Crete was the centre of Europe’s most ancient civilization, the Minoan. Referred to often as the ‘cradle’ of European civilization.
Little is known about the rise of ancient Cretan society, because very few written records remain, and many of them are written in the undeciphered script known as “Linear A”. This contrasts with the superb palaces, houses, roads, paintings and sculptures that do remain. Though early Cretan history is surrounded by legends (such as those of King Minos; Theseus and the Minotaur; and Daedalus and Icarus) that have been passed to us via Greek historians/poets (such as Homer), it is known that the first human settlement in Crete, dating to the aceramic Neolithic, introduced cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, and dogs, as well as domesticated cereals and legumes.
In Ancient Roman times, Crete was involved in the Mithridatic Wars as Rome suspected them of backing Mithridates VI of Pontus. Marcus Antonius Creticus attacked Crete in 71 BCE and was repelled. Rome sent Quintus Caecilius Metellus with three legions to the island. After a ferocious three-year campaign Crete was conquered for Rome in 69 BCE, earning this Metellus the agnomen “Creticus.” The result was Gortyn being made the capital of a province that at times joined Cyrenaica to Crete. Crete continued to be part of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine empire, a quiet cultural backwater, until it fell into the hands of Arabs (see Al-Hakam I) in 824, who established an emirate on the island. In 960 Nicephorus Phocas reconquered Crete for the Byzantines, who held it until 1204, when it fell into the hands of the Venetians at the time of the Fourth Crusade. The Venetians retained the island until 1669, when the Ottoman Turks took possession of it.
In the partition of the Byzantine empire after the capture of Constantinople by the armies of the Fourth Crusade in 1204, Crete was eventually acquired by Venice, which held it for more than four centuries. During Venetian rule, the Greek population of Crete was exposed to Renaissance culture. During the 17th century, Venice was pushed out of Crete by the Ottoman Empire, with most of the island lost after the siege of Candia (1648-1669), possibly the longest siege in history.
The Greek War of Independence began in 1821 and Cretan participation was extensive. An uprising by Christians met with a fierce response from the Ottoman authorities and the execution of several bishops, regarded as ringleaders. Between 1821 and 1828, the island was the scene of repeated hostilities. Contemporary estimates vary, but on the eve of the Greek War of Independence as much as 45% of the population of the island may have been Muslim. Some of them were crypto-Christians who converted back to Christianity; many others fled Crete because of the unrest. By the 1900, only 11% of the population was Muslim — they were usually called “Turks” regardless of language, culture, and ancestry. Those remaining were forced to leave in 1924 in the Population exchange between Greece and Turkey. (See Cretan Muslims and Cretan Turks for fuller discussion and documentation.)
In World War II, Crete provided the setting for the Battle of Crete (May 1941), wherein German invaders, especially paratroops, drove out a British Empire force commanded by General Sir Bernard Freyberg.