The Cretan Lyra is a Greek pear-shaped, three-stringed bowed musical instrument, central to the traditional music of Crete and other islands in the Dodecanese and the Aegean Archipelago, in Greece. The Cretan Lyra is considered as the most popular surviving form of the medieval Byzantine Lyra, an ancestor of most European bowed instruments.
The Byzantine Lyra spread westward through Europe with uncertain evolution; a notable example is the Italian lira da braccio, a 15th-century bowed instrument and possibly the predecessor of the modern violin. Bowed instruments similar to the Cretan lyra and direct descendants of the Byzantine Lyra have continued to be played in many post-Byzantine regions until the present day with small changes, for example the Gadulka in Bulgaria, the bowed Calabrian lira in Italy and the Classical Kemenche in Istanbul, Turkey.
With regard to the period of introduction of the bowed instrument in the island, there are four schools of thought:
- The Byzantine Lyra was introduced after 961 AD, when the island was reconquered from Arabs by the Byzantine Empire under the command of Nikephoros Phokas. At that time, noble families from Constantinople were sent to settle on Crete to inject new life and replenish the Greek population, who introduced many Byzantine traditions from Constantinople.
- The Lyra was introduced from the islands of the Dodecanese, and entered the island through the eastern town of Sitia (where it was most popular), which is the neighbor of Kassos and Karpathos; this must have happened by the 12th century.
- The Lyra was gradually introduced into the island’s traditions as a popular element of the Byzantine music and tradition, in a similar manner that Lyra was introduced in other regions (e.g. the Lira da braccio and Calabrian lira in Italy and the Gadulka in Bulgaria).
- By the local tradition, the Cretan lyra has been spontaneous developed in the island of Crete some time before the year 961 AD and after the Byzantine invasion of Nikephoros Phokas it’s been adopted by the Byzantine panspermia among other treasures from Crete, to Istanbul, and from there, spread east and west.
Over the centuries and especially during the island’s Venetian Era, the violin exerted its influence on the music of Crete both under the organological and musical aspect, bringing about profound changes in the instrument’s repertory, tunning, organology, musical language and performance practice.