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A Short History of Crete: From Minoan Civilization to Modern Times

by Crete Locals

  • Posted 1 year ago

The long history of Crete is closely linked to the island’s position at the crossroads between Western Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. In the Golden Age, this brought prosperity, being a strategic point for trade; Many relics of the island bear witness to the critical event that took place here. The oldest human remains found in Crete date from the VII century  BC. The first inhabitants were Neolithic hunter-gatherers coming from Asia Minor. They settled on the island, became farmers and agriculturists, with households and pastures in the Messará plain. Shortly after 3000 BC, there was a new migration of more precious people with new skills, which started the Minoan era. This first great civilization developed in Europe.

Minoan Civilization

Minoan civilization: Toreador Fresco
Minoan civilization: Toreador Fresco

It was long believed that these people of Ancient Crete was just the fruit of imagination and mythology. But with the discoveries of ancient cities and the beautiful objects made by the Minoans, Sir Arthur Evans, who believed most in the existence of this civilization, managed to turn the myth into reality. Much is now known about Crete from the Minoan period – including the fact that, in its heyday, the island had over two million inhabitants, four times more than today. 100,000 of them lived in the capital, in the city of Knossos.

Early Bronze Age settlements were built without fortifications and consisted of a large number of individual dwellings. Cities developed more naturally than as a result of urban plans. The first palace on the island was the one in Knossos. Palaces were built in other large cities on the island, such as Phaistos (today Faistos) and Mália, between 2000-1900 BC. Still, unfortunately, they were destroyed by an earthquake around 1700 BC. What you see today are the remains of buildings, even bigger and more beautiful than the final folds. The Golden Age of Minoan civilization lasted about 250 years.

The Minoans were led by a high priest who ran both the church and the country’s economy. It is not clear whether he ruled over the entire island or whether each larger settlement had a regional leader. People worshipped the Mother Goddess, and the divine power was symbolized by the bull, which was included in elaborate rituals. In contradiction to the peaceful life on the island, one of the sacred symbols was the labrys (two-edged axe). His image appears on numerous objects discovered throughout the island.

The Minoans also developed an alphabet, printing writings, and complex water systems and installations. Women played an important role and played an active role in the life of the palace. The entire population participated in sports competitions and a lot of recreational activities.

The inhabitants of ancient Crete were also very talented artists.Wherever they found empty “canvases,” they covered them with works of art: decorative entrances, walls, floors, and pottery. Many examples of this type can be seen at the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. Gold and precious stones were used to create elegant jewellery, proof of the good life that some of the inhabitants led.

minoan Ladies
Minoan ‘Ladies in Blue’ from the Palace of Knossos

The engine of this great empire was trading. The Cretans were highly skilled in using local resources such as natural paints, clay, copper and bronze, and imported materials – lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, ivory from Syria, gold, silver and black obsidian from Anatolia. Copper and bronze were processed and re-exported, along with special foods such as olive oil, honey and wine.

The Minoans became one of the most significant maritime powers in the Mediterranean, especially since the island was rich in raw materials for boats in the juniper and cypress forests. However, the inhabitants were not interested in the military aspect, but rather in the commercial gains, being more attracted by the sound and peaceful life and less by the idea of ​​empire.

This great civilization ended abruptly, around 1450 BC. The exact causes of the disappearance are unknown, but it appears that all the palaces were destroyed at the same time. The charred remains found at Knossos, and the ashes of Zákros suggest that a large-scale conflagration took place. One of the accepted theories was a natural disaster, namely the explosion of the volcano Thíra (on the island of Santorini) north of Crete, which caused a tsunami, earthquakes and ash storms. However, Thira erupted in 1500 BC, half a century before the destruction of Cretan civilization.  More recent research suggests that the disappearance of the Minoan civilization occurred due to attacks by invaders or local rebels. It will not be long before researchers find out exactly what happened in Crete.

Dorians And Romans

Dorians And Romans

After the disaster, the Mycenaean Greeks from Peloponnese came to the island. They took control of the few Minoan settlements left in Crete, which may have accelerated the destruction of this great civilization. Around 1200 BC, the Dorians invaded the island, coming from the Balkans, crossing mainland Greece and the Aegean Sea. Most of the inhabitants living in the coastal areas retreated to the mountains to escape the invaders. Others left the island and settled in other places along the shores of the Mediterranean. The island was not directly involved in the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars. However, many Cretan mercenaries took part in the fighting.

While mainland Greece was going through its heyday, Crete lagged behind in the Classical Age (480-338 BC). Of the strongest city-state was Gortys (today Gortyn). Despite this, Athenians recognized Crete as the cradle of their culture, so the altars on the island were a place of pilgrimage. The most important Cretan achievement – and the only vestige left of this period is the Code of Laws of Gortys. Which is evidence of a society of free people, vassals and slaves led by a class of aristocrats.

