The history of Sfakia is exemplary for the history of Crete. Crete's position in the Mediterranean Sea is at the crossroads of traffic between Europe, Asia and Africa. Therefore, it always has had the interest of many rulers and usurpators, who all let their traces, until the present day.
The region of Sfakia plays a significant role in all the freedom struggles. Due to its natural environment -closed in by the sea and in the north by the nearly 2500 meters high White Mountains, the inhabitants were very hard to be beaten. Their independent nature brought them many freedom fighters, which made several turns in history. The Sfakians produced archers for the army of Alexander The Great, have built the ships for the Venetian merchants and discoverers and survived the collapsing Byzantine empire. They hosted the many crusaders on their way to Jerusalem and had St. Paul as their guest. Daskalogiannis from Anopoli, just above Chora Sfakion, freed them from the Turks and was hiding in a cave at the sea there, until the Turks found him and skinned him.
In WW II, Sfakia was used by the allied forces to escape from German attacks during the Battle of Crete. The narrow Imbros gorge was until the sixties the only path to reach Sfakia. Only a couple of gunmen were needed to protect the 2 meters wide corridor. Both events are commemorated still every year.
Below you will find a concise history of Crete, starting with Greek mythology. All foreign influences still have their impact on Crete's inhabitants nowadays. It's Greek, it's Italian, it's Middle Eastern. Specially in Sfakia you can enjoy this multicultural background, since it is still quite remote and isolated. Only 1 dead end road leads to Sfakia and in the Southwest there are no ongoing roads, just a ferry. Sfakia is Europe's southernmost part, as south as the middle of Tunisia.
ARIADNE & THESEUS
Minotaur lived of human blood and King Minos had ordered the city of Athens, that blamed for his son's Androgeos death, to offer young boys and girls as food for the supernatural creature. Among them was Theseus, the son of King Aegeas, whose mission was to kill Minotaur and relieved his country from this 'blood tax'. To his aid came Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos, who was in love with him and offered her help; in return, Theseus would have to marry her and take her home to Athens. Thus, Theseus succeeded in his mission by killing the Minotaur and coming out of the labyrinth wrapping the 'Mitos of Ariadne', a ball of thread he had unwrapped when entering the maze. According to myth, Theseus after being united with Ariadne at the islet of Zeus and having two children with her, deserted her. According to mythology, he left her because he was in love with Egli. Another theory is that goddess Athena asked him to do so and yet another one is that god Dionysus fell in love with Ariadne. It is said that Ariadne is the impersonation of the goddess of vegetation, dying and being born again, every year. Theseus' return had an unfortunate ending, as the young hero forgot to take the black sail off the boat as he had promised his father, Aegea. The latter, thinking that the Minotaur had won and killed Theseus, committed suicide by drawing in the Aegean Sea.
BIRTH OF ZEUS
According to mythology, Zeus, the God of gods, was born in Crete. Cronus, his father, trying to avoid his parents' curse that one of his children would take away from him the ruling of the sky, murdered his children one-by-one, by eating them. His wife, Rhea, terrified and chased by her husband, sought refuge in a cave in the ancient 'Aegean Mountain', and, with the help of Uranus and Gaia, gave birth to her last child. Cronus was fooled with a rock in diapers and the loud singing and dancing of demons 'Kourites', covering the noise of the newborn's cry. Zeus was raised by the Nymphs, drinking milk from goat Amalthia, the later became a star and her skin was Zeus' shield. When Zeus grew up, he defeated Cronus and became the ruler of the sky. The rock that had fooled his father was put in Delphi, to remind mortals and gods of his glorious power.
