AN INTRODUCTION TO CRETE

    

Crete is one of the most important islands of the Mediterranean that has been visited since antiquity.  It sits in the deep south of the Aegean and Libyan seas, as though anchored by the forces of nature in deep blue water, it sits at the crossroads of three continents - Europe to the North, Asia to the east, and Africa to the south, the island has been used as a port of call by voyagers on route to the many parts of Europe and islands of the Mediterranean. 

It was also a hide away and home to many diverse rulers all who have left their mark, before becoming the rare jewel in the crowns of many of these conquerors. Crete is chronicled in history as being oneof the most formidable islands in all of Greece in terms of its remarkable contrasts.

  

A distinguished home of Europe's earliest civilisation and well ahead of it's time. Whist its people have been toughened by the endless struggles for independence. Today, it has a thriving economy and can support itself with its agricultural wealth, a rare commodity in today's society. Crete is steeped in Homeric history and legend, as well as its own tradition, its own character and its own dialect. It is a richly varied island with an ever-changing landscape of rugged mountains, in one place harsh and barren, in another wooded and calming, deep ravines with fertile plains. Its villages smothered in greenery. Olive trees, orange groves, vineyards and vegetable gardens. Old stone farmhouses, monasteries and villages perched on mountain ridges, castle and chapel forgotten on steep slopes. Shores lined with forbidding rocks, often inaccessible, and of course a long golden coastline of sand and pebble beaches. 

 

Crete has enticed, allured, and attracted foreign travellers from the beginning of time. This mountainous island is the largest and most southerly of the Greek islands and still invites today's visitor to explore many expected and unexpected temptations from its fascinating blend of landscape and climate, to its history and culture. Its rocky geological structure accompanied by impressive steep limestone cliffs which plunge precariously into the sea, hidden valleys and plateaus, the endless gulfs and boundless shoreline that varies from pink coral sand to white shingle and multicoloured pebbles, all encircled by crystal clear ocean the most amazing aquamarine and turquoise sea especially found in its lagoons. The island has been endowed with a rich cultural legacy that goes back 5000 years. The great ancient civilisations of the island have left behind some of the finest archaeological remains in Greece.

 

Yet Crete has been fought over ever since the Minoan and Mycenaean cultures first established settlements during the Bronze age. It is divided into four counties, Hania, Rethymnon, Heraklion and Lassithi. Throughout the island the remnants of occupation by invaders from the Romans, through to the Turks, can still be seen, with aqueducts and architecture still plainly visible. But throughout these invasions the Cretan people have remained relatively unscathed and retain their justifiable pride in their island and their culture.

 

In the countryside and the semi mountainous and mountainous villages you will encounter even today many old Cretan men wearing the traditional costume 'stivania' boots, 'kilotes' trousers, black shirts and the fringed head kerchief.

Whilst the Cretan women no longer wear traditional clothes although the older generations persist in wearing black and covering their heads with a kerchief.  Tight bonds are still held between family and relatives, time honoured traditions, music and songs are still preserved.

The 'violi', the 'lyre' and the 'laouto' remain the characteristic musical instruments, the Cretan dances, the most popular being the local 'Sirto' of Hania, are still danced at every opportunity and the 'madinades' and the 'rizitika' these songs are sung at every celebration.  

 

Crete has an area of 8,260 sq kilometres, it is 260 km (160 miles) long and 56 km (35 miles) at its widest point. Covering some 737 square kilometres and has a coastline of 254 km. It is very mountainous its tallest peak is on Mount Ida the highest mountain of Crete, 2456m (8058ft), just 3m higher than Pahnes, the higher summit of Lefka Ori (The White Mountains). There are 5 summits in Psiloritis, Timios Stavros (Holy Cross) 2456m, Agathias, 2424m, Stolistra, 2325m, Voulomenou, 2267m and Koussakas, 2209m. In the west the majestic  White Mountains or 'Madares' rise in its centre   Lefka Ori, 2453m, in the islands centre there is Mount Ida (Psiloritis), 2456m and in the east there is Mt Dikti or the Lassithi Mountains a range with many peaks, the highest being the 'anonymous' 2148m full of legends and history. 


Additionally, every peninsula has its own lower mountain range. There are three mountaineering clubs in Crete, at Heraklion, Hania and Rethymnon. There are three shelters for climbers in the mountains of Crete. In the White Mountains situated at Kallergis 1680m which holds 30 people, and at Volika 1480m which holds 40 people. Both of them belong to the Mountaineering Club of Hania. On Psiloritis, situated at Prinos 1100m, is another refuge which holds 16 people and belongs to the Mountaineering Club of Heraklion.

The well known plateau of Lassithi is 402sq km. spreads out between the peaks. Its plateaus are split by deep gorges and end up in fertile valleys collecting the waters of the winter snows. This plateau is as densely populated today as it was in Antiquity. Cretan mountains form a continuous chain from one end of the island to the other making the island look much larger than it really is.

Crete has a typically temperate Mediterranean climate, but by far the longest summers giving the mildest climate in Europe. The winters are mild with frosts occurring rarely and temperatures, in the main, rarely dropping to below 13 C. By contrast, summers are dry and hot with negligible rainfall in July and August. The air temperatures during this time are often greater than 30C. and in open areas the ground temperatures can be very much higher. 3,000 hours or 300 days of sunshine per year. Along with the fertility of the Cretan plains produces sufficient food supplies to support an affluent local population, and for exports.

