History of Crete from Neolithic Period until today

CRETE – 8,000 YEARS OF HISTORY (6000 BC – 2000 AD)

Paleolithic Crete

In southern Crete, archaeological surveys in Plakias and the Preveli Gorge have revealed Mesolithic stone artifacts (9000-7000 BC) and tools indicative of the Palaeolithic era, dating back roughly 130,000 years. These findings hint at the potential early colonization of the island by sea-faring groups, possibly from Africa.

Neolithic Period & Minoan Crete

Excavations of Neolithic sites have been relatively few, with the principal finds located in Knossos, Katsampas (Heraklion city), Magasas (south of Sitia), Phaistos, Kaloi Limenes, Gonies, Gavdos island, and several caves. Fossils of elephants, deer, wild goats and other animals were also found.

Aceramic Neolithic 6000 – 5700 BC

There is no pottery, but two baked clay figurines have been found. Walls are of unbaked mudbrick or of stones, mud, and mudbrick. No complete house plans have been recovered. The economy is a fully developed Neolithic one including domesticated wheat, barley, lentils, sheep/goat, pig, and some cattle. Stone axe-heads are rare.

Early Neolithic 5700-3700 b.c.

neolithic crete

Early Neolithic I (ca. 5700-4000 b.c.)This period constitutes by far the longest stage of homogeneous cultural activity on the site. The buildings in I are rectangular and constructed of fired mudbrick on stone foundations. Wall surfaces are regularly mud-plastered. Pottery, which appears in a fully developed form and increases in quantity with time, is generally dark-surfaced and burnished.

Early Neolithic II (ca. 4000-3700 b.c.)

There are no apparent changes in the architecture. Towards the end of the period, new shapes in pottery increase in frequency and rippled relief decoration becomes popular.

Near the end of the period the first evidence for a weaving industry appears. Stone maceheads and axes increase in frequency. Rock crystal makes its first appearance among the materials used for chipped stone tools.

Middle Neolithic 3700-3600 b.c.

This is a short transitional phase. For the first time, sizable portions of house plans were recovered. The buildings are large, basically rectangular units with many small rooms. The changes in the pottery are minor. There is increased evidence for weaving, and the number of stone axes and maces heads continues to grow.

Late Neolithic 3600-2800 b.c.

The first evidence for the use of metal artifacts consists of a copper axe found by Sir Arthur Evans in one of the buildings he excavated. There is now growing evidence for occupation at a number of other sites in Crete in the form of pottery from Phaistos, finds from numerous caves in west and central Crete (e.g. Platyvola, Trapeza).

minoan goddess ierapetra holy stone
The famous neolithic statuette of a Minoan Goddess from Kato Ierapetra (“Holy Stone”)

Bronze Age – The Minoan Civilization (3000-1100 BC)

In these years the island met the most significant development becoming a marine, trade and art creation center. The people were farmers, shepherds and mainly marines, with notable merchant relations with Asia, Africa and the Cyclades. The civilization that was developed was named Minoan, after the legendary King Minos, by the English archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, during his excavations at the Palace of Knossos.

There is no evidence that the Minoans were a military people; they thrived instead, it seems, on their remarkable mercantile abilities. This lack of a military culture, however, may have spelled their final downfall. This period is now sorted according to the chronological system of the Greek archaeologist N. Platonas, based on the time-span of the big Minoan palaces, to the following periods:

The Prepalatial Period 3000 -1900 BC

The characteristic of this period is the gathering of the people in villages and towns by the sea, mainly in the east, instead of the dispersed habitation in caves and shelters of the Neolithic years. The houses have more rooms and are better built.

The development of art is remarkable for this era. The pottery is handmade, fired, painted and decorated with various geometric shapes or animal icons. The tools and weapons are made in the beginning by stone, later by bronze. The dead are buried in caves, like in the Neolithic period, but later the first built tombs appear, others with square stones and others with a circular domed shape.

Hundreds of inscriptions of this period, that were found during the excavations, cannot be translated, until there will be discovered a bilingual inscription, that will give the key to the interpretation of that writing.

The Old Palace or Protopalatial Period 1900-1700 BC

kamares vase

Big towns are founded and the first big palaces are built (Knossos, Phaistos, Malia). The palaces are built around a central open court with buildings of many floors. They included big rooms for social functions, the private rooms of the authorities, the houses of the workers, workshops, storerooms, theatres, baths, sewage facilities. Big sanctuaries are founded in caves, on the top of mountains and in the palaces.

