History of Crete
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Cretan recorded history stretches back, literally, thousands of years. The history of Crete is full of mystery, drama, and pain. Once dominant, then oppressed, Crete has finally arrived in the 21st century as a Greek island with proudly independent people.
THE GEOLOGY AND GEOGRAPHY OF CRETE
There was a time in the very remote past in earth’s history when the island of Crete had not yet come into existence but was part of a larger northern landmass, consisting of Italy and the Southern Balkan countries, severed along the Alps, the central portion of the Danube river, and south along the Rhodope mountains.
The recent concepts of continental drift and plate tectonics have as yet produced no uniform account of the area, and the Archaic (or Pre-Cambrian) and Paleozoic geologic history of Crete and the surrounding landmasses, remain largely shrouded in darkness.
The presence of igneous and metamorphic rocks, however, especially in the western provinces of Kissamos, Kydonia, and Selino, but also in those of Rethymnon and Aghios Vassilios, Milopotamos, Malevisi, Pedhiada, Mirabelo, Ierapetra and Siteia – in short, clearly throughout Crete – reveal a long, convulsive, crucial history, dating far back, perhaps, to the Paleozoic era, some 600 million years ago. During the Mesozoic era that followed, the entire area under discussion was a seafloor for all of (the) 180 million years. Subsequent geologic history tells of numerous complicated, spastic, partial elevations and depressions of land, during an active organic period, forming new mountains and sea basins, which lasted until early Miocene times. This violent diastrophism within a short geologic interval of 50 million years markedly articulated the Helladic region with long mountain ranges and lakes. New geologic activities, during Miocene and Pliocene times, broke up the Helladic area, and Mediterranean waters rushed in to cover up entire regions that had sunk. The present form of the island began to develop from Lower Pleistocene times when Crete was still joined to Peloponnesos and the Dodecanese Islands.
From the middle of the Quaternary era, when new fissures and fractures of the landmass occurred, Crete took its present shape more or less. There have been no significant changes to its shape, since Middle Pleistocene times. This does not mean however that geologic activity has ceased. For some thousands of years, Crete has been slowly turning from west to east, with the huge mass of Mt. Idhi (Psiloritis) as the axis of rotation, so that the Island’s western section is being thrust toward a northeastern, and it is eastern toward a southwestern, direction. This rotation, moreover, is accompanied by a light elevation of western Crete and a depression of eastern Crete. The view expressed by Spratt in 1865 that in historic times Crete underwent elevation in the west and depression in the east is not considered correct in this general form. Detailed observations made in recent years have indicated that depressions are occurring on the coasts of eastern and central Crete (Spinalonga, Cavo Sidhero, Myrtos, Matala, Heracleion), and elevations of the coasts of western Crete (Phalasarna, Ghrambousa, Souda, Sougyia, Moni Preveli, etc.). Yet, when generalized, this phenomenon is misleading, because depressions have been observed where elevations are occurring, and vice versa. What is more likely the case is that separate large areas of the island are undergoing elevations, depressions, and rotation within a range of more general movements the results of which are observed in areas of these coasts. As for the rotation of the Island as a whole, it is being effected at so slow a rate, that for the past 5000 years it has not completed one full degree!
Situated at an equal distance from three of the world’s five continents, and facing the north, Crete was looked upon by the ancients as the center of the world. It is second only to Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean, with a surface of about (8,393.2 sq. km. or) 3,200 sq. mi.; (253.5 km. or) 160 mi. long; (56 Rm. or) 38 mi. at its widest, and (12 km. or) 7% mi. at its narrowest points, stretching between the 34~ 55′ 25″ and 35o 41′ 45″ parallels, and 23< 30′ 30″ and 264 19′ 20″ latitudes. This position of Crete has had and continues to have, an influence on its climate, fauna, and flora, but also on the character and psychology of it inhabitants, and in general, on the cultural aspects regarding them. The island’s very position and physical wealth, have rendered it of old a field of invasions, and bloody clashes among a long series of rival conquerors.
Its most pronounced and most influential, geographical, features are its main mountain ranges. They stand awesome, and domineering from west to east: the White Mountains or Lefka Ori, rising to 8,045 ft.; Mount Idhi or Psiloritis to 8,058 ft.; the Dhikti Mountains to 7,047 ft. and the Siteia Mountains to 4,843 ft. The contrast of plain to the mountain is indeed small. The plains of Mesara and Khania are probably the most noteworthy, the first extending 25 miles long and 5 miles wide, with much richness in agriculture, and greater still in history. Many other plains and valleys are to be found between mountains ranges and hills, which in the northern areas are mostly level, but in the southern are narrow and abrupt.
The narrow length of the island, the quality of its rocks, and the scanty rainfall on it, have not favored the formation of significant rivers. The chief rivers are the Keritis or Platanias, the Anapodharis, which runs in an unexpected direction, hence its name, the Mylopotamos, and the Yeropotamos in Mesara. The climate is generally dry throughout the year, with most rainfall occurring between October and March. Most plants and animals are characteristic also of Greece, save for the herb, variously called: erondas, stamatohorto or, more widely, diktamo, and the agrimi – the most unique and notable animal; which zoologists know as capra aegagrus creticus.
MAN IN THE LITHIC AGES
Prehistoric archaeology has not discovered any Paleolithic remains to this date. However, there is no sound reason to suspect that Paleolithic man did not trod the island, and it is very probable that Crete was inhabited in the Upper Paleolithic, between 33,000 and 10,000 BC, and most probably from Mesolithic times, since 10,000 BC – the area west of Ierapetra being the most favored of all.
The presence of Neolithic man has been well established, at least since Sir Arthur Evans began digging in Knossos over half a century ago. In recent years, the archaeologist John Evans discovered a Neolithic site, dating from the end of the seventh millennium. Neolithic men’s skulls together with various simple stone implements, opsidian knives, bone instruments, and clay vases have been unearthed in numerous places on western and eastern Crete. Vases, in the earlier stages of Neolithic times, were awkwardly fashioned, but later were polished and decorated, though rarely in color, with incisions of a variety of designs.
Many theories have been advanced concerning the inhabitants of Crete. It has been suggested that the Cretans were not Greeks. Others considered them to have been Egyptians, and others Semites. None of these, and similar theories, has commanded much attention, and the grounds upon which they had been rested have proved flimsy and unscientific. Ares Poulianos, after an intensive anthropological investigation, concluded that the Cretans during the past 6000 years, at least, if not more, have anthropologically been the very same people until present times. Whether they changed language or languages, customs, and dress, kings and systems, and whether they were influenced from various cultures and civilizations or whether colonists of the different race reached them during their long history, nonetheless their primal racial nucleus has not been altered by anything of that sort, and in their greater majority, Cretans have remained the same racial type or types from prehistoric days. Poulianos maintains that Cretans are autochthonous to the Aegean basin, at least since Mesolithic times. The varieties of the type that appears in western and eastern Crete have their roots in the same anthropological type of the island – the Aegean type. Immigrating peoples at different intervals introduced some modifications, but did not change the morphology of the primal type. Indirect anthropological data support the theory that the Minoites spoke Greek, and that the Minoan dynasty was autochthonous.
Who were the first people to settle on the island of Crete?
How Neolithic cultures metamorphosed into cultural and civilization periods, divided and subdivided into Early, Middle, and Late Minoan periods, each of which further subdivided into early, middle and late stages, is an issue that fascinates prehistorians and historians by its elusiveness. The process is, it appears, considerably imperceptible.
