Article and pictures by Stephen Wass, all rights reserved.

The rocky coastal headland at Rethymno in northern Crete has been occupied since prehistory. In classical times it is likely that the area was site of an acropolis and temple to Artemis whilst the civil settlement occupied the ground covered by the modern town. Little is known of the town during the early Byzantine (325 - 824) and Arabic (824 -961) periods. During the second Byzantine period (961 - 1204) a defensive wall with round tower enclosing a roughly triangular area was built next to the small harbour. This was taken over by the Venetians, following the fall of Constantinople to Frankish and Venetian forces in 1204 but it was not until the disaster of 1571 when a Turkish raid resulted in the destruction of a newly constructed city wall and the Byzantine Fortress that thoughts turned to refortifying what was known to the Venetians as the palaeo kastro or 'old castle'.

In 1573 work began on this new larger fortification on the site of the old acropolis which would, it was hoped, be large enough to rehouse the whole population. Initial plans were drawn up by the architect Sforza Pallavicini and realised by the engineer Gian Paolo Ferrari. The fact that the trace of the new bastioned'defence work had to follow the profile of the hill top so closely meant that dissatisfaction was frequently expressed by the Venetian military engineers about the short comings of the new fortification, especially the narrow flanks to the four bastions which protected the landward side.

Cost constraints and a number of changes in plan meant that only a portion of the new fortress was occupied, largely with important civil, ecclesiastical and military buildings. The bulk of the population rebuilt their homes on the lower ground adjacent to the fortress on the SE. A number of impressive structures exist in town dating from this latter phase of Venetian constriction, most notably the Loggia constructed around the middle of the 16th century possibly to the design of the military architect, Michele Sanmicheli. It has been suggested that as well as functioning as a meeting place the strongly built rectangular structure as served as a detached fort in times of need. Other relevant remains of the fortified town are the Rimondi fountain of 1626, the much decayed remains of barracks associated with the Santa Barbara Bastion on the SW corner of the town defences and an arch marking the site of the once important Porte Guora.

The Venetian fortress was finally put to the test in 1646 when the whole complex was captured by the Turks after an outbreak of plague amongst the defenders.

The Turkish authorities undertook basic maintenance on the walls and erected a large detached ravelin'to cover the approach to the main gate from the E. During the following centuries a range of domestic buildings came to occupy the interior of the fort which much diminished its military capabilities. Clearance, repair and restoration began after the Second World War.

Visiting Rethymno

The town remains one of the most attractive in Crete but becomes very crowded in the main holiday season. A modern and attractive archaeological museum now occupies the Turkish ravelin which while very interesting in its own right rather obscures the internal arrangements of the defensive work. Entrance to the fortetza is by the ticket office situated inside the main gate. Access to all parts of the fortress is freely available and there is considerable restoration work still underway. The most impressive work done to date includes the clearance and consolidation of the main magazine close to the north wall and the repairs to the ramp and cavalier that dominates the Ay. Loukas Bastion. Another striking monument is the Mosque of Sultan Ibrahim on the site of the former Cathedral. A complete circuit of the defences is possible offering striking views over the town and coast. The site is in the guardianship of the Greek Ministry of Culture and a useful guidebook is available.

Article and pictures by Stephen Wass, all rights reserved.

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