The fascinating culture of Crete — beginning with those we call today the Minoans, one of the world’s oldest civilisations; multiple invasions and occupations over many centuries, the story of many Mediterranean islands; strong emphasis on hospitality (“philoxenia”) and freedom (“eleftheria”) as a result; heavily reliant on tourism today.
As Greece’s largest island and the Mediterranean’s fifth, Crete is naturally oriented to the sea. Evidence indicates its earliest culture, known today as Minoan, traded widely with surrounding nations and had a strong relationship with early Egypt. A strategic position has always made this island desirable to others, resulting in multiple occupiers — among which were the Venetians, who left behind this fortress and other structures and artifacts.
Evidence of Crete’s Minoan civilisation (c. 2700-1100 BCE) can be seen at Knossos, just south of Heraklion — and lesser known palace ruins in Phaistos, Malia, and Zakros. These complexes which may represent small cities were not only residential but had ceremonial, ritual, commercial, and athletic uses as well. Priestess images are common and women seem to have had prominence; the bull, including the minotaur legend as well as a bull-hopping sport, were also dominant, and the bull is still a common symbol on Crete today.
After 200 years of Venetian reign during which many churches were built, and a long war (1645-1669), the island of Crete was ceded to Ottoman rule in 1669 until 1889 — and many churches were converted to mosques. Another in the island’s very multi-layered culture. [Chania]
Crete didn’t actually become part of Greece until 1898, when the Ottoman occupation ended. While people of this island absolutely identify as Greek today, including the Greek Orthodox Church that so defines Greek culture, they also strongly view themselves as Cretan — and both Greece and Crete readily agree that the Cretan culture is distinctly its own.
Today, Crete — where people are just as likely to toast when drinking with “eleftheria!” — “Freedom!” — as with a salutation, is powerfully vested in maintaining its independent spirit. After so many centuries of multiple occupations, followed by Nazi invasion in WWII, they have developed a ferocity of character and a need for liberty at all cost. When Golden Dawn, a neo-fascist group that managed to gain seats in Parliament as of 2012 until just last month, set up shop in Crete’s capital of Heraklion in 2018, local residents quickly organised and ran them off the island. [Heraklion]
Crete also takes its security very seriously. These riot police maintain order during political demonstrations, and the island has a very low crime rate overall — as does Greece nationwide. [Heraklion]