1902 Encyclopedia > Crete


CRETE, or CANDIA, one of the largest islands in the Mediterranean, situated between 34° 50' and 35° 40' N. lat., and between 23° 30' and 26° 20' E. long. It is thus the most southerly portion of Europe. By its position Bouth of the iEgean Sea or Archipelago, extending to the north-west to within 60 miles of Cape Malea in the Peloponnesus, while its north-east angle is distant only about 110 miles from Cape Krio in Asia Minor (a great part of which interval is filled up by the large islands of Carpathus and Rhodes), it forms the natural limit between the Archipelago and the Mediterranean, as well as one of the chief lines of natural connection between the southern shores of Europe and Asia. The island is of a very elongated form, being not less than 160 miles in length, while its breadth does not anywhere exceed thirty-five miles, and is in some places narrowed to only ten or twelve miles.

Mountains.—By far the greater part of the surface of the island is occupied by ranges of mountains, some of which attain to a very considerable height. Nearly in the centre of the island rises the lofty group, or rather mass, of Mount Ida, now called Psiloriti (a corruption of vfrjXopeLriov, " the high mountain "), which is not less than 8060 feet in height, forming a nearly isolated mass, separated by tracts of comparatively low elevation from the mountain ranges to the east and west of it. In the western portion of the island is found the range of the White Mountains (called by the natives Madara Vouna), the central group of which is nearly if not quite as elevated as Mount Ida, rising to a height of at least 8000 feet, and of considerably greater extent, sending down spurs to the west and north-west, which fill up almost the whole of that portion of the island, while the main mass abuts directly upon the south coast for a space of twenty-five to thirty miles, and is then con-tinued by a ridge of inferior elevation, but still ranging from 5000 to 6000 feet in height, till it sinks into the plain of the Messara nearly due south of Mount Ida, from which it is separated only by the valley of Sulia. The eastern half of the island is less mountainous, and none of the summits attain so great an elevation; but the central group of the Lasethe Mountains rises to the height of 7100 feet, and its summits, like those of Mount Ida and the White Mountains, are covered with snow throughout the greater part of the year. The range of Mount Kophino, which separates the plain of the Messara from the south coast, rises abruptly from the sea to a height of 3750 feet, while the subordinate ranges, that fill up the extreme eastern portion of the island, nowhere attain to the eleva-tion of 4000 feet. The isolated peak of Mount Luktas, nearly duo south of the city of Candia, though not exceeding 2700 feet in height, has attained great celebrity from its being reputed in ancient times to contain the burial-place of Zeus, which continued to be regarded with venera-tion by the Cretans till after the time of Constantine.

The intervals between these mountain groups are filled up for the most part by undulating tracts, consisting of hills of Tertiary formation and comparatively low elevation, but still rising occasionally to a height of from 2000 to 3000 feet. Such a tract is that which extends across the island from the neighbourhood of Candia to the plain of Messara in the south ; and a similar one, though of less extent, between Hicrapytna on the south and the Gulf of Mirabella on the north, forms a kind of isthmus not more than seven miles across by which the easternmost portion of Crete is united with the rest of the island. Very few plains of any considerable extent occur. Much the largest of these is that called the plain of Messara, in the south of the island, which extends inland from the sea at the foot of Mount Ida, between the slopes of that mountain and the range of Mount Kophino, which, as already stated, separates it from the sea. It is about thirty-five miles in length, with a breadth of from six to ten miles. The plain which adjoins the city of Canea is of great fertility but of small extent, not exceeding seven or eight miles in width.

One leading characteristic of tho mountain regions of Crete is the occurrence of depressed valleys or basins at a considerable height above tho sea, forming crater-like hollows without any outlet for their waters, and containing plains of considerable extent, which afford admirable pasturage in spring and early summer. The most remark-able of these upland basins (which appear to answer precisely to the Yailahs of the Lycian Taurus) are that called Nida, on the flanks of Mount Ida, at an elevation of between 5000 and 6000 feet ; the more extensive ono called Onialo, in the White Mountains, at a height of about 4000 feet ; and one in the Lasethe Mountains about 3000 feet above the sea, which is the most extensive of the three, and incloses a beautiful plain, containing no less than fifteen villages, with a population of between 3000 and 4000 souls.