The Neolithic age seems to have lasted a long time, and it is estimated to have been an interval from 8,000 to 3,000 BC
Under the soil of the palaces of Knossos and Phaistos, in a deep substrate, were found remains of Neolithic man. Also in Siteia, a Neolithic dwelling was found, and scattered remains of the same period have been observed throughout Crete. During this early age, the man had reached some degree of civilization. He lived in societies, and knew some crafts, albeit in primitive form. He was ignorant of the use of metals and fashioned his tools and utensils out of stone.
Neolithic people dwelled in simple huts made of mud or stone, in groups of houses or settlements, and lived off hunting, fishing and stock farming.
The most significant remains of this age are the stone implements, hammers and axes, and knives fashioned with great difficulty from flint. Next, pottery, that is, day vases primitively fashioned out of thick mud. They made these vases glossy on the surface, polishing them with some special tool, and baked them at the hearth, where the smoke penetrated the still wet mud and gave it a black or gray color. Often, they decorated the surface of the clay vases by carving with a pointed instrument, lines, circles, and dots, which they filled with white mud. From the bones of the animals on which they fed, they made small tools and ornaments.
The Neolithic age was succeeded, around 2,600 BC, by the so called Minoan period, which lasted until twelfth century, when the heroic age of Greece, the Trojan War, and the Dorian invasion are supposed to have occurred.
Prepalatial or Early Minoan Period
and the appearance of metals, 2,600 to 2,100 BC
The belief of Sir Arthur Evans that the use of metals was taught to the Cretans by Egyptian émigrés is no longer held. It is more probable that Anatolia played such a role. Crete had an important position in the Aegean, and the use of metals increased her commercial transactions with other nations. Cretan ships went to Cyprus for copper, to the Cyclades for gold and silver, and to Melos for obsidian stones. Crete’s harbors were very active. Zakro and Palaikastro, on the eastern coast, and the islands Mochlos and Pseira, more to the north, became centers for commercial relations with Asia Minor. Such a role for Crete explains why its eastern coast was so full of activity and energy, at a time that Knossos was at a subneolithic stage, which knew no metals. Pottery with smoked colors made its first appearance at Vassiliki and Palaikastro, as its treasures bear witness, enjoyed great prosperity. The role of eastern Crete appears to have been significant for the birth of Minoan civilization.
As the use of copper spread, a shift of commercial activity toward the center of the island accompanied it. The need to find new sources of metals caused the Cretans to look to the west and to the north – to Sicily and the Adriatic for tin, which was brought from Spain and Gaul. The mouth of the river Kairatos, near Knossos, continuously acquired more importance. A pathway opened, crossing the island from north to south: Knossos and Phaistos are its chief trading and commercial posts. Eastern Crete began to lose her commercial predominance to Knossos.
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Protopalatial Period, 8,100 to 1,V00 BC
(or Early Minoan HI to Middle Minoan III)
The civilization that had developed in the third millennium began suddenly to show tremendous advancement during the interval 2,100 – 1,700. The causes were twofold: industrial progress, especially in pottery, and the establishment of commercial relations with Egypt.
Protopalatial Crete excelled in the Aegean. Melos, Delos, and Thera (or Santorini) became its outposts.
The commercial influence reached the Argolid and central Greece, Aegina, and Syra. Cyprus, too, came to depend commercially on Crete. Decisive for Crete’s commercial future were the regular commercial ties established with Middle Kingdom Egypt, either directly, or indirectly, through Syria and Phoenecia. The ties Crete had with Asia Minor seem to have loosened, probably because of the Hittite invasions, which caused the decline of eastern Crete. Malia and Vassiliki lessened production, and Palaikastro and Zakro felt the change in the fewer ships that reached them.
Knossos and Phaestos concentrated most of the commercial power. Knossos turned to the Cyclades and mainland Greece, and Phaestos south to Egypt. The first palaces were being built at this time, c. 2,000 BC which served, in addition to their obvious functions, as temples, factories, forts and storehouses for products. About 1,700 BC the palaces seem to have been stricken by earthquakes, but Minoan culture was not disrupted.
(Early Middle Minoan III to Late Minoan III; 1,TOO to 1,400)
At Knossos, Phaistos, and Malia, the palaces were reconstructed and enlarged with additional floors, stairways and courts, corridors, columns and murals, and ritual chambers. Despite the evident power at Knossos, most cities in Crete displayed great wealth, artistic and architectural progress, and works of irrigation during this period. No doubt, most refinements were made on palaces and aristocratic dwellings, and there is no reason to believe that the Cretan people shared in the new comforts and upsurge of activity.
Most Cretans – at Knossos, Phaistos, Malia, and others – were farmers and laborers who supported the great society of the priest-kings of the period. Aghia Triadha now comes to be inhabited by royalty. Even eastern Crete enjoys the new “renaissance”; Malia’s palace is once again inhabited; Ghournia becomes again commercially and industrially important; Vassiliki and Knossos are in strong competition. This “renaissance was due to the disturbances in Asia and Africa, by the Hyksos, Kassites, and Hittites. Cretan ships are supplanting the Pharaoh’s navy in the east. And taking advantage of near eastern decline, the Cretans strengthened their ties with the Cyclades, Peloponnesus, and the Argolid, where new people were establishing themselves, and whom the Minoans will subdue with their culture.
In 1,580, Knossos’ great palace was plundered by its enemies. Malia cannot recapture its former power and is victim to the disturbances of Asia Minor, which struck at its commerce. Phaistos had a similar fate, and for similar reasons. Aghia Triadha was a colony of Knossos, with which no city could compete, as it concentrated in its hands all of the Cretan commerce with Greece and the west.
The reign of King Minos of Knossos falls in the late part of this period. Who was this legendary Minos who reigned over 90 and more cities? His date is uncertain. Herodotus says that he died 90 years before the Trojan War; Diodorus distinguishes between Minos and his grandson Minos II. Little else beyond the name comes from other historians. Undoubtedly, Minos represents a dynasty that reigned between 1,700 and 1,400 BC His government was often threatened by internal difficulties: tradition preserves tales of the jealousies between Minos and his brothers, Sarpedon and Rhadamanthys, exiled to eastern Crete – jealousies which symbolize the dynastic struggles at Knossos, and feudal antagonists: Eteocretans in the south, Pelasgians and Kydonians in the west, and Lycians in the east.
The comment of Thucydides is famous, as to how Minos had a fleet and reigned over the Greek seas, extended his power over the Cyclades, expelled the Carians, colonized most islands, placing his sons to govern, and cleared the seas from pirates. The name ‘Minos’ which had been given to colonial commercial centers of Laconia, Megaris, Sicily, Syria, and perhaps even Arabia, as well as the term ‘Minoan islands’ by which Apollonius Rhodius calls some of the Cyclades, bear witness to the Cretan imperialism in the Mediterranean. There is also much evidence of emigration from central Crete to many islands, which either occurred because of earthquakes or of the quarrels among Greek leaders.