DAEDALUS & IKARUS
In the prime of the minoan civilization, Crete was visited by Daedalus, one of the period's greatest inventors and constructors. He is said to have built the labyrinth with the numerous corridors and rooms, from where no-one could come out. He is also said to have constructed the wooden cow in which Pasiphae, Minos' wife, was united with the legendary white bull and gave birth to the Minotaur. To avoid King Minos' rage, Daedalus and his son Ikarus dared to fly like birds, adjusting to their arms wax wings. Unfortunately, Ikarus, impressed by the height and speed, went too high, close to the sun, thus burning his wings and drowned into the Icarian Sea. According to another aspect, Pasiphae gave a boat to Daedalus to help him escape from Crete. The boat was so fast that the sails looked like wings, so it was believed that Daedalus and Ikarus had flown, but Ikarus fell in the sea and drowned and the island, where he was buried, was name Icaria. According to another myth, Minos irritated by Daedalus' flee, started to look for him asking people wrap a snail in a thread, something he knew only Daedalus could do. Travelling around, he went to Cicely, at the palace of King Kokalus where Daedalus had sought refuge. The King accepted to pass the thread through the snail and gave it to Daedalus who made a small hole in the snail and put in an ant tied to the thread. The ant came out the other side of the snail, thus proving to Minos that Daedalus was there. The Cretan King demanded from Daedalus to surrender, but the daughters of King Kokalus killed him by putting very hot water in his bath, thus ending the adventures of Daedalus.
One of Zeus and Europe's sons was King Minos. Minos replaced Asterios, the former King of Crete and husband of Europe, and became one of the most powerful rulers of the island, ever. 'Minos' was probably a royal title symbolising the power and authority of a great ruler, judge and representative of the gods. The Kingdom of Minos united all the Cretan cities, the biggest being Knossos and Phaestos, and became a great naval power with tremendous cultural and economic development. The Kingdom was divided in three parts, the first including Knossos, the second including Phaestos and the third including Cydonia. The minoan civilization spread and influenced throughout the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, created new cities and progressed in art and literature. Life was based upon strict and fair rules that Zeus indicated to his son, or so is said. Minos legislation was so fair, that he was later appointed superior judge in Ades, judging the sins of the dead. Minos' assistant in administration was his brother Radamanthys, who was equally good at ruling and judging people.
PASIPHAE & MINOTAUR
Minos bowed Pasiphae, the daughter of Sun and nymph Crete and together had eight children, Androgeos, Katreas, Glafkos, Dafkalion, Ariadne, Xenodiki, Akalli and Phaedra. According to mythology, when Minos asked Neptune for a sign that would mean he would become the King of Crete, from the sea emerged a beautiful bull that Minos refused to sacrifice, thus irritating Neptune who punished Minos by making his wife Pasiphae fall in love with the white bull. Pasiphae, with the help of a wooden cow made by Daedalus, was united with the bull and gave birth to Minotaur, who had the body of a human and the head of a bull. According to myth, this creature lived in the Labyrinth, in the palace's underground and was fed with the blood of youngsters. The famous Athenean hero Theseus defeated Minotaur and relieved Athens from the harsh 'blood tax' that paid to this supernatural creature.
When Zeus was united with Europe, to show her his love he gave her three presents, one of which was the bronze giant Talos, created by Hephaestus. According to mythology, Talos was the son of Cris and father of Phaestos or, according to another version, he was Minos' brother. His duty was to travel around the island with his bronze slates with the laws and make sure that they were obeyed. He also protected Crete from the enemy, throwing rocks to the enemy ships or burning them with his hot bronze body. Despite his power, Talos didn't resist Media's promises for immortality, thus being framed and letting the ship of 'Argo' pass by Crete without being destroyed. As he stood peacefully, Media stroke his weak vain and killed him, extracting the divine fluid that had inside him, instead of blood. According to another version, Talos died from the arrow of Pias, Philoctete's father.
ZEUS & EUROPE
According to mythology, Zeus fell in love with princess Europe of Phoenicia. So, he turned into a white bull with firm body, golden horns and innocent eyes and tricked the princess and her friends who were peaking flowers. He brought Europe to Crete and, as tokens of his love, he gave to the girl: giant Talos to protect the island, a quiver of arrows that always succeeded in hitting their goal and a golden dog as her guardian angel. Mythology claims that Zeus and Europe were united in the area of Gortys, under a plane tree which became evergreen, or at Diktaion Andron where the nymphs had prepared the bridal bed. Zeus and Europe bore three sons: Radamanthys, Sarpedon and king Minos.
