Crete’s colourful history goes back 5000 years and is evident across the island, from ancient palaces and Roman cities to spectacular Byzantine churches, Venetian fortresses and Ottoman buildings. Crete’s prominent place in world history dates back to the illustrious Minoans, who were lording over lavish palaces at a time when other Europeans were huddled in primitive huts. Ever since, Crete’s strategic location in the middle of the Mediterranean has involved it in a parade of momentous world events.
Myth & the Minoans
Crete’s early history is largely shrouded in myth, making it all the more fascinating. It is clear from both legends and physical remains, however, that it was home to Europe’s first advanced civilisation: the Minoans.
This enigmatic culture emerged in the Bronze Age, predating the great Mycenaean civilisation on the Greek mainland. Minoan society interacted with, and was inspired by, two great Middle Eastern civilisations: the Mesopotamians and Egyptians. Immigrants arriving from Anatolia around 3000 BC brought with them the skills necessary for making bronze, a technological quantum leap that enabled the emerging Minoans to flourish almost uninterrupted for over one-and-a-half millennia.
While many aspects of the less-attested neolithic life endured during the Early Minoan period, the advent of bronze allowed the Minoans to build better boats and thus expand their trade in the Near East. Pottery and goldsmithing became more sophisticated, foreshadowing the subsequent great achievements of Minoan art, and the island prospered from trade.
The chronology of the Minoan age is debated. But most archaeologists generally split the Minoan period into three phases: Protopalatial (3400–2100 BC), Neopalatial (2100–1450 BC) and Postpalatial (1450–1200 BC). These periods roughly correspond, with some overlap, to the older divisions of Early Minoan (some parts also called Prepalatial), Middle Minoan and Late Minoan; the terms are used interchangeably throughout.
The Minoan civilisation reached its peak during the Protopalatial period, also called the Old Palace or Middle Minoan period. Around 2000 BC, the large palace complexes of Knossos, Phaestos, Malia and Zakros were built, marking a sharp break with neolithic village life.
During this period, Crete was probably governed by local rulers, with power and wealth concentrated at Knossos. Society was organised along hierarchical lines, with a large population of slaves, and great architectural advances were made. The first Cretan script also emerged during this period. At first highly pictorial, the writing gradually changed from the representations of natural objects to more abstract figures that resembled Egyptian hieroglyphics.
In 1700 BC the palaces were suddenly destroyed by what most archaeologists believe was an earthquake. But soon after came the Minoan golden age, and the rebuilding of the palaces at Knossos, Phaestos, Malia and Zakros; their new and more complex design was remarkably advanced. There were multiple storeys, sumptuous royal apartments, grand reception halls, storerooms, workshops, living quarters for staff, and an advanced drainage system. The design later gave rise to the myth of the Cretan labyrinth and the Minotaur.
During the Neopalatial period, the Minoan state developed into a powerful thalassocracy (state known for prosperous maritime trade), purportedly ruled by King Minos, with the capital at Knossos. Trade with the eastern Mediterranean, Asia Minor and Egypt boomed, helped by Minoan colonies in the Aegean. Minoan pottery, textiles and agricultural produce such as olive oil and livestock subsequently found ready markets throughout the Aegean, Egypt, Syria and possibly Sicily.
Minoan civilisation came to an abrupt and mysterious halt around 1450 BC after the palaces (except for Knossos) and numerous smaller settlements were smashed to bits. Scientific evidence suggests the Minoans were weakened by a massive tsunami and ash fallout from a cataclysmic volcano that erupted on nearby Santorini. But there is much debate about both the timing and explanation for the ultimate demise of the Minoans. Some argue it was caused by a second, powerful earthquake a century later. Other archaeologists blame the invading Mycenaeans. Whether the Mycenaeans caused the fall or merely profited from a separate catastrophe, it is clear that their presence on the island closely coincided with the destruction of the palaces and Minoan civilisation.
