To Greeks, Crete is the Megalonissi (Great Island), a hub of spectacular ancient art and architecture. Fabled as the land of King Minos, it is a unique world where civilization is counted by the millennium. From every point of view travelers discover landscapes of amazing variety. Mountains, split with deep gorges and honeycombed with caves, rise in sheer walls from the sea. Snowcapped peaks loom behind sandy shorelines, vineyards, and olive groves. Miles of beaches, some with a wealth of amenities and others isolated and unspoiled, fringe the coast. Yet despite the attractions of sea and mountains, it is still the mystery surrounding Europe's first civilization and empire that draws the great majority of visitors to Crete and its world-famous Minoan palaces.
Around 1500 BC, while the rest of Europe was still in the grip of primitive barbarity, one of the most brilliant civilizations the world was ever to know approached its final climax, one that was breathtakingly uncovered through the late 19th-century excavations of Sir Arthur Evans. He determined that the Minoans, prehistoric Cretans, had founded Europe's first urban culture as far back as the 3rd millennium BC, and the island's rich legacy of art and architecture strongly influenced both mainland Greece and the Aegean islands in the Bronze Age. From around 1900 BC the Minoan palaces at Knossos (near present-day Heraklion), Malia, Phaistos, and elsewhere were centers of political power, religious authority, and economic activity—all concentrated in one sprawling complex of buildings. Their administration seems to have had much in common with contemporary cultures in Egypt and Mesopotamia. What set the Minoans apart from the rest of the Bronze Age world was their art. It was lively and naturalistic, and they excelled in miniature techniques. From the scenes illustrated on their frescoes, stone vases, seal stones, and signet rings, it is possible to build a picture of a productive, well-regulated society. Yet new research suggests that prehistoric Crete was not a peaceful place; there may have been years of warfare before Knossos became the island's dominant power, in around 1600 BC. It is now thought that political upheaval, rather than the devastating volcanic eruption on the island of Santorini, triggered the violent downfall of the palace civilization around 1450 BC.
But there are many memorable places in Crete that belong to a more recent past, one measured in centuries and not millennia. Other invaders and occupiers—Roman colonists, the Byzantines, Arab invaders, Venetian colonists, and Ottoman pashas—have all left their mark on Heraklion, Chania, Rethymnon, and other towns and villages throughout the island. Today Crete welcomes outsiders who delight in its splendid beaches, charming Old Town quarters, and array of splendid landscapes. Openly inviting to guests who want to experience the real Greece, Cretans remain family oriented and rooted in tradition, and you'll find that one of the greatest pleasures on Crete is immersing yourself in the island's lifestyle.