for their lawless undertakings, they conquered it in 824. For Byzantium, which had more urgent matters to handle nearer home, Crete was a distant province, for which at that time it could do nothing. The Arabs founded the city of Al Handak, today’s Heraklio, and made it their capital; they remained in control in Crete for more than 150 years.

Second Byzantine Period (961 – 1204)
In 960 Byzantine general Nikifóros Fokás attacked Handak and after a siege captured it in 961. The Byzantines tried to restore Christianity on the island, which had suffered a severe set-back during the Arab occupation. Many noble Byzantine families settled in the island. Peace predominated; this reinforced wealth and trade, which developed from Crete to Constantinople and even as far as Russia. But Crete had lost out in trade to the Venetians and the Genoese.

The crusaders in their turn, propagating Christian unity but actually being a raiding and destroying bunch, made the curtains fall for Byzantium on their 4th Crusade, with the Franks and the Venetians playing the leading parts in the destiny of Crete.

Venetian Crete (1204 – 1669)

Byzantium had promised Crete to Bonifatius de Montferrat, who in his turn sold Crete to the Venetians for 1,000 silver marks in 1204. The Venetians gained control of the island in 1212, after struggling with the Genoese, who shared the same interest with the Venetians: Crete was a very important stronghold, as much for its strategic position and as a base from which to control the eastern Mediterranean trade routes, as for its riches in agricultural produce and timber for shipbuilding. Candia (today’s Heraklio) became their capital.

Venice rapidly colonized Crete with noble and military families and imposed a harsh feudal system on the Cretans: former Cretan landowners would now work as serfs for their Venetian masters, who were in political control and who inflicted an oppressive tax system on the Cretans.

Venetian rule that was designed to exploit Crete’s resources as efficiently as possible, provoked harsh resistance over the centuries, but this was always followed by brutal reprisals. The revolts eventually forced some concessions, and this uneasy compromise allowed Cretan culture and economy to boom in the 15th century; a boom known as the Cretan Renaissance. Venice replaced the Orthodox Christian church by Catholicism, not so much because of Venice’s religious character, but because it considered the church to be a symbol of national unity. Orthodox monasteries, however, remained strongholds of resistance and kept the spirit of national unity alive.

Cretan Renaissance
Muslim Ottomans were establishing themselves as a dominant Turkish power, expanding their territories rapidly. In 1453 Constantinople fell into Ottoman hands, as Western Europe was too involved in its 100-years-war to come to its aid. For Crete this meant a spectacular cultural renaissance, as a stream of refugees arrived from the East. Candia became the centre of Byzantine art and scholarship. From this east-meets-west period (Byzantium and Italian Renaissance) some of the greatest names in Cretan art, architecture and literature derive, namely Vitsénzo Kornáros, Michális Damaskinós and El Greco.

Turkish yoke (1669 – 1898)

Crete is the last bastion of Christianity in the east against the Ottoman threat. Again, because of its strategic location and its rich resources, the Ottomans are more than interested in gaining control over Crete. The Venetians started to fortify the island’s defences as it was their last colony; across the island cities were strengthened and fortified islets, defending the seaways, were repaired and rebuilt. This also was useful in the combat with the increasing pirates’ raids that once again harassed the region.

In general, the Venetian economy was in decline now as Mediterranean trade was overshadowed by the discovery of the New World, with business now being dominated by the English, the Spanish and the Dutch.

In 1645 Crete suffered its first Ottoman attack and within 3 years the Turks controlled half of the island. When the siege of Candia began in 1648, reinforcement and help was sent from all over Europe, in an attempt to prevent the loss of this last Christian stronghold to the Muslim Ottomans.

But to no avail: after a siege that lasted 21 years, Candia, which was completely worn out, had to surrender to the Turks. Although the Turkish attitude was less strict and more careless towards the Cretans compared to the Venetian one, the Turkish yoke has the worst reputation of all. Maybe this was so because religion was involved, or because the events are more recent. The fact remains, however, that Crete was once again divided, this time between powerful pashas. And that once again it was a place to be exploited to the bone.

Taxes were unbearably high and very little was reinvested in Crete from the Turkish side. The island fell into gradual decline, with no margin left for art or culture to develop. Khaniá (Haniá) became the capital; life was hard and corruption widespread: local administration was left to local landlords and everyone tried to get his share of bribe. It was routine to convert Christians into Muslims, just to be spared of the worst of the oppression.

As Turkish occupation continued, the Turks strengthened their hold on the cities whereas the mountains became strongholds for the Christian Cretans, the so-called andártes (rebels). Rebellion was smouldering and many Cretans retreated to the mountains with the first major outbreak in 1770: With Dhaskaloyánnis as their leader, 2000 andártes from Sfakiá attacked the Turks in western Crete. Although having received conformation of Russian support, this never came and the revolt was viciously suppressed. Dhaskaloyánnis was skinned alive in the central square of Heraklio. Although unsuccessful, with this revolt a pattern had been set and the 19th century saw an almost constant struggle for independence.