Rivers.-—From its peculiar conformation it naturally results that Crete contains no rivers of any importance. Tho most considerable stream is that called tho Ieropotamo (the ancient Electra), which flows through the plain of tho Messara and falls into the sea on the south coast. Tho Mylopotamo (the ancient Oaxes), which traverses the fertile district north of Mount Ida, is the most important of those on the north coast ; while tho Platania, a small stream which falls into the sea a few miles west of Canea, deserves notice chiefly as being mentioned by Homer under tho name of Iardanus.

Coast-line.—The coasts of Crete, in consequence of its mountainous character, present a very broken and varied outline. In the west especially they form a number of rugged and lofty promontories, of which the north-west extremity is the headland now called Cape Bnsa, the ancient Corycus, and the south-west angle is formed by Cape Krio, the Kriu Metopon of ancient geographers. East of Cape Busa the lofty mountain headland of Cape Spada projects more than twelve miles from the general coast-line ; and again, beyond Canea, the mountainous peninsula called Akrotiri bounds the Bay of Sudha, which constitutes a naturally sheltered harbour of sufficient size to afford pro-tection to all the fleets of Europe. The north coast is again deeply indented, in the eastern portion of the island, by the Gulf of Mirabella, beyond which the coast runs out far to the north-east, ending in the narrow and rocky promontory of Cape Sidaro, the Sammonium of the ancients. The south coast is less broken and irregular, and contains few good harbours,—the mountains in many parts rising almost like a wall directly from the sea. There is, how-ever, one small but well-sheltered bay, about five miles east of Cape Littinos, still called Kaloi Limenes, or " the Fair Havens," under which name it is mentioned in the voyage of St Paul.

Islands.—The islands which are found around the coasts of Crete are for the most part mere rocks, unworthy of notice. The largest is that of Gavdo, the ancient Clauda, which is also mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, and (probably on that account) became in the Middle Ages the see of a bishop, though it is only about five miles long by three in breadth, and contains at the present day only about seventy families. The small island of Dia, now called Standia, which lies about eight miles north of the city of Candia, has a good port, and in consequence bore an important part during the memorable siege of that city. The isolated rock of Grabusa, off the north-west angle of the island, has obtained celebrity from its having been converted by the Venetians into a fortress, long reputed impregnable, which did not fall into the hands of the Turks until long after the capture of Candia. For the ____ reason it became a stronghold of the Greeks during the war of independence, and at that period afforded shelter to a considerable population.

Vegetation.—Though so large a part of Crete is occupied by mountains, the rest of the island is of great fertility, and there can be no doubt that, under a better system of government, it would become one of the richest and most productive islands in the Mediterranean. The forests which once covered the mountains have indeed for the most part disappeared, but the cypress still grows wild in the higher regions, while the lower hills are covered with olive woods. Oranges and lemons also abound, and are of excellent quality, so as to furnish almost the whole supply of continental Greece and Constantinople. Chestnut woods, as in Greece itself, are local and exceptional; the ____ is the case with the valonia oak; while in some districts the carob tree is so abundant as to form an important article of consumption. Pears, apples, quinces, mulberries, and other fruit-trees flourish in abundance, as well as vines, though the Cretan wines no longer enjoy the reputatiDn which they possessed in the time of the Venetians. Tobacco and cotton succeed well in the plains and low grounds, though not at present cultivated to any great extent.

Animals.—Of the wild animals of Crete, the only one that deserves special notice is the wild goat, which is still found in considerable numbers on the higher summits of Mount Ida and the White Mountains. It is the same species (Capra cegagrus) which is found in the Caucasus and Mount Taurus, and is distinct from the ibex or bouquetin of the Alps. Crete enjoys the same immunity which is possessed by several other large islands from the presence of serpents of all kinds,—a privilege ascribed by popular belief to the intercession of Titus, the companion of St Paul, who according to tradition was the first bishop of the island, and became in consequence its patron saint, previous to its conquest by the Venetians. Wolves also are not found in the island, though so common in Greece and Asia Minor.

History.—The earliest history of Crete, like that of most parts of continental Greece, is to so great an extent mixed up with mythology and fable as to render it impossible to arrive at any clear conclusions concerning it. The Cretans themselves claimed for their island to be the birthplace of Zeus, as well as the parent of all the other divinities usually worshipped in Greece as the Olympian deities. But passing from this region of pure mythology to the semi-mythic or heroic age, we find almost all the early legends and traditions of the island grouped around the name of Minos, one of those personages of the earliest Greek history of whom it is impossible to say whether any element of truth underlies the mass of mythical and poetical fable by which it has been surrounded. According to the received tradition, Minos was a king of Cnossus in Crete, who was a son of Zeus, and enjoyed through life the privilege of habitual intercourse with his divine father. It was from this source that he derived the wisdom which enabled him to give to the Cretans the excellent system of laws and governments that earned for him the reputation of being the greatest legislator of antiquity. At the same time he was reported to have been the first monarch who established a naval power, and acquired what was termed by the Greeks the Thalassolcraty, or dominion of the sea.

