History of Crete

Crete’s history is lost in deepness of time where myths and legends are mixed with reality. The islands location was important to its historic development in the exchange of cultures, in the southeast area of the Mediterranean.

The first sign of human occupation was in the early stone age (ca. 7th centuries before Christ).

Archaeological research shows Crete was the centre for a civilisation much older the Homeric era. Crete has been invaded by successive conquers, which resulted in battles and catastrophic consequences for the island. Through all these trials tribulations the island has survived which is reflected in personalities of the Cretan people today.

In the middle of the 19th centuries archaeological excavations started. In 1878 they localised the site of Knossos palace. Excavations reach its zenith after the Second World War, which gave a clearer picture of life on Minoan Crete.

A brief history on Crete

Crete has had a long and turbulent past, the first inhabitants came from Asia Minor in circa 6000 before Christ . The Bronze Age also known as the Minion Period started circa 3000 bc., and lasted to circa 1100 bc. This was the time of great expansion on the island; impressive palaces were built such as the one at Knossos. The islanders became skilled artisans in the making of all manner of goods, pottery gold jewellery, some of which have been discovered and are on view in the museums of the island. The island has had its share of natural disasters, in circa 1700 bc. A massive earthquake hit the island and destroyed most of the buildings on the island.

Between 1700bc.and 1450 bc. There was a huge rebuilding of the palaces and monasteries, and the island entered a new period of prosperity. The Minion influences reached out across the Mediterranean, and greater contact was made with other lands.

At the end of this period there is evidence of a great fire, which spread across the island, it is thought the Mycenaean Greeks started the fire in a bid to win power on the island.
The Mycenaean ruled the Crete for a few generations, when the island was once again destroyed by a huge earthquake.

The Minion Period came to the end in circa 1100bc. The early iron age 1100bc. to 650 bc. covers a time that has not been well recorded. The Cretans became familiar with working with iron; they built settlements in the hills that were easily defended in case of local skirmishes .Between 650bc. and 67bc. the island was involved in feudal disputes. The Romans invaded the island in 69bc

The Turks occupied Crete between 1669 to 1898, this was a hard time for the Cretans as there were oppressed, and discriminated against. A uprising in 1866 when the Arkadi Monastery was blown up with great loss of life, the world became aware of the plight of Crete. Finally Crete became part of the Greek Empire in 1913, to jubilation of its people. Much of Crete’s history which mixes fact and myths are lost in the mists of time.

Detailed history on Crete

(circa 6000 –3000 bc.)
The first inhabitants on Crete arrived from Asia Minor, their lives was based on agriculture. They tended their domesticated animals and cultivated crops; they lived in small huts made from mud bricks. In the winter they probably lived in caves in the surrounding mountains. A few archaeological finds have been found such as arrowheads made from animal bones, and stone work tools plus small female statues.

(circa 3000 – 1100bc.)
The Bronze Age also known as the Minion period after king Minos, is divided up into a number of periods. The famous archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans divided the period into three: the Early, Middle and Late Minoan, he also divided these into sub-divisions, which starts to complicate matters and makes it difficult to follow for the average person.

We will use the system devised by the Greek archaeologist N. Platon which he divided the period into five timescale’s which are easier to follow, but by no means absolute as both systems are in use in the archaeological world today.

(3000 –1900 bc.)
A period where more settlers arrived to the island, bringing the techniques and skills of working with copper with them. They were also skilled in the making of gold jewellery, working with ivory to make items of refinement. This was also a time of contact with other lands and islands.

There are two archaeological sites of this period which have been excavated one at Myrtos and the other at Vasilki, they show a more structured lifestyle than earlier and were the building block for further development to life on the island.

(1900 – 1700 bc.)
This is the period which saw the building of the of the great palaces at Knossos and Phaistos. Sanctuaries on Mount Petsophas and Mount Juktas reflected the the part of religious development in the lives of the islanders. Advancement was made in the skills of the craftsmen who produced weapons, also those who made very fine gold work and other wares.

