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Cretan social geography

With an area of 8,331 square kilometres, Crete is the biggest island in Greece and the fifth biggest in the Mediterranean (after Sicily, Sardinia, Cyprus and Corsica). Administratively it is divided into four countries and, according to the latest population census (1991), it has 540,000 inhabitants (see the table below). Of these, 200,000 live in the island’s five biggest urban centres (Chania, Rethimno, Iraklio, Aghios Nikolaos and Ierapetra) and the remainder live in the 2,090 boroughs, communities and settlements which are scattered over every corner of the island.

Every summer, however, another 2,500,000 visitors from all over the world are added to the island’s permanent inhabitants, i.e. five times more than the permanent inhabitants! As you can see, this is the main factor affecting Crete’s social geography.

Crete, Small tourist business

Crete, Small tourist business

The locals say characteristically that every summer, the island “sinks” under its many visitors! Because of the need to service all these tourists, 40% of the working population of Crete works directly or indirectly in the tourist sector, a sector which has an annual turnover of 1.5 billion dollars! The average annual increase in tourist activity is estimated at 6%, which means that around the year 2005, Crete will reach saturation point, i.e. 5 million tourists, and a proportionate increase in turnover.

These lucrative prospects have of course changed completely the economic picture of the island. Many Cretans have sold their herds and have replaced them with herds of rented cars and motorcycles, while most of those who have land near the sea and tourist areas have ceased sowing wheat and barley and have planted hotels, rented rooms and restaurants instead. The pity is that the Greek State has not set strict specifications for tourist businesses, nor has it been in a position to carry out even some imperfect control to prevent arbitrary building and bad taste. Thus, architectural tradition and the natural landscape have been irrevocably damaged in many areas. Now, of course, the Cretans have realised that the tourists have demands and sensitivities and they are trying as much as they can to improve the tourist services which they supply.

Agriculture, although it has lost quite a lot of land, retains first position in the Cretan economy. Approximately 3.5 million stremmata (3,500 km2) is agricultural land, which grow potatoes (70.000 str), wheat (48.000 str), barley (46.000 str), Oats (39.000 str), tomatoes (25.000 str), water-melons (15.000 str), broad beans (13.000 str), onions (7.000 str), melons (5.500 str) and many other cereals, horticultural produce and vegetables, which sell well in Greece and throughout Europe because they are of high quality.

The high temperatures that prevail all year round in Crete also favour the cultivation of exotic fruit, e.g. bananas and avocados, although their size is visibly smaller than fruit grown in tropical countries.

Viniculture has an important position (160.000 str) and produces exceptional table grapes and grapes for wine making, while the Cretan sultana, of world-wide reputation, is produced from a special variety of grapevines (280.000 str). Four vine-growing zones have been defined in Crete where they produce Appellation Origin Highest Quality wine. In Archanes, Peza and Daphnes (all three are in central Crete, south of Iraklio), they grow the Mantilaria and Kotsifali varieties, which give an exceptional dry red wine. In Sitia (on the eastern tip of Crete) they grow the Liatiko variety, which gives a light-coloured dry red wine. In Peza, they also grow the Vilana variety, which gives an aromatic dry white wine.

Tree-culture is however the absolute leader in Cretan agriculture. There are approximately 25 million olive trees, which have literally covered the whole island from end to end, from which the famous Cretan olive oil,

Crete, 35 billions Olive trees

Crete, 35 billions Olive trees

one of the best in Europe, is produced. There are also approximately 2.6 million orange trees, 1.6 million almond trees, 1 million pear-trees and many fig-trees, mandarin-orange trees, lemon-trees, apple-trees, apricot-trees, peach-trees and cherry-trees.

Stock-breeding is not as developed as agriculture and continues to be carried out using traditional methods. There are approximately 900.000 sheep and 400.000 goats, which graze in both large and small herds on upland or mountain pastures. There are only a few cows (around 20.000) but around 1 million rabbits are bred (almost half of those bred in the whole of Greece!) because they are a traditional Cretan food for which both locals and foreigners show a special preference.

