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A brief history of Crete

Dirck Jansz van Santen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Map of Crete, 1678. Dirck Jansz van Santen, Wikimedia Commons

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This website is not designed to provide you with a comprehensive history of Crete, but as you wander the island and hear about the Venetians and the Byzantines and the Romans and the Minoans, you might start to wonder how they all go together. That’s what this section does for you. It will tell you what was happening on Crete in key time periods and, most often, who was occupying or trying to occupy the island at the time.

Phaistos
Faistos. Olaf Tausch, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Mythological Crete

A good place to begin our history of Crete is with mythology because of the role that Crete plays in the story of Zeus, ruler over or chief of the other eleven gods. Some accounts say that Zeus was born and grew up on Mount Lykaion in Arkadia in the central and eastern part of the Peloponnese Peninsula on the mainland of Greece. Evidence of devotion to a deity on that spot has been found dating back to 3000 BC. Other accounts, however, say that Zeus was born in a cave on Crete, while still others say he was born on Mount Lykaion and was then brought to a cave on Crete, where he grew up. All versions of the story, however, begin with Ouranos, a tyrannical god who was killed by his youngest Titan son, Kronos (the Titans were the generation of gods preceding the Olympian gods). As he lay dying, Ouranos cursed Kronos, declaring that one of his sons would kill him just as he had killed his father, so as a preventative measure, Kronos swallowed the first five children his wife Rhea bore. She decided that she would get around Kronos and avoid that fate for her sixth child, Zeus, so when he was born, she gave Kronos a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes, which he swallowed, believing the stone to be the newborn. Zeus was then hidden in a cave on Crete, where young Cretan warriors, the Kourites, guarded him and shouted and beat their shields when Zeus cried so that he would not be discovered. A number of caves on Crete are said to have been the cave in which Zeus was guarded. Those most often cited are the Diktean cave above the village of Psychro on the Lasithi Plain in Eastern Crete and the Idaean cave on the slopes of Mount Ida (also called Mount Psiloreitis) in central Crete near the village of Anogeia and the city of Heraklion.

A brief history of Crete
Interior, Zeus Cave, Mount Ida, Crete. Zde, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Neolithic Crete, 7000–3000 BC

Crete is believed to have been settled as early as 7000 BC during the Neolithic period, which originated with the beginning of agriculture and lasted until about 3000 BC. These earliest settlers most likely came from Asia Minor and North Africa. Like peoples in other Neolithic societies, their culture was marked by the domestication of animals, the practice of agriculture, and modification of stone tools through polishing and grinding. Because they farmed (largely wheat, olives, and grapes), these settlers were released from the nomadic hunting-gathering economy, which allowed them to congregate in villages and build dwellings of mud and brick or to create dwellings out of caves. Because they were not constantly on the move, they also had the time to pursue crafts such as pottery making and weaving.

Neolithic_male_figurine,_pottery,_5000–3000_BC
Collection, Archaeological Museum, Heraklion. Zde, CC BY SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons
Steatopygous_Goddess,_clay,_Crete,_5300-3000_BC
Collection, Archaeological Museum, Heraklion. Zde, CC BY SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Minoan Crete, 3000–1450 BC

Minoan Crete, Europe’s first and Crete’s greatest civilization, went through three phases—(1) the Pre-palatial period marked by the early development of agriculture, trade, and crafts, (2) the construction of the first “palaces” in the First Palaces period, and (3) the New Palaces period. 

In what is often known as the Pre-Palatial period, about 2600-1900 BC, a completely unknown culture blossomed. It was marked by the building of monumental tombs, the building of sanctuaries at the highest points of settlements, and a ruling or religious class who dwelt in palaces. Villages spread across the island during this period, and sophisticated crafts were developed, including metal work, stone cutting, jewelry, weaving, and pottery. Olives and grapes were introduced as key agricultural products, and Crete began to trade with and export high-quality, finished goods to Egypt, the Cyclades, and the Middle East. When British archaeologist Arthur Evans began excavating this civilization at Knossos, he had to give this culture a name to distinguish it from the Mycenean culture, and he labeled it Minoan after the legendary King Minos. 

