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Crete | Crete/Heraklion

Heraklion History

The History of Heraklion
Based on an article by Kallia Nikolidakis
Archaeologist of Heraklion Municipality
Archaic - Classical - Hellenistic Period:
During the ancient years the main city was, without any doubt, Knossos.  However, there must have existed a kind of settlement, north of Knossos, on a hill, and at some distance away from the sea, near today’s Heraklion.  Archaeological remains from the archaic, classical and Hellenistic periods come to light, from time to time, at different areas of the old city (area of Daidalou, Idomeneos, Meramvellou, Xanthoudidou, D.Bofor and Epimenidou Streets), mainly after excavations and foundation works for new buildings, under the supervision of the relevant Archaeological Service.
Roman Period:
For this period the information about the city becomes richer.  Strabo (even though he himself never visited Crete) reports in "Geographica" that Heraklion was the seaport of Knossos.  A great number of important finds (mobile or otherwise) of this period come mainly from graves but also from dug-up building complexes.  The most characteristic of the latter comes from the excavation at the museum's new plot which produced a complex preserving six mosaic floors in a very good condition.
First Byzantine Period:
During this period (330 A.D to 824 A.D.) when Crete becomes a "thema" (part) of the Byzantine empire and Gortyna the administrative, military and religious center, the settlement was known by the name of "Castro"(=castle).  Unfortunately, due to lack of evidence for this period, but also lack of important archaeological finds, it is difficult for someone to have a full picture of the town at that period.  During these years the whole island was being hit by pirate raids and by natural catastrophes (earthquakes) that caused, as a result, the decline and even the disappearance of towns as urban centers.
The Arab Conquest:
In 824 A.D.  Castro was surrendered to the Arabs, after Arab raids and the debarkation of the Arabs themselves on the island (822 A.D.-823 A.D.), that aimed at the gradual conquest of Crete.  To this situation contributed also the fact that the Byzantine state (empire) suffered continuous disputes and internal upheavals.  The town was now known as Rabdh el Khandaq, meaning the Fortress of the Trench, since the Arabs, along with their settlement, and in order to be protected, built a wall of raw bricks and around it they dug a deep trench (Khandaq).  Later names of the city derived from this type of fortification: Chandakas, of the Second Byzantine period, and Candia of the Venetian period.  Chandakas, which became the capital of the island when Gortyna was deserted, occupied an area from Daidalou, Chandakos Street, the sea front, Epimenidou Street, and part of Freedom Square.  The Arabs developed their own civilization on Crete, like the one they evolved elsewhere.  They had their own mint, a developed metal work, ceramic work and well built buildings.  A lot of information on the architecture and their lifestyle has been revealed during the excavation that took place in the old Kastella, east of the Church of St.  Peter and St. Paul.
2nd Byzantine Period - The recovery of Crete by the Byzantines:
The Byzantines tried continuously to recover Crete, however without any success.  In 826 A.D. the Byzantine General Krateros attempted, unsuccessfully, a campaign against the Arabs.  The area of the battle and the shattering of the Byzantine army by the Arabs, a few kilometers east of Heraklion, preserves even today the name of the heroic General (Karteros).
Nikiforos Fokas:
In 960 A.D. the General of the Byzantine army and the later emperor, Nikiforos Fokas, campaigned against the Arabs.  With fully equipped armed forces, he managed to liberate the whole island and to restrict the Arabs into the well fortified Chandakas.  After a siege of many months, in the spring of 961 A.D.  a general attack took place from the Byzantine and the mercenary troops which resulted in the successful recovery of the city.  Many Arabs were killed or were taken prisoner during the battle, as victims of the soldiers' brutality in spite of Nikiforos Fokas' opposite instructions.  The General himself took the emir and his family to Constatinople, where they were honored by the Byzantines.  The emir's son adopted Christianity and served the emperor.  Nikiforos Fokas, on his way out of Chandakas, took with him a large amount of valuable booty that the Arabs had gathered in the town.
Nikiforos Fokas, in his aim to create a new area, more secure for its citizens, since Chandakas was almost flattened, and the fortification wall had, to a large extent, been destroyed, built a new fort a few kilometers to the south (near Kanli Kastelli).  The new settlers, though, did not wish to leave the deserted and destroyed Chandakas, since, apart from other reasons, that city, due to its position, could better serve their needs.
The reconstruction of the city - Megalo Kastro:
A second Byzantine Period starts that will last until 1204 A.D.  Chandakas, now known by the name Kastro (term for a fortified city or fortress) is settled by new settlers that come from the elite Byzantine families, the higher lords, the army and the political administrative body.  The city is being rebuilt almost from the start, public and private buildings are being erected, while the fortification wall is being repaired and completed and the port is organized on a more functional base.  The administrative center must have been situated in the area where, in later years, the Loggia, the Basilica of St. Marc and the Palace of the Dukes were built by the Venetians (which is around the area of August 25th Street).  As far as the Byzantine fortification is concerned, it is almost certain that, in many of its parts, it was based on the already existing Arab stone foundation, parts of which came to light after excavations along Daidalou Street, for the erection of new buildings.  A characteristic of the fortification wall was the towers and the straight parts in between them.  The city, during this period, with the fortress and the port from which trade was taking place with markets out of Crete, was the most important one on the whole island.  It had a growing economy and quite rightly is referred to as Megalo Kastro (=Great Castle), a name that is still in the memory of the older local people.
