During the first centuries of the AD era and onto the Middle Ages, Crete passed from one hand to another, due to its strategic position in the Mediterranean. As a result, the islanders were in a constant struggle for their freedom, wishing to get rid of the harsh and brutal conditions imposed upon them by the conquerors. The island passed successively into the hands of the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Byzantines again and the Venetians, but it continued to safeguard its cultural autonomy.
In the first Byzantine period, Crete became an important Christian stronghold. In AD 824 the Saracens occupied the island and Chandax (today’s Heraklion) was their base for piratical raids in the Mediterranean. In AD 961, the future emperor Nikephoras Phocas drove them out, thus inaugurating the second Byzantine period. In the years that followed, Crete once again became a strong Christian centre – and advanced to a great cultural height.
After the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the ‘Franks’, Crete is under the control of the Venetians (with a small intervention from the Genoese). This period brought exceptional economic and intellectual prosperity and the Venetians built huge fortifications, large cities and monuments of outstanding beauty. At the same time, the Cretan Renaissance gifted us with the magnificent Cretan School of painting. When it comes to the arts, music and theatre flourished; the wonderful creations of Erotokritos and Erofili are two works that survive to this day and have come to define the period of the Cretan Renaissance.
1st Byzantine Period (AD 330 – 824)
Until the 3rd century, Crete, together with Cyrene of Africa, was a province of the Roman state with Gortyna as its capital. After the administrative division of Theodosius the Great, it remained in the Eastern Roman state and later (AD 534) became one of the 64 independent provinces of the Byzantine Empire – with a Byzantine general as governor – enjoying relative autonomy due to its privileged position and fertile land.
Christianity, the new religion at the time, spread rapidly on the island after the arrival of the Apostle Paul and the organization of the church by Tito’s student. The vast influence of Christianity is evident on the social and economic organization of the island, but also architecture, art and letters in general. During this time, we see many early Christian temples (basilicas) built in the area in various locations. Traces of more than 40 such basilicas are still preserved today in Gortyna like the basilica of St. Titus, Hersonissos, Sougia, Elounda and Itano. The dioceses founded during these years formed the basis for any subsequent administrative division of the island. In AD 365, a series of catastrophic earthquakes and tidal waves caused extensive damage to all coastal cities and settlements in the area. Yet, until the 7th century, the island went through a period of growth and tranquillity.
The Arab Incursion and Occupation (AD 824 – 961)
During the 7th century, pirate raids mainly by the Arabs, which intensified in the 8th century, resulted in the weakening of the population and neglect of coastal sites. With most coastal settlements completely abandoned, the Saracen Arabs land on the island of Crete, that “flows honey and milk”, as they said, in AD 824. A difficult period begins for Crete. The Arab invaders destroy its beautiful and large capital, Gortyna, and build a new capital, Chandakas, which becomes their base for their pirate excursions. The city got its name from the deep moat (Khandak) that the conquerors dug around the city walls, which they named El Khandak.
The Arab rule on the island lasted for approximately 140 years; they imposed harsh living conditions and cut off any connection to the Byzantine world, thus preventing any progress and development. Soon after, the Arabs spread all over the island and mainly to the countryside, where they created new settlements, to which they gave, as expected, Arabic names. Some of these are preserved to this day and certify the owners and the time they were established. A few of these place names and settlements are Chondras, Houmeri, Atzipas, Atsipopoulos and several others.
The capital of the island, Chandakas, became an important slave-trading centre and acquired an urban character. It is characteristic that from this period no monument or element of historical memory survives except the names of the river Aposelemi (Abu Selim), and Karteros. The latter is the name of the Byzantine general Krateros who failed to occupy the island. During this time Crete becomes a secure post for the Saracen pirates in the Mediterranean. As a result, the Byzantine provinces in the Aegean suffer from the frequent raids, while the pirates dominate the seas and accumulate untold wealth from the raids and slave trade. When it comes to the local Christian population, they are under constant persecution, and only small numbers survive in the mountains. During this period the Byzantines carried out several operations for the liberation of Crete, which, however, were condemned to failure and resulted in bloodbaths for the local population.
2nd Byzantine Period (AD 961 – 1204)
The fate of the island changes in AD 961 with the recapture of the island by the Byzantines from Nikiforos Phokas, who after a long four-month siege managed to occupy the capital of the Arabs, Chandakas. The losses during the siege of the city and the damage to its great fortress were enormous, especially on the part of the besieged. Characteristic is the report of an Arab historian who states that more than 200 thousand souls were slaughtered and just as many captured; the numbers, however, are believed to be exaggerated.
After his victory, Nikiforos Fokas built the Byzantine castle of Temenos (Kanli Kastelli) and tried to move the city of Heraklion there, but without success. The Cretans who had forcibly converted to Islam return to the religion of their ancestors and many of the Arab inhabitants, illegitimate children of Christian mothers, are baptized into Christianity and remain in Crete. From this point, and for 250 years, a new era of development and prosperity begins for the island. Crete is an autonomous subject of the Byzantine empire and due to its geographic position enjoyed relative independence. The new administrative centre, Chandakas, which used to be one of the most important slave markets during the Arab occupation, now becomes the ecclesiastical centre of the island. The Archdiocese of Crete is re-established with Chandakas as its base, while several missionaries arrive on the island, headed by Saint Nikon “the Metanoeite“.