Cretan power began to decline at about 1,450 BC Throughout Crete, cities appear to have been overwhelmed by fire, and other destructive agents. The causes have been, and are still to some degree, debated by geologists, archaeologists, and classical historians. The ever-prevailing opinion now is that the ultimate cause was the eruption of the volcano on Thera (or Santorini), an island 75 miles north of Crete. Pumice and other volcanic ashes and stones were found at all the sites, as well as the evidence of fire. Huge portions of walls and statues were found hurled over large distances – phenomena which only strong earthquakes can bring about. It is now believed that strong earthquakes, and an eruption, about 1,500 BC first warned of the approaching cataclysmic destruction. Some 50 years later, nature’s fury unleashed itself. Oceanographers of deep-sea sediments have revealed widespread buried ash layers that become thicker toward Thera, and that the material erupted was 3 to 4 times greater than from the Krakatoa eruption, which in 1883 drowned 35,000 people and destroyed 300 towns. Thera’s eruption would have generated tsunamis, waves perhaps as much as 328 feet high, which could reach northern Crete in 20 minutes without warning. Prevailing winds blew great volumes of ash southeastward which, like a blanket, covered the populous eastern Crete at least 4 inches thick, killed vegetation, and made cultivation for a time impossible. Archaeological evidence from the destroyed cities of that time supports the terrible truth of this event. Also, Egyptian writings record the cessation of imports of Cretan cedar and of oil needed for preparing mummies during the 18th dynasty of Egypt, which would be about 1,500 BC
Postpalatial Crete or Late Minoan II
1,400 to 1,100 BC: Mycenean Crete
However Minoan culture was destroyed, the Achaean Greeks were on Cretan soil soon after. Knossos, Tylissos, Aghia Triada, Palaikastro, and other cities were reoccupied. Much movement of peoples – especially to eastern Crete – is in evidence. Military power shifted to mainland Greece, and consequently, Crete’s commercial importance greatly declined. When the cities of Greece sailed against Troy, the Cretans, with a contingent of 80 ships – the largest fleet of all sent to Troy – joined them under the leadership of King Idomeneus.
According to Thucydides, the Dorian invasion took place 80 years after the Trojan War. The Dorians came down into Greece, either from Illyria and Epirus or from Macedonia and Thrace, and settled in the Argolid and the Peloponessos. Crete was subdued around 1,100 BC Knossos again meets with fires and slaughter; Cretan cities are destroyed and the property of the vanquished seized. Archaeology has shown that the Achaeans and Minoites united against the common danger, and found refuge in inaccessible Karfi. The Dorian conquest easily showed the triumph of iron swords against copper knives, which the Myceneans were still using, but it also showed a less palatable truth, namely, that frugality and moderation of military life had vanquished the luxury and love for art which Crete had handed to the Aegean world.
Cretan Institutions and Culture
The transfer from Neolithic tribal organization to a monarchical form of government does not appear to have developed in an unusual way or to have been brought about by a catastrophe of culture. As Neolithic houses and villages grew, in an agglutinative manner, as it has been called, that is, by adding rooms and areas of varying sizes and for varying functions to an original nucleus, so too, tribal chiefs and important functionaries may have accrued additional functional power, with the necessary rationale behind them, to be gradually transformed to the monarch of the Early Minoan period.
The sovereign function of the king found symbolic expression in the tall scepter, the double axes or labrys, the symbol of the thunderbolt, and in the lily, drawn in his coat of arms, on the walls of his palace and on his vases. The character of royal authority is religious. A priest-king, Evans claims. Minos is the personification of male god fertility, the lord of thunder and rain, and relates with the Mother goddess who represents the earth. Every nine years he consults in private with his father Zeus, on Mt. Ghiouchata. There, at the god’s pleasure, one lost or gained 9 more years of sovereignty.
The palace at Knossos housed different services, in which apportioned was the island’s administration. There were archives; and the scribes registered royal decrees on tablets and kept them. About the administration of justice, and other judicial affairs we are in the dark. The tradition that Minos was a judge in the underworld may reflect the tremendous prestige he might have enjoyed in the same capacity while alive.
A full understanding of economic organization we shall probably obtain when the decipherment of the tablets has been completed beyond the awkward problems that still surround them. Of the chief ruler’s treasure and wealth, we can easily judge. It consisted not only of precious objects, but of grains, wine, and oil stored in huge vases, pithoi, or, as we still know them, pitharia. These goods were received from royal possessions as well as from taxing the produce of the island.
The king was the leader of the armed forces. Cretan forces consisted of Minos’ subjects as well as from his own guard. The army was made up of archers, famous in classical times, and horsemen or knights with a helmet, conical in shape, a billowed shield, and a spear. Two-wheeled chariots were in much use also. It may be that the army was not so large in number since security rested on the naval forces.
How the sexual roles were precisely established is not clear. What seems clear, however, is that a woman was not head of the family. Nor are we justified into supposing a matriarchy analogous to that of the Hittites. The Cretan woman does enjoy a political role, and only at home does she have equality with the Cretan man. But the significance which the Minoan society gives to women is indisputable and unparalleled in mainland Greece.
Instead of being shut up in women’s chambers, the Cretan woman shares in different activities of the state. She has first place in religious rites, and of course, the chief Cretan divinity was a woman. She shares in the work of factories; seals of the Early Minoan period present her at work on ceramics. Nor is she excused from heavier work. She rides the chariot and hunts. She is a boxer and a bullfighter if we judge rightly from Knossian wall paintings.
The Cretan woman is very beautiful. Works or art accent the antithesis between her light skin and her black hair, and adorn feminine beauty with ornaments and jewelry. The women of the palace at Knossos wore golden crowns or diadems, and the less wealthy various rings or earrings. Their hair was done in complex ways and held with golden hairpins. In dress she was very modern; a bodice and a skirt, with back or breasts, exposed; a corset very tightly worn around the waist, while the shirt fell long and broad or bell-shaped. The imagination of the Cretan women’s hats is amazing: caps, turbans, berets, and conical hats – all kinds were invented. In the area of shoes, they were no less imaginative. The Cretan woman walked barefoot at home, but when she stepped out, she would wear, depending on the weather and her mood, laced sandals, high heels, and even leather boots.
Dressed in this way, woman reigned, if she did not govern over Cretan society.
AGRICULTURE, INDUSTRY AND COMMERCE
Homer relates that Crete was well-wooded, and archaeology has verified his words. In Neolithic times, the Cretans lived as food gatherers, fruit gatherers, fishermen, and hunters. The fame of Cretans as hunters reached down to Xenophon’s times. The plow was a simple wooden plow without a beam and had been used later in Crete than in mainland Greece. Presumably, it was the great population growth that forced the Cretans towards the cultivation of their land.
The form that cultivation took is not known. In Middle Minoan times, great estates were organized as if they were to accommodate a life of self-sufficiency. In the late Minoan days, there were small estates enclosed by fences. But who cultivated the land? What was the status of the peasants, their way of life, their technical means? We cannot conceive of country life in Minoan Crete, except from representations on seals.
Wheat was cultivated more or less all over the island, but especially on the plains of Messara and Lasithi. Burnt wheat germ has been found at Aghia Triada, Palaikastro, and at the palace of Knossos. The olive is known from very early times. Vineyards, in turn, gave a Rind of wine that would not undergo decanting, but was kept as obtained and in strangely shaped vases. Cretan agriculture was not specialized but showed a great variety of products.
Large stretches of land unsuited for cultivation were turned to pastureland. Small animals were plentiful in Crete: sheep, pigs, and goats. On the contrary, the horse was introduced in Late Minoan I, possibly from Egypt and Cyprus.
Household economics in time were differentiated and the potter, carpenter, and bronze-worker made his social appearance. In a small industrial town like Ghournia, one home maintained an oil press, another a blacksmith shop, and a third a carpentry shop; all were concentrated around a public court that serves as a marketplace. Palaces housed all kinds of professions.
Two millennia before Christ, goldsmiths knew the art of soldering or welding metals; the h6noite bronze workers knew how to fix locks and keys much before the rest of the Greeks; dyers knew well the use of saffron dyeing and deep purple dyeing for clothing.
The fame of Cretan craftsmen reached beyond the confines of the domestic markets; it spread to the whole of the eastern Mediterranean and was a decisive factor for the development of the island’s commerce.
