Explore
Navigate
Home
::Stelios Jackson's walks
interkriti:the E4 and other Mythical Trails-by Stelios Jackson
A diary of events of the trials and tribulations
of a lone walker, in his attempt to cross Crete
from Kato Zakros to Kissamos...
Home Chapters History Boxes
History Box Nr. 4
An outline history of Chania
AN OUTLINE HISTORY OF CHANIA
by Tony Fennymore

Chania has always been, and still is, a living, working Greek city. Recent archaeological excavations in the area of the ancient acropolis (now known as 'Kasteli' - Venetian for 'castle' - and the site of the Venetian Rector’s palace) have revealed evidence of human habitation from Neolithic times (c.4,000 B.C.), on through the Greco-Roman period and right up to the present day. These 6,000 years of civilisation make Chania one of the oldest and longest continually occupied sites in the world. In and around the city the influences of Neolithic, Minoan, Mycenaean, Dorian, Classical and Hellenistic Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Venetian, Turkish and modern Greek are exposed to the eye like a slice of multi-layered history cake; a true kaleidoscope of architectural styles and building techniques.

Chania lies on the site of the ancient settlement of Kydonia and according to legend was founded by King Kydon, the son of Queen Pasiphae (wife of Minos) and one of her ex-marital lovers, Apollo. This place name (Ku-do-ni-ja), occurs on Linear B tablets from Knossos and is also mentioned in many ancient literary sources. The Greek and scientific name for the quince is also apparently derived from this name and Crete is credited with being the homeland of this fruit. The importance of these early, pre-Greek inhabitants is emphasised by Strabo and confirmed by Homer who writes of the Kydonians as one of the indigenous people of Crete. The city of Kydonia is mentioned by Herodotus and Strabo who considered it to be the third most powerful state on the “Great Island”; after Knossos and Gortyna.

During the post Minoan/Mycenaean period i.e. Dorian/Geometric/Archaic/Classical and Hellenistic periods, Crete is very much part of the known Greek world, but remained on the periphery. Kydonia (Chania) assumed a prominent role in various inter-island wars and alliances; even defeating Marcus Antonius ( the father of Mark Antony ) in his invasion of Crete in 71 B.C. and later taking the lead in the resistance against the subsequent successful Roman invasion in 67 B.C. which was lead by Quintus Metellus (afterwards called Creticus).

From 67 B.C. Crete is linked with Cyrenaica (in North Africa) to become a single province of the Roman Empire with its capital at Gortys. With the split of the Empire in 330 A.D. the island becomes part of the eastern empire – the Holy Roman Empire with control from Byzantium/Constantinople. However, in 824 the island is seized by ex- Saracen/Andalusian Arabs under the leadership of Abu Hafs Omar thus ending what is known as the Byzantine I period. Crete does not become part of the Byzantine Empire again until 961 when it is recaptured by the famous Byzantine general, and later to become an emperor, Nikiforas Phokas.This is the start of the Byzantine II period in Crete which continues until 1204 when the most glorious city in Christendom, Constantinople, falls to the 4th Crusade. The sacking of Constantinople by the “Belgian yobs” was, of course, engineered by the Venetians who had coverted the wealth of the Byzantine trading empire for many years.

For services rendered, one of the Byzantine princes had given Crete to Boniface of Montferrat who was a Genoese, sea captain. Preferring mainland territory, this “pirate” sold the island to the wily old Doge of Venice for only 1,000 silver marks and for the next 465 years, Crete is a fundamental part of the Venetian trading empire in the Mediterranean. The Venetians renamed the island “Canea”; an Italian/Latin version of Chania which had for several centuries before been the name of this town. In 1252, the original city was rebuilt on the site of the acropolis and was known as “Castello Vecchio”. As can be still seen today the encircling wall was strengthened using many blocks of stone from the ancient Kydonia.

In 1266 (some sources say 1263!), Chania was captured and plundered by the Genoese who were great rivals of the Venetians. They held onto it until 1285 when the Venetians won it back again. It was again fortified in 1336 and later in 1538 in accordance with the plans drawn up by Michelle Sanmicheli in 1536. This military architect from Verona was also responsible for the fortifications at Rethimnon, Heraklion, the island of Rhodes and many other Venetian colonies. These fortifications were the height of military architecture for their day incorporating a moat 200 ft wide and 50ft deep which ran all round the 6 km of the town, with the sea and the rocks abutting on the northern side. The fortifications took some 12 years to construct using a regular labour force of over 30,000 people!