The First Palaces or Old Palace period of 1900-1700 BC was the time when the great complex centers of Knossos, Malia, Faistos, and Zakros emerged that we today call palaces, but they might have been administrative centers or temples. They were large complexes with the first known plumbing, were lavishly decorated, and contained large storehouses that hinted at their possible role as centers of redistribution or treasuries. The civilization of this First Palaces period was marked by paved roads that crossed the island, large irrigation projects, and a system of writing. The arts also flourished, and stone carving, fresco painting, and pottery reached new heights. The civilization had a thriving and powerful maritime and mercantile economy, evidenced by the Cretan bronze work and pottery that have been found all over the Eastern Mediterranean. Around 1700 BC, a major catastrophe of some kind—most likely an earthquake—destroyed the complexes and much of the civilization on Crete.

All of the ruins of the palaces to which visitors now flock date to the New Palaces period, 1700-1450 BC, and this is the period that we tend to think of as the height of the Minoan civilization. Following the earthquake or whatever had destroyed the earlier complexes, they were rebuilt in the same style but with more “give” to better withstand earthquakes. They were also built to be more magnificent, with elegant rooms, colorful frescoes, more sophisticated plumbing, extensive workshops, and venues for religious rituals. The use of the language system developed by the Minoans became widespread. Prosperity was not limited to the elite in the palaces—elegant villas were built outside the palaces, and scattered throughout the countryside were farms with pottery kilns, wine presses, and looms. Burials became more elaborate, with bodies interred in painted clay sarcophagi or stone coffins. In 1450 BC, the elaborate complexes on Crete were once again totally destroyed, but the cause is unclear. The consensus once was that the volcanic eruption and tidal wave of Santorini is what left Crete in ruins, but carbon dating now suggests that the eruption happened half a century earlier. Other theories are that people from mainland Greece invaded Crete or some kind of revolution or civil strife developed within Crete or maybe both. This time, the Minoan civilization did not recover. 

A brief history of Crete
Collection, Archaeological Museum, Heraklion. George Groutas, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons
Minoan ewer archmus
Collection, Archaeological Museum, Heraklion. CC0, Wikimedia Commons

Mycenaean or Dorian Crete, 1450–500 BC

Little evidence is available to suggest what happened next. Only the palace of Knossos was rebuilt following the widespread destruction on Crete, and it burned in 1380 BC and was not rebuilt. Crete became an adjunct of Mycenaean Greece when, in about 1100 BC, the Dorians dominated Crete, either through migration and settlement or invasion and war. They are considered to be one of four major ethnic groups of classical Greece and are likely to have come from the mountain regions of Northern Greece such as Macedonia and Epirus. Although the Dorians have a reputation for being hoodlums and brutes and this period is often considered a cultural dark age, they brought with them both advanced iron weapons and a society in which women had greater freedom and economic power than women of other Greek ethnicities.

Palace_of_Malia_-_Mycenean_Sanctuary
Palace of Malia, Mycenean Sanctuary, Crete. Bernard Gagnon, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Classical and Hellenistic Crete, 500–146 BC

As mainland Greece entered its classical or golden age in the 5th century BC (500-323 BC) and moved into the Hellenistic period (323-146 BC), Crete was revered for its past glories but was largely uninvolved in the classical Greek world. The city states that had formed on Crete, including those at Aptera and Eleutherna, each had its own territory, central city, and citadel or defense walls, and each was independent from the other city states. War broke out among the city states, and some of those that had fleets turned to piracy. This was also a time when some Cretan mercenaries joined the campaigns of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar.

The_remains_of_the_ancient_theatre_dating_back_to_the_early_Hellenistic_period_and_modified_during_the_Roman_period_(from_the_1st_century_AD_to_the_3rd_century_AD),_Aptera,_Crete
Amphitheater, Aptera. Following Hadrian, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Roman Crete, 146 BC–395 AD

The Romans invaded Crete in 69 BC because of its strategic position, and within two years, they managed to wipe out Cretan resistance to their rule. Crete thus became part of the Roman Empire that dominated Europe for the next 400 years. The coming of the Romans brought peace and prosperity to Crete, and they generally left Crete’s institutions alone. Trade increased, and public works such as roads, aqueducts, and bridges appeared all over the island. Roman buildings, monuments, and luxurious villas were built in places such as Aptera, Knossos, and Gortyna. The population began to spread into the low-lying or coastal regions, creating large settlements. When the Christian apostle Paul appointed one of his Greek disciples, Titus, to found the first church at Gortyna in 58 AD, he started Crete on the road to becoming Christian, and Crete’s Christian roots were reinforced when Paul himself visited the island in 47 AD.

