History of Crete

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The settling of the island started from the first prehistoric years.

Neolithic Period (7000-3000 BC). Crete was settled from 7000 BC, or earlier, first in the east part. People were living in caves, rocky refuges, or small rectangular houses, built by stone and mudbrick, as it can be seen from the underground Neolithic remainders of Festos and Knossos, which was the largest Neolithic settling in Europe and Anatolia. Stone was used for their tools and weapons, necessary for their defence and survival. The economy was marine and agricultural and pottery appeared, in the beginning with dark smoked decoration and later with incised geometrical patterns filled with white or red paste. The female statue figurines that were found, in steatopygous shapes, show that these first inhabitants were believing in a female goddess, representing fertility, probably goddess Earth.

The Bronze Age - The Minoan Civilization (3000-1100 BC). The Neolithic period ended by a gradual infiltration of new settlers, first in the east and central part of the island and later in the west. In these years the island met the most significant development becoming a marine, trade and art creation center. The people were farmers, shepherds and mainly marines, with notable merchant relations with Asia, Africa and the Cyclades. The civilization that was developed was named Minoan, after the legendary King Minos, by the English archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, during his excavations at the Palace of Knossos. He sorted this era in three main periods with three subdivisions on each of them: Early Minoan 1 - 2 - 3, Middle Minoan 1 - 2 - 3, Late Minoan 1 - 2 - 3. This period is now sorted according to the chronological system of the Greek archaeologist N. Platonas, based on the time-span of the big Minoan palaces, to the following periods:
The Prepalatial Period (3000-1900 BC). The characteristic of this period is the gathering of the people in villages and towns by the sea, mainly in the east, instead of the dispersed habitation in caves and shelters of the Neolithic years. The houses have more rooms and are better built. The development of art is remarkable for this era. The pottery is handmade, fired, painted and decorated with various geometric shapes or animal icons. The tools and weapons are made in the beginning by stone, later by bronze. The dead are buried in caves, like in the Neolithic period, but later the first built tombs appear, others with square stones and others with a circular domed shape. A huge cemetery of pit graves was found at Agia Fotia, in East Crete. It is believed that the religion was the same as in the Neolithic years. Hundreds of inscriptions of this period, that were found during the excavations, cannot be translated, until there will be discovered a bilingual inscription, that will give the key to the interpretation of that writing.
The Old Palace or Protopalatial Period (1900-1700 BC). Big towns are founded and the first big palaces are built (Knossos, Festos, Malia). The palaces are built around a central open court with buildings of many floors. They included big rooms for social functions, the private rooms of the authorities, the houses of the workers, workshops, storerooms, theatres, baths, sewage facilities. Big sanctuaries are founded in caves, on the top of mountains and in the palaces. Goddess Mother Earth is adored, symbolised by the double axe. The Hieroglyphic writing is appearing on labels and tablets, as well as the art of the seal engraver. The pottery is developed by introduction of the potter's wheel, with real masterpieces the thin-walled (egg-shell ware) multicoloured vases (Kamares style) and the goldsmith's art becomes technically perfect with jewellery of various designs and rich decoration. The catastrophe comes with big earthquakes.
The New Palace or Neopalatial Period (1700-1380 BC). The prosperity of the civilization and the political power of the Minoan Crete. The island becomes united, with it's capital being Knossos and its power is expanding, with trading relations with Minor Asia, Egypt and Cyprus, with strong influences on the mainland of Greece, the Cycladic islands, Rhodes and Kos islands and colonies on the islands of Kea, Milos and Santorini (Akrotiri site) and perhaps Sicily. These colonies were achieved not by wars, but with merchant stations. The protection of these colonies from the pirates and other enemies is being ensured by the minoan navy, the power of which is acclaimed by Greek historians. The palaces are rebuilt or becoming more luxury, with the decoration of sculptures and fresco paintings, like the famous ladies of the court, the dolphins, the dancers and the king of priests. These buildings were to be admired not only for their architecture, rich decoration and building art, but also for the methods in hygiene and decency of their hydraulic and sewage systems. The main palaces are those of Knossos, Festos, Malia and Zakros and smaller ones are appearing (Arhanes, Agia Triada, Tylisos and others). The remains of these palaces that can be visited now in Crete, are of this period. Roads are being opened and bridges are being built. The prosperity is appearing in every form of art: in pottery, sculpture (Goddess of the Snakes), plastic arts, vase making, fresco painting, sculptured seal stones, decoration in metal weapons and tools, small details show the achievement of perfection. The graves become monumental, real buildings of subterranean residence, with roads to the entrance and halls with columns where the ceremony was taking place. The normal graves are dome shaped or deep holes, with the dead being buried with objects of normal life, revealing the faith of Minoans to life after death and potential resurrection. The political authority was King Minos, which was the name of the first emperor, the mythical son of Zeus and Europe, but in the following years the name of each emperor of the island during the Minoan years, in the same like the name of Caesar became the title for the Roman emperors. Minos was also the high priest, the representative of god Minotavros, according to the myth given birth by Pasiphae, the wife of Minos, after her relationship with the bull that came from the sea as a present to Minos by the sea god, Poseidon. Minotavros, always according to the myth, was staying in the Labyrinth, its "holy house", being built by the famous mechanic Dedalos. In writing mainly is used Linear A script. It has not been clear yet why the Minoan palaces were deserted: by a volcanic eruption that happened at Santorini island, bringing a tidal wave, by earthquakes, by fire destruction at the Minoan sites, or from the human invasion from the mainland of Greece.
The Postpalatial period (1380-1100 BC). After the invasion from the mainland of Greece, many towns had been destroyed or deserted, especially at the east of Crete. The old inhabitants are moving to the west, while the invaders settle to the island increasingly, building their new habitations in the place of the old ones, or establishing new settlements. The activity in the island is continued with architecture, pottery, metallurgy, decorative arts, but becoming repetitive, in contrast of the great diversity of the earlier years. The last years of this period are characterized from a general decadence due to the continuing colonization by other people from Greece, who brought their own culture and customs.

