Crete's diversity and distinction begin with a past that has left far more remains than the Minoan sites many people associate with the island. After being settled by humans around 6500 B.C. -- claims of man-made tools dating as far back as 120,000 B.C. are not generally accepted -- Crete passed through the late Neolithic and early Bronze ages, sharing the broader eastern Mediterranean culture.
Sometime around 3000 B.C., new immigrants arrived; by about 2500 B.C., there began to emerge a distinctive culture called Early Minoan. By about 2000 B.C., the Minoans were moving into a more ambitious phase, the Middle Minoan -- the civilization that gave rise to the palaces and works of art that attract visitors to Crete every year.
Mycenaean Greeks appear to have taken over the palaces about 1500 B.C., but by about 1200 B.C., this Minoan-Mycenaean civilization had pretty much gone under. For several centuries, Crete was a relatively marginal player in the great era of Greek classical civilization.
When the Romans conquered the island in 67 B.C., they revived Knossos and other centers as imperial colonies. Early converts to Christianity, the Cretans slipped into the shadows of the Byzantine world, but the island was pulled back in 1204, when Venetians broke up the Byzantine Empire and took over Crete. The Venetians made it a major colonial outpost, revived trade and agriculture, and built elaborate structures.
By the late 1500s, the Turks were conquering the Venetians' eastern Mediterranean possessions; and, in 1669, they captured the last major stronghold on Crete, the city of Candia -- now Iraklion. Cretans suffered considerably under the Turks, and although some of Greece finally threw off the Turkish yoke in the late 1820s, Crete was left behind. A series of rebellions marked the rest of the 19th century, resulting in a partly independent Crete.
Finally, in 1913, Crete, for the first time, was formally joined to Greece. Crete had yet another cameo role in history when the Germans invaded it in 1941 with gliders and parachute troops; the ensuing occupation was another low point. Since 1945, Crete has advanced amazingly in the economic sphere, powered by its agricultural products -- particularly olives, grapes, melons, and tomatoes -- as well as by its tourist industry. Not all Cretans are pleased by the impact of tourism, but all would agree that, for better or for worse, Crete owes much to its history.
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