Aptera_Dreischiffige_Römische_Zisterne
Cisterns, Aptera. Olaf Tausch, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons
Aptera cistern
Cisterns, Aptera. Olaf Tausch, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

First Byzantine Crete, 395–824 AD

When the Roman Empire split into a Western sector (ruled by Rome) and an Eastern sector (ruled by Constantinople), Crete became part of the Eastern or Byzantine Empire. This was a period of relative peace and prosperity. The era saw the first rich basilica churches constructed across the island following the standard Roman basilica form. These buildings were divided into three aisles by interior colonnades, and one or three apses were added at the east end to form the sanctuary. At the west end, a portico or narthex extended across the whole width of the building. The sites of 70 of these churches are known or suspected, but the best preserved and architecturally most sophisticated is the Church of Saint Titus at Gortyna.

A brief history of Crete
6th-Century Byzantine Church of Saint Titus, Gortyna, Crete. Following Hadrian, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Arab Crete, 824–961 AD

Byzantine rule was interrupted for about a hundred years when Arab Muslims from Spain (often known as Saracens) took control of the island in 824 and created the Emirate of Crete. They imposed the Muslim religion on Crete and forced many of the inhabitants to convert. The Arabs did not achieve much in either culture or commerce in part because their primary activity was piracy, which they were good at, and Cretan fleets looted the shores of the Byzantine state and robbed the inhabitants, often selling them as slaves. The negative reputation of the Arabs or Saracens was used in the not-too-distant past by Gavalochori residents to threaten children into proper behavior. The old people and especially elderly women encouraged children to behave by referencing the Saracens: “I will give you to Sarakinos” or “Do not go out because the Saracens will take you or will slaughter you.” If they perceived someone as a bad person, they would say, “This is a Saracen.”

Saracen_fleet_against_Crete
Saracen Fleet Against Crete. Cplakidas, Wikimedia Commons

Second Byzantine Crete, 961–1204 AD

Crete was returned to the Byzantine Empire in 961 by the Byzantine general and later emperor Nikephoros Phokas. He undertook to re-Christianize Crete and used a number of creative measures to bring Cretans who had been converted to Islam back to Christianity. He transformed Muslim mosques into Christian churches and built new churches, encouraged Christians who lived abroad to move to Crete and gave them land, he reestablished twelve dioceses, and he made Heraklion the seat of the Archbishop of Crete. He also sent out a band of missionaries led by the monk Saint Nikon, who walked throughout the island preaching Christianity. Accounts of his missionary zeal include the tale that he crossed Crete from one end to the other in a single day, shouting to everyone he met, “Repent.” The word repent is thus linked with his name, and he is often called Saint Nikon the Repentant or Saint Nikon the Repenter.

Byzantine Crete came to an end when the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204), an armed expedition organized by the pope, set out to capture the Muslim-controlled city of Jerusalem. As a result of a series of economic and political events, the expedition ended up sacking Constantinople instead. Because Constantinople was the capital of the Christian-controlled Byzantine Empire, its conquest led to the fragmentation of the Byzantine Empire, with its territory divided among the crusade leaders. Crete went to Venice.

Ναός_Αγίου_Ιωάννη,_Έρφοι
Byzantine Fresco, 13 A.D. St. John, Erfi, Crete. C messier, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Venetian Crete, 1204–1669 AD

Although Crete had been formally ceded to Venice, the Venetians needed to fight for four years to take control of the island, where they remained for more than 400 years. While it was an overseas colony of the Republic of Venice, Crete was known as the Kingdom of Candia after the name of its capital city, Candia (now Heraklion). Crete was an invaluable addition to the Venetian maritime empire because its ports gave access to the Eastern Mediterranean, and its land supplied food for Venetian sailors and timber for their ships. The Venetians imposed their own model of government on the island, dividing Crete into six parts or sestieri controlled by a magistrate from Heraklion. The current villages in Apokoronas date to this period, and its name comes from the castle or fortress of Apokoronas, which played an important role in the defense of the island. 

The Venetians replaced Orthodox Christianity with Catholicism as the official religion, which didn’t sit well with the Cretans, so rebellions were frequent during the first century of the Venetian occupation. Once an uneasy co-existence was established between the Venetians and the Cretans, the Cretans benefitted from the Venetian culture, and during the closing period of Venetian rule, painting, literature, architecture, song, and poetry flourished on Crete. The large monasteries on the island became centers of Greek learning and developed great libraries. 

