The History of Crete

The Mycenaens – 1400 – 1100 BC.
The Mycenaens dominated the Minoans and a hybrid of the two cultures developed. Crete was no longer the trading power of former days and the Minoan dominance of the Mediterranean was at an end. The Mycenaens used weapons to defend themselves against the waves of Dorians who were coming to Crete after the Trojan Wars.
Dorian Crete (Iron Age) -1100 – 480 BC.
The Dorians who invaded Crete from the Northern Territories of Greece, drove out the Mycenaens and formed their own class structured society. The original Cretans tried to preserve their identity and formed setdements apart from the Dorians. They became known as Eteo-Cretans (real Cretans). Crete became an island of small independent states with no unified culture. The Dorians were responsible for the construction of the first temples. Recent archaeological research has uncovered a temple dated to the 10th century BC at the site of Kommos, near the village of Patsidia in the Mesara Plain. This is thought to be the oldest temple of its kind in Greek Lands.
Classical and Hellenistic Crete 480 – 67 BC.
Crete becomes a shadow of its former Minoan glory. Used as a base for pirates, the sea trade in the Mediterranean was disrupted. This, combined with the Island’s strategic position, drew the Romans to Crete.
Roman and Byzantine Crete 67 BC – 1204 AD.
After a couple of earlier abortive attempts, in 69 BC a successful Roman invasion took place. After two and a half years of fierce fighting the Cretans surrendered to their fate. The Romans brought prosperity and a level of organisation not seen since the Minoans. Large settlements with roads, irrigation systems and aqueducts developed. Agriculture flourished and Crete once again assumed an important position, albeit within the Roman Empire.
St. Paul is thought to have brought Christianity to Crete in about 50 AD. and there is a chapel on the beach at Agios Pavlos to commemorate his visit. Christianity spread rapidly across the Island but the early Christians were persecuted for their beliefs.
At the end of the fourth century the Roman Empire was split in two with Crete attached to Byzantium (Constantinople, Istanbul today). Although many elaborately frescoed churches were built during this period, suggesting wealth and prosperity, the island did not hold a significant position in the scheme of things.
There was soon a new threat to Crete. The rapidly developing Arab world cast an eye in its direction. In 824 AD. an Arab Saracen force invaded the island and met with little resistance. They used Crete as a base for attacks on shipping and acted, in effect, as pirates. For over a century they controlled the Island. The Byzantine rulers did little to help their colony until 961, when they drove out the Arabs in a huge and bloody battle that decimated the Cretan population and wiped out the Saracens. The island reverted to Byzantine rule and its depopulation was boosted by immigrants from the mainland and Byzantium.
The Crusades were the force that brought the next of Crete’s rulers. Turning their might on Byzantium, the Crusaders sacked and burned Constantinople and the Empire was divided up. Crete was sold to the Venetian Republic for a small sum.
Venetian Crete 1204 -1669
The Venetians were slow to claim their territory and their arch- enemies the Genoese took control of the Island. After a five year battle the Venetians finally regained control. This was not to be relinquished for four centuries. Crete was a great prize for the Venetians. Control of trade routes was extremely valuable to this already powerful merchant republic. Also of great potential were her rich agricultural and natural resources.
The Venetians were determined to exploit these resources to the full and they soon implemented a strict feudal system. High taxes and the allocation of land to Venetian colonists led to numerous revolts. Although they alienated the people, the Venetians also erected many buildings and science and the arts flourished. Byzantine methods combined with the Italian Renaissance to produce outstanding achievements in painting and literature. El Greco, Greece’s most famous painter was bom on Crete in 1541.
From the beginning of the 15th century a new threat loomed. Constantinople had fallen and the Turks also took Cyprus. The Venetians strengthened the fortresses around the Island in readiness for a Turkish attack. The fortresses at Gramvousa, Spinalonga and Souda were fortified at great expense. This expense was met by levying yet heavier taxes on the Cretan population. By the time the Turks arrived in 1645 the Cretans welcomed them as a means of driving out the hated Venetians. Chania and Rethimnon fell to the Turks but it was the Siege of Heraklion that made history. For 21 years the Turks attempted to gain control. As the last outpost of Christianity in the eastern Mediterranean, Heraklion received support from the rest of Europe and managed to hold off the Turks. Finally in 1669, unable to hold on any longer, the Venetians surrendered.
Turkish Crete 1669 – 1898
Their initial welcome did not last. The Turks also proved to be harsh rulers and were soon taxing the Cretans just as highly. Unlike the Venetians, they put very little back. Crete was seen merely as a highly exploitable resource. The economy fell into decline as the Ottoman Empire bled the Cretans dry. There was also religious conflict Christianity was crushed. As Christians were taxed more and had fewer rights than Muslims, a high percentage of the population converted, at least in name, to Islam. These “converts” would worship as Christians in secret. Inevitably there were rebellions against the Turks.
