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A Very Brief History of Crete:

Written and compiled  by Stelios Jackson

Click the dates below to go to that period

6000BC-2900BC

2900BC-1100BC

1100BC-324AD

324-1217

1217-1669

1669-1940

WWII

NOW

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Archaeology books

6000BC-2900BC (Neolithic Period).

Very little is known about the Neolithic settlers of Crete other than they imported obsidian from Milos for weaponheads, experimented with crude forms of pottery (the term 'pre-pottery' to describe the Neolithic period is a misnomer), succeeded in cultivating the olive tree and settled at Knossos and most of the other Cretan sites normally associated with the later 'Minoan' periods. There is a tremendous amount of evidence of cave sanctuaries, and other small dwellings, during this period; in fact Chania could be described as the oldest, constantly inhabited city in Europe, with evidence of continuous dwelling, of in excess of 8,000 years!

6000BC-1100BC   1100BC-324AD    324-1217   1217-1669      1669-1940   WWII

2900BC-1100BC The Minoan Period.

Sir Arthur Evans is often credited with 'discovering' Knossos; he did not: A Greek, Minos Kalokairinos knew of the site (as did the likes of Robert Pashley who visited the island in 1834 and TAB Spratt, who visited in the early 1850s) and sent pithoi and other artefacts to museums around Europe hoping that they would send a team of archaeologists to dig there, rather than allow the Turks to do so and in the process lose all remains to Istanbul. Heinrich Schliemann, the excavator of Troy and Mycenae, very nearly purchased the site, but after agreeing a price he apparently felt that the Ottoman landlords had tried to dupe him over the quantity of olive trees on the land and went away in a huff! What Evans did was excavate Knossos and, while these excavations are not to everybody's taste, his four-volume (in 6 books) work The Palace of Minos is testimony to the tremendous efforts he put into the dig.

Knossos, to some, is also a bit of a travesty as most of what you see is not contemporaneous with Minoan civilisation, but more in tune with Evan's perception of the Minoans as "Victorians"- though a lot of these 'cosmetic' changes were forced upon Evans. If you wish to see a site without any of the repainting and plastering that Knossos is famous for (or infamous depending on your point of view), take a trip to the south coast and pay a visit to the site of Phaistos. This was unearthed by the Italian school of Archaeology and famous for the one and only 'Phaistos disk'. For around 500 years, from 1900 to 1400 BC, Crete was the most powerful and prosperous island in the Aegean and the centre of commerce, trade and industry for the Mediterranean (in no small way due to its geographical location - equidistant from North Africa and mainland Greece).

The Minoans were tremendous seafarers and this marine expertise kept away the pirates, brought in taxes from islands they had colonised and, of course, helped them to achieve dominance in trade. The first great palaces were built at Knossos, Phaistos, Malia and Zakros in around 1900 BC, only to be destroyed by causes unknown around 1700 BC. The palaces were rebuilt, more grandly and splendidly than before only, once again (and this time finally) to be destroyed by causes unknown in around 1450 BC; though a  popular theory regarding this later destruction was the eruption of the volcano on the nearby island of Thera (Santorini and some would say "Atlantis") brings its own problems as the dates don't correspond with the events in current chronological dating. I feel compelled to add that if the 'Minoans' were a thalassocracy (nation of seafarers), the resulting tsunami from the eruption of Thera, would have depleted, if not totally destroyed, the wooden boats of the Cretan fleet, especially on the north coast; something which is very rarely spoken of, when the "did the Thera volcano destroy the Minoans", debate comes up.

6000BC-1100BC   1100BC-324AD    324-1217   1217-1669      1669-1940   WWII

11th century BC  to AD324

Crete never regained its status as an important island after the demise of the Minoans and the arrival of the Dorians in the 11th century BC and there is very little to report up to the fifth century BC. The Greeks incorporated Crete into their own mythology, and it's very difficult to know what was Cretan myth, and what was interpolation. Then, just to bring Crete right up there in archaeological import, the oldest surviving piece of prose text of the Greeks was written on a wall in Gortyn. Dating back to C480 BC, the 'Gortyn Law Code' was written on 12 stone tablets (approx. two feet high by six feet long) using an 18-letter Dorian-Greek alphabet (Attic and Modern Greek both consist of 24 letters). It is extremely important as it outlines some of the laws of the period and shows how they would be upheld. Crete chose not to get involved during the Persian wars after consulting the Delphic Oracle and being told to remember what had happened to Crete after it had sent ships on the side of Menelaus in the Trojan War. Crete again chose neutrality during the Peloponnesian War and remained very much on the periphery during Classical and Hellenistic times with Cretans gaining a reputation as liars and pirates. After 70 years of trying, the Romans finally got their hands on Crete in 67 BC after some very bloody struggles. They then proceeded to misrule and almost, at times, completely ignore the island.

