Crete is a spectacular island that almost gives the visitor the feeling that the island is its own separate country. Crete has been home to advanced civilizations for thousands of years. Crete is the fifth largest island in the Meditteranean and is located at the southern edge of the Aegean Sea. Crete serves as a barrier island between the mainland of Greece and the continent of Africa. It is a strategically important island and was the site of fierce fighting during World War II.
According to Greek mythology, the first queen of Crete was Europa. Later on, Crete became the land of King Minos. The legend is that the king refused to sacrifice a bull to the gods and Poseidon punished him by making his wife fall in love with a bull. From this union the Minotaur was born and was hid in a labyrinth. Crete is the place where the Minoan civilization, one of the most important civilizations of the world (2600-1150 BC), started.
Huge palace-states were built, such as the famous and superb palaces of Knossos, Phaistos, Malia and Zakros, and the Minoans established a naval empire in the Mediterranean. This great civilization was stopped by the huge waves caused by the eruption of the volcano of Santorini Greece in 1450 BC. The architecture of ancient sites and temples such as the temple of Asklepios in Lissos, Chania, proves the wealth of the island since antiquity.
The Roman occupation came in 69 AC and lasted until 330 AD. The Romans established the provincial capital of Gortys from which to govern Crete and Lybia. The Romans were followed by the Byzantine era during which the wealth of Crete is still evidenced in the beautiful mosaic floor of the basilicas that were built during these times. During the early Byzantine years there were several beautiful churches and related structures constructed.
Crete later fell under the domination of the Arabs, in 824, and stayed under it for 137 years. During those years the city of Heraklion was founded, first called Handak. In 1204, the Venetians conquered the island of Crete. They fortified the old castles built by the Arabs, built new ones, and founded new fortified cities such as Chania and Rethymno.
The city of Rethymno is the only one that remains intact since the Renaissance, with its beautifully decorated piazzas, its superb fountains and its fine churches and palaces.
Crete is the home of two of Greece’s most famous artistic talents – the artist El Greco and the author Nikos Kazantsakis. During the Venetian period, the arts flourished including painting and literature. The famous painter El Greco, properly known as Domenicos Theotocopoulos, started his carrier in this epoch, and other artists and scholars from Constantinople and other parts of the old Byzantine Empire came to Crete.
In 1669 the island fell under Ottoman rule which lasted until about 1897 when the great statesman of Greece, Eleftherios Venizelos, negotiated the independence of Crete. Crete was declared an autonomous state and, in 1913, was united with the independent Greek state.
This period, with all of the changes that were prevalent gave birth to one of the most talented writers of Greece, Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957). Today there is the Kazantzakis Theater on Heraklion which is located at the park near the New Gate.
During World War II, Crete played a major role in the war. The resistance that the Germans encountered caught them completely off guard. Eventually all of Crete fell under German occupation. Many of Crete's residents were executed for their part in the initial resistance against the German invasion. The cities of Chania and Heraklio were heavily bombarded and were in ruins. Reminders of the war can still be seen today.