One of Crete’s most famous offspring, artist Domenikos Theotokopoulos, better known as El Greco or “The Greek,” was born in 1541 during the Venetian period of Crete. Born in present-day Heraklion, he grew up in a time of great artistic activity in the city because many of the writers and artists who had fled Constantinople after it was conquered by the Turks in 1453 settled on Crete. Because Heraklion was a Venetian city at the time, El Greco went to Venice to further his studies and then moved on to Toledo, Spain, where he produced paintings of new and unusual interpretations of traditional religious subject matter that were more appreciated after his death than while he was alive.

Gavalochori: A Tour on Foot
Venetian Wells, Gavalochori. Luka Tica, Foundation for Gavalochori

Ottoman or Turkish Crete, 1669–1898 AD

Because of the misery caused by the Turks, the Turkish occupation lives most strongly in the memories of Cretans even today. As Venetian power gradually declined, the Ottoman Turks, who were Muslims, began to challenge the Venetians, landing on Crete in 1645 and taking the fortress of Chania in that year. Two years later, they laid siege to Heraklion. Because of its strong fortifications, the city held out for 21 years—one of the most dramatic events in the history of the world—but it fell in 1669. The Turks wanted to occupy Crete because it was at a crossroads among the Aegean, the Middle East, and North Africa, and Crete’s military resources hindered the movement of their ships. 

As a result of the Turkish invasion, Crete was plunged into economic decline and cultural deprivation. The Ottoman Empire was interested not in developing the island but in making money out of it, so the Turks invested little in infrastructure. This is why there are few major buildings on Crete from this period except for mosques. Although the Turks allowed the return of the Orthodox Church, taxation and laws favored Muslims and discriminated against Christians to such an extent that many Christians converted to Islam. The economic situation began to improve in the 18th century, when Crete began exporting grain around the Eastern Mediterranean and as far as France, and manufacturing, including the making of soap from olive oil, began to sprout up in the villages. 

The Cretans resisted the Turks throughout their occupation, and waves of rebellions were constantly occurring, always met with great brutality by the Turks. The first major rebellion occurred in 1770, led by diplomat and fighter Daskalogiannis, who, when trying to negotiate with the Turks, was seized and taken to Chania before being skinned alive in Heraklion’s main square. 

A second famous incident occurred in 1866, when a major rebellion saw the Turks largely removed from rural Crete, although the larger villages remained subjugated. When fighting began in Rethymno, 700 women and children fled the conflict and took refuge in the Arkadi Monastery southeast of the city, joining the 300 armed resistance fighters stationed there. The Turks laid siege to the monastery with 15,000 men and 30 canons, so the end was never in doubt. The Cretan rebels held out for two days and then, in perhaps the first suicide bombing in history, ignited the large store of gunpowder and munitions in the monastery and blew themselves, most of the women and children, and many of the attacking Turks sky high. This event caused Europe to pay attention to the Cretans’ struggle against the Turks and attracted widespread sympathy for the rebels. 

Clashes continued between the Cretans and Turks until on November 3, 1898, there was not a single Turkish soldier left on the island, and Crete celebrated its freedom. The Cretans’ resistance to the Turks made Turkish families who were living in the Apokoronas region uncomfortable, so in 1850, there was a mass departure of Turks from Gavalochori to Chania. More of them left Gavalochori in 1865, when Cretans began to advocate for union with Greece, and in 1870, the last Turkish family left Gavalochori.

Turkish Crete produced several renowned individuals who had great influence on Crete, Greece, and the larger world. Eleftherios Venizelos, the Greek statesman and prominent leader of the Greek national liberation movement who served multiple terms as prime minister of Greece, was born during the Ottoman period in 1864 in Mournies, near Chania. He had such a profound influence on the affairs of Greece that he is credited with being “The Maker of Modern Greece” and is widely known as the Ethnarch or leader of the tribe or nation of Greece. He died in 1936 and is buried at Akrotiri, a site overlooking Chania.

Nikos Kazantzakis, a native of Heraklion and both a lawyer and a writer, was born in 1883. He was nominated nine times for the Nobel Prize for Literature and was the author of Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ. His grave is located at the Martinengo Bastion at the southern corner of the wall around Heraklion. 