The Romans needed three years of hard fighting to conquer Crete in 67 BC, and this only after they crushed the city-states against each other. Crete remained a province of the Roman Empire until 396 AD, with its capital at Gortys. The Romans brought some order to the island and put an end to the internal power struggles. They also built roads, harbours and aqueducts. They introduced sewage systems for households and heating systems that could be functional even today.

Early Christianity

The apostle Paul arrived on the island in 60-61 CE. Until 64 CE (common era), he commissioned his disciple Titus to convert the islanders to Christianity. Titus encountered difficulties in dispelling pagan beliefs but died peacefully as bishop of Gortys in 107 AD, becoming the island’s patron saint (Ágios Títos).

When Roman power split, the island reverted to the Byzantine Empire. Attacks by pirates and Islamic forces brought terror to the inhabitants. Still, the Cretans remained loyal to the Orthodox Church during the occupation of the pirates of Andalusia (824-961 AD). The island was recaptured after a bloody siege of Heraklion, led by Byzantine commander Nikeforos Phokas.

The Venetian Period

Chania Old Venetian Port, Crete

After Byzantium fell to the Crusaders in 1204, Crete was ceded to their ruler, Boniface of Montferrat. The latter immediately sold it to Venice for 1,000 silver units, leading to a new era in the island’s history. Crete prospered during the 465 years of Venetian occupation (1204-1669). However, in the first century, numerous revolts took place, both of the Venetian colonists and of the displaced Byzantine aristocracy. Being a source of timber for shipbuilding and due to its strategic location, the island was an essential element of a distant trading empire and became the first official colony of Venice.

Ennobled with the coat of arms of the Lion of St. Mark, the ports and fortifications of Heraklion (called Candia, as the island was called), Chania and Rethymno witnessed the ambitious construction program developed by the Venetians. And today you can see villas and lodges that demonstrate the lifestyle of that time.

In the 14th century, wealthy native Cretans began to marry settlers and govern the island. The arts flourished in the XV-XVI century, a period known as the Cretan Renaissance. Many churches and monasteries were built. Icon painting reached new heights after the arrival of a wave of Byzantine artists after 1453, who established important art schools. One of the most influential figures in contemporary literature, Vitsentzos Kornaros (1553-1613), wrote an epic poem in the island dialect, Erotokritos. Even though most villagers can no longer recite it by heart, Cretan writers still prise the poetry.

The Battle For Crete

In the eastern Mediterranean, Christian forces were retreating as Islamic power expanded. The Ottoman Turks drove the Venetians and Genoese out of Asia Minor and mainland Greece and then from all the islands in the Aegean Sea. It was Crete’s turn. The Ottomans started a titanic war to take the island from the Venetians. The conflagration began with raids on Chania, Réthymno and Sitía in the 1530s, led by the flagship, Barbarossa. The Venetians strengthened the fortifications in the next century, but Chania and Réthymno were still conquered in 1645.

Two years later, the Turks besieged the capital, Candia. It was an epic battle that lasted 22 years. Although weakened by a plague, the 12,000 soldiers gathered their forces to defend the city. After 15 years, the commander of the Turks, Hussein Pasha, was called back to Constantinople and sentenced to death by hanging for his failure. It is estimated that 30,000 defenders lost their lives, but the attackers lost 118,000 people.

Although the leaders of Western Europe were watching closely what was happening in Crete, they sent very little aid. In the end, the Venetian resistance gave up. As the conquerors entered the city gates in 1699, the Venetians negotiated their departure by taking important relics that eventually were brought back to the island only in 1966.

Period Of The Ottoman Conquest

Crete under the rule of the Ottoman Empire

The years in which Crete was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire (1669-1898) represented a period of cultural and economic stagnation. The rulers of the empire were not interested in investing in this new territory. The island regressed in a kind of Middle Ages. Apart from repairing the fortifications on the island, the Ottomans left very few signs of their passage through Crete. They built several mosques and built few houses in the big cities, representing half the population until the 1840s. Most Ottoman remains are decorative fountains on the city streets, located in the squares and at the entrance to the places of worship. During this period, many of the Cretans in the cities tried to draw as little attention as possible. They publicly converted to Islam to get rid of their taxes but secretly continued to practice Christianity. Some sporadic attempts at revolt started with resistance fighters in the mountains, where the rebels could survive safely. Unfortunately, the inhabitants of the plains, who were much more vulnerable, were the ones who paid the price for these riots due to bloody reprisals.

