Crete


CRETE KRÍTI; Creta (Lat); Candia (It); Girit (Tk).

Satellite image of Crete

Island in the eastern Mediterranean (the fifth largest Mediterranean island) and the southernmost region of Greece.

It was part of the Roman Empire, forming a province with Cyrenaica on the north African coast until the reforms of the late 3rd century made it a separate province which became part of the diocese of Macedonia. In 825 it was occupied by the Arabs and became a base for raids on the mainland until it was reconquered for Byzantium in 960-61.

In the division of the spoils after the Fourth Crusade had seized Constantinople in 1204, Crete was allocated to Boniface of Montferrat, but he preferred to concentrate on what became his Kingdom of Thessalonica, and so he sold his rights to Venice. It became the greatest of the Mediterranean possessions of the Most Serene Republic – Cyprus was bigger, but only came to Venice as the Turkish menace gathered, and was lost earlier.

The Venetians called the island Candia, from the Italian name for the port of Heraklion (Iráklion). It remained Venetian until the Turkish conquest of 1669, and even then two coastal enclaves at Suda and Spinalonga survived until they were captured by the Turks in 1715. In 1718 they were ceded by the Republic.

With the increasing revolt in Greece against Ottoman rule, Egyptian troops occupied Crete in 1822 (the ruler of Egypt, nominally subordinate to the Ottoman Empire, was behaving like an independent ally at this time). Ottoman authority returned in 1840 but a series of revolts followed, encouraged and aided by mainland Greeks: the problem on the island was compounded by the fact that some of the Cretans had become Muslims and it was on them that the Ottoman government tended to rely for administering Crete.

The revolts led to international crises and eventually to war between the Ottoman Empire and Greece in 1897, a war which the Turks won, though the diplomatic intervention of the Great Powers saved Greece itself from too great punishment. So far as Crete was concerned, the Great Powers insisted that the island become autonomous, though it remained part of the Empire. They set up a Commission of their representatives to supervise the island’s government. In the autumn of 1898, after the withdrawal of the forces of the Powers most strongly opposed to Greece – Austria and Germany – Prince George of Greece became the High Commissioner for the island.

The majority of the island’s representatives wanted union with Greece, though the Muslims did not. The Greek government had to behave with caution; even when the Cretan leader, Venizelos, became involved in Greek politics, he was obliged to give up his Cretan offices and as Greek Prime Minister he acted carefully. Prince George was replaced by a former Greek Prime Minster in 1906. The Young Turk revolution in the Ottoman Empire in 1908 increased the tensions of the area and the forces of the Great Powers withdrew from the island in 1909, though a naval presence remained.

Britain, with much influence in the region, was of split mind, for it was influenced both by the sentimental philhellenism of classically educated men and by the realpolitik of the rulers of a world Empire, who, with many Muslim subjects, did not wish to alienate the leading Muslim power. Drift became policy; when for example the High Commissioner’s term expired in 1911 no successor could be appointed and ad hoc arrangements operated. The matter was resolved by war, not in Crete, but on the mainland, when in 1912-13 the Balkan Powers almost drove Turkey out of Europe.

The peace settlement for that conflict had as a by-product the union of Crete with Greece.

Crete is now a region of Greece, divided into four provinces: (from west to east) Khanía, Réthimnon, Iráklion, and Lasíthi.

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