The Turkish period of occupation produced another famous person closer to Gavalochori—Konstantinos Malinos, who was born in 1832 in Agios Pavlos. He is known as a fighter who helped shake off Turkish rule. He started his revolutionary activity in 1858 and participated in the Cretan revolutions of 1866 and 1878 and in the battle of Almyrida in 1896, which was the last battle the Cretans fought against the Turks. From 1895 to 1899, Malinos served as the mayor of Vamos, a village very near Gavalochori. He died in 1913, just a few months before the unification of Crete with Greece.

Cretan_Turks
Cretan Turks. E. A. Cavaliero, Wikimedia Commons
A brief history of Crete
Nikos Kazantzakis. Kazantzakis Museum, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Hellenic Crete, 1898-1941

In 1832, the Greek state was established, but it did not include Crete, although the Cretans desperately wanted to be part of Greece. To address the tension around this issue, in 1898, negotiations between Greece and the Ottoman Empire, aided by the Great Powers of Russia, Great Britain, France, Austria-Hungary, Italy, and Germany, imposed a settlement on the island. Crete was granted autonomous status, and Prince George, a son of the Greek king, was appointed High Commissioner of Crete. One of the provisions of the settlement was that Crete was allowed to keep all of the Minoan finds from the excavations of Arthur Evans and others on the island instead of having to send them to the National Museum in Athens, which is why the Heraklion Archaeological Museum now contains so many amazing treasures. In 1913, a treaty ended the Balkan Wars, and Crete became a part of the Greek nation. Following unification with Greece, Crete’s fortunes generally followed those of Greece in general.

Crete’s dealings with Turkey were not yet finished despite its separation from Turkey and its unification with Greece. Crete was affected by the “exchange of populations” agreed to by the Turkish and Greek governments in 1923 after Greece’s failed invasion of Turkey. The initial request for an exchange of population came from Cretan-born statesman Eleftherios Venizelos in a letter he submitted to the League of Nations in 1922. Turkey envisioned the population exchange as a way to bring Muslims living in Greece back to Turkey and to provide settlers for its villages that had been newly depopulated by the exodus of Greek Orthodox Christians from Turkey. Greece saw the exchange as a way to provide propertyless Greek Orthodox refugees from Turkey with property from expelled Muslims. The treaty brought 1,221,489 Greek Orthodox refugees to Greece, and almost 400,000 Muslims were forcibly made refugees and denaturalized from their homes. Historians now describe the exchange as a legalized form of ethnic cleansing. Only about 18% of the population of the Greek islands were involved in the exchange, but a considerable proportion of the refugees were resettled on Crete, taking over the redistributed property of Turks who had remained behind when their army departed in 1898. The population exchange had little effect on the Apokoronas area or on Gavalochori, however, because the Turks had already left many years before.

The population exchange provided numerous problems for Greece. The refugees from Turkey faced discrimination by the local Greek population because they spoke what seemed like strange Greek dialects and were often seen as rivals for land and jobs. Furthermore, the arrival of so many people in such a short time imposed significant costs on the Greek economy such as building houses and schools, importing enough food, and providing health care. Increasing the problem was that the Immigration Act of 1924, passed by the US Congress, sharply limited the number of immigrants the United States was willing to take in annually. Its passage removed one of the traditional safety valves that Greece had had in periods of high unemployment.

The early period of Crete’s union with Greece produced a well-known artist with direct ties to Gavalochori. The mother of filmmaker, screenwriter, and film producer Theodoros “Theo” Angelopoulos, Katerina Angelopoulou, was from Gavalochori. Angelopoulos, whose films include Days of ’36 and Landscape in the Mist, was known for his slow, episodic and ambiguous narrative structures and complex, carefully composed scenes. His film Eternity and a Day won the Palme d’Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1998.

