Heraklion and the legacy of the ancient civilization: the Palace of Knossos
Heraklion is the capital of Crete, a port city. The old Heraklion is surrounded by the ancient Venetian walls. Nearby, 5 kilometres from Heraklion, there are ancient ruins of the first antique capital of Crete called Knossos. There is an international airport, a well-developed food and chemistry industry, and university of Crete.
History in short: Heraklion is located nearby the Palace of Knossos, which at the time of the Minoan civilisation used to be the largest settlement site in Crete. Even though there is no archaeological evidence, it is believed that 2000 B.C there could have been a port of Knossos in the location of Heraklion.
The current city of Heraklion was founded by the Saracens in 824, when they were banished from Andalusia by the emir Al-Hakam I for taking Crete from the Byzantine Empire. They dug out a trench around the city, which they named “the Castle of Trenches”. The Saracens allowed pirates to use their port that kept attacking the Byzantine territories in the Aegean Sea.
In 961 Nikephoros Phokas, who later became the Emperor of Byzantine, had descended in Crete and besieged the city. After a long siege the city succumbed, the Saracens were killed off, and the city was devastated and burned down. The rebuilt city was controlled by the Byzantine Empire for 243 years.
In 1204 the city was bought by the Republic of Venice. It was part of a complicated political transaction to which, among other things, belonged Isaac II Angelos’ resumption of the Byzantine throne. The Venetians improved the city’s safety, built huge fortresses (which have remained to this day), and a huge wall; 40 m thick, 7 bastions, and a fortress at the port. Chandax was renamed Candia. It was the capital of the Duke of Candia, and the Venetians’ Crete became “Regno di Candia” (the Kingdom of Candia). The city kept its new name for hundreds of years and even the entire island was known by that name. In 1212, in order to establish the rule, families were transferred from Venice to Crete. The simultaneous existence of two cultures and the Italian Renaissance caused arts to flourish; this was called the Cretan Renaissance.
During the Cretan War (1645-1669) the Ottomans had the city under siege for 22 years (1648-1669). It is believed to be the longest siege in history. During the last stage that lasted for 22 months, 70 thousand Turks, 28 thousand Cretans and slaves, as well as 29 088 Christians protecting the city were killed. The Ottomans called the city Kandiye (and the island as well), and the Greeks unofficially called it Megalo Castro (Big Castle). During the reign of the Ottomans the water at the port receded and the shipping was transferred to Chania in the West of the island.
In 1898 Cretan Autonomous State was established, still governed by the Ottomans. Prince George became the chief representative and everything was overseen by the International Board. When the big States directly occupied Crete (1998-1908) the city became part of the British territories. At the time the city was called Heraklion by the Roman port Heracleum (the city of Hercules) of which the exact location is unknown. In 1913 Crete and Heraklion became part of the Kingdom of Greece.
Venetian Koules Fortress is located in the port city of Heraklion. The precise story of the creation of the fortress is unknown, though it is believed that it had a defensive function.
It is thought that the construction started in the times of the Venetian rule (10-13 century). The fortress was built on a platform that was shaped from rocks. The building has 2 floors, 26 rooms, and the whole area is 3600 square meters. The upper walls are 9 m thick and the internal walls in certain places are as thick as 3 m. The external walls were embellished with various plates and national coats of arms. The entrances were decorated with marble reliefs with a symbol of a winged lion.
There was a prison on the first floor, and separate rooms for storage and for soldiers. The fortress also had millstones, where they ground grains and baked bread.
Nowadays the fortress is used for exhibitions. Various events and concerts take place on the top floor.
The entrance to the fortress is free of charge.
The Morosini Fountain is located at the heart of Heraklion. The fountain was built in the 17th century. In those times there was no water supply, thus the residents had to use rain water and water from wells. Building this fountain solved the water issue. A 15-kilometer-long aqueduct was built to which the water was supplied from the mountains. The fountain is shaped like flowers with 8 petals. 8 marble lions stand in the middle of the fountain. There is water coming from their mouths. There are lots of cafes and restaurants around the square, and the Mirosini Fountain itself has become the centre of socialising where locals as well as tourists meet. Furthermore, travellers often throw some coins into the fountain, believing that someday it will help them return to this unbelievably beautiful and culturally rich island and its capital.
