While Crete is part of Greece, in most aspects, the history of the island has to be viewed as a separate field of study from that of the rest of the country. Crete was the first place in Europe where humans built palaces with large towns around them. The Minoan civilisation, Europe’s first, can be said to have its origins in the last centuries of the 4th millenium BCE, though the remains of palaces that we see today date from the middle of the third millenium BCE. Earthquakes sometimes destroyed their buildings but the Minoans repeatedly re-built. The volcanic explosion on the island of Santorini was enormous and devastating, causing a tsunami to strike Crete’s northern shore. The date that this occurred is still open to conjecture but most vulcanologists and archaeologists agree that it was around or before 1600 BCE. Other archeologists base their theories on pottery dating and pose a date approximately one hundred years later. Whenever it occurred, the explosion and its aftermath caused a gradual decay of Minoan civilization even though they tried to re-build and resurrect their power and their trade afterwards.
The island has given rise to countless myths and legends from which it is possible to obtain a vague impression of possible historical fact. The fact that King Minos, as a mythological figure, looms so large in the myths of Ancient Greece was a motivating factor in the initial purpose of Sir Arthur Evans, the Curator of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and an independently wealthy man, to buy the land and to start his excavations in 1900 CE on the site of Knossos. Indeed, it is through archaeology that we gain a much fuller and more precise insight as to the importance of the Minoans and their broad trading links trafficking in their ceramic ware, honey, wine, saffron and olive oil with other powerful trading empires such as their contemporary ancient Egyptians, using their boat building and naval skills to link up with the other still undeveloped peoples and also with the major civilizations around the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. It has been said that at the height of the Minoans’ maritime power the whole, eastern Mediterranean became their trading empire, where archaeological evidence seems to show that they were the most respected merchants of their age. Minoan objects have even been found as far away as in Spain.
According to Greek mythology, the first queen of Crete was Europa. Later on, Crete became the land of King Minos. We now believe that the name Minos was a heritary title similar to the way in which the king of ancient Egypt was called Pharaoh. A myth gives us the story of how the king refused to sacrifice a bull to the gods (bulls were sacred animals for the Minoans and one of their favourite sports was bull jumping, depicted in many Minoan frescos) and Poseidon, the ancient Greek god of the sea, punished him by making his wife fall in love with a bull. From this union the Minotaur, half man and half bull, was born and was captured and kept imprisoned in the labyrinth, the vast underground storage chambers beneath the Palace of Knossos.
Another myth says that to avenge the death of his son, killed by the Athenians, King Minos made the Athenians send seven young girls and boys to Crete every year, to offer them as a sacrifice to the Minotaur. One year, the famous mythical hero Theseus, the son of the King of Athens, joined in the group of young girls and boys designated to be sacrificial victims of the Minotaur. Theseus managed to entice the daughter of King Minos, Ariadne, into helping him and he succeeded in killing the Minotaur and found his way out of the labyrinth.
Crete in ancient times
Crete’s history is long and even in ancient times it is marked by many historical periods. Ancient Crete is the place where the Minoan civilization, one of the most important civilizations of the world (late 4th millenium BCE to 1450 BCE) arose and flourished as a major trading power in the Mediterranean Sea. We have not yet deciphered the Minoans’ script which we call Linear A nor their language though we believe that it was the indigenous language of the people who had first come to Crete in boats or on rafts with some domesticated animals and original crop seeds from the coasts of Asia Minor as very early Neolithic settlers around 7000 BCE. As their civilization grew, from the middle of the third millenium BCE the Minoans built large palaces, such as the famous and superb palaces of Knossos, Phaestos and Zakros.
