Crete has a millennium-old history, the roots of which are lost in the origins of myths. This is where Zeus Pater, the father of gods and humans was born, according to Greek mythology. This is where he secretly lay with the beautiful nymph Europa, who gave her name to our continent. This is where the first humans, Daedalus, the ingenious constructor of the infamous labyrinth and his son Icarus, took flight, defying gravity.
The world of King Minos, Ariadne, Theseus and the Minotaur was brought to light by archaeological excavations and its atmosphere prevails still today in the ruined Minoan palaces, offering a friendly initiation into the secrets of the Labyrinth.
When wandering through the palaces of Knossos, Phaestos, Malia or Zakros and other minor Minoan buildings scattered throughout the island, visitors can appreciate the splendor of the Minoan civilization, which radiated throughout the whole of the Mediterranean.
Architecture, painting, pottery reflect the personality of a people that was peaceful, joyful and powerful, with close bonds to the sea. After 1400 B.C, Achaean and Dorian presence became intense and new cities, such as Lato, Rizenia, Eleftherna and Polyrheneia emerged. Then followed the Classic Ancient Greek Era, when the Greeks still recall the Cretan metropolises, and, mainly, Knossos, which still held its charm as the birth place of significant cultural and institutional values.
When the Romans occupied the island, other cities come into the limelight, such as Gortys (present day Gortyna), which flourished as the capital of the Roman province of Crete and Cyrenaica.
On his way to Rome, St. Paul landed at Kaloi Limenes on the south coast and preached Christ’s teachings to the islanders. St. Paul’s landing on Crete is significant for the expansion of Christianity; during the first Byzantine period, the island was a major Christian centre.
In 824 A.D. Crete was conquered by the Saracens and Candia [rabḍ al-ḫandaq ‘Castle of the Moat’ – Hellenized as Khándax] – present-day Herakleion – became the base for their pirate raids into the Mediterranean.
In 961 they were ousted from the island by Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus Phocas. During the ensuing years, the island became a major Christian centre again and a flourishing cultural hub.
After Constantinople fell into the hands of the Francs in 1204, Crete came under Venetian rule until 1669.
This was a period of extraordinary economic and intellectual acme for the island: huge fortification projects were completed, major cities build, excellent monuments created.
At the same time, monastic life also flourished on the island. A lot of monasteries were founded and became centres of Byzantine art; This Cretan Renaissance led to the excellent CretanSchool in painting. Domenicus Theotokopoulos was born in Heraclion and was an apprentice to master painters such as Michael Damascenus, before he left for the West to glorify his birthplace and the art of painting as El Greco. Music and drama were also flourishing and bequeathed beautiful creations like the romantic ballad of Erotocritus and the play of Erophile.
Bloody struggles and riots against the conquerors led to the independence of Crete between 1897 up to 1913, when it was united with the rest of Greece.
Throughout all these years, despite the various civilisations and conquerors that arrived on the island, Crete never stopped cultivating the holy Christian Orthodox tradition, which is diffused in both urban and rural locations of the island.
This tradition is best illustrated by historic monasteries, traditional village churches and humble chapels and pilgrimage sites in the countryside.