   6000BC-1100BC   1100BC-324AD   324-1217    1217-1669   1669-1940     WWII

324-1217AD

The Byzantine period from 324 AD to the arrival of the Venetians in 1204. Churches were built as Crete became a member of the Eastern Roman Empire. After a few Slav incursions during the 7th century an increasing threat of invasion came from the Arab world. Regular raids by Arabs continued until a group of around 10,000, who had come from Spain and had tried unsuccessfully to hold onto Alexandria in Egypt after they had captured it, finally took the island in 824. The Saracens, as they were called, led pirate attacks from Herakleion, which they called Chandrax. The Byzantines made several attempts at reclaiming Crete until Nikephoras Phokas finally succeeded in 961. The siege lasted nine months and when finally the Arab defences were broken the Byzantines stormed through massacring the population. The Byzantine Empire held on to Crete until 1204. The Crusaders, on their way to the holy land for the fourth Crusade that year, suddenly turned their attention on the Christian city of Constantinople; massacring the population and effectively destroying the Byzantine state. Crete was given to the Boniface of Montferrat who quickly sold it (on the cheap) to the Venetians. The Genoese stepped in for a while as a period of Venetian inactivity allowed Enrico Pascatore to set up shop there, refortifying the castles as he did so. For the next eight years the Venetians desperately tried to gain back Crete until they finally managed it in 1217. The Venetians were probably pretty much on par with the Arabs as far as popularity among the locals was concerned and held on to Crete with the type of brutality normally associated with the Ottoman Empire who, until late in their occupation, were far fairer rulers than the Venetians.

6000-1100BC    1100BC-324AD  324-1217   1217-1669  1669-1940   WWII

1217- 1669           

The Venetians divided Crete into six provinces (sexteria) and the 'Parte di Commune de Venice' which controlled the Candia (Herakleion) and its environs. In the early 14th century this was changed to the four districts roughly the same as they are today. The architecture was the distinctive Venetian style with its narrow winding streets still to be seen in three of the present day cities. That the Venetians were not popular landlords would be an enormous understatement, with the locals and the Orthodox Church subjugated by their conquerors. In less than 200 years there were 27 uprisings against them and, while it was a unanimous dislike among the Cretans, it might be said that the reason these uprisings failed was they tended to be localised with one Cretan family refusing to support another against their common enemy. In June 1645 began a long and bloody war between Venice and the Ottoman Empire. Crete held a great deal of importance for many a European leader as it was now the furthest east of the Christian church's outposts. Chania was the first to be attacked with a huge force reported to be over 50,000 men under Yusuf Pasha. They landed just outside Chania and easily made it to the walls of the city itself. The Turks then proceeded to bombard the city relentlessly. By August 1645, a full two months after the siege had begun, the Venetians surrendered and they never recaptured Chania. Rethymnon was next. The Turks set siege to the city in September 1646 and within two months it too had fallen. The Turks bided their time before embarking on what they knew would be a far more difficult task than the two previous, that of taking the capital Candia. With the fortifications of the main city believed to be virtually impregnable, the Turks took the rest of the island setting huge taxes for the locals and forcing many to convert to Islam. In May 1648 the siege began on Candia. Within three months the Turks had the capital completely surrounded by land and had cut off the city's spring water supply from outside. There was a kind of stalemate for 16 years as the Turks bombarded Candia but could gain no access. After the treaty of Vasvar was signed in August 1664, however, the Ottoman army that had been fighting another battle in the Balkans were free to join the fray. In 1666 the Turks renewed their heavy bombardment of Candia, under the command of Grand Vezir Koprulu, and still the walls didn't tumble. The turning point was the decision of the French to abandon Candia in August 1669, leaving Francesco Morosini, who was in command of the Venetian forces, little choice other than to surrender. All the Christians were allowed to leave the city with whatever they could carry with them and most left the island for good.

6000BC-1100BC   1100BC-324AD   324-1217   1217-1669    1669-1940      WWII

1669-1940

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The book above charts the relationship between Muslims and Christians on Crete under Ottoman rule.

