MINOAN, THE FIRST EUROPEAN CIVILIZATION
Crete is the birthplace of the first European civilization, the Minoan, which flourished between 3000 BC and 1200 BC mainly in Central and Eastern Crete. Even today, the majestic palaces of Knossos, Phaestus, Malia, Zakros, Tylissos, Arhanes, Monastiraki, Galatas, Kydonia and the luxurious mansions at Agia Triada, Zominthos, Amnisos, Makrigialos, Vathipetro and Nerokouros reflect the splendor of the Minoan civilization through architectural, pottery, jewelry and painting masterpieces.
The Minoan fleet, the strongest of its era, as evidenced by several findings in the Mediterranean, brought wealth to Crete from the trade of the famous Cretan cypress and agricultural products. Built in large yards, such as the shipyard of Saint Theodori at Vathianos Kambos, ships were loaded with timber, honey, wine, pottery and olive oil from the ports of Dia, Katsambas, Komos, Zakros, Psira, Mochlos, Niros, Petras, sailing towards all directions of the Mediterranean as far as Scandinavia.
Women were equal to men and took part in all religious ceremonies, in sports, hunting, theater, dance, etc. Masterpieces of building architecture, painting, sculpture and goldsmithing continue to inspire even modern civilization. Linear A and Liner B Scripts remind of the Egyptian hieroglyphics, but they were original Greek scripts. Even today, the Disc of Phaestus is one of the most famous mysteries of archeology and deciphering of its symbols remains a riddle.
The worship of deities such as the Mother Goddess of fertility, the Mistress of the Animals, protector of cities, the household, the harvest, and the underworld dominated the religious tradition of the Minoans, who used many caves and mountain peaks as places of worship. Pilgrims from all over the island ascended to the peak sanctuaries of Youchtas and the cave of Hosto Nero to offer their votives, such as Minoan inscriptions or clay idols. Peak sanctuaries were also hosted atop summits Vrysinas, Petsofas, Traostalos, Zhou, Karfi, etc. The Diktaean, Idaean and Kamares Caves also played a prominent role in the worship of gods.
THE DARK AGE
The imposing Minoan palaces and the rest of the constructions developed between 2000 BC and 1400 BC. Around 1700 BC, the Minoan cities were levelled by an unverified factor, probably the eruption of Santorini volcano. The palaces were rebuilt, but the destruction of the large Minoan centers by the Mycenaeans around 1400 BC was the starting point for the decline.
The Minoan superpower was irreparably shaken, could not recover and eventually faded in the following centuries, allowing the Achaeans and the Dorians to conquer the island.
The residents of the coastline, who for the first time felt that an external enemy threatened their island, were withdrawn in the most inhospitable and craggy peaks. This was the outset for the so-called Dark Age (1200 BC – 800 BC), when towns were built in the most inaccessible, naturally fortified locations.
Even today, archaeologists have not confirmed what forced the Minoans to leave their fertile land and build impregnable cities atop windswept peaks, such as the imposing settlements at peaks Karfi, Flektro, Kastro by Kavoussi, Azorias, Vrondas, Kastrokefala, Kyrimianos, Fratiani Kefala, etc.
CLASSICAL & GRECO-ROMAN CRETE
During the Dark Age, living in such remote and inhospitable areas was so arduous, that a few centuries later those settlements declined and disappeared. During the same period, the Achaeans and Dorians broke the ground for the flowering of Classical Hellenism. They introduced new customs, such as the use of iron, cremation and new clothing habits.
The “island of a hundred cities”, as recorded by Homer, gradually came to the fore. Knossos became the administrative center again and new impressive cities were developed, such as Hierapytna, Itanos, Axos, Praesus, Sivrytos, Dreros, Rizinia, Tripitos, and many others.
When the Roman Quintus Caecilius Metellus undertook the conquest of Crete in 69 AD, the capital of the island was moved to Gortys, which later became the capital of the senatorial province of Crete and Cyrenaica. The city still impresses with the remains of the baths, theaters, stadium, hippodrome, citadel and temples. It was served by the ports of Matala, Lassea and Levena (current Lendas).
Apart from Gortys, many other cities flourished, with the most impressive archaeological sites being today Eleftherna, Polyrhenia, Lyttos, Elyros, Aptera, Lappa, Olous, Lato and Priansus.