The Rise & Fall of the Mycenaeans
The Mycenaean civilisation, which reached its peak between 1500 and 1200 BC, was the first great civilisation on the Greek mainland. Named after the ancient city of Mycenae, it is also known as the Achaean civilisation after the Indo-European branch of migrants who had settled on mainland Greece.
Unlike Minoan society, where the lack of city walls seems to indicate relative peace under some form of central authority, Mycenaean civilisation was characterised by independent city-states, the most powerful of them all being Mycenae, ruled by kings who inhabited palaces enclosed within massive walls on easily defensible hill tops.
The Mycenaeans wrote in Linear B script. Clay tablets inscribed with the script found at the Palace of Knossos is evidence of Mycenaean occupation of the island. Their colonisation of Crete lasted from 1400 to 1100 BC. Knossos probably retained its position as capital of the island, but its rulers were subject to the mainland Mycenaeans. The Minoan Cretans either left the island or hid in its interior while the Mycenaeans founded new cities such as Lappa (Argyroupoli).
The economy of the island stayed more or less the same, still based upon the export of local products, but the fine arts fell into decline. Only the manufacture of weapons flourished, reflecting the new militaristic spirit that the Mycenaeans brought to Crete. The Mycenaeans also replaced worship of the Mother Goddess with new Greek gods such as Zeus, Hera and Athena.
Mycenaean influence stretched far and wide, but eventually weakened by internal strife; they were no match for the warlike Dorians.
Despite fierce resistance, Dorians conquered Crete around 1100 BC, and many inhabitants fled to Asia Minor. Those who remained, known as Eteo-Cretans or ‘true Cretans’, retreated to the hills and thus preserved their culture.
The Dorians heralded a traumatic break with the past. The next 400 years are often referred to as Greece’s ‘dark age’, though they brought iron with them and developed a new style of pottery, decorated with striking geometrical designs. The Dorians worshipped male gods instead of fertility goddesses and adopted the Mycenaean gods of Poseidon, Zeus and Apollo, paving the way for the later Greek religious pantheon.
The Dorians reorganised Crete’s political system and divided society into three classes: free citizens who owned property and enjoyed political liberty (including land-holding peasants); merchants and seamen; and slaves. The monarchical system was replaced by a rudimentary democracy. Free citizens elected a ruling committee that was guided by a council of elders and answered to an assembly of free citizens. Unlike in Minoan times, women were subordinate.
By about 800 BC, local agriculture and animal husbandry had become sufficiently productive to trigger renewed maritime trading. As new Greek colonies were established throughout the Mediterranean basin, Crete took on a prominent role in regional trade.
Greece’s various city-states started to become more unified by the development of a Greek alphabet, the verses of Homer and the founding of the Olympic Games. The establishment of central sanctuaries, such as Delphi, began to give Cretans a sense of national identity as Greeks.
Rethymno, Polyrrinia, Falasarna, Gortyna and Lato were built according to the new defensive style of Dorian city-states, with a fortified acropolis at the highest point, above an agora (market), a bustling commercial quarter, and beyond it residential areas.
As the rest of Greece entered its golden age from the 6th to 4th centuries BC, Crete remained a backwater. Constant warfare between large commercial centres and smaller traditional communities left the island increasingly impoverished. Although Crete did not participate in the Persian Wars or the Peloponnesian Wars, economic circumstances forced many Cretans to sign up as mercenaries in foreign armies or turn to piracy.
During this time, Crete’s role as the birthplace of Greek culture drew the attention of philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, who wrote extensively about Crete’s political institutions. Knossos, Gortyna, Lyttos and Kydonia (Hania) continued to vie for supremacy, causing ongoing turmoil. Egypt, Rhodes and Sparta got involved in the Cretan squabbles and piracy flourished.
