History of Crete

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The Greek island of Crete certainly has a rich and varied history. The early history revolves around the great Minoan Civilisation and many wonderful stories involving the island are told in the famous Greek legends by Homer and others such as Theseus and the Minotaur and Daedalus and Icarus. Invasions, uprisings and various rulers have been a key part in the island's history over the years. Today it is invaders of a different kind that shape much about life on the island: tourists.

The first settlers on the island are believed to have arrived from the eastern Mediterranean during the Neolithic period which ran from 6500-2600BC. At first they probably dwelt in caves, hunting and fishing with primitive tools. Later they began to make clay houses, develop basic agricultural techniques and tame animals. New animals such as sheep, goats and pigs were also introduced to the island. Pottery was an important part of the culture, both for decorative as well as cookery purposes.

Civilisation in Crete developed fast at this time and 2600BC is recorded by historians as the start of the great Minoan civilisation that ruled the region for the next 1500 years. The Minoans were so named after the famous King Minos by the archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans. King Minos is a legendary figure in Greek mythology: one famous myth tells that Poseidon, as punishment for Minos' failure to sacrifice a bull to him, forced his wife to fall in love with this animal. The offspring of this union was the legendary Minotaur, half- man half-bull. Minos, due to his shame, kept the fearsome creature prisoner in a huge labyrinth. Every year Minos would demand seven Athenian boys and seven girls for sacrifice to the Minotaur, in punishment for his son's death at the hands of the Athenians. This continued until one year the Athenian hero Theseus volunteered to go to the island and slay the beast. On Theseus' arrival, Ariadne, Minos' daughter, fell in love with him and decided to help him. It was said no-one could ever find their way out of the labyrinth, so she gave him a ball of string to take with him in order that he could escape the complex maze. Theseus successfully killed the Minotaur with his father's sword and led the other Athenians out of the labyrinth and then escaped the island taking Ariadne with him.

There are other famous Greek myths surrounding the island. One goes that King Minos was in fact the son of Zeus and that Zeus was born on the Lassithi Plateau on the island. Another famous story in Greek Mythology is of Daedalus and Icarus. Daedalus was a skilled and famous architect who worked on the island and was enlisted by King Minos to build the great labyrinth which housed the Minotaur. As Daedalus was the only one who knew the secrets of the labyrinth, Minos prevented him from leaving the island. Minos held great control over the seas, so Daedalus decided his only chance of escape from Crete would be by air. He built wings made of feathers and held together with wax for himself and for his young son Icarus. Before departing Daedalus is said to have warned young Icarus to neither fly too close to the sun as the wax would melt, nor too close to the sea as the wings would not work when wet. Exuberance got the better of young Icarus and he soared too high into the sky, only to plummet to his death as the wax melted and his wings fell apart.

The Minoans not only ruled Crete but also many other islands in the Aegean as well as having strongholds on the mainland. They are credited as the first European civilisation. The first 600 years of the Minoan civilisation is referred to by historians as the prepalatial period, and was a time of flourishing pottery making and later bronze working.

From 2000BC came what is referred to as the protopalatial period of the Minoan rule. This was a golden age of Minoan civilisation which saw the construction of fabulous palaces such as Knossos, Phaistos and Malia as well as the establishment of a naval empire. The most famous Minoan palace is the one built at Knossos, and uncovered by Sir Arthur Evans. During this time pottery work as well as work with stones and metals such as gold became very skilled. The advances in seafaring made by the Minoans saw Crete become a sea power and also saw a huge increase in trade with other Aegean islands, Africa, Asia Minor, and all over the Mediterranean. Although there are many archaeological artefacts relating to this era there remains very little written history, and that which exists is in the still undeciphered script known as Linear A.

In around 1700BC a huge earthquake destroyed much of the great palaces built by the Minoans, but they were rebuilt over the next 300 years on a far grander scale. Evidence uncovered at the sights of these palaces reveals they were multi story palaces with complex drainage systems and even flushing toilets. Crete was a very wealthy island during this period, enjoying great trade and producing the intricate artwork and architecture which have helped to make the Minoans such a well recognised and admired civilisation.

A catastrophic event in 1450BC signalled the demise of the great Minoan civilisation. Palaces, towns and settlements were all but destroyed. There is much debate over the cause of this disaster, with theories as varied as earthquake, volcanic eruption, tsunami, revolution, invasion or a combination of them. Whatever the cause, it spelt the beginning of the end for the Minoans. The famous Minoan artwork died out, and the Myceneans from the mainland took over the former stronghold at Knossos. The Minoans were pushed out into villages in eastern Crete. The loss of Minoan's naval power saw Crete's trade and influence in the region diminish rapidly. There were wars, social and financial struggles.

In 1100BC the Dorian Greeks arrived and invaded Crete, finally ending for good the last of the Minoan civilisation. The impoverished state of Crete at the time, as well as the advanced iron weapons of the Dorians, made it an easy invasion. Much of the local population were enslaved. The Dorians held an aristocratic rule over the island, with the major landowners forming the ruling class. Military and farming were important parts of society. Though a relatively uneventful period in Crete's history, the island's power and influence slowly began to increase once more with trade in the region prospering. Around 700BC Crete was once again enjoying influence in the region.

