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Travel Guide > Crete > History of Crete

History of Crete

Crete has a very interesting history, full of battles for freedom (against all its conquerors, from Venetians to Turks and Germans) and creation (the Minoan civilization flourished here, whereas many famous scientists and artists were born here). The Minoan civilization is believed to be the first European civilization and to have helped the creation of Classical Greece, which makes the history of Crete unique.

Minoan Period:
The Minoan period exceeds from 2600 BC to 1100 BC and it can be divided into three periods: the early Minoan period from 2600 BC to 2000 BC, the middle Minoan period from 2000 BC to 1580 BC and the late Minoan period from 1580 BC to 1100 BC. The name of the first European civilization comes from Minos, the mythical king of Crete.

The first palaces were built in Crete around the start of the Middle Minoan period (2000 BC). The most important ones were built at Knossos (near the present town Heraklion), Phaistos (in the south near the sea, on the plain of Messara), Malia (on the north coast), Archanes, Zakros (on the eastern most end of the island) and Kydonia. These first palaces were destroyed by an earthquake at 1700 BC. Immediately after their destruction the palaces were rebuilt. The most famous were the palaces of Knossos, Phaistos, Malia and Zakros. They were impressive buildings characterized by a massive central courtyard surrounded by colonnades, rooms, stairs and workshops. Frescoes decorated the walls, showing images of their life (fishing, harvesting, dancing).

Knossos, due to its geographical position in the middle of the island, controlled the economic and political life. Farming, stock-breeding and the exports of goods that were produced in the workshops and the villages created a flourishing economy. The works of art were transferred to Egypt, Phoenicia and Syria, and the Minoan pottery has been discovered throughout the eastern Mediterranean.

All the palaces were destroyed by the terrible volcanic eruption of Santorini, about 1450. Life was resumed only in the palace at Knossos, which was reconstructed and served as the residence of a new Achaean dynasty.

The Minoan palaces did not have fortifications or walls, which shows that the Minoans had the Aegean under their control and were not afraid of their enemies. The main feature in the architecture of the palaces is the courtyard around which there were the special rooms for official ceremonies and rituals. The walls of the palaces are decorated with the famous Minoan frescoes, which represent, sometimes in life-size, scenes from everyday life or subjects from the plant, animal and sea kingdom.

The Sub-Minoan, Geometric and Archaic Periods (1100-900 BC):
The Dorians, who came from mainland Greece, conquered Crete after the collapse of the Minoan civilisation. All the cities were united under the leadership of Knossos. There are traces of some Dorian cities such as Prinia, some 40 km from Herakleion, Lato, 15 km form Agios Nikolaos, and Gortun, 45 km from Herakleion and 17 to the east of Phaistos.

The Classical, Hellenistic and Roman Periods(900-330 AD):
Crete did not play any important role during the Classical Ages. It became gradually nest of pirates, until the Romans fought the corsairs and conquered the island.

Byzantium (330-1204/10 AD):
Crete was an autonomous province in the Byzantine Empire and Gortyna was its administrative and religious centre. During this period the piracy decreased and the trade flourished, making it possible many churches to be built.

Christianity arrived early with St Paul's visit in 63 AD. His disciple, Titus, managed to spread it to the whole island.

This period is interrupted by a small occupation of the island by Arabs (826-960 AD). The Byzantine general Nikiphoros Phokas managed to capture the island again in 960. Herakleion became the new capital of the island and the seat of the Archbishop.

Venetian Rule (1204-1669 AD):
When the Crusaders took Constantinople in 1204, Crete was sold to the Venetians. The Genoese tried to keep Crete under their surveillance but in the end Venice won. Many new buildings were built in Heraklion this period: the Doge's palace, the basilica of St Marc and the Loggia. When Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, many Greek nobles came in Crete. The Monastery of St Catherine became a centre of culture, theology, philosophy, music and literature.

The 'Cretan School' of Art which was born in this period, with examples on Mt Athos, in the Meteora and in many museums, combined the traditional Byzantine style with the Italian Renaissance. Michail Damaskinos, Klontzas, Ioannis Kornaros and Domenico Theotokopoulos, well known as El Greco, belonged to the Cretan school.

The epic of Vincenzo Cornaro Erotocritos, dating in the 17th century, is the most famous example of the flowering Cretan literature of this period.

Turkish Rule (1669-1898):
The Turkish domination of the island was possibly the worst period of its existence. 60,000 men conquered Chania in1645, Rethymnon in1646 and the Whole Island but Candia (Heraklion) by the end of 1648. On 27 September 1669 the city finally fell into the hands of Turks after the siege had cost 117,000 Turkish lives and 30,000 Cretans and Venetians.

By the Turkish possession most of the churches were converted into mosques. Many Cretans left the island because they couldn't stand the barbarity of the new masters. The 'great Cretan rebellion' which burst out in 1866 until 1868 led to the destruction of the Arkadi Monastery and the loss of many lives. However the Cretan problem was taken up by the Great Powers which compelled Turkey to make certain concessions.

New battles broke out in 1895-1896. In 1897, Greek forces and volunteers reached Crete and started to liberate the island with the intention to unify it with the rest of Greece.

Autonomous Crete - the Modern Period:
The fighting stopped in 1898, when Turkish massacre happened in Heraklion. The Great Powers - Britain, France and Russia - recognized the autonomous 'Cretan State' under the commissioning of Prince George of Greece. The Cretan rebellion in Therisos in 1913 led to the union of Crete with Greece and to the appearance of Eleftherios Venizelos, who would play a very important role in the history of Greece during the following decades.

In 1923 the 'Great Catastrophe' in Minor Asia resulted in the remaining Muslims of Crete to be expelled and many expelled Christians from Turkey to immigrate in the island.

1941-1945 AC:
Cretan are famous for their resistance against the Germans during the Second World War, too. In May 1941 thousands of German paratroopers were dropped in the island and put up fierce resistance by Greek, British, Australian and New Zealand troops as well as thousands of locals. When the airfield of Maleme, in Chania, was captured the Germans managed to take gradual control of the island. The resistance continued after the possession of the island by the Germans with many severe reprisals.

1945 to the present:
After the Second World War a severe civil war broke out in Greece which lasted until 1949. The national elections which followed resulted in excluding the communists from future governments. Greece joined NATO in 1951 and in 1953 US was give the right to operate sovereign bases (like the Souda base). From 1967 to 1974 army colonels stage a coup and impose martial law across Greece. After the return of Democracy in 1974 and the abolishment of Monarchy, Karamanlis with the right-wing New Democracy (ND) won the national elections. On 1 January 1981 Greece becomes the tenth member of the EEC.

Andreas Papandreou with left-wing Panhellenic Socialist Union (PASOK) won the elections of 1981 and remained Prime Minister until 1990. Konstantinos Mitsotakis, coming from Chania, with ND wins the elections in 1990 for only two seats and governs until the mid-1993. PASOK won the elections of 1993 and remained in the authority until 2004. Kostas Simitis was the following Prime Minister after the death of Andreas Papandreou in 1996. ND, with Konstantinos Karamanlis (the younger) returned in the authority in 2004, the year which was dominated by the staging of the very much successful Olympiads in Athens.

Greece joined the European Monetary Union on January 2002 and euro became the national currency.