None of their palaces or towns had fortifications around them as they were a peace loving people, more interested in commerce than military gain. The Minoans established a strong maritime trading network in the Mediterranean, dealing in ceramics, their very large storage jars called pitharia being the receptacles containing their olive oil, honey and wine which they managed to manuoeuvre onto their ships and sail to all parts of the Mediterranean Sea for mercantile adventure. They also traded in saffron, a valuable commodity especially because of its use as a dye as well as a spice, and even in copper, silver and gold. This great civilization was greatly hindered and life became chaotic as a result of the natural disaster, the huge waves and ash fallout caused by the eruption of the volcano of Santorini which covered the northern coasts of Crete with a tsunami and the whole of Crete with lava ash. Crops and their harvests will have been devastated for a number of years.
The invasion of the Achaeans also known as the Myceneans around 1450 BCE meant that there was a change of administrative language and Crete from that time can be seen to have become part of the Hellenic world. Later the Dorians, a Greek speaking tribe, emerged into the Greek mainland from further north in Europe and eventually in the 12th century BCE they reached Crete. Their takeover of the island caused the final ruination of the palaces, finishing through the destruction they caused and their building on top of Minoan remains, the last vestiges of Minoan high culture which to some degree the Myceneans, who had been the creators of a palace culture in mainland Greece, had adopted and incorporated into their own culture as it must have been obvious to the Myceneans that the Minoans had created more highly developed systems than their own. Some of the towns survived the incursions of the Dorians, Knossos in particular as a town though its palace had been burnt in a great fire, caused by man or an earthquake we do not know, in approximately 1325 BCE and was never re-built.
It is likely, however, that Minoan culture and language outlasted the Dorian incursions in scattered villages and towns across the island, especially in the east, because from the period after the Greek world had adopted and transformed the Pheonician alphabet to the needs of the Greek language in the late 9th century BCE, we have discovered at Praisos and Dreros in the east of Crete, through archaeological excavations, some few inscriptions dating from the 7th to the 3rd centuries BCE which are written using the Greek alphabet in a lanaguage that is not Greek. Though as yet undeciphered, these inscriptions engraved on stone are in a language that we call Eteocretan, true Cretan which must have some relation to the language the Minoans spoke. By the end of the 2nd century BCE, however, the Dorians had destroyed the last Eteocretan strongholds.
It is only during the course of the 20th century that the palaces and towns of the Minoans have been excavated and our knowledge and understanding of their great contributions to world history have been greatly expanded.
The Dorians were a proud but quarrelsome people and their incursions and even the warfare and battles between their various tribal groupings and the city states that they formed on the sites of earlier civilizations or that they founded, building large citidels to defend themselves, caused a period of Greek history which we call the Dark Ages. This lasted from 1200 to 800 BCE.
With the creation of the Greek alphabet from the late 9th to early 8th century BCE, trade routes restarted, communication and greater mutual cooperation among the various elements within the Hellenic world became the norm. The first Olympic games were held in 776 BCE. The written announcements establishing the convention that all inter-Greek fighting should be stopped for the duration of the games were sent to city states all over the Greek world. Initially not all Cretans obeyed these conventions but slowly peace was restored and Cretans became known as great athletes and warriors, often hired as soldiers by other city states far from Crete.
Cretan city states themselves were, however, liable to be combative with disagreements over land and trade likely to erupt into short and often brutal wars or battles between them throughout the archaic and classical periods. But since Crete was not involved in the Persian invasion of Greece by the armies of Darius and Xerxes in the early 5th century BCE, it was from Crete that help was sought to rebuild. So it was during the Classical Period from the 470s and during the rebuilding work needed after the destruction caused by the Persian invasions that Cretan artisans and craftsmen working in stone and as plasterers brought the building conventions which somehow had survived on the island down through the centuries and which we find in the palaces of Knossos, Phaistos and Zakros as well as at Akrotiri on Santorini, into being part of the common architectural legacy of ancient Greece.
Cretans also played a major role in defining ancient Greek poetical, musical, legal and philosophic conventions. Thaletas of Gortyn, the poet and musician, Epimenides of Knossos, the early poet philosopher and the famous Gortyn code of law from the first half of the 5th century are just a few examples of how Crete and Cretans weere acknowledged leaders in their fields across the Hellenic world.