The period of Ottoman rule started quite brightly as the Ottomans had the same type of feudal system that the Cretans were used to. However, this wasn't to last long and the population of Crete found themselves forced to become Muslims to avoid extremely heavy taxation and other punitive measures brought in by their new landlords. In 1770 there was a rebellion against the Turks organised by Yannis Vlachos (also known as 'teacher John' or 'Daskaloyannis') who led an uprising of around 2000 Sphakians (from the mountains around Sphakia). Daskaloyannis had hoped for Russian help with the uprising but this never came to fruition and the following year the Turks forced the rebels to accept certain terms in return for amnesty. There were further uprisings during the Greek war of Independence (1821-1830) which failed and were met with harsh reprisals from the Turks. The Egyptians helped the Turks out in 1822 when the Ottoman forces were being stretched by uprisings in the Greek mainland. Crete was not included within the newly independent Greece in 1830. Instead it was granted to Egypt (by a treaty in London) who ran the island for 10 years before another treaty (again in London) handed the island back to the Turks. This, of course, was met by another uprising by the Cretans. A further uprising occurred in 1858 before 'The Great Cretan Rebellion' of 1866-1869. This rebellion was halted when the Turks promised the Cretans all sorts of concessions, including Christian parity with Islam (known as the Organic Act). These concessions, however, never materialised and in 1878 the Cretans rebelled yet again. With the Turks at war with Russia, Greece threw her hand in to support this latest Cretan uprising. The Russians were forever promising help to the Cretan cause of reunification with Greece, but in reality it was a phoney war, only ever used it as an excuse to make the Turks throw valuable resources and manpower at the island, weakening themselves against the real war on their northern front. The Turks, severely weakened by the Russian war, again tried to appease the locals with further concessions within the framework of the organic act. Needless to say this, once again, failed and an uprising in 1889 was followed by a five year period of bloodshed and violence on a regular basis then another uprising in 1895 until final liberation from the Ottoman empire was achieved in 1898. A period of autonomy followed until 1913 when at last Crete was unified with the rest of Greece. 

     6000BC-1100BC   1100BC-324AD  324-1217   1217-1669    1669-1940    WWII

World War II

Crete's part in WWII has been well documented and includes acts of extreme daring and bravery by the Australian, New Zealand and British troops as well as the courage and dignity of the Cretans themselves. The Germans invaded on May 20 1941, after a week of bombing strategic sites on the island, with parachute regiments landing at Herakleion, Rethymnon and Chania in an attempt to take the airport at Meleme. The battle for Crete only lasted 10 days but during that period the Germans lost 4000 men, had whole parachute divisions wiped out and lost a great deal of the momentum that had seen them sweep their way through the rest of Europe. This battle pretty much stopped the Germans from continuing on to the Middle East and was the last significant parachute invasion of the Second World War, with Hitler deciding that  losing 4,000 made the 'fallschirmjager' a bit of a liability and affectively disbanded them (pity he didn't care so much about other people's lives!). Ironically, both the British and Americans both started a paratroop division as a result of perceived Nazi superiority, in that field.  

There have been many books written about the battle of Crete, some of which are listed below. It must be remembered that the resistance against the occupiers went on well after the island had been conquered, despite the brutal reprisals meted out against the Cretan villagers. Tales of derring-do can be found in the book Ill met by Moonlight, the story of the kidnap of the German commander of operations. The courage of the Cretan resistance is best illustrated by George Psychondakis' The Cretan Runner.

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Books on this period

6000BC-1100BC   1100BC-324AD    324-1217   1217-1669      1669-1940   WWII

So what about now?

A few facts and figures.

Crete lies 174 nautical miles from the Athenian port of Piraeus

It covers an area of 8.336 square kms, which is 6.3% of the total area of Greece.

Since the war Crete has undergone some major changes. The demography since the war has altered dramatically from a village based rural economy to city life.

Population Statistics:

Population of Crete 1991: 536,980 (5.2% of Greece's), which is reportedly less than half of what it was in Minoan times. In 1951 the population of Crete 1951: 462,124

Nomos

Size (km2)

Population 1951

Population 1991

Lassithi

1823

73,784

70,762

Chania

2375

126,524

133,060

Heraklion

2641

189,637

263,868

Rethymnon

1496

72,179

69,290

Loads more of this kinda thing to follow this year. SJ

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