Although Crete has been inhabited since Neolithic times (7000–3000 BC), for most people its history begins with the Minoan civilisation. The glories of Crete’s Minoan past remained hidden until British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans made his dramatic discoveries at Knossos in the early 1900s. The term ‘Minoan’ was coined by Evans and derived from the King Minos of Greek mythology. Nobody knows what the Minoans called themselves.
Among the ruins unearthed by Evans were the famous Knossos frescoes. Artistically, the frescoes are superlative; the figures that grace them have a naturalism lacking in contemporary Cycladic figurines, ancient Egyptian artwork (which they resemble in certain respects), and the Archaic sculpture that came later.
What is known is that early in the 3rd millennium BC, an advanced people migrated to Crete and brought with them the art of metallurgy. The Protopalatial period (3400–2100 BC) saw the emergence of a society of unprecedented artistic, engineering and cultural achievement. It was during this time that the famous palace complexes were built at Knossos, Phaestos, Malia and Zakros.
Around 1700 BC the complexes were destroyed by an earthquake. Undeterred, the Minoans built bigger and better palaces on the sites of the originals, as well as new settlements in other parts of the island.
Around 1450 BC, when the Minoan civilisation was at its peak, the palaces were mysteriously destroyed again. While there is continued speculation as to the cause of this destruction, the latest theory suggests it was the result of a giant tsunami that followed the massive volcanic eruption on the island of Santorini (Thira). Knossos was the only palace to be salvaged. It was finally destroyed by fire around 1400 BC.
The Myceneans appeared in Crete during this time, but the Minoan civilisation was a hard act to follow. The war-orientated Dorians, who arrived in Greece around 1100 BC, were pedestrian by comparison. The 5th century BC found Crete, like the rest of the country, divided into city-states. The glorious classical age of mainland Greece had little impact on Crete, and the Persians bypassed the island. It was also ignored by Alexander the Great, so was never part of the Macedonian Empire.
By 67 BC, Crete had fallen to the Romans. The town of Gortyna in the south became the capital of Cyrenaica, a province that included large chunks of North Africa. Crete, along with the rest of Greece, became part of the Byzantine Empire in AD 395. In 1210 Crete was occupied by the Venetians, whose legacy is one of mighty fortresses, ornate public buildings and monuments, and handsome dwellings.
Despite the massive Venetian fortifications, which sprang up all over the island, by 1669 the whole of the mainland was under Turkish rule. The first uprising against the Turks was led by Ioannis Daskalogiannis in 1770. Many more insurrections followed, and in 1898 the Great Powers (Great Britain, France and Russia) intervened and made the island a British protectorate. It was not until the signing of the Treaty of Bucharest in 1913 that Crete officially became part of Greece, although the island’s parliament had declared a de facto union in 1905.
Crete saw much heavy fighting during WWII. Germany wanted the island as an air base and on 20 May 1941 German parachutists landed on Crete. It was the start of 10 days of fierce fighting that became known as the Battle of Crete. For two whole days the battle hung in the balance until Germany won a bridgehead for its air force at Maleme, located near Hania. The Allied forces of Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Greece then fought a valiant rear-guard action which enabled the British Navy to evacuate 18, 000 of the 32, 000 Allied troops on the island. The German occupation of Crete lasted until the end of WWII.
During the war a large and active resistance movement was subject to heavy reprisals from the Germans. Many of Crete’s mountain villages were bombed or burnt down and their occupants killed.