Cretan Geology and Geography
Prefectures and Provinces
Crete is divided into four prefectures (in Greek, nomos or in the plural, nomoi). From west to east they are: Chania, Rethymno, Heraklion or Iraklio (both spellings are commonly used) and Lassithi. Each of the prefectures is subdivided into provinces (eparchies in Greek). The Nomos Chanion is subdivided into Kydonia, Apokoronas, Sfakia, Kissamos and Selino. The Nomos Rethymnou is subdivided into Rethymno, Milopotamos, Amari and Agios Vasilios. The Nomos Irakliou is subdivided into Malevizi, Temenos, Pediada, Pirgiotisa, Kainourio, Monofatsi and Vianos. The Nomos Lassithiou is subdivided into Mirambelo, Lassithi, Ierapetra and Sitia.
Major Cities and Towns
All the major cities or towns of Crete are on the north side of the island beside the sea. From west to east they are: Chania with a population of around 55,000; Rethymno with about 35,000 people, Heraklion with approximately 135,000; Agios Nikolaos with 20,000 people and Sitia with 10,000 people. Ierapetra is the only sizeable town on the south coast with 16,000 people. Given that the population of the island is approximately 650,000 people, more than half of all Cretans live in the island’s many attractive inland and seaside villages.
As a geological entity, the island of Crete was formed by the shifting of the earth’s tectonic plates. Within the last 25 million years, a vast area of ocean opened up between the Eurasian and African plates. Crete, with most of Greece, was for a period of a few million years subsumed under the sea. The land mass finally rose again as the two plates moved toward each other, forcing up mountain ranges and islands that thus formed what is known as the Hellenic Island Arc, of which Crete is part.
The tectonic movements of continental plates and weathering have combined to create fault lines which manifest themselves as gorges and great splits in the island’s mountain ranges. The African continent is very slowly at a rate of a few millimetres a year pushing northwards. This results in gradual tectonic up-thrust. The gradual erosion of wind and rain combined with heat and cold continue to form and change, in a long slow geological process, the shape and structure of the island.
Crete’s mountains dominate its landscape. There are four massifs, each formed with a limestone core that once sat in the depths of an ocean. They are, from west to east, Lefka Ori or the White Mountains in Chania Prefecture, Mount Idhi, also known as Psiloritis, dominating most of the landscape of Rethymno Prefecture, in central Crete and the Dhikti and Thripti Mountains of the east. Mount Idhi (Psiloritis) is 2456 metres high, while the highest summit of Lefka Ori is 2452 metres high. The summits of Dhikti and Thripti mountains reach heights of 2148 metres and 1476 metres respectively. These four main mountain ranges are linked by smaller hills, some of them quite high, and by fertile valleys and plains.
Geological processes have endowed Crete with many mountain plateaux, the most renowned being the high, fertile plain of Lassithi at over 850 metres above sea level. Crete’s gorges were caused by the gradual elevation, subsidence and collapse of land. There are over one hundred gorges on the island, giving the visitor a chance to see the effects of geological processes in their most raw and awe-inspiring beauty. Most notable is the gorge that starts above the Omalos Plateau, in Chania prefecture, known as the Samaria Gorge. At seventeen kilometres long, it is Europe’s longest. Some of Crete’s shorter gorges are just as scenic and awe-inspiring.
The island, due to its limestone core, is also well-known for its many caves. Well over three thousand caves and caverns are to be found across the expanse of the island. Still, many have not been fully explored internally. Some of Crete’s caves have played significant roles in the island’s mythological, religious and historical past. Over half of Crete’s territory is mountainous.
Although the island is a mere 260 kilometres long and has a good modern road stretching from one end to the other, west to east, it can take six hours to drive from the most westerly to the most easterly point. The landscape has been of prime importance in creating the indomitable and proud nature of the Cretan people. They have exploited their mountain fastnesses to remain safe, or to launch attacks from, in times of peril or occupation. Equally, they have used their knowledge of Crete’s wild herbs and many indigenous plants that grow on the mountain sides to create a cuisine which is now accepted as being the major contributing factor in ensuring that Cretans live longer than most people on our planet.
The position that Crete occupies in the Mediterranean Sea has meant that its history has often been violent but it is a proud bearer of its past; a past that blends myth and historical fact, the rise of great civilizations and their downfall, times of strong leadership and heart-rending defeat, but the people have never accepted subjugation, nor taken the weaker option. Its terrain is often an irregular jumble of rocks, that have given Cretans places to hide and revive in order to surge forth and rid their island of its occupiers and oppressors.
In many places, rocks cascade down to the sea, forming idyllic coves, lapped, at least in summer, by the calm waves of the Mediterranean Sea. Equally, though, there are many fertile coastal plains giving access to long beaches. It is a long thin island, 60 kilometres, north to south at it broadest and only 12 kilometres at Ierapetra where is its narrowest point.
Being the buffer between the Libyan and the Aegean Seas, Crete whose north coast is lapped by the most southerly part of the Aegean, which is also known as the Cretan Sea, is the recipient of dry sea-blown winds and breezes, initiated by cooler temperatures in the mountain ranges of the Balkans and Asia Minor and from the areas around the Black Sea, during the hotter summer months. These winds are known as the Meltemia in Greek or as the etesian winds. To a large degree, they help to keep temperatures much more palatable.
The island’s mountain ranges, intensely steep and often wreathed in cloud, ensure that the winter rains and snow, at least in the inland areas of the island, are intense, giving plentiful supplies of water to feed the crops growing in the mountain plateaux, the valleys and the plains. Along the coast, it is extremely rare that snow falls. The island’s climate is perfectly conducive to the cultivation of high quality vegetables, fruit and nuts and olive oil. Equally, the age old traditions of honey production have been maintained with Cretan beekeepers being careful to ensure that the pollens from the island’s abundant indigenous herbs produce some of the purest honey available. It is acknowledged that Cretan agricultural products are among the most healthy in the world, Cretans themselves having one of the highest levels of life expectancy on Earth. The supply of water from the abundant mountain snowfall and the winter rain cover, through creful management, agricultural needs as well as those of the many visitors to the island and still keeps pace with their requirements. The island receives over 3.5 million visitors each year, over 20% of the total tourism arrivals in Greece, mainly during the summer months.
Crete can been seen as being at the crossroads of three continents, Europe, Africa and Asia. With the Libyan Sea to its south, facing towards Africa, the Cretan Sea, expanding into the Aegean Sea to its north, facing the Cycladic islands and mainland Greece, the Myrto’on Sea to its north west, facing towards the Peloponnese, and the Karpathian Sea to its north east, facing towards the islands of Karpathos and Rhodes and the shores of Turkey, the island’s geostrategic position has been of great historical importance.
The shape of the island is narrow but long, 260 kilometres in total. Crete, with a total area of 8,303 square kilometres, is Greece’s largest island. The 8,303 square kilometres include the areas of the small islands of Dia and Gavdos. The latter island lies at the southern most point of Greece and of Europe. Crete is the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean but its role in global history has been greater than most of the other Mediterranean islands that precede it in size. Crete’s extensive shorelines have a total length of 1,064 kilometres.
The population of the island amounts to over 650,000 inhabitants, who live mainly from agriculture, animal husbandry and, in more recent times, from tourism. Administratively, the island is divided into four prefectures. From the west, they are the Prefecture of Chania, with Chania as its capital city, Rethymno with its capital with the same name, the Prefecture of Heraklion, with its capital, the city of Heraklion, it being the largest city on the island as well as being its capital and, furthest to the east, the Prefecture of Lasithi, with Aghios Nikolaos as its capital.
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