Progress in industry and the growth in the demand for luxury items caused commercial interests to seek out raw materials that were needed for the new techniques in metallurgy and the art of the goldsmith. Different towns began to specialize: embroidery products at Ghournia, weapons, and ornaments at Knossos, copper tools at Praises. Also, at this time, good roads began to be bui1t between such commercially related cities. Soon, we reach the days of the “watery roads” and the beginning of sea commerce. From Early Minoan II as represented on terracottas of Palaika-forests provided pine and cedarwood needed to construct ships. From casts of seals and paintings on vases, we note that Cretan ships differed greatly from Egyptians. We don’t know their speed and capacity, but it must have been limited and constructed for runs, contrary to the bulky and round ship of Early Minoan II as represented on terracottas of Palakastro, which must have been used for carrying cargo.
The development of commerce necessitated the adoption of a system of weights and measures. Such systems were discovered at Knossos, in Siteia and in the storehouses of the palace of Malia. The scale was known in Knossos from very early days. Inscriptions on metal balls or on golden and silver discs that were used for expressing their value are the first indications of coinage in the Aegean world.
What of the products exported? Oil and wine, for which they transported in very large jars, medicinal plants, for which the island was very famous, weapons and jewelry, pottery and cloth.
The commercial activities of the Cretans included transporting goods to others. Thus they traveled to Phoenecia for Lebanon’s trees to transport to Egypt. Apparently, agreements had been reached between the king of Knossos and the Mediterranean powers that permitted the Cretans to function as intermediaries.
Initially, commercial ties were confined to the Aegean. Crete exported pottery and seals and imported famous Cycladic statuettes from Syros, or obsidian from Melos which held a monopoly on it. From Melos, they reached the Argolid, and next to central Greece. Knossian influence extended to eastern Greece up to Macedonia.
From Cyprus, they loaded with timber and copper ore. It served as an intermediary for Syrian and Palestinian commerce. A Cretan camel seal suggests ties with Asia or African caravans, which reached the Syrian harbors. Mesopotamian tablets of Mari refer to ties it maintained with Kaftor ( – Crete), while in a Middle Minoan tomb in Mesara was discovered a Babylonian cylinder of the age of Hammurabi. There is ample proof, from both Crete and Egypt, that commercial transactions existed from a very early period.
In the west, Cretans reached Sicily, Sardinia which shows a religious, industrial and technological influence, the Balearic Islands, Carthage and, perhaps, Iberia and northwestern Africa.
Religion and Art
Religion had tremendously great importance in Minoan civilization. It influenced the art, institutions, and private life of Crete. But, as has been said of it, it is a beautiful book with pictures but no content. The most original feature of the Cretan religion was the exceptional love it had for symbols.
We find in Crete the fetishism that is found in other primitive religions: the worship of uncut stones, of the ax and the shield, and the presence of the cross in decorations, and mysterious horns in objects of worship. We do not know but can only guess at their meaning.
The double ax has a significant place in worship. From the Middle Minoan I, we find it on columns, walls, vases, on precious stones, and on rings. Golden, silver, copper, and stone axes have been discovered suggesting perhaps its use in the art of sacrifice. Very recent excavations have revealed bones of children, with evident markings from a sacrificial knife, such as is made in animals during sacrifices, in areas showing traces of fire, though the bones do not. They are dated c. 1,450 BC It is suspected that orgiastic rites of Zagreus who was eaten raw by the Titans are the most likely context, but much more work is awaited on this matter.
No less clear is the Cretan inclination for anthropomorphism. This is evident in the development of the Mother Goddess statues. As in Anatolian religions, the predominance of female divinities, statuettes of terracotta or marble, whose positions, at first a seated one, but later an upright one, and whose voluminous forms – busts which protrude, wide buttocks, large back, huge navels – give a picture of caricatured fertility. It later develops and evolves: she is found at the root of the tree of life or accompanied by snakes, lions, or birds; and, in a late form, she is giving birth to a monkey. Her association with the snake suggests a chthonic power.
The Cretans seem to have believed in the continuations of life beyond the grave, for they buried their dead and included along with the departed’s most useful objects: clothes, weapons, amulets, tableware and even lamps. Cretan art was undoubtedly influenced by Anatolian art and culture. Contrary to the statuettes’ grotesqueness, much of Cretan art is realistic. This is true in the representations of animals; vases resemble birds, and their spouts’ beaks; eyes drawn at the sides. Jewelry and other carvings represent insects, but also frogs, monkeys seated, or facing each other.
A sample of the high level achieved in pottery may be seen in the amazing collection of small vases dated from Early Minoan II and found at Mochlos. Other kinds of ornamental jewelry were noted in the discussion of the dress.
Architecture truly began with the buildings of the palaces. They are characterized by the alignment of the rooms, which connect among themselves by corridors, at the expense of structural unity. The care for comfort often sacrifices symmetry and order. Knossos, Malia, and Phaistos are overwhelmed by such structures. The most unique architectural and engineering feats in Minoan life were the sewer and drain systems, which, since their discovery, have been unrivaled until modern times. Whether the Cretans had written literature is unknown.
Myceneau Civilization and the Dorian Invasion
The Achaeans or Myceneans brought to Crete a number of things, since their occupation – their dialect, their dress, their beards (which Cretans used to shave) and fashions; their chiton, their house style, with its megaroa, a kind of antechamber with a circular hearth, and their calendar.
Also, a new political organization was established. Tablets refer to the wanax(king). He replaced the Minoan monarch and is surrounded by his companions, to whom he entrusts the direction of the different royal services and the execution of military orders. The island is divided into fiefs, the significance of which eludes us; each of them obeyss a king, a feudal archon who is vassal to the wanax.
The Greek pantheon was incorporated, and the names of many of the gods known from mythology, as Athena, Poseidon and Hera are referred to in the Linear B tablets.
Agriculture appears to advance, and wool industry is established. As Mycenean commerce opens new roads, it gives itself over to mass production, and artistic and aesthetic qualities go by the board.
The army is significantly strengthened, and the tablets permit us to reckon that the wanax had at his disposal more than 400 chariots. The navy is still noteworthy and despite its decline, it offers 80 ships for the expedition of Troy. Cretans furnish the Mycenean world with sailors and mercenary soldiers.
Although the Dorian invasion is dark and confused, as concerns the unfolding the upset it carried to Crete is beyond dispute. New institutions make their appearance: the conquerors are divided into tribes; societies and gymnasia are established; the old inhabitants come under the sattus of serfs, and the apetairei (neither bonded nor enslaved, and excluded from the hetairai or societies); they dwell mainly on the eastern section of the island. The Dorians brought with them two other innovations: the building of temples, and the cremation of the dead.
Crete in Hellenic and Hellenistic Times
After the Dorian invasion, the face of Crete remained without expression for centuries. From 1,200 BC the island of Minos, the victim of a political as well as geographical or economic isolation, withdrew into its past. When Crete was discovered by historians and philosophers of the 4th century BC, what they praised or condemned in its institutions and customs was the old Doric inheritance.
Crete in the Fifth Century
Knossos and Gortyna remain important, while the decline of Phaistos is evident. What ties united the cities is not known, but tradition claims incessant warfare among them.
Cretan society is hierarchical; the citizens, though few in number, are at the top and are descended from the Dorians. They were all subjected to a mass or group education, as also in classical Sparta. A citizen’s education consisted of becoming a soldier. He had to share in communal meals, the andreia, at government expense, with other members of the societies or hetaireiai, who would later fight alongside with him.
The members of these societies or fraternities did not need to work, but were supported by sefs who were owned by the government, or by the families of citizens, and cultivated the estates. Their life does not appear to have been terrible, and no records of a supraise exist, as in the case for mainland Greece.