These artefacts can know been seen at the Museum at Heraklion. The exchange of goods to and from the island increased. A massive earthquake circa 1700bc. destroyed most of the important buildings on the island.

( 1700 – 1450 bc. )
This was the time of widespread rebuilding and development on the island after massive earthquake, new mansions were built, erected near the rebuilt palaces, they were richly adorned with Fresco paintings and there were also installed plumbing and drainage systems. This was a time of prosperity and greater contact with the outsize world.

The Minoan influence reached out across the Mediterranean. Most of the ruins on Crete which can be seen today are from this period of time. At the end of this period their is evidence of a great fire which spread across the island and destroyed many of the buildings. It is thought the Mycenaean Greeks had a hand in this catastrophe.

(1450 –1380 bc.)
After the great fire the island was governed by the Mycenae’s for a few generations. The buildings were repaired and life continued on the island. Around the year 1380bc. Knossos was once again hit by disaster and was completely destroyed as were many other buildings.

(1380 –1100 bc.)
The Post Palatial period marks the end of the Bronze Age on Crete. After the destruction which had destroyed many of the old palaces and other buildings, many sites were abandoned or scavenged for material to rebuild on a reduced scale. Some new villages were built away from the old sites.

The city of Chania expanded and became the power base for the island. Homer who wrote his epic stories in circa 700bc., he wrote of this era as a heroic period in time, but like all stories and legends they have been told and retold down through the generations, that the truth is lost in the mists of time and cannot be used as a truthful account of the time.

(1100 – 650 bc.)
Little is known about this period as it was a troubled time on the island, people moved to remote settlements in the mountains. The influences of the Minion and the Mycenaean lost their dominance; things were changing which would lead to the creating of Crete in the Hellenic world.

The knowledge of working with iron, and its uses was the foundation for future progress on the island. This period saw the rising of “cities” built on hilltops and self sufficient with water and land for growing crops, these were easily defended in the case of local skirmishes. Their were elected a “city council “, who ran the cities and acted as military leaders in the time of conflicts.

(650 –67 bc.)
Crete remained isolated from the mainstream of Greek history. Despite this isolation, the conquests of Alexander the Great and his successors brought new influences and riches to the island. The Cretans were re-knowned for their bravery in battles and became sought after as mercenaries and they were richly rewarded.

Not quite so honorable was the practice of piracy which no doubt brought a source of income to the island. They were a lot of feudal disputes and shifting alliances during this time, also the incursion of foreign powers into the island. Rome became involved in Crete acting as peacemakers between the factions, also to try and stop the pirates from using bases on Crete. The Greek mainland became part of the Roman Empire in the second century BC.

Crete remained independent of the Roman Empire till about 69 BC., when the roman’s invaded with three legions; it was not a easy victory as it took three years to get control of the island.

(67 BC. – AD 824)

Under Roman rule Crete enjoyed a period of tranquility. Settlements grew around the island, trade increased. The Christian faith became more popular and many churches were built. This was the Byzantine era were influences came from Constantinople and were adopted on the island.

(824 – 961)
Arab conquerors came in 824 and captured the island and held the island till 961, despite many attempts from Constantinople to regain the island. The Arabs plundered the island and destroyed many of the fine churches before they left Crete.

(961 – 1204)
After the Arabs were ousted from the island, it was time to rebuild some of the demolished churches and to erect some new ones. Trade routes were again opened up between Crete and Constantinople. Again Crete experienced another period of prosperity based on its agriculture rather than its history of piracy. After the year 1054 there were a final break between Rome and Constantinople. The Holy Crusades began to rescue the holy sites of Christianity from the Moslems, and which ended up as a struggle between the powers of the West.

(1204 – 1669)
After the battles of the Crusades and the splitting of the Empire, the island was sold to Venice. After a few bloody battles with pirates, the Venetians set about a harsh administration on the island. The island was producing goods such as grain, timber and oil. The protection of these goods was important, so fortifications were built to protect the harbors and castles were built to protected the farmlands.