NEOLITHIC PERIOD (6000- 2600 B.C.)
Archeological excavations in Crete indicated that the island had been inhabited since 6000 BC . Neolithic ruins were found in Phaestos, Knossos and Sitia, where the first settlements were formed by farmers and stock-breeders. People lived in slate houses and caves such as the caves of Ilithia, Stravouitis, Ellinospileo, Trapeza Lasithiou, etc. Excavations brought to light pottery, weapons, tools, blades made of bone or stone and offerings to the goddess of fertility. Caves were also the first dwellings of primitive man in both Paleolithic and Neolithic periods. Traces of his habitation have been found at Kokkines Petres, Petralona, Chalkidiki, Alepotrypa, Diros, Fitidi, Kefallonia, Asfendou and Sfakia in Crete and elsewhere.
PREPALATIAL PERIOD (2600-1900 B.C.)
The extensive use of copper resulted in growth of the population, as well as commercial activity in Asia Minor, Cyclades and Egypt. The island's geographic location, the fertile ground and the long periods of peace favoured the development of a glorious civilization which thrived in the ensuing centuries. The pre-Palatial period is divided into three periods, following the Egyptian calendar, which is based on the change dynasties. In the first period, copper has not fully substituted stone and clay (utensils) and communication with the nearby areas is limited. The second period is characterized by growth in fishing, farming and shipping activities, as well as the trade of tin, a ingredient necessary for the production of bronze. Several cities thrived in that period, having been built in strategic positions. In Messara and Archanes, arched tombs the period provided valuable information about the locals' worshipping habits and civilization. The third period is known for the improvement of construction techniques, while new products are used, such as precious stones, elephant bone, from Egypt and gold. The various seals, from that period, are beautiful works of art.
PALOPALATIAL PERIOD (1900-1700 B.C.)
In 1900 BC the first palaces were built in Crete, including the magnificent palaces of Knossos, Malia and Kato Zakros. Their size and decorations are impressive still today, a fact which proves that the Minoan civilization was one of the most glorious in Greece. Findings in the areas of Monastiraki Rethimnou, Chania and Archanes are also dated in this period. The settlements around the palaces had organized watering, sewage and street system and the daily-life utensils found here are of great significance. The most important find is the well-known Disc of Phaestos (1700-1600 BC), a unique sample of hieroglyphics, exhibited in the Archeological Museum of Heraklio. The period's economy was based on agriculture and thrived on trade, as indicated by finds from Crete that have been located in Egypt as well as Cyprus.
The end of this period comes after a strong earthquake in 1700 BC, which destroyed most of the palaces.
NEOPALATIAL PERIOD (1700- 1450 B.C.)
Despite the severe damage caused by the strong earthquake in 1700 BC, the palaces were restored and the Neo-Palatial Period, the thriving years of the minoan civilization, was inaugurated. The palace was the centre of the economic, social and religious life. The splendour of the palace, the wealth and the size (22000 sq.m.) impress visitors even nowadays. Around the palace, there were many other buildings such as workshops, storage-rooms, and mansions that belonged to the merchants, the priests and the higher officials. A multitude of archaeological finds testify to the way in which daily life and economy were organised, a way which varied from town to town. The locals mostly occupied with shipping and wine and perfume oil trade, as well as with farming, pottery and weaving, although not in a large scale. The commercial centers were the Port of Amnissos, Agioi Theodori, Malia, Phaestos and Agia Triada,while goods were transported from one town to another through a perfectly organised street trammel. The class of merchants, manufacturers and priests commanded respect, second only to the King who was worshipped as a High Priest, along with the Goddess of Fertility. The ruins of contemporary arched tombs provide a multitude of information regarding the worshipping and burial customs of that period. The artistic production was of high levels, with beautiful items of pottery, painting, seal-making, lithotomy, miniatures and jewels. The daily life representations on pots and murals testify to the prominent role of women, in the minoan civilization. As expected, the thrive of the minoan civilization influenced the mainland and the Cretan colonies. In about 1450 BC, this colourful splendor came to a sudden end. The cities and palaces of the Minoan civilization were swept away by a tidal wave, caused by a volcanic eruption in the island of Thera, while extensive fires demolished everything.
