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Countryside of Crete



The morphology of Crete is the result of various geological phenomena and tectonic movements that hapenned approximately ten million years ago, when the island broke away from the land that connected Greece and Asia Minor, when the region was inundated by the sea.

During the Pleistocene, 1-3 million years ago, Crete acquired its present shape, more or less, and the high Cretan mountains were formed.
The geological transformations and alterations in the climatological conditions influenced life on the island. Many large mammals such as Elephas antiquus, the dwarf Elephas creticus, hippopotamuses, rhinoceroses and wild cattle, deer and bison that originally lived on the island, disappeared. Only the wild goats, virtually identical with those of the present day, survived.



The first inhabitants, organised in small groups, are thought to have arrived on the island around 6000-5000 B.C., though more recent investigation indicates that human beings have lived there since Palaeolithic times.

During this period it seems that Crete was a lush island with dense forests. These forests survived to a degree during the following centuries since, according to evidence, Crete exported cypress timber to all the surrounding lands during Minoan times.

In Homeric times Psiloritis was covered with forests to which it also owes its name in antiquity - Idi - from the Doric word Ida, which meant trees for lumber, forest, or wood-covered mountain.

Very little is left today of these ancient forests. Their destruction and the deforestation of the mountains is due mainly to the havoc caused by the various invaders of the island, the worst offenders being the Venetians and the Turks.

Moreover, stock-raising and the lack of water and rivers contributed to the devastation resulting in less than one-tenth of the surface of the land being covered by forest. Dry scrub land now prevails. Mountains

The high mountains are one of the characteristics of the Cretan landscape. They are composed of limestone. The geological upheavals which created basins and plateaux also formed a large number of impressive caves, many of which were used for religious purposes during antiquity. The mountains of Crete make up a section of the Dinaric-Taurus chain, which starts in the Dinaric Alps and comprises the mountains of Albania, Pindus, the Peloponnese, Kythira - Antikythira, Crete, Karpathos and Rhodos, and ends in Taurus in Asia Minor.



These massifs form three large mountain complexes, each with its own personality. Between the ranges lie the mountainous or semi - mountainous zones which cover the greater part of the land. There is a third lower zone along the coast and in the interior. In western Crete, the area of Hania, are the White Mountains or Madares, a large mountain complex with scores of peaks, the highest of which is Pachnes (2453 m.). Ida or Psiloritis, a single elongated mountain mass whose highest peak is Timios Stavros (2456 m.), constitutes the main mountain complex and is also the highest point in Crete.

On the western side of eastern Crete is Dikti or the Lassithi Mountains, a range with many peaks, the highest being the anonymous "2148". The well - known plateau of Lassithi (402 sq. km.) spreads out between the peaks.

On the south side of the island are lower, mountains such as Kedros (1777 m.), which is separated from the Ida mountain range by the Amari valley. There is another small mountain range north of Ida, Kouloukonas, known in antiquity as the Tallaia mountains. The Mylopotamos valley lies between them. Mount Kophinas (the Asterousia Mountains, highest peak 1231 m.) lies to the south of the plain of Messara.

Finally, there are two large mountain complexes in the province of Sitia: to the west the Sitian mountains (the highest peaks are Kliros, 1320 m. and Aphendis Kavousi, 1476 m.) and to the east lower mountains (the highest peaks are Playia, 819 m. and Prinias, 803 m.).

Moreover, every peninsula has its own lower mountain range.
There are three mountaineering clubs in Crete, at Iraklion, Hania and Rethymnon. There are three shelters for climbers in the mountains of Crete: in the White Mountains situated at Kallergis (1680 m.) which holds 30 people, and at Volika (1480 m.) which holds 40 people. Both of them belong to the Mountaineering League of Hania. On Psiloritis, situated at Prinos (1100 m.), is another refuge which holds 16 people and belongs to the Mountaineering League of Iraklion.

Another characteristic of the land in Crete is the numerous plateaux which are generally located in the middle zone of the mountains and which act as rain water collectors in the winter. Several of these plateaux are fertile and densely populated. Others are used only for grazing. Unquestionably, the most beautiful and impressive of these is the Lassithi plateau, which is surrounded by the peaks of Dikti and lies at a height of approximately 900 m.). It is as heavily populated today as it was in antiquity. Also of importance are the plateaux of Omalos in the White Mountains at a height of 700 m., Nida on Psiloritis at a height of roughly 1400 m. near the Idaian Cave and Askyphou. The plateaux that are at a high altitude (such as Omalos) are only inhabited in summer and are relatively easy to reach.

Gorges



One of the principal features of the Cretan landscape is the many ravines which cut through the island from north to south. Most of them start in the mountainous zone and end near the sea. Their role in preserving the rare flora and fauna of the island is enormous, because they are the only regions that remain far - removed from all human activity.

The best known, both for its size and its beauty, is the Gorge of Samaria, the famous "Pharangas" which is 18 km. long and which ranges from 3 m. wide at its narrowest point to 150 m. and requires five to seven hours to traverse.

A small mountain stream with cold water runs along its bottom. In walking the length of the ravine one has to cross this stream forty seven times. At many points the vertical walls of the ravine reach a height of 500 m., while the mountain peaks that surround it (Gigilos, Volakias, Zaranokephala, Pachnes) are over 2000 m. high. On the slopes of the ravine are cypress forests (Cypressus sempervirens) in their true, wild form with horizontal branches, and pine trees of the Pinus brutia type. There are plane trees at the bottom. The ravine is also full of rare Cretan wild flowers.

Here is also the last refuge of the Cretan wild goat (the kri-kri) which is why the region has been declared a National Forest, meaning that hunting, lumbering, the cutting of wild flowers and staying overnight in the ravine are prohibited.

Other large ravines in Crete are the Imbriotiko, between the villages of Imbros and Hora Sfakion, the Kourtaliotiko, where the historic Preveli Monastery is located, the Topoliano, near the village of Topolia, where besides the thousands of deciduous plane trees there are some evergreen plane trees as well, and the Prasiano, in the Prefecture of Rethymnon.

Plains Rivers and Lakes

There are no large plains in Crete but between the mountain complexes are several small, fertile tracts, and there are some others at certain coastal locations on the north side of the island, mainly at the back of bays. The most important of these is the plain of Messara (Prefecture of Iraklion) on the south side of central Crete. Messara played an important part in the history of the island, and because of its fertility has always been the granary of Crete.
During Minoan times there were important installations and palaces there (Phaestos, Aghia Triada).

Also noteworthy are the plains of Kisamos, Kydonia, Apokoronas and Kantanos (Prefecture of Hania) and of Rethymnon - Mylopotamos and Aghios Vasileios (Prefecture of Rethymnon). In the Prefecture of Iraklion is the plain of Iraklion and the plain of Pediada. In the Prefecture of Lassithi is the plain of Ierapetra. Besides the plains, the cultivable land extends up the smooth slopes of the mountains, frequently to a considerable height above sea level.

There are no important rivers in Crete. Most of them would be better characterized as dry stream beds because in the summer they have little or no water. Yeropotamos, Koiliaris, Anapodiaris and Megas Potamos are some of the better known rivers. There are only two lakes, that of Kournas in the province of Apokoronas and that of Agios Nikolaos in the town of the same name on the gulf of Mirabello. Because of the limestone composition of the mountains, spring water is not abundant in Crete. The largest number of existing springs is in western Crete and along the southern coast.


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