New taxes and labour laws were a burden on the islanders; any revolt was quickly put down. In the 15 century there were signs of cooperation between the Venetians and the islanders, the monasteries in the mountains became places of learning, the arts flourished many of the artists left Crete to work abroad, and the most famous was El Greco. Towards the end of this period Venetian power declined and 1645 the island was invaded by the Turks. In 1647 the Turks attacked the city of Candia ( Heraklion ), the city held out for 22 years and became one of the longest sieges in history.

(1669 –1898)
Once again the island was under the control of a foreign power, and they were indifferent to the welfare of the islanders. There were discriminations against the Christians, and a series of small rebellions became the way of life for the Cretans.

The people living in the lowlands had to suffer reprisals when the rebels fled back to there mountain retreats. This was a way of life for about 200 years, when Crete became again embroiled in the game of international politics. In 1832 the Greek state was created but this did not include Crete, they had to endure 10 more years of foreign rule.

An uprising in 1866 when the Arkadi Monastery was blown up attracted sympathy from around the world to the problems of the Cretan people. Rebellions continued on the island til 1898, when Prince George was made High Commissioner for the island.
In 1913 the island achieved its aims and became a part of Greece to the jubilation of the Cretan people.

The Palace of Knossos

The Capital of the Minoan Crete, Knossos Palace was the largest and most splendid of all the palaces on the island. It had over 100 rooms, flushing toilets and modern drainage systems. The palace was according to legend to be the underground prison of the Minotaur, half man; half bull the son of Pasiphae, the wife of King Minos.

Knossos was built circa 1900bc. The first palace was destroyed by a earthquake in circa 1700bc. and quickly rebuilt. The ruins seen today are of the second palace, the palace was restored by Sir Arthur Evans between 1900 and 1929. His restoration has been the subject to criticism in the academic circles. The restoration gives the visitors a impression of life in the Minion times.

You enter the palace by the West Court the original ceremonial entrance; on your left you will see circular pits (koulouras) which were used to store grain. Further along are the West Magazines, where large storage jars (pitboi) were stored. To the right of the west court is the Corridor of Procession the frescoes on the walls show gift bearers, which reflect the ceremony of state and other events that occurred at the palace.

More frescoes are to be seen along the South Propylon. Steps lead up to the Piano Nobile which were probably the site of the state rooms and reception halls. Vases found here were used in religious ceremonies, In the Throne Room ritual bathing was taken in a sunken bath (lustral basin). From the Throne Room you ascend the steps to the Central Court; this area was once paved and surrounded by buildings.

The Royal Apartments are to be found to the east of the Central Court, the apartments were built into the hillside and entered by the Grand Staircase. The Queens Megaron had such modern day luxuries such as a en suite bathroom with abath made of clay. The walls were richly decorated with frescoes.

The Hall of the Royal Guard were decorated with a shield motif, this was a heavily guarded area to protect the way into the Royal Apartments. The Kings Megaron, also known as the Hall of the Double Axes, These apartments could be divided into several areas by doors. The North Entrance which leads to the Central Court is adorned with a replica of the Charging Bull. Further along you come to the North Pillar Hall also known as the Custom House, where merchants had there goods inspected and probably paid a fee to the palace treasury. To the west lies the North Lustral Pool, it is led to believe that anointing rituals were held here.

El Greco

El Greco ( the Greek ) was christianed Domenikos Theotokopoulos said to have been born in the village of Fodele in 1541.

He was a talented artist, he was a student of Michael Damaskinos one of Crete’s foremost artists.

Venice was the next stop for the Unger artist; he went to study and learns how to paint icons. He combined the Byzantine style with the renaissance style that was at the time popular in Italy. El Greco lived in Italy for about 10 years.

After this time he moved to Toledo in Spain, here he experienced success and fame as an artist and also as a sculptor and architect. Here he lived until his death in 1614.

In the Historic Museum in Heraklion you will find the only painting of his in Crete, though several hang in the National Gallery in Athens

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