Struggle for independence (1821 – 1898)

When in 1821 an overall Greek independence war broke out, the Turks had to call on Egypt for assistance. The island’s resistance was crushed and Crete was handed over to Egypt. This flying visit of Egyptian control lasted 10 years, after which Crete reverted to Turkish control again.

Uprisings and revolts were becoming more and more frequent and more and more determined. The last act of despair was in Arkádhi in 1866, when about 900 rebels and their families took refuge in the Arkádhi monastery. Rather than surrender to the 2,000 attacking Turks, the Cretans set alight a store of gunpowder. The explosion killed almost every one of the Cretans and many of the Turks.

After this, the Cretan cause gained world-wide attention, but it wouldn’t be until 1898 that the Great Powers would interfere: By coincidence, when an enraged gang of Turks stormed through Heraklio, slaughtering hundreds of Christian civilians, 17 British soldiers as well as the British consul were killed. As s result of this incident the Great Powers intervened and ordered the Turks to leave the island, ending Ottoman rule over Crete for good. Crete gained autonomous status, but was placed under international administration.

Autonomous Crete (1898 – 1913)

With Crete now being autonomous, many Cretans in exile returned. The population grew, and economy, trade and agriculture flourished; a new civilized way of life boosted the island. Meanwhile, Crete was still yearning for a complete union with Greece. The opportunity to accomplish this came when Elefthérios Venizélos, a charismatic politician from Haniá, appeared on the political scene.

Union with Greece (1913)

Eventually, the union with Greece would be a result of war: When in 1911 Italy and Turkey started a war, Greece was dragged in via the Balkan wars: as allies with Bulgaria and Serbia, they defeated Turkey. As a result of this, with the Treaty of Bucharest in 1913, Crete was finally recognized as an official part of Greece.

World War I

After holding a neutral position, Greece entered WWI on the side of the Allied Forces (Britain, France and Russia), by whom they had been promised land in Asia Minor, a promise the Allied Forces could not keep. From the beginning, the motive force of Greece’s foreign policy was the Great Idea: the liberation of Greek populations outside the country and the incorporation of former Byzantine territories into the Kingdom.

Smyrna (1923)

In 1919 Venizélos was authorized to move forces into Smyrna, which was largely inhabited by Greeks, but by then the Allied support had vanished and in Turkey itself a new nationalist movement was seizing power under Mustafa Kemál, better known as Atatürk. In 1920 Venizélos lost the elections and monarchist parties took over. Greek forces were ordered to move on to Ankara in an attempt to bring Atatürk to terms.

This Anatolian campaign ended in a military debacle in 1922, when Turkish troops forced the Greeks back to the coast and hurried an evacuation from Smyrna: the Turks moved in and systematically massacred whatever remained of Greek and Armenian populations before burning the Greek part of the city to the ground.

The Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 ordered the forced exchange of religious minorities: Turkey was to accept 390,000 Muslims from Greece and Greece, with a population of less than 5 million, had to resettle over 1,300,000 Christian refugees.

Republic (1924 – 1935)

After a group of army officers had seized power, Greece was proclaimed a republic from 1924 – 1935; in this period there were coups and counter-coups and Greece in general went through a confusing period, with an unstable political situation and without a clear vision of what it wanted. This continued until Metaxás came into the picture.

As Prime Minister at first, under the restored power of King George II, he seized power under the pretext of preventing communist-inspired troubles. Metaxás’ vision was to create a Third Greek Civilization based on its glorious past, but what he actually created was more like a version of the Third Reich, complete with persecution and imprisonment of communists, press-censorship, secret police and a fascist-style youth movement.

World War II

Despite this, however, Metaxás is best known for his reply to Mussolini’s request to allow Italian forces to move through Greece: No (Όhi), thus maintaining Greece’s policy of strict neutrality. Italian attack follows in October 1940, and to the world’s surprise Greece bears up against the Italians, pushing them back into Albania. But with German help in April 1941, Italy had pushed its way back through mainland Greece, forcing the evacuation of allied troops to Crete, the last free part of Greece.

Battle of Crete
Tactically, Crete’s location was of great importance, as it held easy access to mainland Greece, the Middle East and North Africa. Hitler wanted to use Crete as an air-base to attack Allied Forces. For a while, the naval Allied Forces succeeded in keeping German forces at bay. It was then that Hitler took to the skies, on 20 May 1941.

