Chania History

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Chania History from Neolithic times to Second World War

History of Neolithic Chania

Chania, the kastelli hill

The history of Chania began in the Neolithic period, when the first inhabitants of the site created a settlement on the low hill of Kastelli, now above the Venetian harbour. The hill was chosen not for its wonderful view but for its defensive properties. Any height provides timely warning of an enemy’s approach and is harder to attack, especially if it has steep sides making access difficult or impossible.

History of Kydonia, the Minoan Chania

ancient CydoniaThe settlement gradually grew into the largest city in west Crete, with a harbour which , albeit rudimentary, played a major role in its prosperity, given that the economy of Minoan Crete was based on sea trade.

Ancient Cydonia or Kydonia, as Chania was called in Minoan times, developed a flourishing handicraft industry and accumulated wealth through trade.

Its inhabitants built a great palace, the Minoan palace of Kydonia. It has not yet been excavated because it lies under the centre of modern Chania.

There are many theories concerning the derivation of the city name. According to mythology, it was founded by Kydon, the son of Apollo and Akakallis, the daughter of Minos.

Clay tablets inscribed in Minoan script (Linear A and B) have been found on Kastelli Hill, believed to be the site of ancient Kydonia.

Chania during the Roman period, 67 BC-330 AD

The Romans conquered Crete in 67 BC. The conquest of Crete started in the west and Kydonia was the first city to fight, but it was unable to face the larger and well-organised Roman army. The city continued to grow under the Romans, but nothing of the Roman monuments is left because later invaders used the materials in their own buildings. The Venetians used the stone and marble from the Roman theatre, for instance, to build the city walls.

First Byzantine Period (330-824 AD)

In 330 AD Crete was liberated from the Romans and annexed to the Byzantine Empire. It was governed by a Byzantine general but was scourged by pirate raids which the Byzantine navy proved unable to prevent. History does not record anything of interest concerning Chania during this period.

History of Arab Chania

In 828 AD, a seminal date in Cretan history, Chania and the whole island fell into the hands of Saracens from Cordoba in Spain, who razed the city to the ground.

The Arabs are thought to be responsible for the change of the city name from Kydonia to Chania. According to the eminent archaeologist Nikolaos Platon, Chania had a suburb called “Alchania Kome”, after the god Velchanos or Vulcan. The Saracens applied the name “Al Chanea” to the whole city. After the Arabs left, the Byzantines removed the prefix “Al” and kept the word “Chanea”, from which were derived the Greek Chania and Latin (La) Canea.

History of Byzantine Chania (961-1204 AD)

Chania was liberated in 961 AD when the Byzantines under General Nicephorus Phocas recaptured the island from the Arabs and rebuilt the city, fortifying Kastelli Hill with walls on all sides.

Today only the northern part of the Byzantine walls remains, along with a small section in Sifakas Street. Column bases are visible in that small section, showing that materials from older ruined buildings were used in its construction.

History of Venetian Chania (1204-1645)

In 1204 the Venetians annexed Crete. In 1252 they decided to rebuild Chania and fortify it with a fortress on Kastelli Hill and strong walls enclosing a much larger area of the city than the Byzantine walls. The Venetian walls were reinforced with four bastions, towers and an outer moat, in order to resist attacks by pirates and other enemies.

Chania the byzantine walls and the Venetian walls
-- The Byzantine walls protecting Kastelli hill are marked in red, with the Venetian walls in yellow -

 

At the same time, the harbour was improved to provide the Venetian fleet with effective protection, the shipyards (arsenals) were constructed for ship building and repair, and Chania became an important commercial centre, second only to Chandax (modern-day Heraklion) in Crete.

The water supply network was improved with the construction of an aqueduct and cisterns to meet the needs of the population, which had risen to 8,000. The city was adorned with imposing public buildings, while the houses, set out according to the Venetian town plan, gave it the air of a European city.

History of Chania during the Ottoman period (1645-1912)

In 1645 the Ottoman Turks conquered Chania after a two-month siege and destroyed much of the city. The walls were then reinforced and the city rebuilt to suit the tastes of its new inhabitants. The Turks built public baths and fountains, converted the churches into mosques, and built new mosques with tall minarets rising like spears into the sky of enslaved Crete, giving the city an eastern air.

Many armed risings against the Turks began in Chania Prefecture, culminating in the great rising of 1821, which however failed in its aim of liberating Crete and resulted in the slaughter of many Christian inhabitants of Chania. After the rising, Crete was ceded to the Pasha of Egypt Mehmet Ali until 1841, when it reverted to Turkish control.

In January 1897 there were fresh massacres of the Christian population and the Christian quarters of Chania were set alight. In 1898 the “Cretan State” was established under Prince George of Greece, a singular regime under which Crete remained part of the Ottoman Empire but under the protection and guarantee of the Great Powers: Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Germany and Austria-Hungary. Chania was proclaimed the capital of Crete.

turkish army in Chania
- Turkish army in Chania, and a hill with the flags of the Protecting Powers -

 

The Cretan struggle did not end here; the Cretans continued to demand true liberation and unification with Greece. In 1905 the Therisso Rising broke out, led by the great statesman Eleftherios Venizelos, later Prime Minister of Greece. At last, in 1913, after almost three centuries of occupation, the Turks withdrew for good, Crete was united with Greece and the Greek flag was raised over Firkas Fortress in Chania. Crete has shared the fortunes of the Greek state ever since, and Chania has become a pretty provincial town.

History of Chania during the Second World War – German Occupation (1941-1945)

German airplanes drop parachutists in the battle of CreteDuring the Second World War, Chania and specifically Maleme airfield and Galatas were at the centre of operations in the famous Battle of Crete. This was the first time in history that anyone had attempted a solely airborne invasion.

The select German paratroopers were decimated by the unarmed Cretans and the few British, Australian and New Zealand troops defending the island.

Chania was heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe, but fortunately the destruction was not total and many historical monuments were spared.

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