After the establishment of Cretan colonies in Sicily, Marseille and Cyrene in the 7th century BC, trade flourished again and many ports surpassed in power the cities they served. Some ports evolved into major cities such as Falassarna, Lissos, Cheronissos, Lato Kamara and Inatus.
THE ADVENT OF CHRISTIANITY
During his journey to Rome, Paul the Apostle stopped in Crete and preached Christianity, lighting the flame of a centuries-old ascetic tradition, signs of which we meet even today in hermitages and monastic establishments of Asterousia range.
Areas that, according to tradition, were visited by Saint Paul and Saint John Xenos, turned to live ascetic communities. Among them, Asterousia and Akrotiri Cape at Chania still retain their monastic character.
The island became an important Christian center, as reflected in the hundreds of religious monuments, which are scattered everywhere. The old temples of Twelve Olympians turned into imposing basilicas and cavernous sanctuaries were transformed into churches.
Remains of early Christian basilicas, which are still awe-inspiring due to their size, are scattered throughout the island. Apart from the colossal basilica of Saint Titus by Gortys, traces of similar religious monuments are located at Hersonissos, Fragokastelo, Elounda, Almyrida, Panormo, Goulediana, Sougia and Eleftherna.
HEADING TO THE VENETIAN ERA
The prosperity of Christian Crete under the protection of the Byzantine Empire was fiercely interrupted by the Arabs in 824 AD. The new occupiers of the island converted Candia, today’s Heraklion, to a base for their pirate raids in the Mediterranean Sea.
After several failed attempts, the Byzantines eventually managed to liberate Crete in 961 AD under the orders of Nicephorus Phocas, giving a new impetus to the Byzantine tradition of Crete.
After the Occupation of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204, Venetians became the new masters of Crete until 1669. During this that period, Crete experienced a great economic and spiritual development, despite the revolutionary activities of local population. Large cities were reconstructed, adorned with imposing monuments and fortified with massive walls.
Meanwhile, it was a period in which art flourished. Great iconographers and painters came to the fore, such as Dominicus Theotocopoulos (El Greco) and Michael Damascenus.
Moreover, literature, poetry, music and theater experienced an unprecedented bloom and produced masterpieces such as Erotokritos and Erophile. This course was disrupted in 1669 when Candia, the last fortress in Crete, was surrendered to the Ottomans after 21 years of siege.
THE OTTOMAN ERA
In the 17th century, after the Ottomans stabilized the possession of Constantinople, they targeted new conquests. Crete soon came to the center of their expansionist policies, because of its strategic position in the Mediterranean.
After fierce battles, the Ottomans managed to occupy the cities of Chania in 1645 and Rethymnon in 1646. However, the last stronghold, the Grand Castle of Candia, remained under the Venetian rule until 1669, when it fell after 21 years of siege. The Fall of Candia was the beginning of a sorrowful period for the Christians of Crete.
The occupation of Crete by the Ottomans soon led locals to numerous revolutions. Especially, the liberation of “Mother Greece” in 1821 rekindles the hopes of Cretans for freedom. After the Great Cretan Revolution of 1866-69, in which the holocausts of Arkadi monastery and Lassithi Plateau took place, liberation seemed closer than ever. However, it took another few hard years before the autonomy of Crete and the union with Greece came true in 1898 and in 1913 respectively.
On December 1st, 1913, Crete officially united with Greece, fulfilling the century-long dream of Cretans. The political personality of Eleftherios Venizelos from Chania, who was later to become the Prime Minister of Greece, came to the fore.
However, the struggles of Cretans did not end then, since the Cretans had to fight in the Battle of Crete in 1941, which was one of the most important one of World War II, due to the strategic location of the island in the Mediterranean.
Once again, Crete was reborn from its ashes. Today, there are memorials and monuments scattered all over the island reminding the horror and devastation of war and the great value of peaceful coexistence between nations.
In all places of Crete, the visitor can still see the remains of German military infrastructure. Haunted pillboxes are still hanging on the steep capes of Lithino, Spatha, Aforesmenos, Drapanos, Plakias and at many other places. Visitors can visit the Allied War Cemetery at Souda bay and the German War Cemetery at Maleme, at the site of the Battle of Crete.
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