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 Rectors 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
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
Chania still retains the islands 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 islands
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
(Chania, December 2003)
Magnificent. Cheers Tony; SJ