The Roman Empire
In order to turn the Mediterranean into a ‘Roman lake’, the Roman Empire needed to curtail piracy and control shipping routes. As the most strategic island in the central Mediterranean, Crete had been on Rome’s to-do list since the 3rd century BC. But it wasn’t until the third Mithridatic War (73–63 BC) that it was able to intervene, playing the piracy card. When Mark Antony’s father, Marcus Antonius, unsuccessfully attacked, the Cretans sent envoys to Rome, but were rebuffed. An army of 26,000 men was hastily established to defend the island. Roman consul Metellus launched the decisive invasion in 69 BC near Kydonia (Hania), and within two years had taken Crete, despite valiant local resistance.
Roman rule and reorganisation brought a new era of peace to Crete, and land and towns were given as favours to various Roman allies. In 27 BC, Crete was united with eastern Libya to form the Roman province of Creta et Cyrenaica. By this time, the Romans had spent decades building up their new possession, with Gortyna becoming the capital and most powerful city under Roman rule (circa 67 BC). Roman amphitheatres, temples and public baths livened things up, and the population increased. Knossos fell into disuse, but Kydonia (Hania) in the west became an important centre. Roman towns were linked by roads, bridges and aqueducts, parts of which are still visible in places. Under the Romans, the Cretans continued to worship Zeus in the Dikteon and Ideon Caves, and also incorporated Roman and Egyptian deities into their rituals.
Christianity Comes to Crete
In AD 63, Christianity was brought to Crete by St Paul himself. His disciple, St Titus (who died in AD 107 at the age of 94), remained to convert the island and became its first bishop. Although the early years of Cretan Christianity seem to have been quiet, the 3rd century brought large-scale persecution, as elsewhere in the Roman Empire. The first Christian martyrs, the so-called Agii Deka (Ten Saints), were killed in the eponymous village in 250.
In 324, Emperor Constantine I (also known as Constantine the Great), a Christian convert, transferred the capital of the empire from Rome to Byzantium, which was renamed Constantinople (now İstanbul). By the end of the 4th century, the Roman Empire was formally divided into western and eastern sections; Crete, along with the rest of Greece, was in the eastern half, also known as the Byzantine Empire.
Although the doctrinal differences that would later separate Catholicism from Orthodox Christianity were centuries from realisation, the division of the empire geographically also expedited divergences in practice, custom and allegiances that would come to define the Orthodox Church, presided over by the patriarch in Constantinople.
In the early Byzantine Empire, Crete was a self-governing province, with Gortyna as its administrative and religious centre. Piracy decreased and trade flourished, leaving the island wealthy enough to build many churches.
Crete’s attachment to the worship of icons provoked a revolt in 727 when Emperor Leo III banned their worship as part of the iconoclastic movement, which broke out in different periods of the 8th and 9th centuries and had complex theological, economic and political roots, but was partly influenced by questions provoked by the rise of Islam. The uprising was smashed and the Byzantine emperor unleashed a fierce wave of retribution against Crete’s iconophiles. However, the policy became officially overturned for good by decree of Empress Theodora in 843, an event still celebrated as the ‘Triumph of Orthodoxy’ on the first Sunday of Lent.
Between Pirates & the Pope
The peaceful period of Byzantine rule came to an end around 824 with the arrival of Arabs from Spain, who gradually conquered Crete and used it as a base for marauding around the Aegean. The Arabs established a fortress called Chandax in what is now Iraklio, essentially to store their pirated treasure. As the island’s criminal reputation grew, its economy dwindled and its cultural life ground to a halt. There are few records for this period, considered Crete’s ‘dark age’. While some of the population seems to have been forcibly converted to Islam, this would not outlive the occupation.
Byzantine armies sought to rescue Crete several times, in 842 and again in 911 and 949, but were not successful until Nikiforos Fokas launched the legendary Expedition to Crete in 960. After a bitter siege of Chandax, Crete was liberated in 961, and the Byzantines quickly started fortifying the Cretan coast and consolidating their power. Chandax emerged as the new capital of the theme (a Byzantine term for province) of Crete, and was the seat of the restored Cretan archdiocese. The church undertook efforts to bring errant sheep back to the Christian flock.
