How did Crete get its shape and why is it the only island in the Mediterranean with mountains over 2,000 meters high?

Crete is the largest and most populous of the Greek islands, and the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. It has a long and rich history, dating back to the ancient Minoan civilization that flourished from 2700 to 1420 BC. But how did Crete get its distinctive shape and why does it have such high mountains? In this blog post, we will explore the geology and geography of Crete and learn some interesting facts about this beautiful island.

The shape of Crete

Crete has a relatively long and narrow shape, stretching for 260 km (160 miles) from east to west and varying in width from 12 to 60 km (7.5 to 37 miles). The island’s shape is largely determined by its tectonic setting, as it lies on the boundary between the African and Eurasian plates. These plates are moving towards each other, causing compression and uplift of the crust. This process has created a series of mountain ranges that run across Crete from west to east, forming its backbone.

The main mountain ranges of Crete are:

  • The White Mountains or Lefka Ori, which reach 2,454 m (8,051 ft) at their highest point.
  • The Idi Range or Psiloritis, which includes Mount Ida, the highest peak of Crete at 2,456 m (8,058 ft).
  • The Dikti Mountains, which extend to 2,148 m (7,047 ft) in elevation.
  • The Asterousia Mountains, which rise to 1,231 m (4,039 ft).
  • The Kedros Mountains, which reach 1,777 m (5,830 ft).
  • The Thripti Mountains, which rise to 1,489 m (4,885 ft).

These mountain ranges are separated by high plateaus and deep gorges, such as the famous Samaria Gorge, a World Biosphere Reserve. The mountains also influence the climate and vegetation of Crete, creating different zones of altitude and rainfall. The higher regions are cooler and wetter than the lower ones, and host a variety of endemic plants and animals.

Samaria Gorge. Source:

Wikimedia Commons

The mountains of Crete

Crete is the only island in the Mediterranean with mountains over 2,000 meters high. This is because Crete is part of a larger mountain system that extends from mainland Greece to Turkey and beyond. This system is known as the Hellenides or Hellenic arc, and it is one of the most active orogenic belts in the world. An orogenic belt is a region where mountains are formed by plate collisions.

The Hellenides are composed of several smaller mountain chains that have different origins and ages. Some of them are remnants of ancient continental crust that was accreted to the Eurasian plate during the Paleozoic era (541 to 252 million years ago). Others are fragments of oceanic crust that were subducted under the Eurasian plate during the Mesozoic era (252 to 66 million years ago). And others are younger sediments that were folded and thrust over each other during the Cenozoic era (66 million years ago to present).

The mountains of Crete belong to the latter group. They are made mostly of limestone and dolomite rocks that were deposited in shallow marine environments during the Miocene epoch (23 to 5.3 million years ago). These rocks were then deformed by compressional forces during the Pliocene epoch (5.3 to 2.6 million years ago) and uplifted by isostatic rebound during the Pleistocene epoch (2.6 million years ago to 11,700 years ago). Isostatic rebound is the rise of land after being depressed by ice or water.

The uplift of Crete is still ongoing today, as evidenced by frequent earthquakes and active faults. The island is also affected by volcanic activity from nearby Santorini and Nisyros islands, which belong to the South Aegean Volcanic Arc. The volcanic eruptions have contributed to the formation of fertile soils and natural resources on Crete, such as pumice, obsidian, and gypsum.

Psiloritis from Asterousia. Source:

Wikimedia Commons


Crete is a fascinating island with a unique shape and impressive mountains. Its geology and geography reflect its complex tectonic history, which has shaped its landscape, climate, and biodiversity. Crete is also a cultural and historical treasure, with a rich heritage that spans from the ancient Minoans to the modern Greeks. Crete is a place worth visiting and exploring, as it offers something for everyone.