There are also around 130.000 pigs many of which are domestic (you will see many families in the villages who are rearing their own pig, for their own consumption) and very many chickens (it is difficult to count them but they are estimated at around 2 million!) most of which are free range and you will often see them flying in front of your wheels in each village you pass.

Fishing also belongs to the traditional professions of the Cretans (it is certain that this has been practised since the Minoan years) but it has never seen any particular growth even though Cretan waters are very rich in fish. Unfortunately, many Cretans insist on fishing by the destructive and illegal dynamite method.

Industry is not particularly developed (as in the rest of Greece) but during recent years it has shown an upward trend. There are around 8.000 industrial and craftmaking units concerned with processing of agricultural products, mainly olive-presses, wine manufacturers, flour-mills, fruit juice production units and mineral water bottling plants, etc.

The Cretans did not always live off tourism
With so many hotels, restaurants, bars and all the kinds of tourist businesses you will see in almost every corner of Crete, you could easily get the impression that this place has been occupied with tourism since the old days. The tourist development of the island, however, basically began only twenty years ago. Until that time, the Cretans were occupied in other professions.

In the neolithic period (7000-3000 BC) the people who lived on this island (we cannot call them Cretans) lived mainly in caves and also in small settlements built on low hills. Their professional horizons were very limited - they were hunters, small stock-breeders, small farmers and fishermen. Neolithic man produced on his own all that he needed in order to live, but there must have been some talented people who specialised in the manufacture of stone tools and weapons, in the manufacture of clay vessels and in the building of huts. Certain others must have left their small fields to become the original seamen who went in their primitive boats to Milos, Nissyros and other places to bring back raw materials (obsidian) for making their tools with.

In the Prepalatial Period (3000-2000 BC), rapid developments took place, obviously under the influence of new colonists that came from the southwest shores of Asia Minor, who prepared the appearance of the Minoan civilisation. In this period, people gradually left their caves and built comfortable, square huts with stone foundations, brick walls and flat wooden roofs. The inhabitants continued to work in agriculture and stock-breeding, but ceramics and stonecraft developed a lot and new crafts emerged, such as jewellery-making and weaving. They loaded the surplus produce onto their ships (which had improved a lot in the meantime) and they sold it in the markets of the Aegean and of Egypt. Thus, alongside the farmers and the breeders, the first professional merchants slowly appeared.

In the period of the Minoan Palaces (2000-1450 BC), i.e. the peak period of the wonderful Minoan Civilisation, for some untraceable reason, authority was concentrated in the hands of the kings. Magnificent palace centres were founded and important changes took place in social and economic organisation. Populations gathered around the palaces and big cities, like Knossos, developed where new professions emerged and old ones saw great advances. Specialist Craftsmen, like metalworkers, seal makers, sculptors, perfume makers and pharmacists set up craft shops inside the palaces. Agricultural production was amplified by new irrigation techniques and by new tools that look much like the pick-axes and hoes of today. Home industry also saw a big development, mostly in weaving which employed women.

This long and very creative period came to an end, however, around 1450 BC, due to some unexplained violent cause. The palaces fell down in ruins, the cities became deserted, the fields were abandoned and went to waste and many people lost their lives. Immediately afterwards, Achaean colonisers appeared on the island, but they did not leave any special traces, nor do they appear to have clashed with the remaining distressed inhabitants.
When, however, the war-happy, headstrong Dorians appeared (1100 BC), chaos ensued! After having captured the island relatively easily, they threw the previous inhabitants out of their houses and settled there themselves; they fortified their cities and organised their lives on the Spartan model. As for the locals, fate had five things in store for them. Those who had not resisted the invaders became neighbours and were allowed to make their homes near to the cities and to continue to cultivate their fields, although they paid a significant tax to the conquerors. Those who had resisted half-heartedly became serfs; they lost all their land and were forced to work on public projects (construction-sites, road-making, fortification works, etc). Those who dared to resist more seriously not only did they lose all their property and dignity, they also became slaves who did the haviest, dirtiest and most hazardous jobs. Those who resisted vigorously became dead people! Finally, there was a small group of Minoans who had realised in time that resistance was in vain and who had packed their bags and gone and climbed up to the most precipitous and inaccessible mountain-tops in the east part of the island, far out of the javelin range of the Dorians. The Dorians called these people Eteocretans (genuine Cretans). In the places they had climbed up to, they had very little cultivatable land and grazing pastures and it is certain that they were hard put to survive. Their last traces disappeared around the 3rd Century BC.

