Crete, the largest of the Greek islands and the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean, lies some 100km/60mi southeast of the Peloponnese at the southern limit of the Aegean Sea.
The most southerly outpost of Europe, it is an important link in the chain of islands which forms an arc between southern Greece and Asia Minor. It extends for 260km/160mi from east to west, varying in width between 12km/7.5mi and 57km/35mi. It is dominated by three karstic mountain massifs: in the west the Lefká Oàri (White Mountains; 2,452m/8,045ft), which are usually snow-capped; in the center of the island the Psilorítis range (Iàdi Oàros, Mount Ida, 2,456m/8,058ft), which also has a good deal of snow; and in the east the Díkti range (2,148m/7,048ft). These jagged mountains with their scanty growth of vegetation are the home of the wild goat (Capra aegagrus), an ancestor of the domestic goat. Agriculture in this karstic terrain is possible only in the depressions (poljes).
Between the mountain ranges are fertile plains (Mesará; Omalós, Lasíthi), with plantations of palms, olives, bananas and oranges; in the south early vegetables are grown.
While the south coast for the most part falls steeply down to the sea, the north coast is flatter and more indented. On the north coast are Khaniá, the island's capital Iráklion and Réthymnon, its third largest town.
The climate is Mediterranean, with relatively mild and wet winters and completely dry summers of subtropical heat (six to seven summer months). The island's main sources of revenue are agriculture and, increasingly, the tourist trade.
The earliest traces of human settlement, by incomers from North Africa, date back to the seventh millennium B.C. From the third millennium B.C. there developed a pre-Greek Bronze Age culture which reached its apogee between 2000 and 1600 B.C. and is known as the Minoan culture, after the legendary King Minos. The cultural and economic influence of Minoan Crete, and also the political authority of this first maritime power in the Mediterranean, were felt as far afield as the Iberian peninsula. Then, around 1400 B.C., for reasons that are not clear, Minoan power collapsed. It may have been a catastrophic earthquake, perhaps following the volcanic explosion on the island of Santorin, which destroyed the Cretan cities; or the island may have been ravaged by invaders. Whatever the cause, Crete never recovered its former importance.
Towards the end of the 12th century B.C. Dorian Greeks conquered most of the island. In 66 B.C. Crete - an important base in the Mediterranean - was occupied by Rome. When the Roman Empire was divided in A.D. 395 Crete fell to the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire. In 824 it was occupied by the Saracens, but was recovered by the Empire in 961. From 1204 to 1669 it was ruled by Venice, when the people of Crete fought a long and bitter struggle for independence. Nevertheless the period of Venetian rule saw a considerable cultural flowering on Crete. Among the artists of this period was Domenikos Theotokopoulos, better known as El Greco, who was born in Fódele, near Iráklion, in 1541 (d. Toledo 1614).
In 1669 Crete was captured by the Turks, who did not relinquish it until 1898. After a period of independence the reunion of Crete with Greece was finally proclaimed on October fifth, 1912 on the initiative of Elefthérios Venizélos (b. 1864 in Mourniés, near Khaniá), a lawyer and liberal politician who later became prime minister of Greece. In the spring of 1941 German airborne forces occupied Crete, which, lying between southern Europe and Africa, was of great strategic importance, and remained in occupation until May 1945.
Iráklion airport, 5km/3mi east; Khaniá airport, 12km/7.5mi northeast, at Stérnes on Akrotíri peninsula; Sitía airfield, 5km/3mi north. Scheduled flights Athens-Iráklion several times daily; Rhodes or Salonica to Iráklion, several flights weekly; Athens-Khaniá, several flights daily; Rhodes-Sitía via Kárpathos and Kásos, several flights weekly.
Boat services from Athens (Piraeus)-Iráklion and Athens (Piraeus)-Khaniá, twice daily (10-14 hours; cars carried); sailings, several times weekly, to Cyclades and to Rhodes via Kásos and Kárpathos.
Approaching Khaniá, Cape Spátha (on its northern tip, remains of a shrine of the nymph Diktynna) is seen on the right, the peninsula of Akrotíri (ancient Kyamon) on the left. Between the two is the wide sweep of Khaniá Bay (often exposed to storms coming from the north).
Ahead can be seen the White Mountains (Lefká Óri). The boats anchor in the open bay, the large ferries beyond the Akrotíri peninsula in Soúda Bay, the only good harbor on the island, which offers a sheltered anchorage for a whole fleet of ships in any weather.
Approaching Iráklion, Cape Stávros, an important landmark, is seen on the right; on the left is the bare island of Día (known to the Venetians as Standia; alt. 265m/869ft; wild goat reserve), a haven of refuge in a northerly storm.
Ahead is Iráklion Bay, bounded on the west by Cape Panayía.
Areas of Crete were affected by the forest fires that swept across regions of Greece in the summer of 2007.