The following two-and-a-half centuries were relatively peaceful, save for a short-lived revolt by the governor, Karykes, in 1092. A few years later, it was brought, with southern Greece and the Peloponnese, under the control of the Byzantine navy’s main commander.
This happy existence was shattered by the perfidious Fourth Crusade of 1204, which saw Venetian-bankrolled Western crusaders opt to attack Christian Constantinople rather than the 'infidels’ down in Egypt. While Crete was originally granted to Crusade-leader Boniface of Montferrat, he soon sold it to the Venetians. However, the latter’s Genoese archrivals seized it first, and it took until 1212 for Venice to establish control. Their colonial rule would last until 1669. Today, Venice’s former influence is evident throughout Crete’s major towns, in former mansions and massive fortresses that guarded the port towns and harbours.
Venice colonised Crete with noble and military families, many of whom settled in Iraklio (Candia). About 10,000 settlers came during the 13th century alone, to be rewarded with the island’s best and most fertile land. Formerly landowners, the Cretans now worked as serfs for their Venetian masters. Cretan peasants were ruthlessly exploited, and taxes were oppressive. Further, the all-powerful influence of the papacy meant that Venetian rulers sought to impose Catholicism over Orthodoxy. Unsurprisingly, revolts were frequent.
Sophistication & Spirit
Over time, the wealth and stability that the Venetian empire could provide for Crete would pay cultural dividends; an environment developed in which the cosmopolitan ideas and goods that came with a maritime trade power combined with local creative talent and tradition. While Western Europe, the Balkans and Byzantium were being decimated by civil wars, dynastic disputes and Islamic invasions, Crete was usually a tranquil isle in the sun (despite occasional revolts) where thinkers could take refuge and where first-rate educations were available, generally through the Church. Venetian Crete was also known for its intellectual centres, such as the Accademia degli Stravaganti in Candia (Iraklio), where rhetoricians sparred and philosophers pored over ancient texts.
This cultural flowering was greatly expedited by two factors: the renewed Western curiosity in ancient Greek and Latin thought, and the fall of Constantinople in 1453. After the captures of Trebizond, and Mystras in the Peloponnese a few years later, Crete became the last major remaining bastion of Hellenism, and Byzantine scholars and intellectuals relocated to the island. They brought their manuscripts, icons and experience, and established schools, libraries and printing presses.
The cross-pollination between Byzantine traditions and the flourishing Italian Renaissance is particularly famous for its ‘Cretan School’ of icon painting, which became most highly developed in the 16th and 17th centuries, combining Byzantine and Venetian elements. Already, from the 13th to the early 16th centuries, churches around Crete had been adorned with frescoes – many of which can still be seen today. The 14th century’s greatest icon painter was Ioannis Pagomenos, while the world’s best-known such artist is Dominikos Theotokopoulos (1541–1614), who studied in Italy before moving to Spain, where he became known as El Greco (‘The Greek’).
At the same time, Crete enjoyed a tremendous literary flowering, in which the traditional Cretan folk verse style influenced – and was influenced by – poetic and musical trends popular in France, Italy and Constantinople. Indeed, the island’s literary masterpiece, the epic Erotokritos, was penned in Greek by the Venetian-descended Vitsentzos Kornaros of Sitia in the late 16th century. A vernacular epic of more than 10,000 lines, it has a verse structure based on traditional Cretan songs (mantinadhes, traditional Cretan rhyming couplets), but its subjects of courtly love and bravery resemble 15th-century French predecessors, themselves influenced by earlier Byzantine Greek epics.