Whatever truth there may have been in this last tradition (which was received as an undoubted fact both by Thucydides and by Aristotle), it is certain that when we first hear of the Cretans, in the Homeric poems, they appear as a seafaring race, and apparently the only Greek people who at that early period attempted to compete with the Phoenicians as bold and adventurous navigators. The position of their island was moreover such as to give them great natural facilities for the command of the Aegean and the surrounding islands, as well as for communication with Phoenicia and Egypt.

Even at the earliest period when we have any informa-tion concerning it, the population of Crete was of a very mixed character, and we are told in the Odyssey (xix. 175) that besides the Eteocretes, who, as their name imports, must have been the original inhabitants, the island contained Achaaans, Pelasgians, Dorians, and Cydonians. Subsequently the Dorian element became greatly strengthened by fresh immigrations from the Peloponnesus, and during the historical period all the principal cities of the island were either Dorian colonies, or had adopted the Dorian dialect and institutions. It is certain that at a very early period the Cretan cities were celebrated for their laws and system of government,, the origin of which was of course attributed to Minos, but which had much in common with those of the other Dorian states, as well as with those of Lycurgus at Sparta, which were, indeed, according to one tradition, copied in great measure from those already existing in Crete.

It is certain that whatever merits the Cretan laws may have possessed for the internal regulation of the different cities, they had the one glaring defect, that they made no provision for any federal bond or union among them, or for the government of the island as a whole. It was owing to the want of this that the Cretans scarcely figure in Greek history as a people, though the island, as observed by Aristotle, would seem from its natural posi-tion calculated to exercise a preponderating influence over Greek affairs. Thus they took no part either in the Persian or the Peloponnesian war, or in any of the subse-quent civil contests in which so many of the cities and islands of Greece were engaged. At the same they were so far from enjoying tranquillity on this account that the few notices we find of them in history always represent them as engaged in local wars among one another; and Polybius tells us that the history of Crete was one con-tinued series of civil wars, which were carried on with a bitterness of animosity exceeding all that was known in the rest of Greece.

In these domestic contests the three cities that generally took the lead, and claimed to exercise a kind of hegemony or supremacy over the whole island, were Cnossus, Gor-tyna, and Cydonia. But besides these three, there were many other independent cities, which, though they gene-rally followed the lead of one or other of these more powerful rivals, enjoyed complete autonomy, and were able to shift at will from the alliance of one to the other. Among the most important of these were—Lyttus or Lyctus, in the interior, south-east of Cnossus; Bhaucus, between Cnossus and Gortyna; Phoestus, in the plain of Messara, between Gortyna and the sea; Polyrrhenia, near the north-west angle of the island; Aptera, a few miles inland from the Bay of Sudha; Eleutherna and Axus, on the northern slopes of Mount Ida; and Lappa, between the White Moun-tains and the sea. Phalasarna on the west coast, and Chersonesus on the north, seem to have been dependencies, and served as the ports of Polyrrhenia and Lyttus. Elyrus stood at the foot of the White Mountains, just above the south coast. In the eastern portion of the island were Prcesus in the interior, and Itanus on the coast, facing the east, while Hierapytna on the south coast was the only place of importance on the side facing Africa, and on this account rose under the Eomans to be one of the principal cities of the island.

Though it was continually torn by civil dissensions, the island maintained its independence of the various Macedonian monarchs by whom it was surrounded; but having incurred the enmity of Rome, first by an alliance with the great Mithridates, and afterwards by taking active part with their neighbours, the pirates of Cilicia, the Cretans were at length attacked by the Roman arms, and, after a resistance protracted for more than three years, were finally subdued by Q. Metellus, who earned by this success the surname of Creticus (G7 B.C.). The island was now reduced to a Roman province : but by a very singular arrangement was united for administrative purposes with the district of Cyrenaica or the Pentapolis, on the opposite coast of Africa, a disposition which continued un-changed till the time of Constantine. Thenceforth Crete constituted a separate province under a governor of consular rank, and continued to form part of the Byzantine empire till the 9 th century, when it fell into the hands of the Saracens (823). It then became a formidable nest of pirates, but defied all the efforts of the Byzantine sovereigns to recover it till the year 9G0, when it was reconquered by Nicephorus Phocas. In the partition of the Greek empire after the capture of Constantinople by the Latins in 1204, Crete fell to the lot of Boniface, marquis of Mont-ferrat, but was sold by him to the Venetians, and thus passed under the dominion of that great republic, to which it continued subject for more than four centuries.

