Crete

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Crete (Kriti), is a Greek island in the Mediterranean Sea and, with an area of 8,336km2, is the largest island in that sea. The oldest evidence for human habitation dates back to the pre-Pottery era, around 6100 - 5700 B.C. and was discovered in Knossos, later the capital of the Minoan civilization. United with Greece in December 1913, the current capital of Crete is Heraklion (also spelled Iraklion).

Part of the Eastern Roman, Byzantine, Empire until 1204 and the Western Christian sack of Consatntinople, the island was allocated to the Genoese but sold to the Venetians for 1000 silver marks. The Venetians occupied the island and initially tried to impose Roman Catholicism on the Greek Orthodox inhabitants. This imposition, and the high taxes that the Venetiians brought with them, was resisted by the Cretans and the early Venetian rule was marked by a series of revolts against the conquerers. The later Venetian period was generally more stable.

In 1669, after a twenty three year struggle, the island finally fell into the hands of the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman rule was marked by an almost continuous series of uprisings as the Cretans fought against their Muslim rulers. Notable events during these uprisings included the mass suicide of the Cretan rebels in the Monastery of Arkadi in 1866 and, later that year, the evacuation of Christian refugees from the south coast of the island by ships of the Royal Navy, French, Prussian and Russian Navies; evacuations carried out in breach of the Ottoman naval embargo in the island.

In 1897, with the total collapse of the Ottoman administration and amid scenes of violent ethnic cleansing as Christian Cretans sought revenge on Muslim Cretans for the latter’s support of the Ottoman regime and Cretan Muslims sought to maintain their favoured economic position, the island was occupied by forces from Italy, France, Britain and Russia. It then became a semi-autonomous state within the Ottoman Empire, its ruler being appointed by Greece but having to be approved by the Sublime Porte. The island finally achieved ‘enosis,’ union with Greece, following the end of the Second Balkan War in 1913.

The island was invaded by German forces in May 1941. Spearheaded by paratroops, Operation Merkuri, though successful in gaining control of Crete, was a disaster for the German forces. In spite of the fact that the Greek Dictator Metaxas had disarmed the islanders because of their opposition to his right wing rule, the islanders rose up against the invaders with whatever weapons they had at hand and, aiding the Greek, New Zealand and British troops present, made the Germans pay dearly for every metre of ground they gained. Over 4,000 paratroopers were killed and the German 7th Airborne Division was virtually wiped out. The effect of the German setback was such that Hitler ordered that no German paratroop assaults were ever to be launched again. The islanders continued to resist the Germans until the very end of the occupation, paying a high price as towns and villages, such as Kandanos and Floria, were wiped out and their populations executed in reprisal for partisan attacks.

Cretans continued to display their thirst for freedom after the war, the island being one of the major sources of opposition to the right wing military regime of the ‘Colonels Junta’ who ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974.

The island is now a major tourist and agricultural centre.

Notable features of Crete include the Samaria Gorge, the longest gorge in Europe, the Minoan remains at Knossos and the former leper colony at Spinalonga.

In Greek mythology, Crete was the home of the Minotaur, a beast with the head of a bull on the body of a man. According to Cretan legend Zeus, the King of the Gods, was born on the island. However, the ancient Greeks believed that Zeus was born on Mount Olympus in northern Greece and this dispute gave rise to the ancient Greek saying "All Cretans are liars."

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