The Ottoman Empire was under pressure and the Cretans joined the general Greek movement for Independence. In 1821 a full scale revolt against the Turks erupted. The Turks called on the help of the Egyptians who put down the revolt in return for control of Crete. After a hard fought battle the major European powers became involved and the Turks were forced to withdraw from Greece, when it was declared an Independent state. The European powers could not agree on the fate of Crete however and it was left in the hands of the Egyptians. Within ten years the Turks were once again in control.
The struggle for Cretan Independence now entered its most bitter phase. Guerrilla warfare against the Turks was no match for their strength. Although much of Europe was sympathetic to the Cretan cause they did little to help. Monasteries became a focus for the resistance as they sheltered the partisans and some monks even got involved in the fighting. The Turks stormed the Monastery of Arkadi near Rethimnon because it was the base for local guerrillas. Cretans fought under flags emblazoned with the motto “Freedom or Death”. Rather than be taken alive the several hundred Cretans inside the Monastery chose to blow up their ammunition store killing not only themselves, but the Turks as well. This incident became symbolic of the struggle for Independence and gained widespread publicity and support for the Cretan cause in Europe. In 1897 a European force of British, French, Russians and Italians occupied the Island, finally driving out the Turks and declaring Crete an independent state under their protection.
Prince George of Greece landed at Souda and was established as High Commissioner. Although overjoyed to be free of the Turks the Cretans were not happy to be under the control of the four powers and sought unity with mainland Greece.
Union with Greece was made possible by Venizelos, a Cretan whose rapid rise to power led to him becoming Prime Minister of Greece in 1910. By 1913, following further fighting against the Turks, Crete was united with Greece.
Crete 1913 -1940
The First World War barely touched Crete but eager for revenge on the Turks, Greece went to war in 1922 in an attempt to take Istanbul. Badly defeated, nevertheless Venizelos was able to bring about an exchange of populations. All Greeks living in Turkey and all Turks living in Greece swapped countries.
Crete 1941 -1945
On May 20th, 1941 the German invasion of Crete began. An Allied force of British, Australian and New Zealand troops was in place on the island and the Allies believed that Crete was safe from invasion. The Germans parachuted in and initially they were no match for the local population, who cut them down as they landed. An attack on another front was proving more successful as the Germans finally took the airfield at Maleme near Chania. The capture of the airfield was to prove the deciding factor in the Battle of Crete, which lasted for ten days, with high casualties on both sides. The bulk of the allied forces on the Island were evacuated from Hora Sfakion but several thousand were left behind to either surrender or take to the mountains to fight alongside the Cretans.
The Resistance movement on Crete has been well documented. Its two main activities were getting as many of the Allied troops as possible safely off the Island and causing maximum disruption to the occupying force. In the evacuation of troops they were highly successful. Hidden in mountain villages, caves and monasteries they would be smuggled off the Island from secluded coves in the dead of night. They would be met by submarine or ship, which would also disembark British intelligence officers sent to aid the Cretan Resistance.
One of the most spectacular successes of the Resistance is recounted in Stanley Moss’s 111 Met by Moonlight This tells of the daring kidnap of General Karl Kriepe, commanding officer of the German 22nd tank regiment. The General’s staff car was stopped and high- jacked by men dressed as German officers. The car was driven through 22 checkpoints before being abandoned by a harbour to imply evacuation by submarine, but in fact the General was taken over the mountains to the South coast. The journey took two weeks as the partisans dodged checkpoints and roadblocks. Eventually the General was taken by submarine to Egypt This was a spectacular success for the Resistance movement but savage reprisals occurred when the Germans razed two of the mountain villages that gave the kidnappers aid.
Every act of the Resistance, once discovered, was met with swift and brutal retribution by the Germans. Their principle for justice was “10 Cretans for every German”. Kandanos was razed to the ground in response to an ambush in which German soldiers were killed. The last German troops left Crete in 1945.
The civil war that wracked mainland Greece had little impact on Crete and it was able to begin reconstruction ahead of the mainland. Despite a harsh period when conditions were virtually those of a third world country, Crete slowly became one of the wealthiest areas of Greece, in no small part due to its concentration on agriculture. The rich soil and the high water table on the island makes it ideally suited to the intensive olive production it supports. Tourism is the other main source of income. Since the late 1960s visitors have been coming to Crete in ever increasing numbers.