Taking a guided tour around any of the ancient cities of Crete gives deep insights into the wealth and high level of culture of the island during the Classical and Hellenistic periods from the 5th to the 1st centuries BCE. Visiting such archaeological sites as Aptera, Lappa, Gortyn and Lato, ruins though they now are, through the detailed explanations of a guide, greatly enhances our understanding of why the legacy of ancient Crete and Greece are still with us today.
The Romans found an excuse to invade Crete in 71 BCE but were expelled by the combined Cretan resistance. They re-invaded with a stronger army two years later in 69. The inhabitants of Gortyn cleverly declared themsleves for the Roman cause and the Romans imposed their rule and law and the renowned Pax Romana (the Roman Peace) lasted for nearly four centuries till 330 CE with Gortyn being the capital of Roman Crete.. By historical convention, with the transfer of the capital of the Roman Empire on the orders of the Emperor Constantinos from Rome to Constantinople, which he ordered to be built on the site of the former city of Byzantium on the Bosphoros, (now Istanbul) we call the period after 330 CE the Byzantine era. Constantine, known as the Great, also made Christianity the state religion.
Christianity had arrived on Crete early within approximately thirty years after the death of Jesus. St. Paul preached and is said to have converted the first Cretans to become Christians on a beach called Kali Limenes on the south coast of what is now Heraklion Prefecture after the ship in which he was sailing from Rome back to Palestine sought refuge there during a storm. There are other places on the south coast of Crete that claim to have connections with St. Paul. Later in 65 CE, Paul appointed Titus, his companion and interpreter, to be the first bishop of Crete. St. Titus is the island’s patron saint and Heraklion’s cathedral is dedicated to him. We can see that Crete was an exceptionally wealthy island during both the Roman and the Byzantine eras from the fact that there are so many beautiful mosaic floors in the villas, churches and basilicas that were built during those times, even though the buildings are nearly all now ruins or incorporated into newer churches or villas built later.
The Arab, the second Byzantine, the Venetian and the Ottoman Periods
Crete later fell under the domination of the Arabs, in 824 CE, (though there are some doubts over that date with other sources giving 828 CE as the year of the Arab / Andalusian take-over of the island) and stayed under it for 137 (or 133) years till 961 CE. Crete is the only part of Greece to have had a long period of Arab rule. Some of the other Aegean islands were ruled from Crete for short periods during the island’s Arab period. In fact, the Emirate of Crete was established by Andalusian renegades who had been expelled from Spain and moved to Alexandria in Egypt from which they were again expelled. They then made an attack on Byzantine Crete under the leadership of Abu Hafs who was a clever and authoritative general and later became, once his army had wrested control of the island and expelled the Byzantine army and also, quite likely, much of the Greek-speaking population of the main towns, an effective administator who ruled Crete till his death in 855 CE. On his orders, during the early years of Arab or Andalusian rule, the city of Heraklion was founded. Abu Hafs, who we consider as the founder of the Emirate of Crete, moved the island’s capital from Gortyna to a new castle he had built, called rabḍ al-ḫandaq, ربض الخندق ‘Castle of the Moat’ in the present location of Heraklion, the place that had been the port of Knossos in Minoan times. It is almost certain that the cultivation of sugar cane was introduced to the island during the time of Arab rule. Crete and rabḍ al-ḫandaq, ربض الخندق (modern Heraklion) were used as the base for attacks on other parts of the Byzantine Empire. The island’s strategic position gave the Emirate of Crete the ability to control shipping within the Aegean Sea and conduct raids on Byzantine territory almost anywhere around its shores.
