Excavations indicate that Crete has been inhabited ever since the ancient years, creating a glamorous civilization. The constant change of conquerors has influenced the local architecture, with features from the Arab Rule, the Venetian Rule and the Turkish Occupation combine with the local architectural tradition. Venetian castles and public buildings, mansions belonging to nobles, Renaissance monasteries and byzantine churches, turkish mosques, are scattered around the island. The houses in the moiuntainous villages are amphitheatrically built on the sides or tops of hills, thus forming natural fortresses to safeguard the village from pirates. The amphitheatrical lay-out of the settlement follows the line of the hill and develops around the church, the square and the coffee-shop. In most cases, the house are built in dense, compact clusters while in others, the houses are seperately and sparcely built. The town house consists of a ground floor (katoghi), a mezzanine (metzao), used as an office, and the top floor (anoghi), where the family lives. The rural Cretan house is simple, built in the shape of a cube, with few openings. It is comfortable, with beautiful gardens and courtyards. The main feature is "kamarospito" (arched house), the arch of which (kamara) divides the house into two areas. The interior of the cretan house is simple in furnishing and decoration. The only furniture here: "pezoula" (the bed), "portego" (the sitting-room), the table, the chairs and the trunk, all adapted to the needs of daily life.
In the villages of Crete, the parents' consent - particularly that of the father - is necessary for one to get married. The couple thus asks their parents' consent and blessing. The first step is the "pledge" or engagement ceremony, which takes place at the house of the bride-to-be and is blessed by a priest. After that, the marriage contract is drawn and signed. A few days before the wedding, the quests sent their "kaniskia" or presents, usually oil, wine, cheese or meat. Before the ceremony, the trousseau is carried from the house of the bride to the groom's house. It consists of handwoven or embroidered articles, sheets and household furnishing. It is accompanied by relatives and friends in a joyful parade, to the sounds of lyre, singing and gun fires. The ceremony includes a parade from the groom's house to the bride's house. There, a woman sings a mantinada to persuade the family to open the door. The bell calls the newly-weds to the church. After the ceremony, the couple goes to the groom's house where his mother feeds the bride with honey and walnuts and makes a cross at the front door, while the bride pours honey and breaks a pommerode, to have a sweet, "rose" marriage. Celebration starts with the couple singing and dancing, drinking and eating ends in the daylight.
Although the cretan male costume is not as popular as it was in the past, in some villages or formal occasions, there are many older men wearing it. The costume is very impressive and consists of the characteristic black kerchief with the fringes on the head, the light coloured woven shirt with the black vest known as “meidanogileko” and the traditional "vraka" (salvari) trousers, tied around the waist with a very long (10 m.) silk scarf. In the winter, the shoulders are covered with a warm cape, while the feet are protected from the cold with the white boots called “stivania”. The costume varies from area to area, not only as far as the head kerchief is concerned - it can be a fez with a navy blue tassel, known as “sfakiano” - but as to the colour of the belt, too - it can be black or red. The formal costume is made of higher quality fabrics than the daily one. Silk is used and the shirt and the cape are decorated with many embroideries.
The female traditional costume can be seen today at feasts, cultural events and laographic museums. The most usual type consists of a kind of vraka (apomesoroucho), the "sakofoustano" on top and the beautifully embroidered and decorated apron called "brostopodia". On the head, there is a kerchief (tsemberi) or, in some places, a little red fez called "papazi". Women also wear low heel boots called “stivania” or high heel black shoes. The costume varies from area to area. The mountainous mainland areas prefer the variation of Anogia, while the plain and urban areas prefer “soforia”. Soforia replaces apomesoroucho with a red skirt, while the shirt is covered with "meidani" or "saltamarka". The costume of Anogia also includes an embroidered double apron, tied round the waist, decorating sakofoustano. The formal costume has more ornaments, gold coins and embroideries on the apron and the kerchief, than the daily one.
In Crete, basket-weaving is part of the local folk tradition. Agricultural work forced the Cretans to develop the craft of basket- weaving, in order to make their rural and domestic chores easier. The secrets of basket- weaving are taught from the old craftsmen to the young ones. Utilising material from the cretan flora, such as reed, osier and splinter, basket-weavers create original and pretty designs which can be admired throughout Crete.
Rural and domestic chores forced the Cretans to make clay jars and pots. The cretan jags, made of hard material, are known for their original beautiful design and their resistance to high temperature. As years progressed, pottery evolved and small items, flower pots, jars and decorative ornaments were created. The most important pottery centers are Margarites in Rethymno and Kentri in Ierapetra. The best -known pottery centre, however, is Thrapsano in Heraklio. Here, one can find ceramics for every possible use.