Rebellion & A Short-Lived Republic
Some interesting twists in Crete’s many revolts against the Venetian government indicate a complex and interesting reality. One example is the August 1363 Revolt of St Titus, which saw oppressed Cretans join forces with Venetian settlers exasperated at a new tax. Despite attempts at an amicable settlement, top officials proved deaf and the call to arms was raised. Aside from the commercial grievances that motivated rebels, the events showed that after only a couple of generations living in Crete, the settlers seemed to view their Greek neighbours as fellow countrymen (rather than those in far-off Venice).
The rebellion quickly resulted in the overthrow of the local government and the pronunciation of equality for Greeks and Orthodoxy. The island’s patron saint, Titus, became the official emblem for this, the new ‘Commune of Crete’. Venetian diplomats dissuaded other great powers, particularly the Genoese, from aiding the rebels, though, and by spring 1364 a Venetian military force had retaken Candia. After the leaders of the uprising were executed, the Venetian overlords celebrated. But it was not the end by any means.
Indeed, most fighters had already escaped into Crete’s rugged mountains, where Greek noble families such as the Kallergis clan in the west sought to overthrow Latin rule completely, and reunite with Byzantium. This was all too much for the Venetian doge, who convinced the Pope to declare a crusade against the Kallergis. But all of western Crete joined the rebellion, under the banner of a battle for the salvation of Orthodoxy, and it would take the Venetians almost five years to restore order.
Although Venice kept ultimate control, these rebellions were not in vain, as they forced the colonisers to make concessions. And so, by the 15th century, Cretans of both Greek and Italian background had made a sort of truce – one that allowed a remarkable and unique cultural flowering that would help shape the Italian Renaissance.
Resistance & the Tourkokratia
By the 17th century, the expanding Ottoman Empire was finally able to take on Venice on the high seas, with Cyprus and Crete the two most strategic Venetian possessions sought by the sultans. Following a two-month Turkish siege, Hania fell to the Turks in 1645, followed soon by Rethymno. However, Candia’s massive walls kept the besieging Ottomans out until 1669. Only the fortresses of Gramvousa, Spinalonga and Souda remained in Venetian hands, the latter two until 1715. Thus began the Tourkokratia (Turkish rule).
Cretans who managed to escape the Turks took to the mountains, where they could enjoy freedom and attack the Turks, especially in the rugged, southwestern Sfakia region. In 1770, Sfakiot leader Ioannis Daskalogiannis led 2000 fighters into battle, after Russia promised assistance. However, help never came, and the Turks publicly skinned Daskalogiannis alive in Iraklio.
The 1821 Greek War of Independence fuelled another fruitless uprising, and the Ottomans massacred Cretan civilians and priests, who they identified as ideological agitators behind Greek nationalism. Nevertheless, the Cretan resistance, combined with the Peloponnesian and mainland Greek insurrections, forced the sultan to ask Egypt’s rulers to attack the Christians, which they did with gusto, massacring many thousands across the Aegean. Crete’s rebels fought furiously, but lost to the numerically superior Turkish-Egyptian forces.
In 1830, Greece became independent, but Crete was given to Egypt. The Turks and the Egyptians then went to war in Syria, and the Egyptians were defeated, so in 1840 Crete reverted to Ottoman rule. Meanwhile, Enosis i Thanatos (Union or Death) became a slogan for continuing rebellions in western Crete.
The Turks and Egyptians brought more massacres to the Cretans, whose struggle attained international notoriety in 1866 when 900 resolute rebels and their families holed up in Moni Arkadiou ignited their entire gunpowder stock, killing themselves and 2000 besieging Turkish soldiers. The event shocked the world, fuelling sympathy for the heroic Cretans. Yet Great Britain and France maintained a pro-Turkish stance, and prevented Greece from aiding the Cretan rebels.
Freedom & Union
Even the Great Powers (France, Britain, Italy, Austria-Hungary, and Russia) could not stop the wave of revolutionary nationalism sweeping southeastern Europe. The 1877 Russo-Turkish War, which liberated Bulgaria and almost toppled the Ottoman government, encouraged both Cretan rebels and the Greek government. Despite significant gains by the Cretan rebels, the controversial Treaty of Berlin in 1878 rejected the idea of Enosis (Unification); instead, Crete gained semi-autonomous status, with Greek becoming the official language, though they were still under Turkish rule.