The first such revolt took place in 1770, when the Russians, hoping to distract the Turks while attacking the Ottoman Empire elsewhere, promised help to Daskalogiannis, a Cretan shipowner. He planned a revolt in Sfakiá, but the promised help never came. The rebellion was suppressed, Daskalogiannis was skinned alive, and the event was immortalized in an impressive epic poem.

However, when part of Greece gained independence from the Ottoman Empire after 1830, the atmosphere changed. After another two decades under the leadership of an Egyptian vassal of the sultan, the Ottomans tried various forms of semi-independent rule, with representation for Christian nobles, but without success. The insurgencies continued to erupt but were brutally stopped; for the fighters of the Cretan resistance, death had come to be equivalent to a medal of honour.

During the Great Revolt of 1866, hundreds of Christian Cretans and many converts to Islam died in a suicide bombing at Arkádi Monastery. Several insurgencies took place between 1889 and 1895. The repeated sufferings of the islanders were celebrated in literary works such as The Songs of Digenis, Pandelis Prevelakis’s novel The Cretan and the writings of Nikos Kazantzakis.

Union With Greece

Union With Greece

Finally, in 1898, European powers forced the Ottomans to grant Crete autonomy within the empire and accept Prince George, the second son of King George of Greece, as a high commissioner. This decision was not enough for the Cretan nationalists. The prince, ruling over an island divided between the ultranationalist and peace supporters, gave up in 1906. Only in 1913, under the leadership of the Cretan Eleftherios Venizelos, did the long-awaited enosis take place (Union with Greece).

Despite escaping unscathed after World War I, Crete underwent many changes between 1913 and the mid-1920s. Muslim Cretans had been moving to Rhodes, the Middle East, and Anatolia since 1897. Still, the disastrous invasion of Greece in Turkey (1919-22), defeated by the Turks, accelerated this movement through the forced exchange of population between Greece and Turkey in 1923. The last thousands of Muslims were expelled, and Orthodox refugees from Asia Minor took their place.

War And Peace

But Crete’s suffering would continue. During World War II, the rapid advance of German forces through mainland Greece in 1941 forced the Allies to retreat to Crete. On May 20, German paratroopers captured the airfield in Máleme, west of Chania. British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers joined the Cretan militia in the Battle for Crete but were forced to retreat to other parts of the island. Many of them were evacuated to Egypt, but several thousand remained on the island and retreated to the mountains. The death toll was high on both sides: the Allies lost 2,000 people, another 12,000 were taken prisoner, while the Germans had 4,500 dead.

Crete during World War II

With a long tradition of opposing the invaders, the Cretans immediately began to organize resistance movements against German forces. Initial efforts to shelter Allied soldiers to help them leave the island were unexpectedly successful. But after the capitulation of Italy in September 1943, German reprisals against civilians became even more frequent. At the beginning of 1944, the resistance achieved an incredible victory: they kidnapped the commander of the German troops, General Kreipe, and evacuated him from the island. In response, the Germans burned entire villages and killed many locals in the Amári Valley. The occupation of Crete ended only in May 1945, when the Germans abandoned Chania. Many cities on the island were left in ruins by bombing. Still, Crete escaped the devastating civil war in mainland Greece (1946-49) and felt less affected by the oppressive junta (1967-74) compared to other communities.

In 1981, Greece became a member of the European Community. The PASOK party, led by Andreas Papandreou, won the election, Crete voting overwhelmingly with PASOK, which formed the first quasi-socialist government in Greek history. Papandreou’s son, George, became prime minister in 2009. During his tenure, the economic crisis hit the country. Greek creditors accused him of destroying his father’s legacy, so he was replaced by a technocrat coalition in 2011. In 2012, the leader of the New Democracy party, Antonis Samaras, was appointed prime minister, and the country began to take additional austerity measures. Despite this, in 2014, the unemployment rate in Greece rose to a record 28%, while unemployment among the young reached a worrying 60%.

In 2015, the Greeks moved from the New Democracy (a right-wing party) to a left-wing one, SYRIZA, whose leader, Alexis Tsipras, was elected prime minister. After holding a national referendum in the same year, Tsipras signed the third bailout. Greece would receive a loan of approximately 84 billion euros. In exchange for financial aid, the country had to introduce many reforms, including raising VAT and privatizing state-owned companies. However, a group of SYRIZA deputies opposed the controversial reforms and sparked a riot within the party. Consequently, after five months, Tsipras resigned, only to return a month later. During her brief absence, Vassiliki Thanou-Christophilou took office, becoming the first woman prime minister in Greece. In 2017, the unemployment rate in general and among young people was 22% and 44%.

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