Cretan cities were governed by two bodies: the Kosmoi, and the Senate. The Eosmoi were ten in number and were recruited from privileged families. They served for a year and noteworthy political and military authority. They supervised morals, economic conditions, and the status of foreigners. When their year of service was over, they became members of the Senate for life. All citizens took part in the Ekklesia or Assembly, whose authority was to approve or reject the laws without discussion. Yet, very early inscriptions show that this was not always the case and that Assemblies did once decree-law. All Cretan cities or states were governed by oligarchies, at this period.
During the 5th and 4th centuries, BC Crete is a closed country, far from the great current of events that shakes up the rest of Greece. In 480, when the Persian danger existed, the Greeks invited Cretans to pretext that Delphi had ordered them to do so. The same was done during the Peloponnesian War, despite Sparta’s sympathies for the island. Even in the Olympic competitions, it is only in 448 BC that Cretan names are listed among those of the athletes.
In the Hellenic Age, while Greek authors are enthusiastic about the archaistic institutions of Crete, the island was facing disturbances that at other times shook Greece. Nevertheless, it stood aloof from all activities upsetting the Mediterranean.
In the 4th century, the aristocratic structure dissolved because of continuous civil wars, and its place was taken by an urban class of merchants and ship-owners, who became wealthy from Greek commerce. The new flow of money further disrupted the functioning of whatever institutions were still at work. There was revitalized commerce, however, and some exportation of oil, wine, and honey. The merchant class tolerated with difficulty the oligarchical rule, and there was much emigration to Asia Minor and Greece, while Gortyna, Knossos, and Lissos were in furious quarrels.
Cretans come to the fore as expert archers and mercenaries, whom Alexander the Great employed in his wars in Asia. At this time, Crete is divided into three alliances, Gortyna, Knossos, and Kydonia. An attempt at unification – the Koinon – a kind of federation or confederation of city-states in Crete proved abortive, and soon Gortyna and Knossos were fighting a battle of survival.
The internal weakening of Crete exited the ambitions of its neighbors. Ptolemaic Egypt attempted to invade Crete during 267-261 BC, but it failed. Philip V of Macedonia allied with Gortyna in 220 BC and actually brought some peace on the island, which civil wars had destroyed. Crete remained faithful to Macedonia during the latter’s war with Rome.
From that time Rome intervened on every pretext as an arbiter in the quarrels among the cities. In 184 and 180 BC, and again, in 174 BC, Rome sent ambassadors to mediate between Gortyna, Knossos, and Kydonia, who were violently at war. Piracy was at its peak. The Rhodians attempted to react against the situation, were defeated in 154 BC by the Cretans, but were saved thanks to the intervention of Rome. It was Crete’s last victory. While Rhodes declined and Greece and Macedonia became Roman, Crete remained indifferent to Mediterranean affairs and continues to be torn apart by civil wars.
Roman Peace - Pax Romana
Its place in the Mediterranean compelled Crete to become Roman. After Rome conquered Macedonia and Asia, it thought it unnecessary to maintain a standing army. Pirates took advantage of the event and appeared in Cilicia and Crete. From there they attacked throughout the eastern Mediterranean, and at Delos, which was a Roman commercial center. The situation was aggravated when Mithridates entered the war. The king of Pontus relied on Cretans and Sicilians to aid him against Rome, by an alliance with Spartacus. To face this threat, Rome felt it had to conquer Crete; but there were other motives. Crete was famous for her booty, since it a haven for pirates.
The Roman Senate in 74 BC put the matter in the hands of Marc Antony, the father of the future triarch, the general naval administration of the Mediterranean. The choice was unfortunate. Anthony underestimated the situation in Crete and came ill-prepared. The Cretans conquered the Roman forces, and subjected them to so humbling an indemnity, that the Senate refused to comply.
In 68 BC Rome being rid of Mithridates, ordered Crete to deliver over the conquerors of Antony and to release the Roman prisoners of war. Crete refused, and the Roman Senate ordered Metellus to vanquish it. After successive conquests of individual cities, on account of Metellus’ harshness, the Cretans refused to negotiate with him, and informed Pompey, who was then fighting the pirates, that they would surrender to him. Nevertheless, although dismissed by Pompey, Metellus completed the pacification of Crete in 63 BC.
Apart from some information on the political administration of Crete, almost nothing else survives. Rome made her impact, however, and the results in material remain: roads, aqueducts, theaters, and odeons, are visible today.
Crete and Byzantium
Crete remained far from the disturbances of the Roman Empire, and the barbarian invasions which brought it or quickened its fall. From the time the Empire was reorganized in 298 AD Diocletian separated Crete from Cyrenaica. Constantine the Great attached it to Illyria. By the eighth century, Crete formed a theme, governed by a general. Themes were at this time the new Byzantine administrative unit oriented towards the most efficient means of local defense.
From the 7th to the 10th century, the number of cities seems to have declined; according to Hierokles, there were 22. Byzantine writers rarely refer to the island in their chronicles. We know only that in 732, Leo III increased the poll tax and Crete was forced to contribute men to the army of Constantine V.
In 732, after the iconoclast controversy, which brought him into a quarrel with the Pope, Leo III removed Crete from Roman sovereignty and subordinated it to the Patriarch of Constantinople. The Cretan Church followed, from this point on, the general religious developments of the east. At the end of the 9th century, Crete had an archbishop and eleven bishops. The prelates of Crete took part in the great synods of Eastern Christendom, but their part in them was insignificant.
Until the 7th century, the prosperity of Crete consisted of the protection of Roman peace. Cultivation of land does not undergo many changes; grain, the vineyard, and the olive continue to be the chief cultivation. Possibly Byzantium encouraged on the island a movement for the concentration of property, an event that is observed also in all the other parts of the Empire. The small estate tends to vanish before the large estates of the Nation, the Church, and private owners. Was there an expansion or a restriction of serfdom? Could there be a case for a return to a condition of serfdom? What was the fortune of free peasants? There are many questions that are difficult to answer.
The Arab Conquest (888-961)
A new danger appeared in the Mediterranean in the 7th century. Islam established itself permanently on its shores. Moavia (Mu’awiyah), the Governor of Syria, who realized the significance of naval warfare, formed in 649 a fleet that would destroy Cyprus and the Isaurian shore. Despite the truce signed with Byzantium in 650, Rhodes was pillaged in 654. Arab ships began to appear on the Cretan sea in the following year. From this point on the island lived in terror.
The threat was carried out in the 9th century. The quarrels among the Muslims in the capital of the emirs, Cordoba, provoked in 816 the uprising of the Arabs of Andalusia against emir Al-Hakim. Defeated, they took refuge in Egypt, where, benefiting from the agitation, they seized Alezandris in 818-819. After they were ousted by Caliph Mahmoud, they decided to settle on Crete. With Abu-Hafs as their leader, they became masters of the island. Gortyna gave them the strongest resistance. They laid siege to it and tortured the Metropolitan of Crete, Cyril to death.
Following their traditions, they founded a new capital. They established it on the north shore, not far from Knossos. At first, it consisted of a simple trench, handaki (from the Arabic), from which came to the name of Candia. The conquest lasted 133 years. Crete recognized the sovereignty of the Caliph of Cairo and received, in consequence, aid from the Fatimides. It also maintained relations with Cordoba. In fact, Crete became a kind of inherited principality; the succession if its sovereigns, who take the title of an emir, is shown to us through the coins they issued. Through the conquest of the island and the destruction and persecution of the Christian element, a great religious and ethnological change came. Some were killed in the war, others were slaughtered because they would not change their religion. Others who were Islamized lost their national consciousness, and became the serfs of the conquerors or, pursued continuously, took refuge in inaccessible mountains and ravines.