Goddess Mother Earth is adored, symbolised by the double axe. The pottery is developed by introduction of the potter’s wheel, with real masterpieces the thin-walled (egg-shell ware) multicoloured vases (Kamares vases) and the goldsmith’s art becomes technically perfect with jewellery of various designs and rich decoration.The catastrophe comes with big earthquakes.

The New Palace or Neopalatial Period 1700-1380 BC

tourists at the minoan palace of knossos in crete

The prosperity of the civilization and the political power of the Minoan Crete. The island becomes united, with it’s capital being Knossos and its power is expanding, with trading relations with Minor Asia, Egypt and Cyprus, with strong influences on the mainland of Greece, the Cycladic islands, Rhodes and Kos islands and colonies on the islands of Kea, Milos and Santorini (Akrotiri site) and perhaps Sicily. These colonies were achieved not by wars, but with merchant stations. The protection of these colonies from the pirates and other enemies is being ensured by the minoan navy, the power of which is acclaimed by Greek historians.

Thucydides wrote about King Minos of Crete: “And the first person known to us by tradition as having established a navy is Minos. He made himself master of what is now called the Aegean sea, and ruled over the Cyclades, into most of which he sent the first colonies, expelling the Carians and appointing his own sons governors; and thus did his best to put down piracy in those waters, a necessary step to secure the revenues for his own use.”

The palaces are rebuilt or becoming more luxury, with the decoration of sculptures and fresco paintings. These buildings were to be admired not only for their architecture, rich decoration and building art, but also for the methods in hygiene and decency of their hydraulic and sewage systems. The main palaces are those of Knossos, Phaistos, Malia and Zakros and smaller ones are appearing (Archanes, Agia Triada, Tylisos and others). The remains of these palaces that can be visited now in Crete, are of this period.

octopus vase

Roads are being opened and bridges are being built. The prosperity is appearing in every form of minoan art: in pottery, sculpture (Goddess of the Snakes), plastic arts, vase making, fresco painting, sculptured seal stones, decoration in metal weapons and tools, small details show the achievement of perfection. In writing mainly is used Linear A script, which has not been deciphered yet.

The graves become monumental, real buildings of subterranean residence, with roads to the entrance and halls with columns where the ceremony was taking place. The normal graves are dome shaped or deep holes, with the dead being buried with objects of normal life, revealing the faith of Minoans to life after death and potential resurrection.

The political authority was King Minos, which was the name of the first emperor, the mythical son of Zeus and Europe, but in the following years the name of each emperor of the island during the Minoan years, in the same like the name of Caesar became the title for the Roman emperors.

The reasons for the abandonment of the Minoan palaces remain uncertain. Several theories have been suggested, including a massive volcanic eruption on the nearby island of Santorini, which could have caused a devastating tidal wave. Other possibilities include a series of destructive earthquakes, fires at various Minoan sites, or an invasion by peoples from mainland Greece. Any of these factors could have played a role in the decline and eventual abandonment of the Minoan civilisation.

Largest Eruptions in the Last 10,000 years

VesuviusItaly5950 BC
VesuviusItaly3580 BC
EtnaItaly1500 BC
SantoriniGreece1650 BC

The Postpalatial period 1380-1100 BC

After the invasion from the mainland of Greece, many towns had been destroyed or deserted, especially at the east of Crete. The old inhabitants are moving to the west, while the invaders settle to the island increasingly, building their new habitations in the place of the old ones, or establishing new settlements. The activity in the island is continued with architecture, pottery, metallurgy, decorative arts, but becoming repetitive, in contrast of the great diversity of the earlier years. The last years of this period are characterized from a general decadence due to the continuing colonization by other people from Greece, who brought their own culture and customs.

The Early Iron Age 1100-650 BC

After the Dorian invasion from Peloponnese, the most of the old cities are deserted and the majority of the population moved to inaccessible mountain shelters, interrupting communication with the outside world.

The Archaic period 650-500 BC

The population of the island increases, with the infiltration of the Dorians, especially in the West of Crete. New towns are being established, like Axos, Falasarna, Polyrinnia, Yrtakina and the population in others, like Eleftherna and Kydonia (Hania) is increasing.

