In, out of, and back into the eastern empire
Ruined cathedral of St. Títos at Gortina
Christianity had been introduced to Crete as early as 60 CE—brought, according to tradition, by Saint Paul himself. The first Christian bishop, who had the Roman name Titus, is said to have been a companion who arrived with Paul, and remained on the island to be its first bishop. In later times Titus, his name Hellenized to Títos, was honored as Crete’s patron saint. He and his successors established their episcopal seat at Górtys (Latin Gortina), which was then Crete’s capital and principal city. (A part of the last cathedral church to be built there, in the 5th century CE, is still standing among the ruins of Roman Gortina.)

Crete continued to enjoy peace and prosperity, subject to the emperor in Rome until 395 CE, and after that to the emperor in Constantinople (named after himself by the Roman emperor who had moved the capital there 65 years earlier, although we still use the original name, Byzantium, to refer to the eastern empire after the split). Although Cyrenaica and the rest of Africa was lost to the Arabs in their 7th-century explosion, the peaceful province of Crete served as an important trading crossroads in the Mediterranean world, and was still, as it had always been, agriculturally productive.

Byzantine rule in Crete was interrupted, however, by a period of Arab domination that lasted more than a century. Arab raids had been common since the beginning of Islamic expansion, but Crete managed to fend off attempts at full-scale conquest. But early in the 9th century the island was invaded by a large force of Andalusian Arabs who had been exiled from Spain by the Emir of Cordoba after an unsuccessful revolt. (Europeans and Byzantines called them Saracens, their name for all Arabs and later for all Muslims.) The exiles captured and held the Egyptian city of Alexandria for a while, but were once again defeated and expelled, so in 827 or 828, they decided to give Crete a try.
Arab fleet descending on Crete (12th-century Greek MS)
At least, that’s the chronology found in Arab sources. Byzantine accounts, however, report that the invasion took place as early as 824, before the exiles had been tossed out of Alexandria. Whenever it happened, this venture ended in success. I haven’t been able to find any account of the struggle, but it must have been intense at least at Gortina, which was deserted after that time. The Andalusian exiles made the island their emirate. The picture, from the only illustrated Greek history of this period, shows the Saracen fleet heading for Crete to invade the emperor's dominion. It is from a manuscript produced in Sicily during the 12th century, and it isn't known whether the pictures were created at that time or copied from an earlier Byzantine manuscript of the history.

With Gortina out of the picture, the victors took as their new capital a small city named Heraklion on the northern coast. After fortifying it strongly they named it Rabd-al-handaq (‘castle of the moat’). This became Chándax or Chándakas in Greek (and Candia and Kandiye to the Venetians and Turks who came later). It remained the capital, and its name was also, for a long time, the one most commonly used for the whole island. (On old English maps, the form of the name was Candy.) Meanwhile, the local Greeks were calling the city both Chándakas and Megálo Kástro (“Big Fort”). Its ancient name of Heraklion (which on this site I’ve been rendering according to its current Greek pronunciation as Iráklio) wasn’t restored until the 20th century.)

The Arab emirs in Crete gave lip service to the Caliph in Baghdad, but were effectively independent. They made the island a base for pirate raids on coasts to the north that had up to then been securely under Byzantine control, and a succession of outraged emperors tried to take the island back. If we take Byzantine accounts literally, all the Saracen inhabitants of Crete were engaged in piracy on a full-time basis, but this is understandably a biased view. The Wikipedia article on the Emirate of Crete is worth quoting:
The picture painted by the few and scattered pieces of evidence from the Muslim world however is that of an ordered state with a regular monetary economy and extensive trade links, and there is evidence that Chandax was a cultural centre of some importance. The survival of numerous gold, silver and copper coins, of almost constant weight and composition, testifies to a strong economy and a high living standard among the population. The economy was strengthened by extensive trade with the rest of the Muslim world, especially with Egypt, and by a booming agriculture: the need to sustain an independent state, as well as access to the markets of the Muslim world, led to an intensification of cultivation.
This is not to deny the piracy. It was a fact of life in the Mediterranean world, and so was frequent conflict between Islamic and Christian peoples, though “frequent” should not be read as “constant.” The Byzantine reports of Cretan Arab raids on the empire’s Aegean and Adriatic coasts were not fiction. But it’s reasonable to believe that the reality was somewhat more complex than a tale of good guys against bad guys.

