As the largest of the Greek islands, Crete’s size and position has long ensured its role in the maritime trade networks of the Mediterranean. In prehistory the island flourished quickly through contact with Egypt and the Near East, and the emergence here of palace-based societies around 2000 BC is the first clear evidence of ‘civilisation’ reaching Europe. These were the Minoans, whose cultural legacy to Greek civilisation was remembered in Greek mythology; the famous palace at Knossos, for example, is widely regarded as the home of legendary King Minos and the mythical minotaur.
The Minoans: British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans pioneered excavations at Knossos in the early 20th century, substantiating the reality behind the myths, and since then many other ancient sites have been brought to light across the island; Phaistos, Malia, Sitia and Gournia all contribute to a wonderful itinerary of impressive ruins set amid beautiful and dramatic scenery. The creativity and vitality of Minoan society reached its zenith between 1700 and 1450 BC, the golden age of the palaces, and the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion houses a superb collection of extremely fine pottery, goldwork and frescoes from this apparently peaceful and artistic society.
Dark Times: The effects on Crete of the eruption of Thera (Santorini) remains a fascinating line of enquiry, but certainly it is clear that by about 1400 BC Mycenaeans from mainland Greece had taken control of the Minoan palaces, and by about 1100 BC the whole palace system had collapsed, not only on Crete but across the entire eastern Mediterranean. Reorganisation of palace society into the city-states of Archaic and Classical times saw Crete continue its maritime transmition of influences from the east into Europe, but the thrust of cultural development was now with mainland Greece.
Roman Crete: Ignored by Alexander the Great, Crete gained a reputation for its mercenaries and pirates, and it held out against Rome until 67 BC, when Roman annexation finally brought some stability to island politics. Gortyn was chosen as the Roman capital, and the island remained largely peaceful and prosperous for the bulk of Roman rule. Its quiet transfer into Byzantine hands in the 4th century AD ensured safe preservation of its classical outlook which resurfaced during the Venetian occupation from 1204 – 1669.
Renaissance: The Venetians built mighty fortresses, such as that at Heraklion, and also monasteries which became centres of classical learning, such as those at Toplou and Kritsa. By this time Crete became a refuge for Greeks fleeing the Ottoman conquests, and here they established the influential ‘Cretan School’ of art, famous for its icon painting and contribution to the Renaissance. El Greco, who was born on Crete in 1541, is the most famous product of this school, and two of his paintings are displayed in Heraklion’s Historical Museum.
This superb 5 minute aerial video gives you a general feel for the natural beauty and cultural appeal of the island and is sure to whet your appetite:
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