From the Cretan harbors, the shores of Greece or of the Adriatic would be raided, and Byzantium was compelled to counterattack. The first attempt to re-conquer the island was made in 825. Photeinos, the Governor of the theme of the east, was appointed general of Crete. He disembarked on the island, but his attempt failed. Another expedition in 826 led by general Karteros, was initially more successful. He disembarked on the east of Handaka and stubbornly engaged the Arabs in a battle for one whole day; finally, he routed the Arabs, who fled to the city. Karteros’ army camped by the river Amnisos, where they abandoned themselves to drunkenness in celebration of their victory. When the Arabs were informed of this, they attacked the unguarded army during the night and destroyed it. Karteros fled in a ship, but the Arabs pursued him to the island of Kos, where they killed them. The only memento of the battle is the renaming of the river Amnisos after the general. Not much later, general Ooryphas pursued the Arabs, succeeded in restricting their raids, but did nothing to regain the island. Two other expeditions against the Arabs of Crete, both of which failed, are mentioned by historians. The first in 902 under Himerios, and the largest of all, under the eunuch Gongyles, an inept favorite of the Byzantine court, in 949 or 956, who caused the destruction of that great expedition.
The failure by Byzantine forces to re-conquered Crete no doubt strengthened the Arabs’ sense of security during this period, and it is probable that other Arab soldiers of fortune from Spain, Syria, and Africa, were attracted to the island. For Crete became a formidable nest of Arab pirates, and slave trade center which, among other things, provided recruits for the harems of the east.
At last, in Nikephoros Phokas, the Byzantine Empire found the person suitable for the great task. With a very large fleet (3,300 ships – 2,000 warships with 250 armed fighters, and the rest filled with supplies, machinery, and Greek Fire) gathered at Phrygia in Asia Minor opposite Samos. In July 960 he sailed in full force for Crete, disembarking at the Bay of Halmyros, where he gave battle at once. The Arabs almost at once shut themselves behind the walls of Fort Handakas (Candia). After an excruciating eight-month blockade (due to severe winter and famine), Phokas broke through the Fort’s walls on March 961.
A merited vengeance for 135 years of Arab-induced misery and slavery was inflicted. No mercy was shown for the city filled with a century’s plunder of the towns, monasteries, and churches of the Aegean. The startling figure of 200,000 slain is recorded by the Arab chronicler Nuwairi. The mosques were closed; missionaries, and colonists of Greeks and Armenians were sent to repopulate many of the island’s areas.
From 961 to 1204 our information on Crete is a Byzantine province governed by a Duke. From this period of Cretan history dates the tradition that new colonists under 12 leaders, called Archontopouloi, came from Constantinople, established themselves on Crete, and became founders of these aristocratic houses of the island which we still see functioning during the Venetian period; the Kallergi, Skordili, Melisseni, Varouchi, Mousouri, Vlasti, Hortatzi, and others. The tradition is suspect, however, and may have been invented to provide grounds for claims to nobility and aristocratic privileges.
In 1204 Crete became a colony of the Serene Republic of Venice. The Venetians remained on Crete for four centuries. On that year, the Franks of the 4th Crusade destroyed the Byzantine Empire and distributed the lands among themselves. The Franks sold Crete to the Venetians who, after some dispute over it with the Genovese, came in possession of it in 1210, and ruled over it until 1669.
Crete was directly dependent on Venice. It was divided into four sections, under four Reetores, which were further divided into Castella and Casalia (castles and manors). A class of high and low officials was established. The former was appointed by Venice and had the rank of patricians, and the latter were simply local archons.
The Duke, who resided in Herakleion, was the highest archon or official and was appointed by the Great Council of Venice for two years. He had great powers but was accountable for his actions at the end of his service. With him ruled a council, also for two years, and together they formed the Venetian despotat of the island.
A general, whose powers were also limited, was in charge of the armed forces, and of the island’s defense. The Camerlegi, at the beginning two, but later three in number were responsible for the economy. Except for the annual inspection to which their management was subject, there was also one every five years under a syndic.
Of the lower officials or archons, who were elected by local Venetian or Cretan aristocracy, the more important were those who had judiciary functions. The attorneys or advocators communis were twelve in number and were charged with settling disputes which arose between the Greeks and the Latins. When high sums were involved, only the courts of Venice were considered suitable to settle matters. In charge of the police were the military administrator of Crete and the domlni de die at de nocte (the lords of the day and night). In very serious situations, Venice would send to Crete a general Commissioner with dictatorial authority, even over the Duke and the general.
Soeial and Economic Structure
In the beginning, Venice left the Cretans to their estates and confined themselves to installing garrisons in the cities. Crete clearly held for it a simple commercial and strategic interest. But the successive Genovese attacks and the plots of the populace compelled the Senate to examine the mode of its occupation.
The confiscated estates were divided into three parts. The first was reserved for the needs of the Republic’s services, the second for the Church, and the third conceded to the colonists. The Senate favored immigration of Venetians into the island, and during the years from 1211 to 1367 some 600 families of nobles, excluding their military retinues and servants, and many refugees of old Venetian colonies, came to the island.
The estates were cultivated, for the benefit of the colonists, either by peasants free or serfs attached to the estate. Each colonist had 25 such persons under his jurisdiction. Many may have been descendants of the Arabs who had been made serfs by Phokas. Each estate was subject to a high tax, called a “third of the select wheat” which represented % of the wheat production by the estate. The amount was fixed beforehand, analogous with the value of the sown fields and the mean produce. If the year were bad and there was an insufficient harvest, the colonists were still obliged to deliver up the entire amount of their share. They would thus at times have to mortgage their estate. This kind of system helps explain the role of the Jewish community. The colonists had to turn to usurers, who were on the verge of making the island their possession. Venice took several measures to prevent that sort of thing. At times, it placed limitations on lenders by decreasing the interest (as in 1398), other times it would allow the Jews only security and not a mortgage loan (as in 1449). Finally, it took away their right to own real estate. These acts betrayed the incontestable economic malice of Venetian colonization.
The system of production that was set up was a type of colonial economy. Having established themselves on great estates, the Venetians developed speculative cultivation at the expense of cultivating foodstuff. Vine cultivation soared. From Rethymno wine reached Wallachia and Poland, Germany and England, where Ben Jonson praised its quality.
But the expansion of the production of these goods which constitute the object of true monoculture resulted at the expense of grain crops. The Serene Republic of Venice many times would prohibit the cultivation of wheat in the most fertile areas of Crete, in order that in this way a great accumulation of serfs would be avoided, and the island would be prevented from providing basic foodstuff in case there was an insurrection. Elsewhere, the price of wheat was fixed beforehand, and licenses to export were very rarely given. Wheat cultivation, consequently, reached the point of being abandoned.
Depression of trade concealed a social malaise. In 1577, some 407 Venetian families were estimated to have been established on Crete as opposed to 184,000 Greeks. The wealthiest estates, highest offices, and military rank were intended for Venetian nobles nobili veneti. But the old aristocracy refused to abandon its privileges. The Archontes, who had supposedly come to the island after Phokas’ reconquest, had still great influence. They had under subjection the Archontopouloi, free Greeks, who were economically and legally dependent on a relative or protector. Among the more powerful of these families were the Kallergi and the Skordylides, whose mutual jealousy was exploited by Venice.
The lower class lived under miserable conditions. The taxes crushed then; they could not attend schools; epidemics and famine moved them down. The oppression made the Cretans look with sympathy upon the Turkish advance in the Mediterranean. The Turks looked better to them the Venetians, who confiscated Greek Church property, expelled the Metropolitan, replaced the Greek Orthodox religion with a Latin hierarchy, and multiplied Latin monastic orders. Cretans were immigrating to Egypt, preferring to serve in the Sultan’s fleet than in the Venetian galleys. Cretan mountain dwellers, in turn, pointed the Turks in 1647 out of their hatred for Venice.
