Crete has a rich cultural history that is heavily influenced by its multi-layered history. Cretans are extremely proud of their island; although it is now one the thirteen administrative regions of Greece it was independent until 1913 following the Balkans war. Crete’s history is thought to date far back as 120,000 BC as Neolithic tools have been found on the island. The Minoans who arrived in 2700 BC are Europe’s first official civilisation and since then Cretan culture has been built from the rich remnants of the past.
Cretan history plays a large part in the culture of Crete because it shaped the way the island looks today as well as its customs. Over the centuries the island was invaded by different settlers who left their mark in the form of buildings, artefacts, art and myths.
The Minoans settled in Crete in approximately 2,700 BC and they created palaces and towns across the island. Most famously the remains of the palace of Knossos sit just outside of Heraklion and they give away much about the architecture, livelihoods and hierarchy of ancient society.
After the period of the Minoans, who were thought to have been wiped out by a huge volcanic eruption and tsunami from Santorini, the classical Cretans established warring city states until they were conquered by Rome in 69 BC and Christianity was established.
The Turks of the Ottoman Empire invaded Crete in 1669 and attempted to convert the island to Islam. When the Cretan war of independence began in 1821, 76% the Cretan population was still Christian, particularly those in the rural areas. Evidence of the Islamic period can be seen in the Turkish architecture in parts of Chania, Rethymno and Kalives.
Today 97% of the population of Crete is orthodox Christian with tiny Jewish and Muslim minorities. They take their religion very seriously, with all businesses shutting on Sunday mornings so families can attend church. Births, deaths and marriages are always vibrantly celebrated as are the important Saints days and holy days in the church, particularly Easter which is preceded by the three week Apokries carnival.
When you visit Crete you will notice that every dwelling has a church. These churches are named after Saints and on the day of that Saint the villagers and other visitors will come to celebrate the Saint’s day. This also happens with people: they are named after Saints and so when their Saint’s day comes round they celebrate “Name Day” which is even more important than birthdays.
In the cities such as Heraklion the culture is modern and “sophisticated”. Both girls and boys are educated, some to university level and young men undertake National Service. The cities have modern attractions such as shopping centres, museums and administrative buildings.
Many of our Crete villa holidays are based in picturesque, off the beaten track villages. In these rural areas life is far more traditional with families running farms and businesses. The villages operate a cafe culture, where the villagers will head a couple of times a day to socialise. You will find the men sat outside smoking, knocking back some locally brewed raki and playing tavli whilst the women by gossip in the shade of the trees.
Cretans are known for their generosity and hospitality, so don’t be shy to make use of the local facilities such as the tavernas, and mini markets where you will find simplistic, but delicious and dishes. If you make yourselves known in the village you are staying, don’t be surprised if your villa owner or neighbours bring round their own home-grown and home-baked produce.
Cretan Culture and You
As long as your respect the traditions of the Greek culture, and treat the island with care, then the Cretan people will welcome you on to their island and be hospitable towards you. If you are visiting churches, just remember to wear clothing that covers your whole body and men aren’t allowed to wear hats.
If you are coming on holiday with your whole family, there is no need to worry as to whether bars, restaurants or attractions will allow children: the Cretans adore children and chances are the staff will fuss over your little ones as though they were members of their own family.
Crete is a beautiful island with wonderful people. The Cretans are very proud, hospitable and extremely family centric. If you are lucky enough to meet the owner of your villa, chances are you will be introduced to their family too. If you display love for their island, then the Cretans will easily warm to you and let you in on some of their local delights.