Heraklion

Article and pictures by Stephen Wass, all rights reserved.

Heraklion became one of the largest and most heavily defended cities in the Mediterranean but its origins are uncertain. There are scattered remains of Minoan settlement in the area and there may have been a small town and harbour on the site in classical and early Byzantine times. However, the town did not really take off until after the Arab conquest of the island between 824 and 828 under the command of the Saracen Abu Hafs Omar. Heraklion became the chief town of the island and was used as a base for pirate raids across the Aegean. It was defended by a brick wall on stone foundations and further protected by a wide ditch'(Khandaq in Arabic) which lead to the town being renamed Chandakas in Greek and Candia in Latin.

Crete was retaken for the Byzantine Empire by the general, Nicephorus Phocas in 961 and the devastated walls rebuilt. Chandakas became the largest town on the island. The Fourth Crusade in 1204 and the fall of Constantinople lead to Crete being ceded to the leader of the Crusaders, Boniface of Montferrat, who sold the island on to Dandolo, the Doge of Venice. The Venetians established control by 1211 and developed the city to the point where it was viewed as second in splendour and prosperity only to Venice itself. The growth of the town lead to work beginning on a new set of walls in 1462 when the Venetian senate, aware of the growing threat of the Ottoman Empire, ordered the refortification of the city and its harbour. Local labour was conscripted in on this huge project which occupied much of the following century. In 1532 the Venetian engineer Michele Sanmicheli arrived on Crete having previously worked on the fortifications of Padua and Verona. By the end of the 16th century the town was defended by a huge circuit of walls with a perimeter of four and a half kilometres. The massive nature of the construction meant that in places the walls are 40 metres thick. The circuit boasted seven enormous arrow-headed bastions'with broad fronts and deeply recessed flanks and five city gates. Additionally on a small hill immediately to the east of the town the detached Fort of St. Demetrius was erected, consisting of a trace with a small central bastion'flanked by two demi-bastions. Another fort was built between 1523 and 1540 to protect harbour. Known as the Koules Fortress or the Rocca al Mare, this rectangular building has a large curved bastion overlooking the harbour entrance. In a final phase of building the works were extended into the countryside beyond the town with a series of detached ravelins, three hornworks: two protecting the western wall and one in front of the Jesus Bastion, and a crownwork'to strengthen the Martinengo Bastion on the south west corner of the town.

In 1645 a Turkish fleet landed an invasion force in Western Crete which progressively took over the entire island except for Heraklion, which was first invested in May of 1648. The siege continued for the next 21 years before being pressed to completion. In 1667 a Venetian military engineer Colonel Andrea Barozzi defected to the Turks and described to them the weak spots in the town's defences especially where they met the coast at St. Andrew's Bastion on the west and the Sabbionara Bastion to the east. A further blow came in 1669, when a French expedition failed to lift the siege and lost the fleet's vice-flagship in an accidental explosion. Following these setbacks the French abandoned Candia leaving General Francesco Morosini with a much reduced garrison and limited supplies. He surrendered the town on September 27th. 1669. The Turks repaired the town's defences but added few further improvements as the place became something of a provincial backwater. The walls were seriously damaged by German bombardments during the Second World War but have since, especially in the last fifteen years, been heavily restored.

Visiting Heraklion

Heraklion today (2007) is a big bustling city with extensive modern development beyond the line of the walls and a massive traffic problem within them. Walking the entire circuit of the walls is perfectly possible but given their length can be quite grueling in the heat of summer. Work continues to repair and restore the walls, especially along the west side and as a result much of the area has a rather raw and unfinished feel to it and can be particularly dry and dusty.

Starting at St. Andrew's Bastion it is possible to follow a footpath along the top of the wall to the Pantocrator Bastion. Crossing over the top of the largely modern Bethlehem Gate the path continues on to the Bethlehem Bastion rewarding the traveler with contrasting views across the old town and the modern concrete suburbs. Much of the line of the moat along here is taken up by public sports facilities. The huge Martinengo Bastion contains a football pitch and in the well preserved cavalier is the tomb of the Cretan writer Nikos Kazantzakis. Beyond this point the area around the walls are quite heavily planted which makes the environment much pleasanter but getting a good view of the walls becomes increasingly difficult. Heading east takes us towards the Jesus Bastion and beyond that the Vitouri Bastion with its very overgrown cavalier.

Leaving the line of the walls and threading our way eastwards we eventually come to the restored St Georges Gate. Beyond this, around 200 metres further east are the considerable remains of the stone faced ramparts of the Fort of St. Demetrious which begins in Archimidous Street. Back on the top of the wall we walk past the rear of the Archaeological Museum towards the Sabboniera Bastion, now taken up by a school and its playground. The walk can now be directed down towards the harbour past the huge ruinous Venetian Arsenali or ship sheds towards the Koules Fortress on the end of its breakwater. There is an admission charge for the Koules Fortress and opening hours are: from Monday to Saturday 8.00am to 4.00pm and 10.00am to 3.00pm on Sunday. The interior of the fort is well preserved and amply repays careful examination. Finally the story of the town and its defences is admirably told in the Historical Museum at 27 Sofokli Venizelou Avenue, about 350 metres west of the harbour on the coast road, open Monday to Saturday, from 9.00am to 5.00pm closed on Sundays and holidays. It is a remarkably pleasant alternative to endlessly congested Archaeological Museum!

Article and pictures by Stephen Wass, all rights reserved.



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