Crete is the largest of the Greek islands, lying at the southern limit of the Aegean Sea. It was the center of Europe's earliest civilization, the Minoan, which flourished from about 2000 B.C. to 1600 B.C. Its cultural and economic influences were felt as far away as the Iberian Peninsula. Around 1400 B.C., for reasons that are still obscure, Minoan power collapsed. According to some theories, the downfall may have resulted from a catastrophic earthquake, perhaps following the volcanic eruption on the island of Santorini. Others speculate that the island may have been ravaged by invaders. Whatever the cause, Crete never recovered to its former importance.
A succession of powers vied for possession of this extreme southern European outpost; Romans, Arabs and Byzantines each left their mark. The island was ruled by Venice from 1204 to 1669, when the people of Crete fought a long and bitter struggle for independence. The period of Venetian rule saw a considerable cultural flowering on Crete. Among the artists of this period was El Greco, who was born near Heraklion in 1541.