Agios Minas Cathedral is the most important Greek Orthodox Church in Crete. The construction of this majestic Heraklion cathedral took place from 1862 to 1895. A need to build a church had occurred because the old Saint Minas Cathedral was very small and not every believer (because of the population growth in Heraklion and Crete) was able to fit into the church during mass. Moreover, to this day the old tiny Saint Minas Cathedral still stands next to the new church, thus it can be visited as well.
The cathedral was built in honour of Saint Minas, considered to be the patron of Heraklion. In his youth he served in the Roman Army. However, when the persecution of Christians began, he moved to the mountains and he lived there for 50 years. Later, having reflected on many things and having returned to the civilisation, he confessed his beliefs and was lynched. Saint Minas is not directly related to Crete. He was declared to be the patron of Heraklion only during the times of the Ottoman rule when the Christians of Crete were being persecuted by Turks. It is believed that during one persecution Saint Minas appeared before the Christians and saved them from death. Since then Saint Minas became the patron, and the number of legends about his apparitions to believers started to grow.
Up to 8000 people can fit in the cathedral. Its exterior is not very impressive, but inside of it the ceiling is embellished with beautiful murals, and there are many paintings of saints on its walls. The arches and other spaces are used for typically Greek ornaments. Saint Kartakis, the artist who painted the murals, strictly followed the principles of the Byzantine iconography, thus the murals (although one could say are modern) look authentic and have the spirit of the old ages. It is a colourful, interesting and luxurious cathedral.
The entrance to the cathedral is free of charge.
The palace of Knossos. Merely 5 km away from the centre of Heraklion you will find the ruins of the ancient city of Knossos. It is the capital of the Minoan civilization, founded 4000 years ago. It was the cradle of the European civilization. People say that if you try to leave Crete without having visited the Palace of Knossos, you will not be allowed to leave. Today this place is probably the most visited tourist attraction in Crete. Once upon a time the Palace of which the layout reminded of a maze was 5-storey-tall and had around 1400 halls and rooms decorated with murals. According to the legend, it was here exactly where the mythological creature called Minotaur, part man and part bull, once lived. According to historical facts, the Palace of Knossos was built around 1900 years B.C. It took up an area of 2000 square meters. In the Copper Age no other building came close to the splendour and luxury of the Palace of Knossos; there were 1500 rooms in the palace that took up 5 stories of the building. There were also two huge stone-paved yards, a theatre, shrines, workshops, and storing premises with gigantic clay pitchers called “pytharia”. The Palace of Knossos was designed so that the inside of it remained cool in summer and warm in winter. All the spaces of the building were radiating light. The palace had at least 3 separate water control systems: water supply, drainage, and sewage. Because of the palace’s layout on the hill, one could feel light breeze inside the palace. Around 1700 B.C. the Palace of Knossos was destroyed (it is believed that this was caused by an earthquake). However, later it was rebuilt. The walls of the palace were decorated with murals; only their fragments had remained to this day. Cretan murals depict men (of darker or browner skin colour) and women. Many remaining murals depict young people with small children fishing, picking flowers; athletes are pictured fighting bulls.
The most important site in the Palace of Knossos was a place called “The Throne Room”. The real purpose of the Throne Room is unknown. However, there are two main theories. The first theory states that this was the priest-king or his wife throne and that the Greek court proceedings took place here. The second theory claims that this spot was dedicated to the goddesses.
The entrance to the Palace of Knossos costs 15 Euros. Nearby you will find a free of charge parking lot.
- You will be able to reach Heraklion and the Palace of Knossos by the intercity busses;
- We recommend you try the fish, meat and vegetables dishes: mousak – aubergine, potatoes, mincemeat and Bechamel sauce; stiffado – goulash with onions; arni psito – grilled mutton.
You must try the Greek salad made of cucumbers, potatoes, onions, Feta cheese and olives.
Many cafes offer a dish called Gyro – it is a dish of sliced meat with fries and delicious sauce.
Greek alcoholic beverages: ouzo – greek anise vodka, diluted with water which makes the drink look white, raki – grape vodka (very strong), Retsina white wine with a hint of sap – goes perfectly with fish or meat dishes, sweet nutmeg or nutmeg wine of unforgettable aroma – it goes perfectly with sweets and fruit.
- In the city you will be able to find souvenir shops and cafes;
- A popular hotel in Heraklion ATHINAIKO HOTEL