Crete: Heraklion

Venetian fortress at the harbour.

Heraklion is the capital of Crete. With over 170.000 inhabitants, it is also by far the largest city on the island. Although there is a lot of traffic and congestion, it is still pleasant to walk through the streets of the historical city centre, where in most places only pedestrians are allowed. The undisputed highlight of the city is the Archaeological Museum. It was closed for renovation in 2006, and did not reopen until 2014. This museum has the most impressive collection of Minoan artefacts on all of Crete.

Arab, Byzantine and Venetian Heraklion

Modern Heraklion is close to the ruins of the famous palace of Knossos. Knossos may have had a harbour here in the second millennium BCE, but this assumption is based on speculation rather than on solid evidence. The history of Heraklion starts with the Arab invasion of the early ninth century. These Arabs – exiles from Andalusia – destroyed Gortys and founded a new capital further to the north. This they named rabḍ al-ḫandaq, which means “Castle of the Moat”. Handaq became the capital of the Emirate of Crete (824-961). Until then, Crete had been part of what we usually call the “Byzantine Empire”, but the correct name would be Eastern Roman Empire. The Eastern Romans attempted to take back the island on multiple occasions, but did not succeed until Nikephoros Phokas recaptured Crete in 961. His invasion had been well prepared and executed, and most of the Arabs living in Handaq were massacred. The city was renamed Chandax and it was part of the Eastern Roman Empire again for another 243 years.

Venetian shipyards (arsenali).

In 1204, Latin crusaders assisted by Venice captured Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, during the Fourth Crusade. One of the leaders of the crusade, Bonifatius of Montferrat, sold Crete to the Venetian doge Enrico Dandolo, who was almost eighty years old at the time. The island became an important and strategic part of the Venetian maritime empire. Venetian families settled on the island in the early thirteenth century. This led to cultural exchanges, impressive buildings and increased wealth and trade. The Venetian presence on the island inspired a Cretan Renaissance. But things were not always peaceful. The native Cretans vastly outnumbered the Venetian colonists by at least 15 to 1. They revolted against Venetian rule on numerous occasions. The Venetians monopolised most or all public offices and gave preferential treatment to their own Roman Catholic faith, while the majority of the Cretan populace was Eastern Orthodox. Chandax was now known as Candia, and the term was often used to denote the entire island.

Lions are part of the Morosini fountain.

Lions are part of the Morosini fountain.

The continued Venetian occupation of Crete required a lot of resources. The biggest threat to Venetian dominance was arguably a revolt in 1363, when Venetian colonists on the island allied with the native population and rose up against the Republic of Venice because of its oppressive taxation policy. A Venetian army led by the mercenary captain Luchino dal Verme invaded the island and soon managed to recapture Candia. Most of the leaders of the revolt were executed and Crete was safely back in Venetian hands again until the Ottoman Turks invaded the island in 1645.

Most Cretan cities did not stand a chance against the Turks’ military superiority and soon surrendered, but Candia put up some determined resistance. The city was put under siege in 1648 and the defenders managed to hold out for 21 years. European powers came to the aid of the Venetians, but could not prevent the city from ultimately falling into the hands of the Turks. The French admiral François de Vendôme, Duc de Beaufort, led 1.000 French soldiers and marines in the defence of Candia, but died during a night raid on June 25, 1669. A few months later, the city surrendered. The Duke’s heroic actions are commemorated on a plaque near the Archaeological Museum.

Venetian Loggia.

Venetian monuments and Ottoman rule

Heraklion still has a large number of Venetian monuments. The fortress at the harbour (see above) is perhaps the most famous one. The Venetians called it Rocca al Mare, ‘fortress at the sea’, while the Turks called it Koulés, or ‘tower’. Construction started in 1523 and the structure was completed in 1540. Near the fortress are the Venetian arsenali, also from the sixteenth century, which were used to build and repair ships (see above). The 25 August Road is named after a massacre on this date in 1898, when a Turkish mob killed hundreds of Greek citizens, 17 British soldiers and the British Consul of Crete. This road – which is closed to traffic – leads from the harbour to the historical city centre. After some 300 metres, one arrives at the Eleftheriou Venizelou Square. Locals call it the Lions square, a name which refers to the lions that are part of the seventeenth century Venetian Morosini fountain that is in the square (see above). Also from the Venetian era is the Loggia (1626-1628), which served as a meeting-place for the Venetian nobility. It is now the city hall (see the image on the left).

When the Turks conquered Candia in 1669, they renamed the city Kandiye, a name they used for the entire island as well. The Turks moved colonists to Crete and some Cretans converted to Islam, but the majority of the Cretans kept their Orthodox Christian faith. Just like with the Venetians, the native Cretans rebelled against the Turkish occupation of their island on numerous occasions. In 1770, a revolt started in Hora Sfakion in the south of the island. It was led by Ioannis Vlachos, known as Daskalogiannis, but it soon lost momentum when the Russian reinforcements that had been promised failed to show up. The Turks easily defeated the Cretan revolutionaries and brought Daskalogiannis to Kandiye, where he was skinned alive. Another revolt, perhaps even more famous because of the events at Moni Arkadiou, was put down in 1866-1869. The 1866 Road in Heraklion refers to this botched revolt. The first part of the road is the site of a street market and it leads to a square with a Turkish cafe and the sixteenth century Bembo fountain, which features a headless Roman statue.

The Venetian Bembo fountain.

Although Cretan rebellions were generally unsuccessful, the Turkish hold on the island grew ever weaker. During the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire was clearly in decline. In 1898, an autonomous Cretan State was created under Ottoman suzerainty and under international supervision. It was in this year that the massacre took place after which the 25 August Road was named (see above). Most Turks left the island in the years that followed and many Cretan Muslims reconverted to Christianity. Quite a few would have been crypto-Christians anyway. In 1913, Crete became part of the Greek State. By that time, Kandiye had been renamed Heraklion and it has kept that name ever since.

Modern Heraklion

There are not many monuments from the Ottoman period in Heraklion. One can see some texts in the Arabic script on the walls near the harbour, but the most impressive Ottoman monument is near the Loggia. I am referring to the Basilica of Saint Titus (Agios Titos). When the Turks captured Heraklion in 1669, the church dedicated to Crete’s patron saint Titus was replaced by the Vezir Mosque. The mosque was in turn destroyed by an earthquake in 1856 and quickly rebuilt. When Crete became part of Greece, many Muslims left the island as part of a population exchange. The minaret of the mosque was demolished and the building became an Orthodox Christian Church again in the 1920s.

The Vezir Mosque, now the church of Agios Titos.

The architect of the mosque was Athanassios Moussis, who was also responsible for the construction of the Agios Minas cathedral in Heraklion. Construction of this immense building started in 1862, but was soon interrupted because of the 1866-1869 revolt. Work was resumed in 1883 and the cathedral was inaugurated in 1895. While Titus is the patron saint of Crete, the Egyptian soldier and martyr Minas (or Saint Mina) is the protector of Heraklion. His cathedral is huge and the decorations inside are very impressive.

Agios Minas cathedral.

Interior of the cathedral.


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