From Byzantine sources, we gain a negative view of the Emirate of Crete period of the island’s history, it being described as the base for on-going piratical raids and continuous threats to the well-being and trade of the Aegean Sea, which the Byzantines had always regarded as their own territory. However, from Arab sources, this period can be viewed as one of prosperity for the island. It seems that Crete’s towns where most of the Muslim population lived, whether they were the original Andalusian Arab conquerors, new Muslim arrivals from other parts of the Arab world or Cretans who had become Muslims or after several generations, combinations of those three, were well ordered with a strong economy based on trade in Cretan agricultural products with other Arab parts of the Mediterranean littoral, notably with Egypt. The high quality, consistent weight and metallic composition of the Emirate’s gold, silver and copper coinage minted by the Emirate of Crete clearly demonstrate an ordered society based on the Emirate’s strong government creating agricultural prosperity and broad-based trading links with fellow Muslim regions around the Mediterranean. The island’s villages where most of the Christian population of the Emirate lived seem to have benefitted from that prosperity, though it is difficult to detect remains from the period because of the successful Byzantine efforts to erradicate all vestiges of the Emirate’s existence when they regained the island in 961 CE. The successive Byzantine emperors throughout the time of the Emirate of Crete sent many military expeditions using large fleets to recapture Crete and repeatedly failed to do so until the respected general, Nikephoros Phokas, later to become emperor himself, managed to wrestle the island out of Muslim control after protracted battles and a long siege of rabḍ al-ḫandaq, ربض الخندق
From the beginning of the second Byzantine period, we find references to Khandakas, the Hellenized version of the Arabic name, as the island’s capital. Initially, the main aim of the Byzantines was to bring Crete back into the fold of their empire. This was done through a destructive process of eliminating the past of the previous 130 and more years, through missionary efforts, converting Muslims to Christianity through sending a renowned monk and preacher of the time, Nikon, the Metanoeite with his repeated reminding of the villagers of Crete about their Chritian faith (Nikon’s name, Metanoeite means the repenter as he started all his sermons with the call to repent) succeeded in returning Crete to being Byzantine and Christian. The re-christianization was also achieved through the transfer of populations. Cretan villages with the names, Armenoi or Voulgaro, date from this time, when Nikephoras Phokas ordered people from Armenia and Bulgaria to move to Crete giving them land to farm and on which to build Christian communities. Also twelve noble families of Constantinople were allotted land on the island and ruled it as its resident aristocracy. It is notable how strong must have been the effort to return the island to Byzantine and Christian control as during this period, from 961 CE till 1204 CE, many new churches and monasteries were constructed.
From the start of the Venetian period in the early 1200s, the Venetians built upon and expanded the earlier settlements. They fortified towns, cities and castles across the length and breadth of the island. They fortified the old castles built by the Arabs or Byzantines and built new castles.
The old towns of Rethymno and Chania remain intact since the Renaissance, with their beautifully decorated squares, the superb fountains and its fine churches and palaces. During those years, the arts flourished such as painting and literature. The famous painter El Greco (Domenicos Theotocopoulos) started his carrier in this period and other artists and scholars from Constantinople came to Crete. In 1669, the island fell under Ottoman rule which lasted until 1897, when the great statesman of Greece, Eleftherios Venizelos, negotiated the independence of Crete. Crete was declared an autonomous state and, in 1913, it was united with the independent Greek State.
This period gave birth to one of the most talented writers of Greece, Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957). Many organizations were also founded for the education of people and schools and libraries were built.
Crete in the 20th century
During World War II, Crete played a major role in the war. The resistance that the Germans encountered caught them completely off guard. Eventually, all Crete fell under German occupation. Many of the local residents were executed for their participation in the Resistance War against the German invasion and many villages were massacred. But the war was continuing and from the southern suburbs of Crete ships would secretly come at night to board people to Egypt, so that they could continue the war against the Germans from there.
Today Crete is a large island that gets most of its income from agriculture, cattle breeding and tourism. Although there are tourist places all over the island, the inhabitants still keep their old traditions and customs. In fact, tradition is very important for them even in their everyday life.