The history of Crete is one marked by invasion, occupation, struggle, resistance and independence. The island has been successively fought over by a long line of foreign powers over the centuries because of its perceived geographical, political and economic value. Crete is located in the middle of the Eastern Mediterranean at the crossroads of Europe, Asia Minor and Africa. Strategically, the island controls all of the shipping routes at this end of the Mediterranean and has, therefore, been coveted by every foreign invader from the Romans in the 1st century BC to the Germans in 1941. It’s the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean and by far the largest of the Greek islands being 260 km long and 56 km wide. Together with many indigenous (and edible) wild plants, the long-term widespread cultivation of vines, olives, cereals, as well as many types of vegetable and fruits, has enabled Cretans to feed and sustain themselves since antiquity. Furthermore, Crete’s natural topography, that is, its two major mountain ranges, together with its many water sources, natural vegetation including timber, its overall agricultural potential and its numerous ports and fortifications, has always made this island a particularly attractive place to visit, occupy and settle.
Today, Crete’s population numbers around half a million people, with Chania being the second largest city after Heraklion (Iraklio) with about 55,000 to 60,000 people. Although Heraklion has been the capital of the island since 1971, Chania (a former capital from 1849 to 1971) is considered to be Crete’s cultural center with a long and varied history. With the city’s coastal position at the foot of the Lefka Ori (meaning ‘White’) Mountains behind, as well as its proximity to the deep natural harbor at Souda Bay and surrounding fertile plains that characterize West Crete, it’s no surprise that Chania has been continuously inhabited since the prehistoric Neolithic times (c. 4000 BC) which makes it one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the entire Mediterranean region. While Chania has been inhabited over the last 6000 years by the Neolithic peoples, the Minoans, Mycenaeans, Dorians, the Romans (who incorporated Crete into their Province of Cyrenaica located in modern-day east Libya), the Byzantines, Arabs, the Genoese and Venetians, the Ottoman Turks, the Egyptians in the 19th century and lastly, the Nazi Germans, what visitors see in the Old Town today is predominantly of Venetian and Ottoman Turkish origin, buildings constructed between the 14th to late 19th centuries. Most of the Chania’s Old Town was built by the Venetians in a bid to recreate a “Venice of the east”, especially in the 16th and 17th centuries during the town’s ‘cultural renaissance’. The town’s public and private buildings, together with its harbor-works, were subsequently altered when the Ottoman Turks invaded and occupied the island for another 250 years or so. Despite the island’s long line of foreign occupation, Crete’s major cities represent an interesting and unique architectural hybrid of Venetian and Turkish, East and West, and Christian and Muslim influences which can clearly be seen today, especially in Chania.
Dr Alexandra Ariotti, Chania