Cretan Geology and Geography
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 less than a centimetre a year pushing northwards. This results in gradual tectonic up-thrust causing earthquakes. Crete experiences minor tectonic movement fairly frequently. Fortunately, though, major quakes have recently been rare, infrequent events on the island. 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 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.
Being the buffer between the Libyan and the Aegean Seas, Greece’s largest island, 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 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 position that Crete occupies in the Mediterranean Sea has meant that its history has often been turbulent but it is a proud bearer of its past; a past that blends myth and historical fact, the rise of great civilizations and their demise, times of outstanding 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 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. The island’s mountain ranges, intensely steep and often wreathed in cloud, ensure that the winter rains and snow are intense, giving plentiful supplies of water to feed the crops growing in the mountain plateaux, the valleys and the plains. Within a more modern context, the supply of water for the many visitors (over four million in 2013) to the island can still keep pace with their requirements.
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. Its greatest width is 60 kilometres across, north to south. It is, though, only 12 kilometres at its most narrow point, located in the area of Ierapetra. 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 beaches have a total length of 1,064.4 km.
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 homonymous capital, the Prefecture of Heraklion, with its capital, the city of Heraklion, it being the largest city on the island and, furthest to the east, the Prefecture of Lasithi, with Aghios Nikolaos as its capital.
PROVINCES AND PREFECTURES
As mentioned above, Crete is divided into four prefectures (in Greek, nomos or in the plural, nomoi). From west to east they are: Chania, Rethymno, Iraklion and Lassithi. Each one of the prefectures is subdivided into provinces (eparchies). 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 50,000; Rethymno with about 35,000 people, Iraklion with approximately 135,000; Agios Nikolaos with 8,000 people and Sitia with 7,000 people. The total population of the island is approximately 650,000 people.
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