Following parliamentary infighting in 1889 another rebellion against Turkish rule prompted another Turkish crackdown. In Sfakia, Manousos Koundouros’ secret fraternity, which sought to secure autonomy and eventual unification, besieged the Turkish garrison at Vamos, leading to violent reprisals and eventual intervention by the Great Powers, who forced a new constitution on the Ottomans.
When violence erupted again in 1896, the Greek government sent troops, declaring unification with Crete. However, the Great Powers blockaded the coast, preventing both Turks and Greeks from reinforcing their positions, and Greece withdrew. The unpopular Prince George, son of King George of Greece, was appointed as high commissioner of Crete by the Great Powers.
Violent outrage soon accomplished what decades of high international diplomacy hadn’t: the expulsion of the Turks. In 1898 a group of Turks stormed through Iraklio slaughtering hundreds of Christian civilians – along with 17 British soldiers and the British consul. The main leaders were found and hanged, and a British squadron of ships arrived. Ottoman rule over Crete was finally over.
The charismatic Eleftherios Venizelos, a young politician from Hania and Prince George’s minister of justice, broke with the regent, who refused to consider Enosis. Venizelos convened a revolutionary assembly in the village of Theriso near Hania, in 1905, raising the Greek flag and declaring unity with Greece.
Venizelos’ upstart government was given teeth by armed support from local Cretans. The Great Powers asked King George to appoint a new governor. In 1908 the Cretan assembly declared unity with Greece, but even with Venizelos now prime minister, the Greek government refused to allow Cretan deputies into parliament, fearing it would antagonise both Turkey and the Great Powers. Not until the First Balkan War (1912) did Cretans finally enter parliament in Athens. The 1913 Treaty of Bucharest formally recognised Crete as part of the Greek state.
After the disastrous Greek invasion of Smyrna, the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne mandated a population exchange between Greece and Turkey. Crete’s Muslim population of 30,000 people was swapped for incoming Greek refugees from Anatolia.
WWII & the Battle of Crete
As in innumerable conflicts of yore, Crete’s strategic geographical position made it highly enticing to foreign invaders in WWII. Hitler sought to dominate the Mediterranean and have a base from which to challenge British Egypt and forces in the eastern Mediterranean. On 6 April 1941, mainland Greece was rapidly overrun from the north, as the Royalist Yugoslav government was defeated, and Greek leader Emmanouil Tsouderos (1882–1956) set up a government in exile in his native Crete.
With all available Greek troops fighting the Italians in Albania, Greece asked Britain to help defend Crete. Churchill obliged, as he recognised the strategic significance of the island and was determined to block Germany’s advance through southeastern Europe. More than 30,000 British, Australian and New Zealand troops poured into the last remaining part of free Greece, two-thirds of them having first been evacuated from mainland Greece.
From the start, the defenders were faced with difficult challenges. Commitments in the Middle East were already draining military resources. There were few fighter planes, and military preparation was hampered by six changes of command in the first six months of 1941. Crete’s difficult terrain also meant the only viable ports were on the exposed northern coast, while inadequate roads precluded resupplying from the more protected southern ports.
After a week-long aerial bombardment, Hitler launched the world’s first full-bore paratrooper invasion on 20 May 1941, starting what became known as the Battle of Crete, one of the war’s most deeply pitched battles. Aiming to capture the airport at Maleme 17km west of Hania, thousands of German paratroopers floated down over Hania, Rethymno and Iraklio.
Cretan civilians of all ages grabbed rifles, sickles and whatever they could find to join the soldiers in defending the island. German casualties were appalling, but they managed to rally and capture the Maleme airfield by the second day and, despite the valiant and fierce defence, the Allies and Cretans lost the brutal battle after about 10 days.