This was why Crete, unlike the duchy of Athens and the principate of Achaia, appeared as a land torn by internal strife. Venetian colonialism was heavy even for the colonists themselves, which fact best explains the 13th and 14th-century insurrections. There were more than fourteen between 1207 and 1365: the first was in 1212, by the ghiostephanites or Argyropouli, which in a short while spread throughout Crete, and only quick help from Venice quelled it. Soon after, in 1217, another revolt broke out, where a private dispute, over stolen horses, the noble Skordyles and the Venetian Castellan, served as the cause. The revolt spread rapidly, but a treaty was drawn up and signed between a new Duke and the rebels. A very great, and for the Venetians, very dangerous rebellion came in 1230 in the Rethymno area, where the Skordylides, Melisseni, and Drakontopouli noble clans had gathered. The rebellion went on for six years until Venice conceded much land and many garrisons to bring it to an end. Venice from this point on had its hands full with Crete. In 1252 a large colony of Venetians came to the west and founded Khania, where ancient Kydonia once was, and where now the Governor of Crete and many nobles would reside.
In 1273 the Hortatzai brothers, well-loved and very capable men, became the leaders of a great rebellion. For the six years the war lasted, it cost the Venetians great losses. But it was the Cretan nobleman Alexios Kallerges who swung the scales for the Venetians, having been lured by their promises. The attack against the Hortatzai was decisive, and in 1279 the rebellion was crushed.
The Venetians did not keep their promises to Kallerges, and were, moreover, very cruel to the Cretan rebels. In 1283, therefore, Kallerges raised one of the longest and most destructive rebellions. After sixteen years of fighting, the Venetians and Kallerges secretly negotiated to end the rebellion, with numerous concessions on both sides. Mixed marriages were allowed, a Greek bishopric is given and many other privileges in exchange for which Kallerges swore unbroken allegiance to Venice. Both sides kept their promise almost to the end.
Through the rebellions that broke out in Margarites in 1332; in Apokoronas in 1341; in Amari, Sfakia, Mesara, and elsewhere throughout their island, the Cretans succeeded in winning for themselves new benefits. The aristocracy was thus strengthened, while by means of mixed marriages the Venetian element in Crete was weakened, so that the harsh treatment of Venice toward its colony led to a revolt in 1362, in which Cretans and Venetian colonists overthrew Venetian rule and declared the Cretan Republic under the flag of St. Titus, who had Christianized the island thirteen centuries before. After a two year struggle, the rebellion was suppressed by forces sent from Venice. A new rebellion occurred in 1365, which Venice crushed with such very great losses to itself that it made a life for the islanders even more miserable. Torture, beheading, and hanging reached new heights; towns and villages were raised and the cultivation of fields was punishable by death. The ensuing pestilence, famine, and utter poverty completed the intended ruination.
As the Turks advanced and Byzantines, Latins and Venetians retreated, the Cretans saw that they could no longer hope for success alone, and rebellions there-after became fewer. Nature, moreover, seems also to have conspired against the Cretans. A great earthquake in 1507 killed no less than 30,000, while the plagues of 1456-1457, 1522, and 1524 put to death over 50,000. Yet, the Turkish attacks on the island, which had already begun, and on account of which the Venetians were treating the Cretans more leniently, were unsuccessful; and the great rebellion in 1570 under Kontanoleos might well have spelled the end of Venetian rule, but its leaders (it is said) were trapped and killed at the wedding of Kontanoleos’ son and his would-be Venetian wife.
Not much later, a plague in 1592-1593, a catastrophic earthquake in 1595, and a widespread famine in 1596 were weakening the island, preparing it for its new masters. In 1645, Sultan Ibrahim I found a pretext to lay siege to Crete. The Cretans and Venetians fought the Turks – though at times the Cretans fought the Venetians by the side of the Turks – for 25 years, in a struggle that laid 51,000 dead, left the land destroyed, churches looted and turned to mosques, and a people physically and emotionally exhausted and enslaved.
Art and Literature under Venetian Rule
All travelers to Crete praise the beauty of its cities, their large populations, and their strong fortifications. The houses were built in Renaissance style, with all its known graces. Religious architecture has not left us any examples, save in the case of the church of St. Mark in Herakleion, later a mosque.
Many artists of the time are mere names. John Pagomenos, the most original, decorated St. George, near Sfakia in 1314. About Pelergi, Apostoli, and Zorzi we know next to nothing. The greatest of all, Kyriakos or Domenikos Theotokopoulos, better known as El Greco, did his best work in Spain. Nor did the famous “Cretan School,” the soul of which was Theophanes, leave any works on the island.
Literature betrays, however, the greatest influence from Italy. Many texts survive, written in the Latin alphabet. The theater, in turn, sought its models in the Commedia dell’ arte. But it is the literature written in the Cretan dialect that has marked the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries as the Cretan Renaissance within the compass of Modern Greek literature. Akritic epics were followed by love poems, stories, bucolic idylls, comedies, mysteries, and dramas, among which the long, narrative, romantic poem, Erotokritos, the drama, The Saerifice of Abraham, both by Kornaros, and the tragedy, Erophile, by Chortatzis, stand supreme. One of several historical poems, which is of more than literary value, is The Cretan War (1645-1689) by Marinos Tsanes Bounialis.
The Turkish Occupation of Crete
Cretan history under Turkish rule is little more than a two and a half-century-long military history. Innumerable battles, on every spot of Cretan soil where a battle could be fought, mark the bloody struggle of the Cretans against their new conquerors. The island was under an inept and corrupt rule; taxation crushed it; it was devoid of intellectual or spiritual activity, and, despite a reputed tolerance, its religious convictions were increasingly menaced.
Turkish rule in the 17th and 18th Centuries
The administration and defense of Crete were entrusted to a governor appointed by the central government at Constantinople. In his absence, the administration rested with the commandant of the army, the agha of the janissaries – the corps d’ ehte of the Turkish army. The ]anissaries were recruited from Christian children, age six or seven, every four years. The economy was in the hands of a Hazine Defterdar, a Minister of the Treasury. Crete was divided into three provinces or sanjaks, with Khania, Rethymnon, and Herakleion as capitals, governed by pashas, who were notorious for their corruption. The Turkish garrison consisted of 2 to 3,000 janissaries. The greatest part of the forces occupied Khania and Herakleion, and the rest were distributed in fortresses and strategic points on the coasts and elsewhere.
The mountainous parts, where the Sfakiotes lived, in western Crete, remained essentially outside of Turkish jurisdiction. Before long, a short of “religious’ geography took form, where the Moslems held the plains and the Christians held the mountain ranges. Population figures differ widely for Crete during the 17th and 18th centuries, but it appears that Moslems outnumbered Christians almost two to one! This was, of course, the result of Islamization, which was enforced in a variety of ways. One such was by torture. There were other ways and incentives. The Christian under Moslem law theoretically had to choose between conversion and death. However, in reality, he paid a poll tax, the harac, “for the privilege of living”; his women awaited’ the pleasure of a Turkish lord; his property could be – and invariably was – seized; whatever and from wherever his earnings, he paid tithes and taxes on them; and his children were seized to compose the fanatic corps of the janissaries, the most merciless group of the armed forces – a membership other Christian parents commonly avoided by mangling the body of their children. Christians appealed to the Patriarchates of Constantinople and Alexandria for permission to undergo apparent conversion and were refused on the basis of Matt. X. 32-33; Nektarius, Patriarch of Jerusalem (1660-1669) showed more moderation. At any rate, the converts-at-heart, many of whom were land-owning Venetians, reluctant to lose their property, outstripped one another to impress the Turks, by their relentless ferociousness on other Cretans, and the infamous hatred between Turks and Cretans, that survived till present days, had originated, to no inconsiderable extent, in these relations between the Turkified and other Cretans.
