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, near the city today, on a hill and at some distance away from the sea with the name Heraklion. Archaeological remains from the archaic, classical and Hellenistic period come to light, from time to time, from different areas of the old city (area of Daidalou, Idomeneos, Meramvellou, Xanthoudidou, D.Bofor and Epimenidou str.), mainly after excavations and earthworks that take place before a new building is being erected, under the supervision of the relevant Archaeological Service.
For this period the information about the city becomes richer. Strabo, (even though he hadn’t 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 building complexes. The most characteristic of the latter comes from the excavation of the museum’s new plot which preserves 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 centre, the settlement was known by the name “Castro”. Unfortunately due to lack of evidence for this period, but also 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 distractions (earthquakes) that had as a result the decline and even the disappearance of towns as urban centres.
The Arab Conquest
In 824 A.D. Castro was surrendered to its conquerors, 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 Khandac, meaning the Fortress of the Trench, since the Arabs, along with their settlement, in order to be protected, built a wall of raw bricks and around it they dug a deep trench (Khandaq). From this name derived the later ones: 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 str., the sea front, Epimenidou str., and part of Freedom Square. The Arabs developed their own civilization on Crete, like the one of their contemporaries. They had their own mint, a developed metal work, ceramic work and well built buildings. A lot of information for the architecture and their life style 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, without though any success. In 826 A.D. the Byzantine General Krateros attempted, unfortunately 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).
In 960 A.D. the General of the Byzantine army and the later emperor Nikiforos Fokas campaigned against the Arabs. With armed forces, fully equipped, he manages 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 prisoners, 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 honoured 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, in a big part, been destroyed, built a new fort a few kilometers to the south (near Kanli Kastelli). The new, though, settlers did not wish to leave the deserted and destroyed Chandakas, since, apart from other reasons, that city, due to its position, could serve their needs more.
The reconstruction of the city – Megalo Kastro
A second Byzantine Period starts that will last until 1204 A.D. In 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 serious base. The administrative centre must have been situated in the area where in the 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 25th August str.). 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 in building plots along Daidalou str. 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 quiet rightly is referred to as Megalo Kastro, a name that is still in the memory of the older Heraklion people.
A very big number of movable finds (coins, excellent samples of glazed ceramic work) has come to light from excavations and earth works in different 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 different suburbs.
In 1204 A.D., the year of the fall of Constatinople and basically the disruption of the Byzantine Empire by the Crusades, the Megalo Kastro, as the whole island passed into Venetian hands, after certain agreements. The 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 the sovereigns of the island, a rule that will last until 1669. Crete became one whole administrative district with the name “Kingdom of Candia” (Regno di Candia). For the first 150 years there will be a lot of revolutions from the Cretan’s side, a fact that proves that the people did not submit without any protest in the Venetian domination and servitude. After 1367 Crete starts to live a rather peaceful period.
Castro – Candia
The Castro, which is now named Candia by the Venetians, became the capital of the island, the seat of every Duke and all the other authorities, the centre of the intellectual and artistic life. The city becomes one of the most important urban centres of that period in the whole eastern Mediterranean. The city continues to be expanded out of the limits of the old fortification, creating strongly the need of a new one that would include the suburbs.
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 the kind in the Mediterranean basin. The city port with the arsenals is also one of the most important commercial centre in the area from where a lot of Cretan products (wine, olive oil, cheese) are exported and traded in the biggest European markets.
Other sections also flourished like painting (in the 16th century the well known Cretan school is formed and Dominikos Theotokopoulos, the later El Greco starts his art work), literature, poetry, theatre with astonishing examples in every domain creating a special Cretan cultural idiom in the area.
The architecture is another section of development and flourishing which is represented in public and private buildings as is the dukes’ palace, 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). The “Loggia” (the Noble’s Club during the Venetian period) is used today as part of the Town Hall. Various Venetian and Orthodox churches, fountains are some of the monuments that still exist even today in the old town. We shouldn’t though forget that all this flourishing that took place in that period was realized with the hard work of simple Cretan people.
The Turkish threat
A new superpower comes at that time to the front that is going to bring a real upheaval in the “status quo” and it is the Ottoman Empire. In 1645 the Turkish fleet appears in 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 part, 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 means of a new administrative region of the Ottoman Empire that had Chandakas as a “capital”, 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”. Chandakas was almost totally destroyed and ravaged. A lot of extended repairs were done in buildings and in the fortification wall, while most of the churches were made into mosques. New fountains are built in different 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 the trade. From the beginning, though, of the 18th century we could 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 by this the desire of Cretan people for freedom and re-union with Greece.
In the first decades of the next century the city changed name into Herakleia and later Heraklion, as it is known today. Turks transferred the capital of the island from Heraklion to Chania, without this implying the decline of Heraklion which is developing into one of the most important urban centres 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. In November of the same year the last Turkish soldier leaves the island, while the next month the High Commissioner Prince George is embarked in Souda (Chania) and the “Kritiki Politeia” (Cretan State) is founded by the “high protection” of England, Italy, France and Russia until 1913 when the union with Greece is being achieved.
With the dawn of the 20th century a new era for Crete starts. Heraklion is being rapidly developed, its population is also increasing (urbanism) and by extension its housing needs are being multiplied. And all these happen many times at the expense of the historical character of the town. In the name of modernization, of development and progress a lot of monuments of the historical centre of the city are being demolished without any planning while at the same time the fortifications are being seriously changed without any way of going back to their previous state. The historical Heraklion lives in the rhythm of a big modern city, day to day though, it becomes more obvious the need of keeping the bonds with the past by preserving and demonstrating its monuments