During ancient times and until the Roman Occupation (1100-69 BC) life in Crete was a continuous clash between the Cretan cities with long or short intervals of peace, of alliances and of reconciliations. There were around 150 large and small cities and an infinite combination of clashes and alliances between them, according to the interests of the moment. Generation upon generation of Cretans (as Homer refers to them for the first time) learned to use the spear much better than the ploughshare, and a new profession flowered during the whole of this period in Crete - mercenary soldiers. From out of this professional class, during periods of unemployment (i.e. during periods of peace) emerged another professional class - the pirates! The first pirates quickly and with little effort became very rich and thus became shining examples to younger people. Towards the end of the Hellenistic Period (the last pre-Christian centuries), the Cretan pirates joined together with the blood-thirsty Kilikian pirates and became the most daring and dangerous robbers in the Mediterranean. They did not hesitate to attack even Roman ships in the harbours.

When the situation became intolerable, the Romans took a trip and conquered Crete. The Roman Conquest lasted for 400 years (69 BC - 300 AD) and during this period the Cretans were forced, to their regret, to abandon piracy, robbery and mercenary soldiering and to return to their fields. The most fertile land had of course been taken by the Roman landowners, who set destitute locals to cultivate them under the terms and conditions of slaves. The Romans, however, did many good things - they built roads and harbours throughout the island thanks to which trade developed especially. Many craft activities also flourished, such as copper-working and ceramics, which now found new markets for their products on the shores of Phoenicia and Egypt, but stock-breeding and farming also developed gradually. In general, the Romans lived harmoniously beside the locals, maybe because they admired Greek civilisation and because there were not deep religious differences to divide them.

After the separation of the Roman Empire into west and east, Crete came under the jurisdiction of the east Roman Empire which later developed into the Byzantine Empire. The rearrangements and the conflicts were especially spread out throughout Europe but not much changed in the social and economic life of Crete. During the whole of the first Byzantine Period (330-824), Crete continued to be an important commercial junction in the heart of the Mediterranean while its stock-breeding and farm production flourished greatly. Despite its commercial and strategic importance, however, the Byzantines left it basically unfortified. Thus, in 824, the Saracen Arabs, who had been thrown out of Spain, found new land to plunder.

The period of the Arab Occupation (824-961) was the most catastrophic period the island had even known. The Arabs slaughtered as many Cretans as they could, plundered, pulled down and burned all the cities and villages that were in their path and they destroyed everything. Those Cretans who had time left the island, while those who stayed behind were converted to the Islamic religion to save their lives and enlisted in the Arab army. The fields were abandoned and became barren, the herds were exterminated and all the countryside was laid waste. Chandaka (the Iraklio of today) became the centre of Crete and this developed into the biggest centre of piracy and of the slave trade in the Mediterranean.

When the Byzantines finally managed to throw the Arabs out of Crete (to be accurate, they did not throw them out but killed them all, some 200.000 of them, either in battle or in executions), Crete was a destroyed and ruined place. In the 250 years that the second Byzantine Period (961-1204) lasted, Crete managed to heal its wounds gradually and to regain the old rhythms of its social and economic life. The Byzantines invited back the exiled Cretans, brought over new colonists from Constantinople for reinforcement, rebuilt the cities and the villages and got rid of all trace of the Arab nightmare. Commerce regained its old glory. The Greek population increased greatly and the island came to life again. A powerful class of big landowners was gradually created, in accordance with the models of Byzantine society, while small landowners were increasingly weakened. The landless villagers became labourers in the fields of the large landowners who amassed in their hands great economic and political power.