The Early Iron Age (1100-650 BC). After the Dorian invasion from Peloponnese, the most of the old cities are deserted and the majority of the population moved to inaccessible mountain shelters, interrupting communication with the outside world.

The Archaic period (650-500 BC). The population of the island increases, with the infiltration of the Dorians, especially in the West of Crete. New towns are being established, like Axos, Falasarna, Polyrinia, Yrtakina and the population in others, like Eleftherna and Kydonia is increasing. This period is characterized by the prosperity of the Dedalic style of sculpture, by successors of students of the mythical Dedalos.

The Classical and Hellenistic Periods (500-69 BC). Greece develops, but this does not happen with Crete, with the towns being in antagonism or fighting each other. The population of the island increases.

The Roman Period and the first Byzantine Years (69 BC-824 AC). The Romans lost the war against Crete in 71 BC, but 2 years later they came back with more army and navy. The island was occupied after three years resistance, with the Romans accomplishing their desire to conquer the famous birthplace of Zeus. During the period of Pax Romana the island prospers and develops with trade. It's capital became Gortys. Around 63-66 AC, Christianity comes to Crete and the first Christian church is being established in Crete, at Gortys, by bishop Titos. With the division of the Roman Empire in East and West, Crete became a separate province.

The Arab Occupation and the Byzantine Years (824-1204).In 824, Crete was captured by Arab raiders, who ravaged the island, destroyed Gortys and other towns, burned every basilica church and succeeded to many atrocities against the Greek population. To protect from the relief expeditions of the Byzantines, they built their capital, El Khandak, where today is the site of Iraklion. Crete, because of its position had become the slave-trading capital of the East Mediterranean and a constant threat for the Byzantine Empire. After many unsuccessful expeditions, Nikiforos Fokas recaptured the island in 961, demolished the walls of El Khandak, so that they could not be useful to new pirates and reinvigorated with different ways the much-depleted Christian community. The administrative center was re-established on the ruins of El Khandak, renamed to Handakas. In the end of the 12th century, new settlers were sent to Crete from Consantinople, headed by 12 aristocrats, that created the new Cretan aristocracy.

The Venetian Period (1204-1669). With the capture of Constantinople with the Fourth Crusade, the Byzantine Empire was divided. Crete was given to Boniface of Monferat, who sold the island to Venice, in 1204. The Venetians kept Handakas as the capital and built castles in different parts in the island. The Greek bishop was sent away and the Latin bishops were established, but without annoying the lower Orthodox clergy and religion. Many orthodox churches and chapels were built, that can be visited today throughout the island. The earth was taken from the people and was given to Venetian knights, with the former owners becoming slaves. Taxes and labour obligation made life very difficult. The venetian occupation could not be accepted from the Cretan people and their independent character. The continuous revolts for many years, brought a hard repression and tortures. After the fall of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453, many Greeks moved to Crete and the Byzantine culture was strengthened. Because of the Turkish threat and their attacks, Venetians and Cretans managed to co-exist, with the island appearing significant economical and cultural growth. Great artists of the period were, in icon painting, Michail Damaskinos and Domenico Theotokopoulos, who left Crete to work abroad, finally going to Toledo, Spain, where he became famous as El Greco and, in literature and theater, Vitsentzos Kornaros from Sitia, Georgios Hortatzis from Rethymno and others, unknown till today. The Turks with continuous expeditions will try to capture the island. In 1645, they capture Hania and Rethymno and in 1669, after 22-year siege, Candia was forced to surrender, as Iraklion was called by the Venetians.

The Turkish Occupation (1669-1898). Crete was divided in 3 sections, based on Iraklion, Rethymno and Hania. The occupation was the hardest one the island had met: killings, raping, unbearable taxation, violent inslamation and slavery, made that the revolts became a way of life. With the Big Revolt of 1821 for Independence, in Greece, all the big revolts in the island did not end successfully. The London's protocol on 1830, establishing Greece as an independent country, was not including Crete. The last protest of the Cretan council to the Christian European countries, on 1830, was ending like this: "Here is Crete, the kingdom of Minos, that gave the first laws in the world, many sciences and arts... It preserved under the Greek name, over 3000 years, it's children, who abandoned from their brother Christians, after a ten year exterminating war to get rid of the dreadful tyranny, become again victims of the cruelty of the inhuman Turks." Crete was sold by the Turkish sultan to Egypt, starting a new period of dynasty and misfortunes. In 1841, after Egypt's unsuccessful revolt against Turkey, all Egypt's possessions were left to the Turks. The Cretans continued fighting for their freedom, with the most tragic being the revolt of 1866, which ended to the blowing-up of Arkadi Monastery. Revolutions and endless wars continued until 1898, when the four Great Powers, England, France, Russia and Italy imposed as a solution to the Cretan problem the autonomy of Crete under Ottoman suzerainty, under the terms of complete withdrawal of the Turkish army from the island.

Modern History (1898- ). In 1908 the army of the four Powers left the island, after the insistence of Crete to unite with Greece and in 1913 the island became an integral part of Greece. Agriculture and trade started to prosper, untill 1941, when the Germans occupied the island, until 1945. In recent years, agriculture, trade, industry and tourism have brought the island a remarkable development.

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Last revised: 19 March 2009