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Byzantine Period

From the 4th century onwards Crete, with its capital at Gortys, was a relatively unimportant province of the Byzantine Empire. More than 70 early Christian basilicas, three-aisled and with mosaic floors, were built on the island, very often in coastal locations which indicates the absence of fear of attack by pirates. The most impressive is the cruciform-domed basilica at Gortys, built in the 6th century on what was believed to be the site of the grave of St. Titus, that follower of St. Paul who established the first Christian community on Crete. However, the peaceful way of life was gradually undermined from about the end of the 7th century onwards, when the Arabs began their expansion westwards. By the end of the 8th century, raids on the island by Arab pirates reached their peak, and around 824 AD the Saracens under Abu Hafs Omar conquered Crete and made it a pirate base. Byzantine culture was harshly suppressed, and the capital of the pirates’ island was now Hándakas, modern Heraklion, where there was a huge slave market.

In 961 the Byzantine general and later emperor, Nikifóros Phokás, reconquered the island along with much Saracen booty, some of which was allocated for the building of a great monastery on Mt. Athos. Noble families from Constantinople were sent to settle on Crete, to inject new life into a population that had been impoverished and subjugated for nearly a century and a half. Their names live on through their descendants on Crete to this day. The recovery of the island now began, and renewed contact with Constantinople gradually led to a rebirth of Cretan religious art. From the 12th century onwards new monasteries were founded, churches built and decorated with frescoes.

However, things were about to change again. The Fourth Crusade ended with the destruction of Constantinople in 1204 by the Crusaders, spurred on by the machinations of the Venetians. The Byzantine Empire disintegrated, and in the division of spoils Crete acceded to Bonifatius of Montferrat, who sold it to Venice. The island was seized by the Genoese pirate Pescatore in 1206, but the Venetians attacked and finally took possession of Crete in 1211.