When the Byzantine empire began to decline, during a critical period of internal disputes, the Venetians managed to buy Crete from the Byzantines for a very low price! Thus began the long, painful period of the Venetian occupation (1204-1669) during which the Venetian rulers did not respect the political rights nor the religious conscience of the locals. The Regno di Candia (Kingdom of Crete) as they called it, was organised on the European feudal mode. The ruling class were the Venetian nobles who shared out the Cretan land between themselves and acquired tremendous economic and political power. A vigorous urban class developed in the cities (merchants, doctors, lawyers, civil servants), the members of which were mainly Greek orthodox people. In the countryside however the overwhelming majority of the Cretan people suffered greatly. Most of them had no land or property and they worked as slaves in the fields which the Venetians had grabbed. These grim feudal lords sold them or hired them to others and generally treated them as their inanimate property. The worst thing of all, however, was that they forced them to work on public projects, mainly fortification works (countless Cretan workers lost their lives due to beating and the miserable working conditions at the Venetian castles you see and admire today in Crete), and to serve as oarsmen in the Venetian galleys. This last was equivalent to a death sentence. Piracy, rough seas, hunger, sickness and exhausting rowing killed most of them. Despite their miserable condition, the Cretans resisted as much as they could. During the Venetian occupation, 27 large and small revolutions took place, but none had the desired result except for horrible revenge reprisals on the part of the Venetians who burned, killed and plundered without limit.

This terrible period eventually came to an end, but another even more terrible began. The Venetians were not able to prevent attack by the Turks and so in 1669 the period of the Turkish occupation (1669-1898) began. The new conquerors competed in barbarity with the old ones - tens of cities and villages were laid waste and their Christian inhabitants slaughtered, sent into exile or violently converted to Islam. The small urban Greek class was destroyed and all the urban professions devolved into Turkish hands. Commerce stagnated. But it was farming and stock-breeding which took the biggest blow - the taxes imposed by the Turks were so heavy that many Christians preferred to leave their fields and herds and to become guerrillas in the mountains (the legendary chainides). There were no more than 60.000 Greeks in Crete at the beginning of the Turkish conquest. They found a safe refuge however on top of the inaccessible mountains and isolated plateaux, where they managed not only to survive but also to increase: at the end of the 18th century it is estimated that they exceeded 200.000. They organised dynamic rebellions in which they mourned many victims, but they caused great damage to the conqueror. After many sacrifices an struggles, Crete at last was freed from the Turks (1898) and after a short transition period, was finally united with Greece (1913).

The adventures of the Cretan people through all these centuries left indelible marks on the Cretan mental make-up. One characteristic leftover is the special love of the Cretans for guns. Many Cretans of 14 years of age and over not only have their own gun but also carry it with them wherever they go, stuck into the belt of their trousers below their shirt. Some have two, three or four guns, usually automatic pistols or the latest type of revolvers, while there are some who maintain a whole arsenal of military rifles, hand-grenades, etc.!

Authentic Cretans you will meet only in remote mountain villages

Authentic Cretans you will meet only in remote mountain villages"

They spend a fortune To acquire them and to procure of ammunition, as everything is sold illegally on the black market. The gun is a part of a Cretan’s body and no law can take it away from him despite sporadic attempts to do so. But what do they do with all these guns?

Firstly, they use them to shoot the famous balothies, i.e. shooting into the air at parties and festivals. If you happen to go to a Cretan celebration (a wedding, christening, or festival) you will think that war has broken out! Very often, when they are alone in the mounts, they do target practice or organise rough and ready shooting matches, firing at whatever they see, usually signs (with special preference for those reading “no hunting”).

Crete, The sign advertises hunting equipment and school supplies !

So if you are standing somewhere or when you pitch your tent in the wilds, make sure you’re well away from signs!
More rarely, they use guns to solve their differences. Of course, they don’t use them for small matters, nor in serious conflicts and clashes. But they use them without hesitating to punish anybody who dares to cause them the biggest possible damage -on insult against the honour of their family (e.g. raping their mother of their sister, or even making insulting insinuations against them). The first victim usually provokes the beginning of a chain reaction of killings - the so-called vendetta.

The gun has become an accessory for some old Cretans

The gun has become an accessory for some old Cretans

The close relatives of the murdered person do not rest until they have killed the murderer. Then the close relatives of the dead murdered do not rest until they have killed the murderer or murderers of the murderer. The remaining relatives of the dead murderers of the murderer of their relative do not rest until they have killed the murderers of the murderers - and so it goes on until everyone has been finally annihilated, or until the police manage to intervene effectively and to send the antagonists to prison. Even here however the dispute is not resolved but is simply covered up. When the murderer comes out of prison, even if this is after many years, the opposing relatives are lying in wait with their finger on the trigger, and the game starts all over again. So be careful how you talk and gesture to the beautiful Cretan girls, because their brothers don’t mess around!

There are other penal crimes, however, which the Cretans not only are not ashamed of but which they also consider as an honour. Sheep rustling, for example, has a very great tradition in Crete and is almost an institution and a necessary stage in the coming of age process of Cretan shepherds. This tradition has its roots in the era of the Venetian occupation, if not even further back, when the people in the countryside were hungry and had to steal from the rich in order to live. Today, the Cretan shepherds steal neither to live nor to enlarge their herds (which are already quite big). They steal for kapetania as they say, because it is macho. But sometimes they overdo it and instead of stealing a symbolic five or six lambs, they steal whole herds. In this case, of course, tempers flare an often the pistols “speak”.

But even the symbolic thefts of five or six sheep are capable of exterminating even a big herd very quickly when there are a lot of rustlers in the area. The only effective way a shepherd can protect his herd from rustlers is Koumbaries. This means that he takes care to make as many shepherds in the area as he can godfathers at his children’s christenings. And if there are more shepherds in the area than his (usually many) children, then he asks two or three or sometimes even more people to be godfathers to each child! In this way, most Cretans have become related as Koumbari or Syntekni (ex officio brothers) as they call themselves and of course they avoid stealing from each other. Even if you are not a potential rustler, if you stay more than three or four months in Crete, you will almost certainly not leave without becoming a Koumbaros!

Source of the information on this page : “Unexplored Crete”, Road Editions. For more guidebooks and maps of Greece, click here.


Tip of the day

Rethymnon (2). • Argyroúpoli: 27km far from Réthymno you will find Argyroúpoli, a village built on the remnants of the ancient city of Láppas. Numerous springs, the cave and the chapel bearing the same name are all well worth a visit.
 Gorges of extraordinary beauty traverse the mountains of the region: the ravine of Kourtaliótis, 3km long, ends at the famous Lagoon of Préveli; the ravine of Kotsifoú starts from the village of Kánevos and ends near the village of Sellía; the gorge of Patsós, in the Amári district; the gorge of Prassés, which ends at the village of Plataniás at the north coast east of the town of Réthymno; finally, the gorge of Arkádi and a number of smaller ones.
 The mountains of the region are exceptionally rich in caves. The most famous caves are those of Geráni, Simonélli west of the town of Réthymno, Áyios Antónios in the district of Amári, Melidóni, Moúgri Sissón and Sfendóni near the village of Zonianá.


Tel/fax: +33 (0)4 93 37 81 63 --- Mobile: +33 (0)6 08 37 02 49
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Address in Greece: Astrikas - Chania - Crete, 73006 Greece