The Island of Crete

Crete is the largest Greek island as well as the fifth largest one in the Mediterranean. It constitutes the natural border of the Aegean Sea to the south as well as to the Libyan Sea to the north. Its distance from mainland Greece is roughly 160 kilometers. 

The History of Crete

Birthplace of Zeus according to mythology and home of the Minoan civilization, Europe’s first advanced civilization, Crete presents continuous and uninterrupted habitation since the Paleolithic era, as far back as 130.000 years ago.

The most important stage in this long history, to which the island owes its worldwide fame, is the emergence and development of the Minoan Civilization (c. 3.000-1.000 B.C.), a term that was coined by the British archaeologist Arthur Evans in the beginning of the 20th century, in correlation to the myth of the Labyrinth. According to mythology, the labyrinth was an elaborate structure built by the legendary architect Daedalus for King Minos of Crete at Knossos. Its function was to hold the Minotaur, a mythical creature that was half man and half bull and was eventually killed by the Athenian hero Theseus. Evans excavated and identified the site at Knossos, thus calling the respective civilization Minoan in reference to its mythical King Minos.

Except from Knossos, other important palace complexes include Phaistos, Malia and Zakros. Among the most important finds of this era, are the Linear A and Linear B clay tablets as well as the Phaistos Disc. Linear A was one of the two scripts used by the Minoans (the other one was Cretan hieroglyphics), and remains undeciphered up to this day, eventhough scholars have suggested various interpretations. The script is considered to be the origin of Linear B, the earliest attested form of Greek language, used by the Mycenaean Civilization of mainland Greece.

It is not clear how this great Minoan civilization reached to its end. A commonly known theory is that its decline was the result of a volcanic eruption that took place at the nearby island of Santorini. It is possible that the eruption contributed to the decline of Minoan Crete, mainly due to a series of tsunami waves and fires that followed it. However this decline was a gradual procedure rather than an instantaneous one, and the emergence of the Mycenaean Civilization played a decisive role towards that end.

The invasion of new tribes and their subsequent settlement in the island brought about important changes in every aspect of society. In Classical and Hellenistic times Crete continued to flourish, and after the Roman conquest in the 1st century B.C. it experienced a long period of peace and prosperity. During this era the most important center was Gortyn, an old city that became the new capital of Crete.

In the 4th century A.D. Crete becomes part of the Eastern Roman Empire, which later came to be known as the Byzantine Empire. The city of Heraklion was built in the first quarter of the 9th century A.D. when the island was conquered by the Arabs. The new rulers constructed a moat around the newly founded city which they called rabḍ al-ḫandaq, meaning “Castle of the Moat”. In 961 A.D. imperial byzantine forces landed in Crete and after a prolonged siege they overtook the city which was destroyed and subsequently rebuilt under the name of Chandax.

A particularly important period in Cretan history was the Venetian rule of the island from the 13th to the 17th century. Heraklion was once again the capital, this time known as Candia, and the seat of the Duke of Candia, while the Venetian administrative district of Crete became known as “regno di Candia” (kingdom of Candia). The city retained the name of Candia for centuries and the same name was often used to refer to the whole island of Crete as well. To secure their rule, Venetians began to settle families from Venice on Crete. The coexistence of two different cultures and the stimulus of the Italian Renaissance led to a flourishing of letters and the arts in Candia and Crete in general, that is today known as the Cretan Renaissance. During this period a large-scale fortification project was implemented in Heraklion, evidence of which is still present nowadays, as for example in the fortress located at the city’s harbor.

The Venetians were succeeded by the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans conquered Crete in 1669, after the siege of Candia, and the island remained under their rule until they were expelled by the Great Powers in November 1898, when an autonomous Cretan State was founded. In 1908 the Cretan deputies unilaterally declared union with Greece, which was recognized internationally in 1913.

The city of Chania

Chania (also spelled: Hania) is the capital of the Chania regional unit. It lies along the north west coast of the island Crete, about 70 km (43 mi) west of Rethymno and 145 km (90 mi) west of Heraklion. The city of Chania is built on the area of Minoan Kidonia, at the end of the homonym gulf between Akrotiri and Onicha peninsulas. It was the former capital city of Crete (from 1847 until 1972). 

Chania Prefecture covers the westernmost end of Crete and features a combination of many beautiful beaches, small fertile plains, high mountains and deep gorges, such as the Samaria Gorge. Chania Prefecture is the greenest part of the island, as the range of the White Mountains ensures the highest rainfall in Crete.

Chania is one of the oldest cities in Crete, with a rich and tumultuous history. Today it is the second most populated city on the island, a city which has preserved its traditional architecture and most of its monuments from Venetian and Turkish times. The Venetian harbour with its lighthouse and the old town in the centre have bestowed on Chania the reputation of the most picturesque city in Crete, welcoming thousands of visitors each year.

Chania does not lag behind in modern developments, as it is home to the Technical University of Crete and other educational establishments. It also offers many and varied cultural events and amusements.

Important Sites

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