Cutlery is part of the cretan folk tradition. The island’s disorderly history forced the locals to fight for their freedom and be constantly armed. Today, the knife tied around the waist is only part of the traditional cretan costume. The craft of cutlery is taught from one generation to the next, with the elderly teaching the youngsters how to make and decorate knives. The majority of the cretan knives have elegant designs, curved on the handle which is made of silver or animal horn. The sharpened steel blade, for safety reasons, is put into a cup made of wood, leather or silver. A knife with a “mantinada” curved on its handle, is a beautiful souvenir from Crete.
Cretan women are known for their skill in weaving, as in other crafts. The old traditional cretan houses were characterised by the loom - vertical or upright - where women spent a large part of their day. It was the place where they made the daily clothing of the family, blankets, towels, rugs, aprons and tablecloths. Although less women are occupied with weaving, today one can still purchase the famous cretan woven fabrics,unique samples of fok art, in beautiful colours and original designs. Many families are occupied entirely with weaving, from breeding stocks to weaving wool. The materials used are flax, cotton and silk which are dyed red from the weavers themselves, who gather for this purpose and teach their craft to the younger ones.
The old wood-curving produced items of religious art: icons, icon-stands, pulpits, candlesticks and other objects of eastern influence, still decorating churches. Today, only few wood-carvers are still to be found, mainly constructing folk musical instruments. However, in several mountainous regions, talented amateurs create small works of art (spoons, forks, wooden stamps for impressive designs, lyres and various other objects).
The cretan music tradition has had many influencies and is very different from others. The first samples are “Pirichii”, war songs sung by giants Kourites, while, in the first post-christian century, song writer Messodemos lived and wrote cretan music. The most famous cretan songs are "mantinades", songs accompanied by lyre and lute. The singer adjusts the lyrics to the circumstance, and mantinades vary from love songs to satirical, historical, or social content songs. The rhymesters compete with each other for the best, most succesful verse which will be greeted with great enthousiasm from the audience. Another important category of cretan songs includes the historic songs which narrate facts from the island’s disorderly history, praising the cretan heroism and willingness to fight. Among the regional songs are the "rizitika", sung in western Crete. They are thus called, because they originate from the foot or "roots" (rizes) of Lefka Ori. There are two types of rizitika: the "table" songs (tragoudia tis tavlas), sung without music instruments at feasts and dinner parties, and the "songs of the road" (tragoudia tis stratas), sung by travellers along the way. Unlike mantinades, rizitika are not improvised, expressing an emotional state, but they are the result of a long tradition, ever since the ancient years.
The most characteristic music instrument of the cretan musical tradition is "lyra" (the lyre), a three-string instrument with a small bow, similar to a fiddle-bow. Cretan lyre-players, self-taught in their majority, improuse and sing the cretan mantinades, adjusting the lyrics to the needs of the occasion. The cretan lyre plays along with the cretan "lagouto" (lute), an eight - string instrument, like a guitar. Other traditional instruments are the "outi", "askobandoura" - something like a bag-pipe - and "chabioli", a wind instrument played by shepherds, alone or attached to askobandoura. These instruments are taught from one generation to the next, and cretan musicians are taught from the elderlies the technique to construct the instruments and how to play music which is found in every aspect of the daily life.
The traditional cretan dances constitute an expression of the bravery and dynamism of Cretan character and were highly influenced by the island’s disorderly history. The turns of “Siganos” are reminiscent of Theseus’ convolutions in the maze. The dancers have their arms intertwined at shoulder level and take small steps. As the lyre-player accelerates, the dance becomes bouncing and "Pendozalis", the most famous cretan dance, begins. Dancers dance in an open circle, move away from each other and perform many improusations and spectacular jumps. "Sirtos" or "Chaniotikos" is danced in a different way from town to town, being a variation to “Sirtos” of mainland Greece. "Sousta" is a rhythmic, courting dance, danced by men and women facing each other. Men also dance "Kastrinos" or "Maleviziotis" in open circle. This is danced at fairs and local events.
For the main religious feast-days, cretan house-wives kneaded, baked and decorated special breads. The "Christopsoma" or "Stavropsoma" (Christ-breads" or "Cross- breads") were the Christmas breads, "avgokouloures" or "Lambrokouloures" (eggrolls or Easter rolls) were the Easter breads, "eptazyma" (seven times leavened) were the breads made for the feast of the Dormation of Virgin Mary, on August 15th. There were also the wedding breads, christening breads etc, decorated with various motifs of dough. Local olives and cheese, mountain greens and beans are never missing from the Cretan table. Among the typical dishes are "cochlii", meat "ofto", boiled goat, "staka" (made of butter and flour), Sfakia pie (lamb with myzithra cheese cooked in pastry dough in the oven), "Kaltsounia" (small pies filled with unsalted myzithra and fried in oil) "omathies" and "tsiladia" (pork jelly). The food is accompanied by genuine cretan wine found in different local variations. Another local drink is "tsikoudia" or "raki", a strong alcoholic drink made of mulbberries.