For more than a century, the Byzantine emperors—being troubled by wars in other quarters, occasional plots and rebellions, and sometimes a scarcity of competent commanders—failed in every attempt to recover the island. In the year 960, however, after 130-some years of Arab rule, a major Byzantine expedition arrived under the command of a competent general. Nikephóros Fokás had sufficient troops, supplies, and naval support to expel the Arabs and restore Crete to the Empire. The reconquest was completed in 961, after a 9-month siege of Chándakas. Ruined Gortina remained empty, and Chándakas, most of whose Muslim inhabitants had been killed or sold into slavery, continued to be the political, and now the ecclesiastical, capital of Crete.
Nikephóros as emperor, with the Virgin Mary on a coin
In 963, two years after his victory, the same Nikephóros—on the strength of his effective generalship and his great popularity with the army—was proclaimed emperor in Constantinople, not without the kind of backstage maneuvering that gives the term Byzantine its more negative connotations in English. This gold coin, minted during his reign, shows the emperor crowned and armored, with one hand on a doubled-barred “patriarchal cross,” a common Byzantine symbol. The lady holding it with him is not his empress, who certainly never wore a halo; it is the Mother of God. (The emperor was held to be Christ’s representative on earth, and as such was considered the religious superior of the Patriarch of Constantinople.) It is unlikely that this icon-like portrait of Nikephóros is very true to life.

Six years later, in 969, the same plotters who had conspired to put Nikephóros on the throne—a cabal that included his own nephew and his predecessor’s empress, Theofanó (widely suspected of having poisoned her husband)—arranged and carried out his assassination. Nikephóros had married Theofanó when he became emperor, but by this time his nephew was her lover (and, perhaps needless to say, became Nikephóros’ successor).

Crete was undisturbed by these high-level events in the imperial capital, however, and for the next two centuries it was a quiet and secure province that we don’t hear much about.

But as the first millennium of the Common Era was coming to an end, the troubles of the Byzantine Empire were on the increase. The western Roman empire had long since succumbed to northern barbarians, and as Islam spread through the East, a succession of Islamic peoples—Persians (perennial enemies even before their conversion to Islam), Arabs, Kurds, Seljuk and later Ottoman Turks—were, although unable to bring Byzantium down, quite up to the task of chipping off blocks of its territory.
Pope Urban II preaching the crusade at the Council of Clermont, 1195
As if that weren’t trouble enough, the Crusades began. Pope Urban II—responding to a call from the Byzantine emperor for help against the Turks—conceived the idea of promising salvation to all knights who would dedicate themselves to liberating the Holy Land from Muslim rule. The pope, though no doubt sincere in his desire to extend Christian authority in the East, was perhaps also motivated in part by the wish to give western Europe some relief from the brutal shenanigans of a turbulent warrior class whose avid devotion to violence and greed was an embarrassment to Christianity. Pope Urban issued his call to holy war only a few months after he received the eastern emperor's appeal in 1095, at a council of high-ranking clergy and laymen in Clermont, France. (An artist envisioned the event this way almost 400 years later.) The idea of fighting for Christendom aroused great enthusiasm in many knightly breasts, and a series of western expeditions ensued. The first of these, remembered as the First Crusade, got under way the following year.

En route to the Holy Land, crusaders passed through Constantinople as friends, and they didn’t look like trouble at first. Eventually, however, the Crusades would underline for Byzantine emperors the wisdom of the axiom “Be careful what you wish for.” Whatever Muslim territory the western knights managed to conquer (and the First Crusade conquered a fair amount), was not returned to the empire, but organized into petty states ruled by land- and power-hungry Crusader barons. Subsequent crusades were much less successful, and none of the Western conquests proved to be permanent.
Crusaders at work
It wouldn’t be fair to say that the crusaders’ piety was all hypocrisy. The Christian knights generally agreed with the Pope, their spiritual ruler, that God favored Christian possession of the Holy Land, and for many this was the main or even the only reason for their presence in the East. Selfless warriors may have been a minority, but it seems to me that pious and self-interested motives were mixed—in varying proportions—in the psyche of nearly every knight who went along. It isn’t surprising that—especially as earlier gains were being reversed and the possibility of a Christian conquest began to fade—such men were more likely to turn their attention to doing as much as they could for their own benefit. On balance, it does appear that this tendency came in time to dominate the crusading enterprise.

At the beginning of the 13th century came the notorious Fourth Crusade, which ended with Constantinople being conquered by an army of alleged crusaders from Western Europe, allied with a large force of Venetians. The victors established a short-lived “Latin Empire” and divvied up as much Byzantine territory as they could get their hands on. The Venetians gained useful seaports all around Greece and the Aegean, and in addition they bought the island of Crete from Boniface of Montserrat, the principal leader of the crusaders, who had received it as part of the spoils. Boniface was more interested in establishing a kingdom around Salonika in northern Greece, which he had also been given, so he sold Crete to the Venetians for 100 silver marks. The story of how all this came about is an interesting one, and books have been written about the Fourth Crusade. You can read a short version of the story (well, shorter than a book anyway) if you click the left button below. Otherwise, click the right button to skip the crusade and stay with the story of Crete.