The administration of justice was in the hands of the Moslems; there were no mixed courts, and legislation was anything but favorable to the Christians. They were not to leave the island, save as seamen or merchants. In spite of the oppression, Christians could exercise their religious duties. The clergy were the only organized force on the island, and became, before long, the defender of the Christian community’s interests. Often, the Sultans entrusted the distribution and collection of the taxes to it and allowed it to appeal directly to Constantinople.
The Turkish occupation testified to the decline of the Cretan economy. All travelers agree that agricultural decline was a fact. Vine cultivation fell; importation of wheat was necessary; cotton was disappearing; wool and silk were ill-wrought. Contrarily, Cretan Commerce was active. The years 1731, 1732, and 1740 marked significant commercial ties between Crete and France – oil to France, and coffee, indigo, lace, and tin to Crete. But commerce, because of heavy taxation imposed by the Turks, failed to contribute to the island’s wealth.
The Revolt of Daskaloyiannis in 1770
After the fall of Herakleion to the Turks, Venice concentrated on preserving its influence in the Adriatic and left the Christian population in lands formerly held by it to their fate under the Turks. Greeks, accordingly, looked towards Christian Russia as their savior. Peter the Great, as part of his plan to expand southward to the Black Sea, posed as the champion of the Balkan Christians, and his policy, with variations, was continued by Catherine the Great (1762-1796) in her wars against the Turks. She dreamed of resurrecting the Byzantine Empire – the Greek Scheme – with her son its emperor, and sent Russian agents to the Morea Peloponnesos) to stir up the Greeks against the Turks.
One of the agents reached the Sfakiote Daskaloyiannis, at whose ill advice the Sfakiotes rose in revolt. The Cretans were hardly ready for the task, having virtually no weapons, and when the Russo-Turkish conflict was shortly over, the revolutionary Cretans were utterly alone, facing the Turkish troops which were marching against them from Khania, Rethymnon, and Herakleion. Having captured the brother and daughters of Daskaloyiannis, the Pasha increased his overtures to the leader to give up, promising leniency, and Daskaloyiannis, in hope or releasing them, decided to go to him. Most leaders of the revolt had already been killed. The Pasha had Daskaloyiannis skinned alive, strip by strip, as his other brother watched, before hundreds summoned at a public square. Neither the abortive revolt nor the death went in vain, however, for they both made a great impression, at home and abroad, and aroused considerably the national sentiments of Cretans. Later, that patriotic fire was further fanned by the American and French Revolutions.
The Revolts of the 18th Century
The next fifty years, after 1770, proved to be the most brutal in Crete’s long history. The janissaries rioted unrestrainedly, and even the Sultan’s pashas, at least until Osman and Kioutachis, failed to control them and the corruption of their aghas, which was greatly curtailing the Sultan’s revenue. For years, the only force the janissaries feared was that of many crypto-Christians, especially in Mesara, under the leadership of the Kourmoulis family.
The Declaration of Independence of 1821 in mainland Greece provoked the Turks to brutal slaughter throughout Crete, which indeed precipitated retaliation by the Cretans almost immediately, and compelled all who had been hesitant to join in the organized effort to overthrow Turkish yoke and seek union with Greece. Michael Afentoulief, and later Peter Skylitsis, came from Greece to organize and lead the Cretans. Soon the Turks were confined to the forts. The Sultan being unable to help because of the Greek struggle for independence, left the matter up to his vassal Mohammed Ali of Egypt, who had a thoroughly organized army. Fierce battles continued unceasingly, with aid, coming to Cretans from the Cretans who had gone to Greece, and to the Turks from Egypt, which used Albanian mercenary forces.
When the Treaty of Adrianople in 1829 excluded Crete from the now independent Greece, the Cretans protested in vain. European ships imposed peace, ceded Crete to Egypt’s Mohammed Ali as compensation for his losses in Crete and Navarino, and refused, under the guidance of Great Britain, to grant anything beyond simple protection against arbitrary and oppressive rule.
The administration of Crete was put into the hands of the Albanian Moustafa Pasha, who abolished the privileges of the janissaries, reorganized estates, disarmed both Moslems and Christians, had roads, bridges, aqueducts, harbors and other public works repaired or constructed, many of which had had no care since the time of the Venetians. But all this was done by increasing the poll tax, imposing disproportionate taxes, and confiscation of property – an intolerable burden on an economically drained people and a war-devastated land. The Cretans warred, and were suppressed, until 1841, when Crete once again fell into the hands of the Turks.
In 1850, Moustafa was succeded by Mehmet Edin, and he, in turn, by Moustafa’s son, Velis Pasha, who was incompetent. Velis’ crushing taxation, licentious rule, and cruelty brought about organized protests by a Commission (Epitrope) at Moutsounaria in 1858. Appeals to the Consulates caused the Sultan to recall Velis, abolish some taxes, grant amnesty, religious tolerance, and arms.
The Treaty of Paris (1856) provided for improving the condition of Christian subjects. The edict Hatti-i Humayun promised security of life, honor, and property, and that churches were to be governed by synods; it promised liberty of conscience, civil services open to all subjects, the abolition of torture and reform of prisons. Corruption was so deeply rooted, that both Christian prelates and Turkish officials opposed the edict.
In 1866, the Cretans appealed to the Sultan to apply the articles of the edict precisely. However, Ismael Pasha pursued the Commission that had made the requests, and while the Turks were mobilizing, the Cretans counterplotted with those in Greece for armed aid. In July 1866, the Sultan’s refusal arrived, and in a month an assembly convened, which declared Crete’s union with Greece.
At first, the Greek Government did not approve of this dangerous move, but it yielded to popular demand. European powers were unsympathetic, save for Russia, which secretly supported the revolt through its consuls. The revolt, in reality, was nothing less than the small island of Crete pitted against the might of the Ottoman Empire – which, for the moment, had no other serious distraction. A Cretan force of a few thousand revolutionaries was to face tens of thousands of the Turkish and Egyptian regular armed forces, to say nothing of the supplies of light and heavy artillery, available to the latter. The leaders of the revolt: Korakas, Kriaris, and Hadji Michalis and others, as well as the leaders of volunteers: Zymbrakis, Koronaios, and Petropoulakis, fought valiantly against field marshals such as Moustafa, Omer, and Resit. And on this account, the uneven battle excited the wonder of the world that watched.
By October 1866, western Crete had been won by Moustafa, while Resit was busy in the Mylopotamos area. Moustafa marched to the Monastery of Arcadi, which about 900 persons had occupied, under the young lieutenant Demakopoulos and the Abbot Gabriel, and of whom only about 300 were armed fighters, the rest being old men, women, and children. Gradually, the cannon that had been brought speeded up the inevitable. The Monastery’s gate was demolished; the Turks poured in, as women and children went down to the gunpowder storeroom, and the hand combat was fierce. Then the fighter Giamboudakis, with the consent of all, shot into the gunpowder, and the whole northeastern part of the Monastery, with the intended Turkish victims, blew up into the everlasting. The heroism of these people left Europe aghast. Some 100 persons survived, only to be slaughtered, despite promises to the contrary. There was only one survivor: K. Papadakis from the village Amnatos.
The battles continued throughout Crete – bloody, unrelenting massacres at every encounter of Cretans and Turks. Despite the craggy mountainous terrain of Crete, it would be very difficult to find a spot where blood was not shed.