A very large number of movable finds (coins and excellent samples of glazed ceramic work) have come to light from excavations and earth works in various parts of the city.  At the same time building complexes, two large public baths, built with special care, in Koronaiou and in Chortatson str., cisterns and graves were uncovered.  The city gradually starts to expand towards the south creating various suburbs.
Venetian Period:
In 1204 A.D., the year of the fall of Constatinople and basically the disruption of the Byzantine Empire by the Crusaders, Megalo Kastro, same as the rest of the island, passed into Venetian hands.  Venetians, being at the same time engaged with the occupation of other areas, did not give the proper attention and significance and this had as a result for Crete to pass into the hands of the General Pirate Erricos Pescatore.  Due to the special geographical position and importance of the island, the Venetians did not want to lose that possession, so after a lot of adventures, they will become once again, in 1211, sovereigns of the island, and their rule will last until 1669.  Crete became, in its entirety, one administrative district by the name of "Kingdom of Candia" (Regno di Candia).  For the first 150 years there will be a lot of revolutions from the Cretans’ side, a fact that proves that the people did not submit without any protest to the Venetian domination and servitude.  After 1367 Crete starts to live a rather peaceful period.
Castro - Candia:
The Castro, which was then named Candia by the Venetians, became the capital of the island, the seat of every Duke and all the other authorities, the center of the intellectual and artistic life.  The city becomes one of the most important urban centers of that period in the whole of the eastern Mediterranean.  The city continues to be expanded out of the limits of the old fortification, creating the urgent need for a new one that would include the suburbs.
New Fortification:
The new walls, with their monumental portals, form a representative characteristic of the fortification art, and even today, they form one of the most significant monuments of their kind in the Mediterranean basin.  The city port with the arsenals is also one of the most important commercial centers in the area, from where a lot of Cretan products (wine, olive oil, cheese) are exported and traded in the major European markets.
Artistic movement:
Other sections also flourished, like painting (during the 16th century, the well known Cretan school is established in Iconography, and Dominikos Theotokopoulos, the later El Greco, starts his art work), literature, poetry, and theater, with astonishing examples in every domain, thereby creating a special Cretan cultural trend in the area.
Architecture is another section of development and flourishing which is noted in public and private buildings.  The dukes' palace and the Venetian metropolitan church of St. Mark, with its bell tower (today used as a municipal gallery where important exhibitions take place as was the one of The Portaits of Fayium), are fine architectural examples.  The "Loggia" (the Noble's Club during the Venetian period) is used today as part of the Town Hall.  Various Venetian and Orthodox churches and public fountains are some of the monuments that still exist even today in the old town.  We shouldn't forget, though, that all this flourishing was realized with the hard work of simple Cretan people.
The Turkish threat:
A new superpower emerges at that time, one that is going to bring a real upheaval in the "status quo," and it is the Ottoman Empire.  In 1645, the Turkish fleet appears along the Cretan coastline and gradually one town after the other passes into the hands of the new conquerors.  Chandakas resists for more than 20 years, and the siege around the city's fortress comes to an end after a betrayal by the Venetian - Cretan mechanic, Andreas Barotsis, who revealed to the Turkish pasha, Ahmet Kioprouli, the weakest parts of the fortress (in the eastern and the western parts, in the bastion of Sabbionara and the bastion of St.  Andreas).
Castro under the Turkish occupation:
Crete was made part of a new "egialeti," that is of a new administrative region of the Ottoman Empire, with Chandakas as a "capital," and now called Kandiye or Kastro by the Turks.  In the city there are all the official services, the seat of the "Grammatikos," that is of the interpreter of the "Pyli" (Sultan administration).  Chandakas was almost totally destroyed and looted.  Extended repairs took place in buildings and in the fortification wall, while most of the churches were turned into mosques.  New fountains are built in various parts of the city in order to confront the problem of lack of water.  The last period's cultural flourishing stopped, while there is a similar decline in the economy and trade.  From the beginning of the 18th century, however, we can note a steady development and a change in the economic life of the city, with the participation of Christians in various commercial activities.  The revolutions during this period did not stop, proving the desire of the Cretan people for freedom and unification with Greece.
19th century:
In the first decades of the next century, the city changed its name to Herakleia and later Heraklion, as it is known today.  Turks transferred the capital of the island from Heraklion to Chania, without this affecting Heraklion, which is developing into one of the most important urban centers of that period with a great commercial and economic flourishing.  The last page of the Turkish occupation took place in Heraklion in August 1898, when enraged Turks attacked and slaughtered hundreds of unarmed Christians, together with 17 English soldiers and the English Consul, Lyssimachos Kalokairinos.  The lives of the Cretan people did not really matter, but those of the English soldiers did!  So, in November of the same year, the last Turkish soldier is obliged to leave the island, while, in the following month, the High Commissioner Prince George lands in Souda (Chania), and the "Kritiki Politeia" (Cretan State) is founded under the "high protection" of England, Italy, France, and Russia until 1913, when union with Greece is achieved.
20th century:
With the dawn of the 20th century, a new era for Crete begins.  Heraklion is being rapidly developed, its population is also increasing (urbanism) and, as a result, its housing needs are being multiplied.  This often happens at the expense of the historical character of the town.  In the name of modernization, development, and progress, a lot of monuments of the historic center of the city are demolished without any planning, while at the same time the fortifications are being seriously changed in an irreversible process.  The historic Heraklion lives day to day in the rhythm of a big modern city, though the need for keeping the bonds with its past, by preserving and demonstrating its monuments, becomes even more obvious for its future.