The reduction of the population requires the positioning of veteran soldiers and Byzantine nobles, in strategic positions on the island, to maintain security. Byzantine soldiers from Pisidia settled near Matala; their village still exists today and is known as Pitsidia. Similarly, the Mourtarios, a unit of elite fighters, settled in the fertile area of Pediada in the village of Mouchtaro. The Armenian mercenaries of Fokas settle in areas around Apokoronas, Rethymno and Sitia. In addition, families of Byzantine nobles are spread between various locations on the island. According to an often disputed document, signed by Emperor Alexios II Comnenos, twelve distinguished families were sent to Crete, to ensure the proper governance of the island and preserve stability and security. To this day, some villagers in Crete claim their descent from one of these noble families; the most famous were Skordilis, Kallergis, Pateros, Fokas, and Vlastos. These names are still in use and found as place names around Crete. The families formed the nuclei around which settlements were created in the following years. The Kallergis family was later involved in uprisings and other major historical events during the Venetian and Ottoman periods.
Based on this repositioning, the emperors established a feudal-like system that formed the basis of the social and economic conditions on the island. The lords were given ownership and control of entire villages within their land district and in return they provided the emperor with men, horses and weapons. Sfakia was excluded from this arrangement since everyone was noble. During this period there is also an increase in population, which is enhanced by the arrival of settlers from various parts of the empire, and general developments in the region. The Second Byzantine period reached its peak in the 12th century before Crete passed onto the Venetians. During the Second Byzantine period, Christianity flourished and many churches and monasteries were constructed.
Venetian Crete (AD 1204 – 1669)
The end of the Second Byzantine period was troublesome and signalled the gradual decline of the Byzantine Empire and its provinces in general. After the Sack of Constantinople in 1204, the island of Crete was offered to Count Boniface of Montferrat, the leader of the Crusade. Unable to control such a large island, he sold it to the Venetians for 1000 silver pieces. The formal possession was granted to the Republic of Venice on 12th August 1204, and by 1212 the Venetians had consolidated their authority, crashing the initially successful usurpation of the Genovese. The Venetians began their systematic colonization by settling Venetian nobles and soldiers around the island. Their dominance over the island is largely uninterrupted until AD 1669.
The Kingdom of Candia – Regno or Ducato di Candia – was divided first into 6 and then in the 14th century, 4 districts (which currently roughly correspond to the 4 modern prefectures). The system of government set up was centralized and required strict order and discipline. For the Sfakia area, a separate, semi-autonomous status was introduced, under a Venetian official or Pronoete. The Governor of Crete had the title of Duke and together with the Pronoete of Sfakia, they formed the Signoria. The Cretans themselves were in a disadvantaged state, working on the estates of the nobles or their own small-holdings generally in poor mountainous terrain or other inaccessible areas. A very small part of the older noble houses received titles of lesser worth – becoming the so-called Cretan Nobility.
The Venetian conquerors held sway under this semi-feudal system for 450 years. Times were rough and the heavy taxation and frequent seizure of private property of the locals, engendered a constant state of insurrection by the natives, particularly in the first two centuries of Venetian control. Between 1207 and the 1360s, there were 14 uprisings and 27 in total. The greatest and hardest fight was that of Alexios Kallergis; it lasted 18 years (1282-1299) and was centred in the region of Mylopotamos, from where it spread across the entire island. It was brought to an end by the Treaty of Alexios Kallergis, which for the first time made provisions for the civil and ecclesiastical rights of the Cretan people. Revolutionary movements continued right up to the first decades of the 16th century. Even though the revolts did not result in the liberation of the island, they did bring about improvements in the living conditions of the locals.
Over time, the Venetians relaxed their autocratic administration; they permitted mixed marriages and allowed the locals to settle anywhere they liked on the island. Consequently, the social and economic position of the Cretans improved and a new and ambitious middle-class was born,, eager to expand in areas of trade. During this period, the arts and letters also flourished. After the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, Byzantine scholars sought refuge in Crete and the island became a centre of culture; Byzantine arts and letters continued to evolve and survive. The influence of the Italian Renaissance, combined with Byzantine features and styles, created the so-called Cretan School of painting and iconography. In essence, it retained the basic Byzantine approach but borrowed elements from Italian painting. Damaskenos, Theophanes and Domenikos Theotokopoulos (El Greco) are some of the most prominent names from this period.
It is estimated that during the Cretan Renaissance, more than 200 painters worked in Candia (modern-day Heraklion), about the same number as in Florence. Another important outcome of the Renaissance on the island was the advancement of education, the humanities and literature. Monasteries around Crete, such as Agkarathos, became centres of learning and the scholar-monks of Crete occupied important positions within the Orthodox Church. The high regard for education is also supported by the literacy level in the general population, which at the time reached 30 per cent, an unusually high number for this period.
Influential personalities and representatives of this time are Giorgos Chortatzis, author of the play ‘Erofili’; Marcos Antonios Foskolos, a comic poet who penned ‘Fortunatos’, and Vitsentzios Kornaros with the romance novel “Erotokritos’ – cherished by all, and still sung today all over Crete. In addition to the cultural and artistic treasures, the Venetian period contributed greatly to the architecture of the island, which is still evident in many urban centres. Defensive works – such as those of the fortified cities of Candia, Rethymno and Chania, ports and magnificent dockyards, impressive forts, churches, monasteries, plazas and public buildings – all designed by Venetian architects can be admired by visitors to this day.