The island's fortunes declined again, however, as focus in the region turned to other places such as Athens and Sparta. Crete became beset with skirmishes and raids and suffered problems with pirates. In 67BC, the island fell into Roman hands. The Romans realised the strategic importance of Crete and consul Mark Anthony began a campaign for control of the island. At first he met strong resistance from the people of Crete, but within 3 years the island fell under complete control of the Romans. Crete once again became prosperous under Roman rule and remained relatively peaceful during the period.

In 395AD Crete fell under Byzantine rule and Christianity was spread across the island. Many churches were built across the island, the most impressive being the Church of Ayios Titus at Gortyn, the capital at that time. The church was named after the first Christian bishop on the island. The arrival of Christianity seems to be the most noteworthy event during this period of rule, as otherwise things were largely uneventful on the island.

Byzantine rule ended in 824AD when Crete fell into the hands of invading Arabs. The old capital of Gortyn was destroyed and a new capital established called El Khandak in the centre of the island at what is now the city Iraklion. El Khandak was protected by an impressive moat which encircled the town.

Arab occupation was not long-lasting however; in 961AD the general Nikiforso Fokas re-conquered the island for the Byzantines after a four month siege on El Khandak. Byzantine noble families populated the island and returned Crete to Christianity. With the help of the arrival of Christians from other parts of the region, the traces of Arab rule and Muslim religion began to be wiped out.

This second period of Byzantine rule lasted until 1204 when Crete was occupied by the Venetians. The great Byzantine Empire fell during the 4th Crusade and Crete was handed to Boniface II of Monferrat, who then sold it to the Venetians - reportedly for 1000 pieces of silver.

The Venetians wanted Crete for its strategic position in relation to their trading interests with the East. The island was divided into different territories, each handed over to prominent Venetians. There were a number of uprisings at this time, mainly due to the attempts to convert the locals from orthodox Christianity to Catholicism. This was, however, mainly a prosperous time for Crete, and many of the castles and forts built by the Venetians can still be seen in good condition today. Many Cretan traditions continued, especially the thriving Greek literature. The prosperity was aided by the arrival of many artists and scholars from Byzantium who fled to the island after the fall of their city. Education, arts and literature flourished.

Come the 16th Century Crete again found itself under threat of invasion, this time from the Ottoman Turks. Many fortresses were built across the island, including the 'Megalo Castro' which still stands in Iraklion today. Some of these forts were built using forced labour.

By the middle 17th century, the Turks had captured many of the coastal areas of Crete. In 1648 they began a siege on Candia (modern day Iraklion) which was to last for 21 years, one of the longest sieges in history. By the time the Turks were eventually victorious well over 100,000 Turkish lives had been lost as well as those of 30,000 Venetians and Cretans. There were numerous rebellions against the Ottoman rule, particularly great uprising at Sfakia in 1770. These uprisings were dealt with severely and many Cretans were forced to flee the island or take refuge in the mountain regions. Islam again spread across the island, with many Cretans converting from Christianity for fear of reprisals.

1821 saw the start of the Greek War of Independence in which Crete was involved. There were many bloody revolts over the years against the Ottoman authorities. In response the Turks enlisted the help of the Egyptians in order to crush the rebellions. The new Greek state established in 1832 did not include Crete and the island remained locked in a period of bloody battles until the end of the century. The 'Great Cretan Revolution' began in 1866 with the help of volunteers from Greece. Initially the Cretans had success but, with the arrival of reinforcements, the Turks quashed their uprising. Losses were heavy, and the bombing of the monastery at Arkadi in 1866 that was sheltering women and children sent shock around the region. During the bloody years Crete lost much of its population and became an impoverished island.

Finally the Great Powers intervened in 1898, expelling the Turkish forces and creating an independent Cretan Republic headed by Prince George of Greece. Cretans rose once more in 1905 demanding union with Greece. Led by Eleftherios Venizelos, union was eventually realised in 1913 under the Treaty of London in which Sultan Mohammed II relinquished his formal rights to the island.

Crete was finally beginning to recover and even prosper once more when World War II broke out. The island became a target for Hitler, and in 1941 Nazi Germany began its attack on the island sending in elite paratroopers. Locals, aided by about 30,000 British Commonwealth troops, defended the island but they were poorly equipped and short in numbers compared to the Nazis. German occupation lasted for four years and was another period of uprisings and bloodshed for the troubled island.

In July 1945, the Nazis left Crete and the country slowly began its recovery. Thankfully the island avoided much of the trouble of the Greek Civil War and thus its recovery was helped by being an area of relative peace in a region of turmoil.

Agricultural development improved and the explosion of tourism boosted the economy. Today the island, with its favourable climate and rich history, is a very popular tourist destination. The tourist trade has had a significant impact on the island in recent decades, bringing with it new development and more people.