Intending to capture the Malame airport, west of Haniá, thousands of German soldiers invaded the island, filling the skies black with planes and paratroops. German losses were heavy at first, as ordinary Cretans rushed to help the troops defend their island. Men, women and children, armed with pitch-forks and rifles, killed many of the invaders as they floated to earth. Eventually, though, the attack proved too much for the Cretans. The Germans took control of Malame airport, and a few hours later troops were also landing in Heráklio and Réthymnon.

Cretan Resistance
With Haná, Réthymnon and Heráklio controlled by the Germans, the allied soldiers had to retreat to Sfakiá. From there they were evacuated to Egypt with help of the Cretan andártes. Via the same escape route, allied under cover agents were smuggled into Crete to coordinate the guerilla warfare in collaboration with the andártes.

Under constant threat of the Nazis, they hid in caves and in the mountains or found shelter and food in the monasteries. Cretan opposition was constant and German reprisals brutal. One of the most audacious acts of resistance was the kidnapping of the German commander on Crete, General von Kreipe, in 1944. The andártes, under coordination of Patrick Leigh Fermor, succeeded in kidnapping Von Kreipe in Heráklio, smuggling him across to the south coast and off the island to Egypt. But the Cretans paid a heavy price for their master piece, with many men, women and children being executed and villages burnt.

Patrick Leigh Fermor served in Crete during WWII as an intelligence officer in the British army. After the German invasion he lived in the Cretan mountains for 2 years, disguised as a shepherd and helping coordinate the Cretan resistance.

Post war Crete

The close cooperation of Cretans and British soldiers left the islanders with a strong pro-British sentiment that left little room for communist infiltration after the war, as was the case in the rest of Greece. Thus Crete was largely spared the atrocities and bitterness of the Greek civil war that lasted from 1946 – 1949 and which left Greece a political and economic wreck in the 1950s.

In avoiding the civil war, Crete was able to set about reconstruction a little before the rest of Greece; since the war it has grown into one of the most prosperous and productive regions of Greece, not in the last place due to the emergence of tourism. Despite improved living standards during the 1950s, Greece remained a poor country.

Politically, post-war Greece is strongly right-wing. Crete remains deeply mistrustful of outside control, even from Athens. In national politics, the island presents a more unified front as the upholder of the liberal tradition of Venizélos.

Junta (1967 – 1974)

The close cooperation of Cretans and British soldiers left the islanders with a strong pro-British sentiment that left little room for communist infiltration after the war, as was the case in the rest of Greece. Thus Crete was largely spared the atrocities and bitterness of the Greek civil war that lasted from 1946 – 1949 and which left Greece a political and economic wreck in the 1950s.

In avoiding the civil war, Crete was able to set about reconstruction a little before the rest of Greece; since the war it has grown into one of the most prosperous and productive regions of Greece, not in the last place due to the emergence of tourism. Despite improved living standards during the 1950s, Greece remained a poor country.

Politically, post-war Greece is strongly right-wing. Crete remains deeply mistrustful of outside control, even from Athens. In national politics, the island presents a more unified front as the upholder of the liberal tradition of Venizélos.

After the Colonels
With the ban of communist parties lifted, elections were held in 1974. A referendum favoured with 69% a republican system, against restoration of the monarchy. Greece has been a parliamentary democratic republic with a president ever since.

Modern Greece

The 1974 elections turned out in favour of right-wing New Democracy, led by Konstandínos Karamanlís. These were followed by the socialist government of PASOK, led by Andréas Papandréou, who stayed in power for almost the whole decade of the 1980s.

The 1990s began with a New Democracy intermezzo led by Konstandínos Mitsotákis, which lasted a few years until in 1993 PASOK took over again. With the death of old Andréas Papandréou in 1996 an era in Greek politics ended. PASOK changed direction dramatically with economic reformer Kóstas Simítis, abandoning the party’s left-leaning politics.

Simítis’ PASOK worked vigorously to get the country into shape as a worthy member of the European Monetary Union, and actually achieved this goal when Greece was included in the first wave of countries adopting the Euro in 2002.

Securing the Olympic Games for Athens 2004 was also a major coup for Simítis: this brought big finance to Greece for substantial improvements in infrastructure and a general make over, which gave Greece a contemporary image.

By 2003 however, his tired PASOK government, that had been in power for almost 20 years, was plagued by claims of political intrigue and corruption. Simítis, according to his motto that “a good prime minister should go home after 8 years” stepped down as leader in January 2004. George Papandréou, son of the late Andreas Papandréou, took over but was defeated in the elections of March 2004 by New Democracy, led by Kóstas Karamanlís (nephew of the 1970s prime minister).

In 2004 Athens surprised the world by hosting the successful Olympic Games: a great achievement for such a small country. Greece had finally accomplished its goal to show the world its contemporary face.

Further reading: Richard Clogg – A short history of modern Greece