 

The rivers in Crete are short and they dry up in the summer months. Rivers which flow all-year-round are the river at Vryses in Apokoronas area and Preveli in the south of the island. Lake Kournas is the only freshwater lake on the island situated near the resort of Yeorgioupolis in Apokoronas area. However, Lake Votamos, in Zaros is well worth a visit and is fed by an underground spring, which provides Crete with most of its bottled mineral water. Surrounded by walks and a good gorge walk that starts nearby with tavernas near the shore serving grilled trout from the lake.  

 

The island's coast provides home ground to the famous Caretta-Caretta loggerhead turtle the three most important nesting areas of the island, are in  Hania along the northern coast, Rethymnon and the Bay of Mesara in the southern coast. In the caves that abound on the coastline reside the Monachus-Monachus  Mediterranean monk seal.

 
 

A BRIEF HISTORY

  

Crete has been inhabited since prehistoric times with finds of flint tools and fossilized animal bones dated to an even earlier period, providing evidence that the island was one of the first inhabited areas of Greece and dating back to 8000 B.C. The island flourished and the excavations of the 20th century have revealed a splendid Civilisation which ruled the island and much of the Aegean during the Bronze Age.  With a large civilisation developing in terms of cultural and social progress, intermarriages took place with people from Asia Minor and islanders of the east Aegean bringing new technical knowledge. In these years the island met the most significant development the civilisation that was developed was named Minoan, after the legendary King Minos, building the palaces of Knossos, Phaestos, Malia and Zakros.

  

With the Minoan ships travelling and engaged in trade with all the people and states within the Mediterranean. The people became farmers, shepherds but mainly mariners. There is no evidence though that the Minoans were military but that they thrived instead, on their remarkable trading abilities.  However, in around 1700 B.C. a powerful earthquake shook Crete, destroying the palaces. Albeit, the Minoans found the courage to rebuild their towns and palaces bigger and better and more magnificent. Until once again in 1600 B.C. the earthquake that took place at Santorini at that time, it is thought bringing a tidal wave causing even greater devastation throughout the island. 

After this period in time, life in Crete was a continuous clash between the Cretan cities with around 150 large and smaller cities waging battle against each other. Generations of Cretans (as Homer referred to them) learned to use the spear much better than the plough and new professions flowered, mercenary soldiers and pirates. Pirates of course, with little effort became very rich and shinning examples to youngsters, who wanted to continue this industrious trade. 

 

That is until the Roman Occupation when the Cretan people were forced to give up piracy, robbery and mercenary soldiers were forced to return to their fields. The Roman Occupation lasted for 400 years from 69 B.C. to 330 A.D. The Romans lost the war against Crete in 71 B.C. 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.  

 

In 824, Crete was captured by Arab raiders, who ravaged the island, destroyed Gortys then its Capital and other towns, and burned every basilica church. The consequences of the arrival of the Arabs in Crete were rather painful for the local population, who were subjected to a long and horrible period of slavery, resulting in the alienation of Crete from the Byzantine empire. In 961, Nikiforos Fokas managed to free Crete and bring it back under the control of the Byzantine empire.

     

From 1211 A.D. to 1669 A.D. Crete was under Venetian Occupation. A number of revolutions followed against this occupation, all of them, however, unsuccessful. During this time the Venetian forced the Cretan people into miserable slavery, working on the castles and fortresses you see today and some even as oarsmen in the Venetian galleys, these men never came home. This terrible period eventually came to an end, but another even more terrible began. The Venetians were not able to prevent attack by the Turks and so in 1669 another terrible reign began. 

 

The Turks land near the Monastery of Gonia (Corner) in Kissamos (Kasteli), which they plunder and burn. They seize the fortified isle of Ayii Theodori and, after a two month siege, the City of Hania in 1645. A new state of affairs prevails in the city, where churches are turned into mosques and Christian fortunes come to the hands of the conquerors.  In 1821 many Christians are slaughtered the occupation was the hardest one the island had met, killings, raping, unbearable taxation, violence and slavery, meant that the revolts became a way of life. The Big Revolt of 1821 for Independence led to the freedom of Greece but it failed in Crete.

 

It remained under Turkish rule and, for a period, independent before its union with the rest of the nation. During this period, the Christian spirit was intensified and contributed considerably to the Resistance of the Cretans, who suffered many sacrifices and bloodshed against Ottoman rule.

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 power, under the terms of complete withdrawal of the Turkish army from the island.

On 1st December 1913, Crete was announced unified with the rest of Greece.

  

In 1941 the Germans came to occupy the island, using parachute forces.  Although the assault on Crete had finally proved to be a success although the losses were high - some 3764 German soldiers were killed.  However the heroic struggle of the people of Crete never stopped. The Cretan Resistance Movement that was organised during the German occupation continued to inflict heavy casualties to the Nazi forces including the kidnapping of a heavily-guarded German general.

 

For four more years after the invasion the islanders set an example for all the conquered people of Europe to follow. The people of Crete also suffered savage punitive reprisals for their fighting and resistance and thousands of civilians were randomly executed, while entire communities were burned and destroyed by the Nazi invaders.

 

After the second world war the Cretan population increased and became on of the most prosperous and productive regions in Greece.  The late seventies and early eighties marked a rather dramatic decrease in the population of the region and each of its prefectures, due to the bad economical situation, this drove people away as emigrants and as sailors. Since ancient times Greeks have sailed away to foreign lands to make a living but there was a massive Greek emigration in the early and mid twentieth century. The United States, Canada, and Australia all have large communities of people of Greek origin. Since Greeks are hardworking and thrifty, they are generally successful wherever they settle.

 
 

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: Intro to Crete : About Hania & West Crete : Cretan People : When to Come : Getting Here
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