The forming of Crete is an interesting subject for anyone even vaguely interested in geography, but understanding how landscapes are formed can improve your walks and hikes, too. In this article, we are recreating the fantastic birth of Crete, explaining how the earth’s huge tectonic plates warred against each other like Grecian Gods in a Classical epic, eventually rising up to create this beloved and majestic isle.
Largely formed of grey limestone, the mountainous Crete overlooks glistening Mediterranean seas and steep sandy shores, but at its heart, Crete’s geology is a body of green schist, pale phyllite and yellowing marlstone. These differing bedrocks mean that Crete is rich in minerals, which encourages a variety in flora and fauna to flourish in different regions across the island.
The story of this island begins over 500 million years ago in the Cambrian period, which is the earliest period in the Palaeozoic era, also known as the Age of Ancient Life. The Cambrian period was an age of great change, spanning approximately 55 million years, during which a great deal of evolution occurred, in both animals and the world’s geography.
At the beginning of the Cambrian period, the geography of planet Earth was composed of one supercontinent, Rodinia, and the ocean. Rodinia is theorised to have broken apart and reformed to create Pangaea, which again broke apart to begin forming the Earth we recognise today. All of this began during the Cambrian period.
Nearing the end of the Cambrian period, entering into the Ordovician period, 500 million years ago, the land that we recognise as Crete was submerged in the Tethys Sea. Some might correctly recognise the name Tethys from Greek myth; Tethys was the titan daughter of Uranus and Gaia and wife of Oceanus. Tethys did not release the area of Crete from her watery grasp until about 200 million years ago, which is when the supercontinent Pangaea began to break apart.
The breaking of Pangaea was a slow process, taking around 130-150 million years for Crete to even begin to surface from the water. Today, there are nine major plates, with a large number of minor and microplates. Pangaea also had a number of major plates, but none of these had any of the mountainous regions that we can find across the world – and in Crete – today.
The secret to Crete’s rise from the Tethys sea lies in the science behind the creation of mountain ranges. The proper term for this is Orogeny, which is a combination of the Greek words for mountain, óros, and creation, geneia. 20 million years ago, the two tectonic plates holding Africa and Asia crashed together. By this point, the land that we recognise as Crete had completely emerged from the Tethys sea, close to the crash point of the African and Asain tectonic plates.
When two plates crash against one another, one plate is subducted (or pushed) underneath another plate. The movements of these giant pieces of Earth against one another causes a lot of friction between these plates, which when released can cause earthquakes. This friction also leads to a lot of heat building where the two plates meet, which causes the earth to turn into seething hot lava.
While hot lava is fundamental to the creation of volcanic mountains and islands like Santorini, many mountainous regions, such as Crete, were formed primarily by plates buckling and folding, creating the wrinkles on Earth that we know as mountains. Although the majority of Crete is created from buckling tectonic plates, there is some evidence that volcanic lava deposits had some effect in the formation of Crete, too.
You don’t have to worry about any active volcanoes on Crete today, however; any volcanic activity that may have occurred on Crete predates human civilization. On the other hand, if you are staying in one of our villas in Crete near the shore, you might be able to see the volcanic island Santorini on a clear day.
Next time you’re on a hike in Crete, remember the epic transformation that created our deep gorges, high mountains and rolling hills. If you’re interested in viewing some more specific locations of geographical wonder, we recommend the birthplace of Zeus, Psychro cave.