Crete was first inhabited around 6500 BC with its first settlers likely originating from Asia Minor or North Africa. The most influential civilization to colonize Crete arrived around 2600 BC and they would later be named as Minoan by Sir Arthur Evans – an English archaeologist and pioneer in the study of Aegean civilization. The name was assigned because of the association to King Minos in Greek mythology following Evans’ famous excavation of the Palace of Knossos at the beginning of the 20th century.
Distinguished at first by its ceramics, jewelry, metalwork, tools, and tombs, the Minoan culture built ambitious structures by 2000 BC. Although the remains of Minoan structures can be seen all over much of Crete, the four main palace complexes are known today as Knossos, Phaestos, Mallia, and Kato Zakros. The Minoans thrived on trade, not conquest, and they appear to have maintained a relatively sophisticated society in terms of the role of females, a developed system of recorded language, and a highly active religious/ritual life. Around 1500 BC, the Mycenaeans from mainland Greece took over the major palace centers, and also introduced a written script known as Linear B, the earliest form of Greek. Tsunamis and fires – possibly related to the catastrophic explosion of the volcanic island of Santorini to the north – must have aggravated the already weakening Mycenaean-Minoan culture of Crete, and by about 1100 BC Crete went into a dormant stage.
Within a few centuries, around 500 BC, Dorian Greeks from the mainland had moved in and began to revive Cretan cities, commerce, crafts, and even sculpture. The Dorian Greeks in the region of Gortyna inscribed an elaborate code of laws onto a stone wall which is a unique record of ancient law from that era. Crete did not share in the glories of the Golden Age of Athens, although it did have considerable influence on Classical Greece through its myths, legends, philosophy, laws, and sculpture. The island remained on the fringes of history during the Hellenistic Age that began with Alexander the Great around 330 BC.
By 67 BC, Crete fell to Roman rule, who treated the island and its inhabitants quite well since they needed its agricultural produce; in return the Romans built structures all over the island. When the Roman Empire was divided into eastern and western parts in 395 AD, Crete went with the former and was ruled from Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). This Eastern Empire would eventually be isolated from Rome, dominated by Greeks and become known as the Byzantine Empire. Crete remained under the Byzantine Empire until the fall of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 when it was taken over by Venetians. The island remained under Venetian rule for the next four centuries – becoming more widely known as Candia – and was valued by Venice both as a naval base and a source of produce. The Venetian government and numerous colonists introduced their Roman Catholicism and Italian language; they also erected numerous fine buildings, both public and private, around the island. This resulted in a distinctive Venetian-Cretan culture, however most Cretans held onto their Orthodox faith and Greek language. A fine example of the amalgamation of cultures during this era is Domenicos Theotokopoulos – a Cretan painter who went from Crete to Italy and then to Spain, where he became known as El Greco and later took his place among the most revered artists of the Renaissance.
Beginning around the 1500s, Muslim pirates and Ottoman Empire forces began raiding Crete’s shores, and by 1645 they had captured Crete’s second largest city of Chania. In 1648, the Ottomans commenced a siege of Heraklion that lasted until the city surrendered in 1669. The Ottomans Turks took over and occupied the island for over two centuries; it was harsh at times, but they could not stamp out the Cretans’ allegiance to their religion, language, and folk culture. Despite several attempts to overthrow the Ottomans Turks, it wasn’t until 1898 – and with the aid of the ‘Great Powers’ of the day – that the Turks were overthrown and Crete gained its autonomy. In 1913 the island finally achieved its long sought after goal of reunification with the rest of liberated Greece.
During the early decades of the 20th century, Crete was an impoverished island although it was during this period that Sir Arthur Evans’ uncovered the island’s impressive Minoan remains. It was also during this period that Crete produced one of modern Greece’s greatest writers, Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957); best known to the world as the author of Zorba the Greek, which was published towards the latter part of his life. Crete did make headlines during WWII when the Germans launched a paratrooper and glider invasion in May of 1941; despite heroic resistance by the Cretans, fighting alongside thousands of British and Commonwealth troops, the Germans won the 10-day Battle of Crete. For the next four years, the islanders endured a brutal occupation as the Germans retaliated the on-going resistance movement led by the Cretans working alongside the British; the most famous event involved the partisans kidnapping the German commanding general and sending him off to Egypt in an English submarine!
With the end of WWII, Crete entered a phase that many see as a mixed blessing – it emerged as one of Greece’s top tourist destinations. It took a solid ten years before the island began to recover from the devastation of the war, yet by the mid-1960s the island became known not only for its Minoan remains, but also for its sunny climate, excellent beaches, traditional villages, and warm hospitality. Today Crete is a bustling Greek island that is in fact one of the world’s premier travel destinations. There is no denying that Crete maintains a very indigenous character; both its natural history and human history have produced a distinctive land that rewards visitors with satisfying – and surprising – experiences.