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Old Harbor, 1919, Chania. Frederic Boissonnas, Wikimedia Commons
Lakki_Deux_insurgés_-_Baud-bovy_Daniel_Boissonnas_Frédéric_-_1919
Cretan Rebels, 1919, Lakki, Crete. Frederic Boissonnas, Wikimedia Commons

German-Occupied Crete, 1941–1945

Most Cretan soldiers were mobilized at the beginning of World War II to fight in Northern Greece, first against the Italians and then against the Germans. When the Greek government and the Allied soldiers were driven off the mainland by the Germans, they fled to Crete, which was intended to be an impregnable bulwark against the Nazis. The intended bulwark turned out to be a disaster as a result of a lack of preparation, poor communication, and incompetence on the part of the Allies. Hitler wanted to use Crete as an air base against British forces in the Eastern Mediterranean, and after a week of bombing raids, Nazi paratroopers launched the world’s first successful invasion by air on May 20, 1941. Thousands of German troops landed all around the Maleme airfield west of Chania. Although Allied soldiers and ordinary Cretan men, women, and children (using shotguns, aces, and spades) put up such stubborn resistance for 10 days that the Germans lost 170 aircraft and 3000 specially trained paratroopers, they managed to establish a bridgehead at the Maleme airfield. This was the Battle of Crete. Allied forces were chased across the island to the south coast, from which the majority were taken by boat to Egypt. With the occupation of Greece by the Axis powers, Greece’s territory was divided into occupation zones, with the Germans administering Athens, Thessaloniki, and the Aegean islands, including most of Crete. Other regions of the country were given to Germany’s partners, Italy and Bulgaria.

Cretan resistance began almost immediately after the Battle of Crete. On May 31, 1941, a planning meeting created the Patriotic Front of Crete (the name was later changed to the National Liberation Front). Its objectives were to support the Cretan people under occupation by boosting morale, providing information, distributing food, and undertaking operations against the Germans. The resistance of the Cretan people continued throughout the occupation and led to thousands of executions of Cretan residents and the obliteration of whole villages. One instance occurred immediately after the Battle of Crete, when the German occupying forces destroyed the village of Kandanos, which is southwest of Chania, in reprisal for the participation of the local population in the Battle of Crete. On June 3, 1941, the Germans killed 180 of the residents, slaughtered all of the livestock, and burned all of the homes in the village to the ground. Another infamous example of atrocities by the Germans on Crete happened in Viannos, south of Heraklion, on September 14–16, 1943, when over 500 civilians from several villages on the southeastern coast of Crete were executed. August 22, 1944, saw another mass murder when 164 residents of nine villages known as the Kentros villages—located in the Amari basin near Mount Kentros south of Rethymno—were killed. The villages were then looted and dynamited. 

The German occupation ruined the Greek economy and brought terrible hardships to the Greek population. About 80% of Greece’s industry, 90% of its infrastructure, and 25% of its forests and other natural resources were destroyed. One fourth of the villages had been burned, and over 100,000 buildings were destroyed or heavily damaged. Nearly 700,000 of the total Greek population were refugees and lacked the basic necessities of life. Between 7 and 11% of its citizens lost their lives. The Jewish population of Greece was nearly eradicated, with many of them deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp. The period also was marked by relentless economic exploitation by the Nazis. Hitler’s policy toward the economy of occupied Greece was termed retaliation, with the retaliation being for Greece having chosen the wrong side. Germany was motivated as well by a desire to plunder the best resources of the country before the Italians could get them. Groups of economic advisors, business leaders, engineers, and factory managers came to Greece from Germany with the task of seizing anything they deemed of economic value. 

The Germans’ primary objective, however, in looting Greece was to find as much food as possible to sustain the German army. Their requisitions and outright plunder, the drop in agricultural production from war-time disruption, the breakdown of the country’s distribution networks due to damage to infrastructure, and hoarding by farmers led to the great famine of 1941-1942. In the Athens-Peiraias area alone, 40,000 people died of starvation. By the end of the occupation, it was estimated that the total population of Greece was 300,000 less than it should have been because of famine or malnutrition.

Germany had occupied Greece in 1941 out of the fear that British bombers based in Greece would bomb the Romanian oil fields and deprive the Nazis of the oil that powered their war machine. When Romania was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1944, there was no longer any reason for the Germans to occupy Greece, so they withdrew from mainland Greece at the end of October. Crete was still under German occupation, however, because 17,000 German soldiers were still stationed on the island. It remained under a strange Anglo-German command until May 9, 1945, when the Germans surrendered Crete to the British. 

