At some point in the remote past, history takes over from mythology, although the boundaries between them are still somewhat indistinct. The lengthy systematic archaeological research carried out on the island has brought to light information which confirms the existence of life on Crete from the 6th millenium BC (Neolithic period: 6000-2600 BC). The limited number of finds show that neolithic man on Crete, as in the rest of the eastern Mediterranean, used caves as dwelling-places, but also had permanent houses, that he lived on agriculture and animal breeding, buried his dead, used tools made of stone, bone and obsidian from Melos, and utensils made of clay.

The British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, who excavated the palace of Minos at Knosssos, was the one who gave the period and the unique civilisation which developed at that time the mythical king's name. The Minoan civilisation emerged, flourished and decayed within a period of 1500 years which has become known as the Minoan age. It presents three phases, which Evans named Early Minoan (2600-2000 BC), Middle Minoan (2000-1600 BC) and Late Minoan (1600-1100 BC).

The reasons which contributed to the development on the island of the first important European civilisation are:

a. The important geographical position of Crete, between three continents, and its proximity to places where major civilisations had already developed (Egypt, Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Palestine, Asia Minor).

b. The relative facility of communication between Crete and the surrounding island area (Cycladic civilization).

c. The fertile land and temperate climate of the island, which were significant factors contributing to the prosperity of its inhabitants.

d. The long years of peace, as a result of which the Cretans were able to pursue pacific occupations, to develop their commerce and to cultivate the arts.

Around the third millenium, the Cretans began to build up their navy and to sail their ships all over the Mediterranean, establishing contacts with their neighbours (Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia) and with the Cycladic islanders. These contacts contributed to the improvement of the Cretans' standard of living, of their agricultural methods, and to the perfecting of their everyday utensils, tools and weapons. This was the dawn of the Minoan civilisation. By 1900 BC, Crete was at the peak of its prosperity. This was when the first palaces at Knossos, Phaestos, Mallia, Archanes, Zacros and Kydonia were built, which indicates that, in Minoan Crete, there were kings in whose hands all powers were concentrated.

During the same period, shipping and trade with Cyprus, Egypt and Syria were regular. The sea power of the Minoans and commerce flourished, colonies were founded (Melos, Kythera) and commercial exchange gained great renown and this coincided with a remarkable flourishing of the arts. The absence of any kind of fortification on the island is a sure indication of the peacefulness of the Minoans' lives. Around 1700 BC a great disaster, perhaps the result of a catastrophic earthquake, hit the island, which was laid waste. However, the Minoans soon rebuilt their palaces and homes in grand style.

The period between 1700 and 1450 BC is the most brilliant era of Minoan civilisation. Crete controlled almost the entire Aegean area, as well as many parts of mainland Greece. Around 1450 BC, however, and while it was at the climax of its power and glory, Crete was struck by a new and irreparable blow. This time it was not an earthquake, but the violent eruption of the volcano on the island of Thera, which caused great devastation on the island. This was followed by an invasion of Achaeans who occupied Knossos and imposed their domination. Not very long afterwards, the palace of Knossos was completely destroyed, probably during a conflict between the Achaeans of mainland Greece and those already settled on Crete, out of which the former emerged victorious. After these events, Minoan civilisation declined, surviving only within the narrow confines of the island itself, until the occupation of Crete by the Dorians around 1100 BC.

The Minoans belonged to the Mediterannean race. They were short of stature and had slender bodies and dark skin, hair and eyes. The fact that there were many palaces is evidence that Crete was separated administratively into several areas, each with its own ruler. There were no clashes between them, which indicates the possible supremacy of the king of Knossos, who must have been accepted as the overlord.

The greater part of the fertile land was exploited by the royal families, the nobility and officials. It was cultivated by a limited number of slaves. Small arable plots of land also belonged to ordinary citizens who were usually craftsmen (gunsmiths, potters, goldsmiths) who worked in the palace workshops. Many Minoans were sailors and served on the numerous ships with which the kings, chiefly, carried out a profitable trade.

The position of women in Minoan Crete was an important one. The Minoan women took part in public meetings, religious ceremonies, and even athletic contests. Their clothes were striking and their hair was elaborately dressed, as we can see from the frescoes on the palace walls, from decorations on pottery and from statues. The Cretans worshiped female deities related to Nature and fertility. The goddesses were worshiped in specially designated sacred sites, in caves, on mountain tops and out in the open. The sacred symbols and animals of Minoan religion were the bull, the snake, the double horns, the double axe etc.

Religious ceremonies both numerous and grand, including sacrifices and athletic games with bulls ('taurokathapsia'), were organised at special times by the priesthood, whose head was the king of Knossos.