After the battle of Crete, the Cretans risked German reprisals by hiding thousands of Allied soldiers and helping them escape across the Libyan Sea. Allied undercover agents coordinated the guerrilla warfare waged by Cretan fighters, known as andartes. Allied soldiers and Cretans alike were under constant threat from the Nazis while they lived in caves, sheltered in monasteries such as Preveli, trekked across peaks or unloaded cargo on the southern coast. Among them was celebrated author Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915–2011), who lived in the mountains for two years with the Cretan Resistance and was involved in the daring kidnapping of German commander General Kreipe in 1944.
German troops responded with fierce reprisals against the civilian population. Cities were bombed, villages burnt down, and men, women and children lined up and shot. When the Germans finally surrendered in 1945 they insisted on surrendering to the British, fearing that the Cretans would inflict upon them some of the same punishment they had suffered for four years.
The Battle of Crete had a monumental impact on the outcome of WWII, and the massive casualties on all sides make it a significant war memorial pilgrimage. Every May, war veterans from Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Greece attend commemoration celebrations held throughout Crete. Major anniversaries include a re-enactment of the airborne invasion at Maleme.
More than 1500 Allied soldiers are buried at the Souda Bay War Cemetery near Hania. War monuments overlook the cliffs at Moni Preveli and mark Stravromenos on the north coast, as well as Hora Sfakion, the southern port from where Allied troops were evacuated.
Ironically, one of the caretakers of the German war cemetery at Maleme, where 4500 soldiers are buried, was the late George Psychoundakis (1920–2006), the former shepherd boy whose memoir of being a dispatch runner during the German occupation was published as The Cretan Runner (1955).
Greek Civil War & Reconstruction
Although the German occupation of Greece had ended, the strife was hardly over. The postwar scenario of a capitalist West trying to contain a communist East would play out violently in Greece, where the mainland resistance had been dominated by communists. When WWII ended, the communists boycotted the 1946 election that saw King George II reinstated, with the backing of Winston Churchill and other Western leaders. Fortunately for Crete, the island was largely spared the bloodshed of the Greek Civil War (1946–49). When all was said and done, Greece was in the Western camp and joined NATO in 1951. Souda Bay air and sea base is the most important NATO base in Crete, and it was heavily used in the 2011 air campaign against Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi.
For Crete as for Greece, the major challenge following the wars was reconstruction and the need to rebuild a shattered economy, while adjusting to a rapidly modernising world. In Crete, rural traditions play a strong social role, yet changes came in the 1960s and ’70s with the arrival of foreign tourists who launched one of the island's major modern industries.
The Junta & Modern Crete
In 1967, four Greek army colonels staged a coup, establishing a military junta that imposed martial law, abolished all political parties, banned trade unions, imposed censorship, and imprisoned, tortured and exiled thousands of citizens. In Crete, resentment intensified when the colonels muscled through major tourist development projects rife with favouritism. When the junta was toppled there was a resurgence of support for left-wing causes and a new democratic constitution. A 1975 referendum officially deposed the king, Konstantinos II, ending the last vestiges of Greek royalism, and previously exiled politician George Papandreou returned to Greece. A towering figure in modern Greek history, Papandreou founded the socialist PASOK party, winning elections in 1981.
Greece joined the EU (then known as the EEC) in 1981, and Cretan farmers have garnered EU agricultural subsidies, while the island’s infrastructure has been modernised thanks to EU support. Tourism boomed with direct charter flights to Crete, almost tripling tourist arrivals between 1981 and 1991, and tourism numbers doubled again with the advent of package tourism and budget airlines during the next decade.
The major challenge affecting all Greece, however, has been the country’s recent financial woes and the government’s controversial austerity measures. Crete’s relative abundance of natural resources and geographical isolation from the more urbanised mainland shield it to a degree from some problems, such as violent protests, but the island cannot be shielded from pension cuts, bank instability and unemployment.