During the long period of occupation, the Venetians built so many fine private and civil/military structures in “La Canea” that the town enjoyed the reputation of being known as the “Venice of the East”. In 1609, a Scottish traveller, William Lithgow, wrote “Chania is a large castle (meaning the fortification walls) containing some 97 palaces in which the Rector and other Venetian gentleman dwell”.

However, on the 22nd August 1645, these ambitious and apparently inpregnable fortifications fell to the Ottoman Turks after a seige of only two months. The Turks settled in and set about repairing the fortifications and converting churches and monasteries into mosques.

Eventually in 1849, the Turks made the city the capital of the island. 

The Seraglio was also in the city and travellers in the 19th century reported a community of Africans and Arabs at the edge of Chania which must have had a generally exotic atmosphere.

Following the Greek War of Independence which commenced in 1821, the islanders began a series of rebellions against Turkish rule. Such revolts were put down harshly by Turkish and Egyptian forces culminating in the massacre of christians at the Monastery at Arkardi. This act of defiance aroused Europe-wide sympathy and with the killing of the British vice-consul in Heralion it finally brought about the expulsion of Turkish troops in 1898. All Turkish troops were withdrawn from the island and the International Forces moved in under the aegis of the then Great Powers. Prince George became High Commissioner and Chania retained its honour of being the capital of Crete when the Cretans eventually achieved “Enosis – union with the Greek motherland – and on the 1st of December 1913 the island was united with Greece with the Greek flag being raised for the very first time on Crete in the Firkas fortress on the harbour in Chania by Eleftherios Venizelos and King Constantine. The town lost this capital distinction in 1971, when the seat of administration reverted back to Heraklion which was a far more logical capital both from a population and geographical point of view being at the centre of the island.

Only eighteen years after the Treaty of Lausanne and the exchange of population between Greece and Turkey, the island was again invaded, but this time by the Nazis. The city was heavily bombed in WWII and the worst damage was in the district of Kasteli in which were concentrated the most important public and private buildings of the Venetian and Turkish periods. The Allies lost the Battle for Crete leaving the island to be occupied by the Nazis for the next four years. On the 8th of May, 1945, the Nazi Commander of Crete, General Benthag, received orders from Admiral Donitz at Elensburg to surrender to the Allied Forces H.Q.. By this time the Nazi forces had retreated to the area of Chania and were completely surrounded. So, on the following day Benthag was taken to Heraklion by plane from Maleme and from Heraklion airport he was driven by car to Villa Ariadne at Knossos to sign the “unconditional” surrender document.

Chania still retains the island’s highest judicial authority - the Court of Appeal, and houses the Art and Architecture Departments of the University of Crete. In addition to the impressive Venetian walls, there is the Historic Museum and Archives and also the Archaeological Museum (footnote) which is housed in the cathedral of a Venetian monastery built by the Franciscans and is, without doubt, the finest example of Venetian ecclesiastical architecture on the island. The Naval/Maritime Museum is situated at the entrance to the Firkas fortress being the original purpose-built Venetian garrison; the Byzantine Museum is located in the former monastery church of San Salvatore and the “Agora”- the covered Public Market Place which is a large structure built in the shape of a cross and modelled on the great market of Marseilles and dating from 1913.

In recent years, the Synagogue of “ETZ HAYYIM” has been completely renovated. The jewish presence in Crete is very ancient and dates back to the 4th c B.C. – not long after the conquest of the Near East by Alexander the Great. By the time of the Roman conquest of Crete (67 B.C.) there were Jewish communities in most of the important cities of the island. The Synagogue of Etz Hayyim could well be the oldest surviving synagogue in Greece – along with that of Rhodes.

Today, Chania is the island’s second largest city with a population of 70,000. However, it  may be thought of as two cities – the old and the new; with the old still enclosed within the Venetian fortification walls and the new Chania growing up along the plain behind the harbour and gradually absorbing the earlier suburbs such as Halepa.

A man who tires of Chania, to paraphrase Dr. Johnson, is tired of life.

Chania vibrades with life and yet still retains the intimacy and personality of a village, but with all the amenities of a modern city."

Tony Fennymore
(Chania, December 2003)


Magnificent. Cheers Tony; SJ





Stelios Jackson's sponsor :
The Hellenic Bookservice - Britain's Greek (and Latin) bookshop. Est. 1966
© Stelios Jackson & interkriti

^TOP






Navigate | Explore
Contact Us
Your gateway to Crete
©interkriti.org 1996-2017
Top