The Minoans particularly honoured their dead. Tombs that have been excavated are domed and carved chamber tombs. However, simple gaps in the earth, small caves and seaside areas were often used as burial places. The dead were placed on wooden litters or in wooden, clay or stone sarcophagi and funeral gifts - various useful or well-loved objects - were placed by their side. The Minoans initially used a type of writing similar to Egyptian hieroglyphics, where each letter symbolized an animal or object. Later they used the writing known today as "Linear A", made up of simplified figures and, still later, after 1450 BC and the Achaean occupation, a writing called "Linear B". The decipherment of Linear B, in 1952, by Michael Ventris and John Chadwick, proved that at that time the language that was spoken in Knossos was the same (Greek) language spoken by the Achaeans.

The major creation of the Minoans, considered the crowning glory of their civilization, was their art, distinguished by its originality, elegance and vividness, since most of its themes were taken from everyday life and nature. Through this art we derive information concerning the life, the administration, the daily activities, the religion, religious ceremonials and burial rites of Minoan Crete.

Architecture, in particular, flourished, as we can see from the four large palaces of Knossos, Phaestos, Zacros and Mallia - and to these must be added the royal building of Archanes, the palace of Aghia Triada, the rich mansions of the nobility and landowners, as well as the simple houses of craftsmen and labourers. The frescoes decorating the walls of the palaces and stately homes are worthy of particular mention. When the palaces were rebuilt after 1700 BC, they were decorated with magnificent frescoes depicting human forms, landscapes, animals, religious or burial processions, athletic contests, etc. The colours are vivid: red, brick-red, yellow, black, blue and green dominate. Some parts are brought into relief through the use of plaster. The architecture of the tombs is also noteworthy, as are the paintings decorating the sarcophagi.

Another characteristic creation of Minoan art is that of ceramics and pottery painting. The pottery of Kamares – so named by the archaeologists because the first examples were found in the Kamares cave in central Crete - is famous, with its vivid colours and characteristic motifs, its curves and spirals. Finally, small masterpieces have been brought to light of Minoan miniature work, metalwork and goldwork. Statuettes of faience, steatite, stone, ivory, religious objects, pots, everyday utensils, tools, weapons, seals, gold jewellery, all made with love and meticulous care for detail, show that the Minoan craftsmen were well acquainted with the secrets of their art and served it with utmost skill.

During the period between 1100 BC and 900 BC, Dorians emigrated to Crete from mainland Greece, occupied the entire island and forced the descendants of the Minoans, known as Eteocretans (or "true Cretans") to retire to the mountains, where they continued to retain their customs and traditions for several centuries. The new inhabitants of the island brought with them, not only new customs (burning of the dead, Greek gods etc.), but also the use of iron.

Around 900 BC, city-states began to be founded in Crete following the Greek model, and life was organized, in the Spartan way, obeying purely military discipline. The regime was aristocratic and the legal system very advanced. Irrefutable evidence of this is the famous inscription of Gortyn (6th century BC) - a legal document which laid down the tenets of civil law and which came to light in 1884.

Among the arts, sculpture, metalwork and the fashioning of small objects d' art flourished, influenced by Oriental styles. Around 500 BC, constant civil wars between the city-states, invasions by various peoples coming from the Helladic area or from Asian shores, and the decline of commercial activity, brought about the gradual decay of Crete.

During the Classical and Hellenistic period (500 BC - 67 BC), Crete fell into oblivion. It did not even participate in the Persian or the Peloponnesian Wars and only later did it take part in the expedition of Alexander the Great, under the Cretan admiral Nearchus.

In the 2nd century BC anarchy reigned, as a result of poor administration and civil unrest. The island, exhausted by internal strife, became a lair for pirates from Cilicia, who used its shores as a base for their predatory raids on Roman territory.

This offered the Romans a pretext for launching an attack against the island. Though initially unsuccessful, because the Cretans faced with external danger joined forces and put up a strong resistance, they were able to fully occupy Crete in 67 BC under the consul Metellus. The Roman occupation lasted until 330 AD. The Roman governor took up residence in Gortyn, which became the Roman capital of the island. The Romans influenced but did not change the Greek character of the island in the least. The Greek language, religion, customs and traditions, were preserved unaltered. Latin was only used in the administration, while the grand Roman style of architecture left its mark in splendid amphitheatres, temples, odeons, agoras, baths, healing centres (Asclepieia), administrative buildings and various other structures with elaborate mosaics, which are still to be found in many parts of the island. During the Roman period, Christianity was brought to Crete by a disciple of the Apostle Paul, Titus, who founded the first church.

