History of Crete

Home -Crete -History

The Greek island of Crete is very rich in history and culture and the country is still profiting from its interesting past. Several various nations left their trace on the today´s look of the island and thanks to the archaeological researches we can explore even the rests of the famous Minoan civilization, which was living here already in the third millennium BC. The island of Crete is also often mentioned in the Greek mythology.

Ancient Crete

First people appeared on Crete approximately 130 000 years ago, in the Old Stone Age (Palaeolith) whereas the rests of the first historic settlements are dated back to the New Stone Age (Neolithic Period) in the 6th millennium BC. In this time, the people were already breeding cattle, sheep, goats, pigs or dogs as well as growing grains and legumes. The main Neolithic settlement developed later to the city of Knossos.

A significant time period comes around 2700 BC, as the so-called Minoan Civilization, which is considered to be the first advanced civilization of Europe, settled down on Crete. The Minoans left us big building complexes, various tools, beautiful art works, new font (Linear A Font) and a wide trading system. Their era is typical for building of the big royal palaces, as Knossos, Phaistos, Malia or Kato Zakros, whereas the so-called Linear A Font, could not yet be completely decoded.

The early Cretan history has many legends and myths. One of them tells about a Labyrinth under the Knossos Palace, where the king Minos let to imprison the mysterious Minotaur, a feature with human body and head of a bull. Every year, a group of girls and boys was sacrificed to the Minotaur, until Theseus, the son of the king of Athens, killed the monster. The Labyrinth was built by the famous artist and inventor Daedalus, who built two pair of wings out of wax and feathers and escaped together with his son Icarus from Crete.

As well the ruler of the Olympians Zeus is very popular on Crete because he was born here after the Greek Mythology. Therefore we can find two „caves of Zeus“ (Dikteon Andron and Ideon Andron) and the Dia Island here.

The decline of the Minoan Culture is often put into context and considered to be a consequence of the massive volcano eruption on the close Santorini Island around 1425 BC. After the Minoan culture disappeared, it was replaced by the so-called Mycaenean Culture, that was brought to Crete by the Achaeans from the Greek mainland. Mycenaeans continued to keep the Minoan naval trading relations alive. They built smaller, but well-fortified palaces and left us many documents written in the so-called Linear B Font, that belongs to already decoded fonts.

After the Bronze age, more Greeks came from the mainland, what lead to formation of Ancient City states during the Archaic Period. An interesting historic site from these time which remained preserved until today is the „Gortyn Law Codex“. From the 4th century BC the conflicts between the city states became more and more often and the leading role of Knossos begun to get menaced by such cities as Gortyn, Kydonia (Chania), Lyttos or Polyrrinia.

Crete under the rule of foreign powers

After that, a long occupation time started for Crete, during which the island was ruled over by several powers. Firstly by the Romans (since 67 BC), later by the Byzantine Empire (from the 4th century until 1204), Arabians (in the period of 824 – 960), Venetians (from 1204-1669) and finally by the Ottoman Empire (from 1669 until the end of 19th century).

In 67 BC, the island of Crete became a Roman province (together with the province of Cyrenaica) and its capital city was declared Gortyn. The archaeological researches indicate, that although Crete was not in the centre of the things anymore, it still remained prosperous and kept maintaining the relations with the other parts of the empire. At the end of the 3rd century, when Roman Empire split into western and eastern half, the provinces of Crete and Cyrenaica were divided as well, whereas Cyrenaica got under the administration of the Western Roman Empire and Crete remained in the sphere of the Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire.

During the so-called "First Byzantine Period" (from the 4th century until 824), Crete went through attacks of the Vandals as well as raids of other foreign nations (firstly of the Slavs and later of the Arabians) and several strong earthquakes. However, the island remained yet a quite good functioning region and many historical sites, above all churches, come from this time.

In 824, Crete got under the rule of the Arabians, who declared the Emirate of Crete here and established the new capital city of Chandax (today's Heraklion). The internal conditions of that time are not very detailed described, but the researches seem that the island was profiting well, because of wide naval trading, agriculture and also piracy.

In 960 Byzantine Empire captured Crete back under its control, with what the so-called „Second Byzantine Period" started.

In 1204, the Byzantine capital city of Constantinople was conquered and totally plundered by the Venetians during the 4th crusade, what in fact symbolized the fall of the Byzantine Empire. Crete became a Venetian colony, known as the Kingdom of Candia, with the capital city of Candia (earlier Chandax). In that time, the city of Candia was considered as the best fortified city of the Mediterranean.

Many historical sites from the Venetian Period remained preserved until today, as for example the old harbour in the city of Heraklion, Fortezza fortress above the city of Rethymno or the Frangokastello fortress in the eponymous city of Frangokastello. Although Crete was a profiting island, the local Cretan inhabitants were not satisfied and happy with the foreign rulers, what lead to more and more common rebellions and revolts, which became even bigger, when Crete got under the dominance of the Ottoman Empire in 1669.

After Crete fell into the hands of the Ottomans, the new capital city of the island was declared Chania (and remained as the capital city of Crete until 1972). This period was generally very hard for the Cretans. The repressions and occupation conditions of the Turks against the locals strengthened their anger and desire for independence. The uprisings of the people became daily reality. An important memorial and symbol of Cretan resistance and bravery against the Turks is the Arkadi Monastery.

Modern history of Crete

Crete gained the independence in 1898, when the Cretan State was declared and in December 1913 the island became an official part of Greece. Since this time, we can talk about the modern history of Crete.

Crete was also heavily hit by the fights of the World War II during its occupation by the Nazis. In 1941 the German parachutists attacked the strategic places of the island, but they had to face a strong resistance of the Cretans. Despite many loses on both sides, Germans were able to conquer the island and put it for several years under their influence, which ended in 1944 when the allies recaptured Crete back.

Today, Crete is one of the world´s most favourite holiday destinations. Except beautiful beaches and crystal-clear sea, the visitors come to meet the Cretan culture and traditions and to see the many historical sites and natural attractions. Tourism belongs to the main economic sphere of the island however, Crete is one of the few Greek islands which are not dependent just on tourism, but also on agriculture and trade which play a significant role in its economy.

Crete is an important part of Greece and since 1981 a European Union country. In 2001 it became also a member state of the Eurozone.