Under the Venetian Government Candia, a fortress originally built by the Saracens, and called by them " Khandax," became the seat of government, and not only rose to be the capital and chief city of the island, but actually gave name to it, so that it was called in the official language of Venice " the island of Candia," a designation which from thence passed into modern maps, where it retained its position down to our own days. The ancient name of Krete or Kriti was, however, always retained in use among the Greeks, and is gradually resuming its place in the usage of literary Europe, The government of Crete by the Venetian aristocracy was, like that of their other dependencies, very arbitrary and oppressive, and numerous insurrections were the consequence. But with all its defects their administration did much to promote the material prosperity of the country, and to encourage commerce and industry; and it is probable that the island enjoyed during this period a more prosperous condition than it has done at any subsequent time. Their Venetian masters at least secured to the islanders external tranquillity, and it is singular that the Turks were content to leave them in undisturbed posses-sion of this opulent and important island for nearly two centuries after the fall of Constantinople. It was not till 1G45 that the Turks made any serious attempt to effect its conquest; but in that year they landed with an army of 50,000 men, and speedily reduced the important city of Canea. Retimo fell the following year, and in 1648 they laid siege to the capital city of Candia. This was the longest siege on record, having been protracted for more than twenty years; but in 1667 it was pressed with renewed vigour by the Turks under the grand vizier Achmet Kiuprili, and the city was at length compelled to surrender (September 1669). Its fall was followed by the submission of the whole island. (See Daru, Histoire de Venise, chap, xxxiii.)

From this time the island continued subject to the Ottoman rule without interruption till the outbreak of the Greek revolution. After the conquest a large part of the inhabitants embraced Mahometanism, and thus secured to themselves the chief share in the administration of the island. But far from this having a favourable effect upon the condition of the population, the result was just the contrary, and according to the testimony of an intelligent traveller, Crete was the worst governed province of the Turkish empire. The regular authorities sent from Constantinople were wholly unable to control the excesses of the janissaries, who exercised without restraint every kind of violence and oppression. Hence, when in 1821 the revolution broke out in continental Greece, the Cretans, headed by the Sfakiot mountaineers, at once raised the standard of insurrection, and carried on hostilities with such success that they soon made themselves masters of the whole of the open country, and drove the Turks and Mahometan population to take refuge in the fortified cities. These, however, defied all the efforts of the insurgents ; and the contest was prolonged without any decisive result, until in 1830 the allied powers (France, England, and Russia) who had intervened in the contest between Greece and Turkey, transferred the island of Crete to the government of Mehemet Ali, viceroy of Egypt. This change of masters brought some relief to the unfortunate Cretans, who at least exchanged the licence of local misrule for the oppression of an organized despotism ; and the government of Mustafa Pasha, the ruler of the island for a considerable period, was more enlightened and intelligent than that of most Turkish governors.