From 330 AD Crete constituted an eparchy (province) of the Byzantine state, with Gortyn as its capital and with a Byzantine general as its governor. Until 824 AD it enjoyed a period of prosperity. Christianity was firmly established and many of the early Christian basilicas were built during this period. In 824 the Saracens occupied the island and set it up as an independent Arab state with Candia (today's Herakleion) as its capital. A strong fortress, surrounded by a deep moat, was built around the town. The name of the town itself is derived from the Arabic "chandak", meaning moat. The Greek population was reduced to slavery, while the Arab occupiers were amassing untold wealth from piratical raids into Byzantine provinces and from the slave trade. The Byzantines made several unsuccessful attempts to reconquer the island. Finally, Nikiforus Focas, who was then a Byzantine general and later became emperor, landed on the island with a strong navy (960 AD) and, after a bloody siege which lasted several months, succeeded in liberating Candia (961).

In the following years and until 1204, the island gradually progressed, the Greek element was strengthened by the arrival of Christians from other Byzantine provinces and conditions became favourable for a cultural revival, for peace, economic progress and social stability. However, this second Byzantine period in the history of Crete was fated to be cut short by the Fourth Crusade (1204), which overthrew the Byzantine Empire and installed a Latin Emperor in Constantinople. He presented the island to Boniface of Montferrat who sold it to the Venetians for a pittance.

In 1210 the Venetians consolidated their dominion over the island and began to systematically establish a settlement, by bringing over members of the Venetian nobility and military. The Cretans reacted with repeated revolutions and local insurrections. During one of these, the revolutionaries, together with many discontented Venetians, were victorious and declared Crete an independent "Republic of Saint Titus". The Venetians, however, soon reconquered the island.

In the years that followed, the feudal system of the Venetians fell into decay and a new, ambitious bourgeois class emerged, which was very actively involved in trade. The economy thus thrived and the arts and letters flourished. The influence of the Italian Renaissance was significant on icon painting, and resulted in the creation of the "Cretan School" - a style of iconography which retained the Byzantine elements but also borrowed others from Italian art. Its representatives are Michael Damaskinos, Theophanes, and Domenikos Theotokopoulos (El Greco) - in the works of his youth. The Cretan theatre also flourished during the last two centuries of the Venetian period, with Georgios Hortatzis ("Erophile", "Panoria") and Vicenzo Komaros ("The Sacrifice of Abraham" and "Erotokritos") as its main representatives. Finally, there are fine examples of Venetian architecture all over the island: great fortifications, ports, churches, monasteries, public buildings, squares, are the work of Venetian architects.

The Turks had made several unsuccessful attempts to invade the island during the latter part of Venetian rule. The most important was that of Khaired Din Barbarossa (1538) who met with the resistance of the town of Candia and was forced to abandon the territory he had conquered. In 1645 the Turks landed on Crete and, within a period of two years, had succeeded in taking almost all the strongholds of the island, after which they began the siege of Candia, which lasted 21 years, because of the fierce resistance of both Greeks and Venetians. Candia finally fell into the hands of the Turks and only the province of Sfakia remained free, though it had to pay a tribute. The Cretans began a guerrilla war from the very first years of Turkish rule and organised several unsuccessful revolutions. In 1830 Crete was ceded to Egypt and in 1841 came once again under Turkish rule. A period of bloody uprisings and revolts of the Cretan people followed, culminating in the revolution of 1895-96. A year later, a unit of the Greek army helped the revolutionaries free several provinces. The island vibrated with the stirring call for union with Greece and, following the intervention of the European Powers, Crete was declared an autonomous Cretan state (1898) with the Greek Prince, George, as its High Commissioner. Union with Greece, which the Cretan people had so ardently longed for, became a reality several years later, after further struggles. The Cretan parliament had repeatedly voted for the union of the island with Greece. In 1905, the revolution of Therissos, led by Eleftherios Venizelos, took place. The revolutionaries forced Prince George to abdicate, abolished the post of High Commissioner and declared union with Greece (1908). The European Powers recalled their forces and, after the end of the Balkan Wars (1912-1913), Union was officially recognized with the signing of the Treaty of London (May 17/30 1913). From that time on, the island shared the history of free Greece. In 1923, after the Greco-Turkish War and the agreement regarding an exchange of populations, the Muslims in Crete were exchanged with Greek refugees from Asia Minor.

On the 20th of May 1941, the Germans, having overrun the Greek mainland, launched concerted attacks by air and sea on the island. These continued until May 28th, when the German invasion took place. This is known as the Battle of Crete, one of the most heroic chapters in the history of World War II. British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers fought alongside their Greek comrades together with a large part of the civilian population. During the German occupation, the Cretans organised a gallant resistance struggle.

After the end of the war and the withdrawal of the invaders, a period of reconstruction and progress began for the island, so that Crete today is one of the most prosperous and vital parts of Greece in several areas (agriculture, tourism, literature).