Crete is an island steeped in ancient history, lore and legend. It is the seat of the oldest civilisation in Europe. For centuries it has been attacked by many including the Romans, the Iberian Muslims, the Byzantines, the Venetians and the Ottomans. The locals met each of these aggressors with courageous and stiff resistance. The architectural and cultural fusion of the various attackers and the locals could be seen everywhere by the discerning eye.
Crete tickled my military mind. Two facets from military history. One, the Siege of Candia (modern Heraklion). The venetian ruled city was besieged by the Ottomans for 21 long years from 1648 to 1669. The second longest siege in military history. Despite stiff resistance the Ottoman forces were eventually victorious. And then more recently the Battle of Crete. On 20 May 1941, the Germans launched Operation Mercury, the first ever Airborne invasion in military history. The Allies and Greek forces simply capitulated in 48 hours and the island of Crete fell into German hands.
After alighting from the bus, we walked a kilometer to the Minoan Knossos Palace, a city steeped in antiquity, which was inhabited continuously from the Neolithic period until the Fifth Century AD. The palace was built on the Kephala hill and had easy access to the sea and the rest of the island. According to tradition, it was the seat of King Minos. The Minoan civilization was a Bronze Age civilization on the island of Crete and neighbouring islands which flourished from about 2600 to 1600 BC.
The first excavation of the site was conducted in 1878 and was followed by the long-term excavations (1900 to 1930) by Sir Arthur Evans, a British archeologist, who uncovered virtually the entire palace. The palace was a multi-storey building with painted plaster, marble revetment and wall-paintings adorning the rooms and passages. The palace also had a complex drainage and water-supply systems.
Let me venture into a pictorial account. This is where the ‘West Porch’ of the palace stood, a roofed area opening onto the central court, supported by a column of which part of the gypsum base remains.
The ‘Throne Room’ as per Evans is the room used for ceremonies with the king in his religious capacity. However, Evans believed that it was unlikely to have been a ‘Throne Room’ in the modern sense of the word.
The “Queen’s Megaron” at the South-Eastern part of the Palace is believed to be the apartment of a queen. The suite includes a toilet, bathroom, and store room, as well as a light well to provide the apartment with light during the day. This is famous for the Dolphin Fresco, reconstructed from fragments as a wall fresco by Evans.
The ‘East Wing Staircase’, was built into the side of the hill on top of which lies the rest of the Palace, with two storeys below the level of the Central Court. Today, a large part of it has been reconstructed in concrete. Evans believed it to be the residential quarters of the Royal family.
An open air paved narrow passage linked the Central Court with the North Entrance. On the right and left were two raised colonnades known as ‘Bastions’. Evans reconstructed the Bastion on the West side with a copy of a restored relief fresco of a bull. The wall painting may have formed part of hunting scene.
We hopped on to the next bus at the Palace of Knossos and hopped off at Eleftherias Square to commence our walking exploration of the city centre. In the Venetian period, Eleftherias Square was used as a training ground for the Venetian mercenary army, and was called Campo Marzio or Piazza d’Armi. When the St George Gate was built in the 16th century, the square was renamed St George Square. Eleftherias Square also housed circular underground granaries, in which the Venetians stored grain for emergencies such as sieges and houses a large water cistern. During the Turkish period, Eleftherias Square was an open space. Prior to World War II, British troops camped on the walls and trained in the square, as the Venetians had done centuries earlier. Any connections with ‘Game of Thrones?’
At the turn of the 20th century, the square was the inhabitants’ main recreation area. The most recent restructuring was intended to give it a modern look and the air of a major European city. The square, retaining some of its eucalyptus trees, was paved with marble and was decorated with metal pylons symbolising ships’ masts, reminiscent of the city’s maritime history. The people of Heraklion have never been happy with this new square and there are ongoing discussions about changing it and we all generally tended to agree with the locals.
In the centre of Eleftherias Square stands the statue of the Unknown Soldier, a 20th century creation. On national days and on the anniversary of the Battle of Crete, the Heraklion authorities lay wreaths here in honour of those who sacrificed their lives for their motherland.
We then walked to Kornarou Square, named after the great Cretan poet Vincenzos Kornaros (1552-1613), who grew up in Heraklion and wrote ‘Erotokritos’. This is a romantic epic poem written in the Cretan language about the love of Erotokritos and Aretousa, often compared to ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Kornarou Square is adorned with a fountain and a statue of Erotokritos on horseback, bidding farewell to his beloved Aretousa. The statue was a bit confusing to us as we initially perceived it as a multi-headed and multi-legged horse with two horsemen. On reading the information tablet we realised that it was the artist’s multidimensional depiction of the hero and his horse showcasing movement and drama of the scene.
We then moved to the Agios Minas Cathedral, the seat of the Archbishop of Crete of the Greek Orthodox Church, dedicated to Saint Minas, who was declared the patron saint of Heraklion during the Turkish period. It was built over the time period of 1862 to 1895. The construction was interrupted during the Cretan Revolution of 1866 to 1869. The church has a cruciform architecture with a central dome.
The name Minas is rare in Heraklion, which sounds strange for a city whose patron saint he is. The reason for this is given in an old story. During the Turkish rule, illegitimate children were often left on the steps of the church of Saint Minas. The church took care of the children and named the boys Minas. Thus the Cretans preferred to avoid the name.
To the Left of the St Minas Cathedral stands the original little church of Saint Minas built in 1735. It housed the Greek Orthodox Church’s Metropolitan of Crete for the first time after the Turkish occupation.
From the cathedral, we returned to our hotel for a wash, change and rest.