In 1840 Crete was again taken from Mehemet Ali, and replaced under the dominion of the Turks, as it has continued ever since. Great improvement has undoubtedly taken place in the administration, and the island is said to be now the best governed and the most lightly taxed of all the provinces of the Turkish empire. But the strong desire of the Cretans for freedom and union with the Greek monarchy has given rise to two successive revolts ; the first of which in 1859 was speedily repressed; but the second, in 18G6, lasted for a considerable period, and required great exertions on the part of the Porte to put it down. It was followed by the concession of additional privileges to the Christian inhabitants, and a kind of constitutional government, which has placed the island in quite an exceptional position among Turkish provinces.
In all these insurrections, as well as in those against the Venetians in former days, a leading part has been borne by the people known as Sfakiots, a race of hardy mountaineers inhabiting the highlands and upland plains of the White Mountains, and who, from the rugged and inaccessible nature of their country, have always enjoyed a condition of semi-independence, while their active and warlike habits have rendered them formidable neigh-bours to the inhabitants of the plains. There is, however, no ground for supposing them to be in any respect a distinct race from the other population of the island ; they appear to be, on the contrary, the lineal representatives of the ancient Cretans, who have preserved comparatively unimpaired the character and manners of their forefathers. A curious proof of this is found in their still wearing high boots, a fashion noticed by ancient writers as characteristic of the Cretans, and which was then, as now, wholly unknown to the Greeks of the mainland. It is mentioned also by Venetian writers, that as late as the 17th century the Sfakiots retained that skill in the use of the bow for _which the Cretans were so celebrated in antiquity, and were with difficulty induced to lay it aside for the more civilized firearms of their rulers.
Population.—The inhabitants of Crete under the Venetians were estimated at about 250,000 souls. After the Turkish conquest the population was for a time greatly reduced, but afterwards gradually rose, till it was supposed again to have attained to about 260,000 at the time of the outbreak of the Greek revolution in 1821, of whom about half were Mahometans. The ravages of the war from 1821 to 1830, and the emigration that followed, produced a great diminution, and the population of the island was estimated by Mr Pashley in 1836 at only about 130,000. Since then it has again materially increased ; it was calculated by Captain Spratt in 1865 as amounting to 210,000, and this nearly agrees with the latest official estimate which gives 200,000 inhabitants in all, of whom less than 40,000 are Mahometans. It must be observed that very few of these are Turks,—the Mussulman popula-tion being almost entirely of native Cretan origin. Hence the Greek language is the only one spoken throughout the island, even in the towns and among the Mahometans.
Towns.—The only considerable towns in Crete are Candia, so long the capital of the island; Canea, which has succeeded to that dignity since the renewal of the Turkish dominion in 1840 ; and Retimo, or Bhithymno, also on the north coast, a small fortified town, with a good port and about 10,000 inhabitants. Ierapetra, on the south coast, on the site of the ancient Hierapytna, though reckoned the fourth city of the island and the capital of the eastern district, is a very poor place, with not more than about 2000 inhabitants.
Crete lias of late years been carefully examined and explored.
The older descriptions of the island by Tournefort, Pococke, Olivier,
and other travellers may now be considered as obsolete, and super-
seded by the more recent works of Pashley (Travels in Crete,
2 vols. 8vo, London, 1837), and Captain Spratt (Travels ana
Researches in Crete, 2 vols. 8vo. London, 1865), which between
them contain a full description of the whole island. At the same
time its geography has been placed on a satisfactory basis by the
admirable survey executed, under the orders of the British admiralty,
by Captain Graves and Captain (now Admiral) Spratt. A curious
and interesting addition to its archfeology has been also made by
the publication of a description of the island, drawn up under the
Venetians (about 1538), and preserved in manuscript in the Library
of St Mark, whence it has been published by Mr Falkener in the
Museum of Classical Antiquities, vol. ii. pp. 263-303. From this
treatise we learn how many architectural remains of the ancient cities
were still visible in the 16th century, which have long since dis-
appeared. All that can be gathered from ancient authors concern-
ing tho mythology and early history of the island is brought
together by Meursius (Creta, &c., in the 3d vol. of his works)
and Hoeck (Kreta, 3 vols. 8vo, Gottingen, 1823-29), but the
latter work was published before the recent researches which have
thrown so much light on the topography and antiquities of tho
island. (E. H. B.)


Among the features common to the two were the syssilia, or public tables, at which all the citizens dined in common. Indeed, the Cretan system, like that of Sparta, appears to have aimed at training up the young, and controlling them, as well as the citizens of more mature age, in all their habits and relations of life. The supreme governing authority was vested in magistrates called Cosmi, answering in some measure to the Spartan Ephori, but there was nothing corre-sponding to the two kings at Sparta. These Cretan institutions were much extolled by some writers of antiquity, but receive only qualified praise from the judicious criticisms of Aristotle (Polit. ii. 10).

But besides these there were many small towns, which still enjoyed or claimed the privileges of autonomy. In the earliest times, indeed, Crete was said to have contained a hundred cities, and though this was doubtless a mere poetical exaggeration, the existing remains show that the whole island was studded with numerous fortified strongholds, each of which may at times have asserted its independence. Such petty fortresses were well suited to a people of the predatory habits which distinguished the Cretans in all ages, notwithstanding the boasted ex-cellence of their government. Throughout the flourishing period of Greece, indeed, the Cretans were principally known as furnishing mercenary troops, who were distinguished for their skill in the use of the bow, so that a force of Cretan archers became almost a necessary addition to every Greek army,

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-21 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries