Crete is Greece’s largest island and defines the southern border of the Aegean Sea. Humans have inhabited the island for 130,000 years – Crete was the center of the Bronze Age Minoan civilization, considered to be Europe’s first. Today, Crete offers visitors fascinating ruins, wild landscapes and delicious food to enjoy. Your virtual tour begins here!
In order to truly understand the captivating island of Crete, we must begin with a broader overview of the history of Ancient Greece. Luckily for us, a 24-part lecture series from Donald Kagan, Yale professor and one of the great living historians of Ancient Greece, is available for free online. In his first lecture – 33 minutes long and aimed at undergraduates deciding whether to take his course – Kagan asks, “Why are you here? Why should we want to study the ancient Greeks?” Kagan traces much of what is great about Western civilization to the Greeks, and ultimately answers his own question by saying that Greece was the first civilization to understand – and value – human potential. Humans are potent and important, yet fallible and mortal. They have the freedom to choose and act, yet are bound by their own nature. He makes a strong case for why it’s important to study the history of Ancient Greece, and I recommend that you watch at least the first lecture. (The link above will take you to a website called Open Culture, one of the best portals to free learning on the Internet!)
Professor Kagan’s lectures are fascinating, but definitely more of the old school, stand-in-front-of-the-class-and-talk variety. For a gorgeous visual introduction to Crete, check out “The Minotaur’s Island” – a 48-minute documentary about Crete and Minoan civilization, narrated by British historian Bettany Hughes.
With this solid foundation, let’s dive deeper into Cretan land and history. This enormous island is 160 miles long and 60 miles wide. A mountain range runs down its center with its tallest peak, Timios Stavros, surpassing 8,000 feet. Here’s a view from the top of Mount Ida; you can also look inside the small chapel there. The long alluvial valley running east to west on Crete’s southern side was where farming began on the island in the Neolithic Age, and Crete still manufactures and exports olive oil, wine and other agricultural products. This Google street view drops you into the middle of an olive grove and gives you a feel for the dry, stark beauty of the place. Spot the mountains to the north – then rotate your view, or take your own trip down the road in either direction.
Minoan civilization flowered on Crete from 2700 to 1400 B.C., and featured impressive palaces with indoor plumbing, beautiful artwork and a writing system called “Linear A” that still hasn’t been deciphered. Its most impressive and significant archeological ruin is the Palace of Knossos in Heraklion on the island’s north side, where it could command an extensive trade network spanning the Aegean Sea. The civilization is named for King Minos, who commissioned his architect Daedalus to design and build a labyrinth to hold the half-man, half-beast, Minotaur. Minos imprisoned Daedalus in his own labyrinth; he and his son Icarus escaped by making wings of wax and feathers – you know Icarus’s sad fate.
This website blends clear text and short videos to give a splendid overview of the Palace of Knossos – not quite a virtual tour perhaps, but full of rich content and images nonetheless. The prominent depiction of powerful women in Minoan art found at Knossos has led some scholars to believe Minoan society was a matriarchy.
Not sold on the idea that civilization means progress? “Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States” presents an alternative narrative, and it’s one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve ever read. Read the entire book, or get the main idea from this Wikipedia summary.
It has required every bit of my self-restraint to wait until now to talk about my favorite subject … food! If you follow the Mediterranean Diet, Crete is the place for you. Tag along with two young Canadians, Anna and Trevor, as they sample six dishes you must try in Crete in this this 15-minute video – including zucchini flowers stuffed with rice and herbs, salad on barley rusks and honey-and-cinnamon infused custard in a phyllo crust. Trevor and Anna aren’t experts – what they call sour cream is surely yogurt – but they make up for it in enthusiasm and a willingness to try new things. Yum!
After all that food, you may be ready to nap or lie on your hammock and read about future travels to distant isles. Try this pairing: a great novel and a great travelogue – “Zorba the Greek” by Nikos Kazantzakis, and “Colossus of Maroussi” by Henry Miller. Both books are set in or make a stop in Crete. One of my favorite quotes from Miller’s book: “I have always felt that the art of telling a story consists in so stimulating the listener’s imagination that he drowns himself in his own reveries before the end.” We hope this virtual tour of Crete has stimulated your imagination, too!
For many years, Crete and its neighboring islands have captured and delighted the senses of Road Scholars from all over the world. We hope to see you on a learning adventure in Greece soon!
About the Author Peter Spiers is the Senior Vice President of Strategic Outreach at Road Scholar. He is the author of “Master Class: Living Longer, Strong, and Happier,” recently selected by The Washington Post as one of the best books to read at every age, 1 to 100 (Peter’s book was selected for age 70). Spiers holds a bachelor's degree from Harvard University, an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College and a master of science from the London School of Economics and Political Science.
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