The Classical and Hellenistic Periods 500-69 BC

Greece develops, but this does not happen with Crete, with the towns being in antagonism or fighting each other. The population of the island increases.

The Roman Period and the first Byzantine Years 69 BC-824 AC

The Romans lost the war against Crete in 71 BC, 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.

During the period of Pax Romana the island prospers and develops with trade. It’s capital became Gortys.

Around 63-66 AC, Christianity comes to Crete and the first Christian church is being established in Crete, at Gortys, by bishop Titos.

The Arab Occupation and the Byzantine Years 824-1204

In 824, Crete was captured by Arab raiders, who ravaged the island, destroyed Gortys and other towns, burned every basilica church and succeeded to many atrocities against the Greek population. To protect from the relief expeditions of the Byzantines, they built their capital, El Khandak, where today is the site of Iraklion.

Crete, because of its position had become the slave-trading capital of the East Mediterranean and a constant threat for the Byzantine Empire. After many unsuccessful expeditions, Nikiforos Fokas recaptured the island in 961, demolished the walls of El Khandak, so that they could not be useful to new pirates and reinvigorated with different ways the much-depleted Christian community. The administrative center was re-established on the ruins of El Khandak, renamed to Handakas. In the end of the 12th century, new settlers were sent to Crete from Consantinople, headed by 12 aristocrats, that created the new Cretan aristocracy.

The Venetian Period 1204-1669

With the capture of Constantinople with the Fourth Crusade, the Byzantine Empire was divided. Crete was given to Boniface of Monferat, who sold the island to Venice, in 1204. The Venetians kept Handakas as the capital and built castles in different parts in the island.

The Greek bishop was sent away and the Latin bishops were established, but without annoying the lower Orthodox clergy and religion. Many orthodox churches and chapels were built, that can be visited today throughout the island.

The earth was taken from the people and was given to Venetian knights, with the former owners becoming slaves. Taxes and labour obligation made life very difficult. The venetian occupation could not be accepted from the Cretan people and their independent character. The continuous revolts for many years, brought a hard repression and tortures.

After the fall of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453, many Greeks moved to Crete and the Byzantine culture was strengthened. Because of the Turkish threat and their attacks, Venetians and Cretans managed to co-exist, with the island appearing significant economical and cultural growth.

Great artists of the period were, in icon painting, Michail Damaskinos and Domenico Theotokopoulos (famous as El Greco) and, in literature and theater, Vitsentzos Kornaros from Sitia, Georgios Hortatzis from Rethymno and others, unknown till today.

The Turkish Occupation 1669-1898

The Ottomans with continuous expeditions will try to capture the island. In 1645, they capture Hania and Rethymno and in 1669, after 22-year siege, Candia (the Venetian name of Heraklion) was forced to surrender.

turkish army

The occupation was the hardest one the island had met: killings, raping, unbearable taxation, violent inslamation and slavery, made 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. The London’s protocol on 1830, establishing Greece as an independent country, was not including Crete.

cretan warriors

The last protest of the Cretan council to the Christian European countries, on 1830, was ending like this: “Here is Crete, the kingdom of Minos, that gave the first laws in the world, many sciences and arts… It preserved under the Greek name, over 3000 years, it’s children, who abandoned from their brother Christians, after a ten year exterminating war to get rid of the dreadful tyranny, become again victims of the cruelty of the inhuman Turks.”

Crete was sold by the Turkish sultan to Egypt, starting a new period of dynasty and misfortunes. In 1841, after Egypt’s unsuccessful revolt against Turkey, all Egypt’s possessions were left to the Turks. 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 suzerainty, under the terms of complete withdrawal of the Turkish army from the island.

agios nikolaos of spantzia in chania, a church with a minaret
The church of Agios Nikolaos in Splantzia (Chania) is unique in that it has both a bell tower (a Christian symbol) and a minaret (a Muslim symbol), demonstrating the long-standing coexistence of Christians and Muslims | Source: Tripadvisor

Modern History 1898 – today

In 1908 the army of the four Powers left the island, after the insistence of Crete to unite with Greece and in 1913 (Union of Crete with Greece) the island became an integral part of Greece. Agriculture and trade started to prosper until 1941, when the Germans occupied the island until 1945. In recent years, agriculture, trade, industry and tourism have brought the island a remarkable development.

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