The_German_Invasion_of_Crete,_May_1941_
Battle of Crete. Royal Navy, Wikimedia Commons
WW2 German military decoration of May 1941 on Wehrmacht uniform tunic left sleeve Norwegian Armed Forces Museum
Cuff band on German Military Uniform. Wolfmann, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Contemporary Crete, 1945 to Present

Greece’s recovery from the devastation of World War II and the Axis occupation lagged far behind that of the rest of Europe. In the 1950s, although the United States and other nations gave generous aid to Greece that somewhat improved its standard of living, Greece remained a poor country. Greece’s problems were compounded when civil war erupted in mainland Greece (1946-1949), dividing the left- and right-wing political factions, but Crete was largely uninvolved in this conflict. Crete was also less affected than the mainland by the coup that occurred in 1967, when a group of army colonels established a military junta to rule Greece. The colonels imposed martial law, abolished political parties, and imposed censorship. They also imprisoned, tortured, and exiled thousands of Greeks who opposed them. Cretan resentment toward the colonels intensified when they became involved in major tourist-development projects on the island. The junta stepped down in July of 1974, and Greeks voted against restoration of the monarchy, restoring democracy to Greece. The Cretans voted overwhelmingly in favor of returning to a democratic system.  

The history of Crete continues to be tied to conditions in Greece generally. In 1981, Greek joined the European Economic Community, a forerunner of the European Union. Greece was unable to adopt the euro as its currency when the euro was launched in 1999 because it was unable to meet the fiscal criteria for use of the euro. In 2001, it adopted the euro, misrepresenting the state of its finances in order to do so.

In 2004, Greece hosted the Olympic Games, bringing a flood of money into the country for improvements to its infrastructure but also costing the government 9 billion euros. Greece’s unsustainable finances prompted the European Commission to place Greece under fiscal monitoring in 2005. 

Greece’s financial condition worsened with the global financial crisis that began in 2007.  The International Monetary Fund and the European Union provided bailouts to Greece in 2010 and 2012, and in exchange, Greece had to commit to austerity measures, spending cuts, tax increases, wage cuts, and the elimination of thousands of public service positions. 

In 2015, the SYRIZA party won elections in Greece and elected Alexis Tsipras prime minister. He promised he would renegotiate the bailout terms and loosen the austerity measures that were required of Greece. In June of that year, he called a nationwide referendum on the EU’s proposed austerity measures in return for the bailout loans, and the Greeks overwhelmingly rejected the European creditors’ terms. Almost immediately after the vote, however, Tsipras turned his back on the results (not that it would have been possible for Greece to reject another bailout because of its desperate financial situation), acquiesced to the European creditors, and pressed the parliament to approve new austerity measures. In August, a third bailout for Greece was approved, and in return, Greece had to implement tax reforms, cut public spending, privatize state assets, and reform labor laws. The resulting recession produced closed shops, high unemployment, loss of health insurance for many, wage cuts, and the exit of many well-educated Greeks from the country. In 2017, the overall unemployment rate was 22% and much higher—44%—among young people. At the end of the recession, Greeks were 40% poorer on average than they had been before its inception.

The residents of Gavalochori are affected by the recent economic shocks confronting all Greeks. Just as Greece seemed poised to recover from the recession, it was hit with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, which affected all sectors of the Greek economy and tourism in particular. A strong tourist trade followed the pandemic, however, as people were desperate to travel and Greece (including Crete) was a favorite destination. As Greece was beginning to recover its financial stability in 2022, it was faced with soaring energy prices, rent increases, and inflation as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Because many inhabitants of Crete own family homes, are able to grow gardens, and have access to firewood from the nearby olive groves, Cretans have been able to survive Greece’s financial woes more easily than those who live in cities on the mainland. 

Apart from periodic economic challenges, Gavalochori continues to be impacted by long-term trends that have shaped the village over the past 50 years. The most important of these is probably the ongoing depopulation of the village by Greek residents. Although Greek families continue to use many of their old family homes for summer vacations and holiday celebrations, every year, fewer homes in the center of the village are occupied by Greeks. Some of these homes are being taken over by expats who are using them for vacation and/or retirement homes. Another trend is that some homes have been renovated into short-term vacation rentals, which have brought new visitors to the village and put new money into the pockets of Cretan natives although sometimes causing challenges to the traditional way of life. Perhaps the overriding continuing economic trend is that the presence of a strong tourism industry only a few kilometers away allows people in Gavalochori to work in the tourist industry during the tourist season, balanced out by the harvest of olives for olive oil in the winter. As a result of these two economic drivers, Gavalochori can sustain a level of prosperity that many other areas of Crete and Greece do not enjoy.

Aerial_view_of_the_old_town_of_Chania_on_Crete,_Greece -
Old Harbor, Chania. Dronepicr, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons
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