POSTPALATIAL PERIOD (1450-1100 B.C.)
The Achaeans, exploiting the demise of the Minoan civilization, occupied Knossos and established a strong Achaean dynasty. According to tablets written in Linear B script, the Achaeans soon took control of the island. Although the economy was still based on trade with nearby Egypt and Asia Minor, the change is evident in art and daily life. All ceramics, bronze objects, jewels etc., testify to the coexistence and influence of the two populations on one another, for a long time. In 1300 BC another strong earthquake destroyed the last remains of the Minoan civilization, including the palace of Knossos. Another theory claims that the palace was destroyed during a battle between the Achaeans of the mainland and the Achaeans of Crete. After this destruction, the new conquerors became very powerful, retained the wealth of their predecessors, but failed to continue their great cultural tradition. According to historians, in 1200 BC, Crete had a powerful fleet that raided the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea. In the early 11th cent. BC, European tribes descended on Crete from the North.
PROTOGEOMETRIC PERIOD (1100-900 B.C.)
In the 11th century BC, Greece was swarmed with Achaeans and Dorians who occupied the mainland and then took over Crete. The islanders, known as Eteocretans, built new settlements, in the remote areas of central and eastern Crete, such as Karfi Lasithiou and Praissos, where they tried to keep their language, customs and traditions unchanged. The new conquerors brought to the island tools, weapons and other objects made of iron, as well as new customs such as the burning of the dead.
GEOMETRIC & ARCHAIC PERIOD (900 - 500 B.C.)
Ever since 900 BC, following the Dorian Rule in Crete, the basic political system was monarchy. There were more than 100 city-states such as Gorty, Phaestos, Knossos, Tylissos, Littos, Rizenia, Hersonissos, Lapa, Lissos, Tara, Milatos, Terapytne, Cydonia, Itanos, Sitia, Praissos and Olounda. There were three social classes : 'Periiki' who enjoyed limited political rights, but owned land and were involved in trade; 'Minoites' who worked as slaves in the construction of public works and 'Afamiotes' or 'Klarotes' who were the personal slaves of the Dorians and did all the hard, agricultural work. Art and science were influenced by both Dorian and eastern elements, as indicated by pots, jewels, metallic items etc. Daedalus, the sculptor, created a new technique in sculpture, called 'Daedalic' style. Many works of this school are exhibited in Cretan museums. During the 7th century BC, Crete was the cultural and art center of Greece. Unfortunately, the next century was characterized by the constant fight between the Cretan cities and the enemy invasions from mainland Greece and Asia. Life was based on the strict models of Sparta, as attested to by the 'Laws of Gortyn' (5th century BC), found during the excavation in Gortyn.
CLASSICAL & HELLENISTIC PERIOD (500-67 B.C.)
During the classic period, with the cities of mainland Greece being in constant conflict with one another, Crete flourished. It did not participate in either the Persian or the Peloponnesian wars that plagued the Mainland. When the Macedonians inaugurated the Hellenistic Period, the Cretans, attempting to win the favour of the powerful new rulers, pronounced Philip E (217-216 BC) protector of the island. Yet , even the presence of an outside strong force was unable to put an end to the rivalry among the important cities in Crete. This fact was exploited by the pirates of Celichia, who dominated the Eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea. Using Crete as the base of operations, they marched against the Roman city of Ostia in the 2nd century BC. The Romans used this as reason to interfere in the island's political life. After the failed expedition of Marcus Antonius in 71 BC, commander Cointus Caecilius Metellus marched against Crete in 69 BC, and after two years of harsh siege, finally managed to conquer the island in 67 BC.
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