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About Crete - Castles, Buildings & Constructions

Excavations indicate that Crete has been inhabited ever since the ancient years, creating a glamorous civilization. The constant change of conquerors has influenced the local architecture, with features from the Arab Rule, the Venetian Rule and the Turkish Occupation combine with the local architectural tradition. Venetian castles and public buildings, mansions belonging to nobles, Renaissance monasteries and byzantine churches, turkish mosques, are scattered around the island. The houses in the moiuntainous villages are amphitheatrically built on the sides or tops of hills, thus forming natural fortresses to safeguard the village from pirates.

The amphitheatrical lay-out of the settlement follows the line of the hill and develops around the church, the square and the coffee-shop. In most cases, the house are built in dense, compact clusters while in others, the houses are seperately and sparcely built. The town house consists of a ground floor (katoghi), a mezzanine (metzao), used as an office, and the top floor (anoghi), where the family lives. The rural Cretan house is simple, built in the shape of a cube, with few openings. It is comfortable, with beautiful gardens and courtyards. The main feature is "kamarospito" (arched house), the arch of which (kamara) divides the house into two areas. The interior of the cretan house is simple in furnishing and decoration. The only furniture here: "pezoula" (the bed), "portego" (the sitting-room), the table, the chairs and the trunk, all adapted to the needs of daily life.

Construction of the fortification of La Rocca al Mare) with two floors and twenty-six apartments which were used for accommodation as well as for storage. In order to supply the city˘s constant need for drinking water, the General Provisioner of Venice, Francesco Morosini, had a 15km long conduit constructed which ran from Mount Youktas to Iraklion.

In the summer of 1645 the Turks invaded Crete, and in 1648 started attacking the fortifications of Iraklion. The siege continued for the next 21 years, one of the longest in history and it is estimated that 30,000 Christians and 100,000 Turks were killed. The fortifications of Iraklion are still impressive and can be seen in several locations within the city today.

The last Venetian fortification of Kastelli, where there were a large number of Venetian palaces. Chania always had adequate water for its inhabitants. In 1645, after two months of Turkish siege and heroic battles, the walls near the rampart of Shiavo (southwest rampart) were cracked and the city was surrendered. Today the fortifications of Chania are visible in several locations around the city.

The Venetian fortifications in Fortezza, a solidly-built fort on a hill. The city fell to the Turks in November 1646. Today the Fortezza is well-preserved, while the fortifications around the city have almost disappeared


One of the most spectacular Venetian castles and a location reputed to have been a pirates˘ stronghold is the castle on the small island of Imeri Gramvousa, opposite the north tip of the hersonisos (peninsula) of Gramvousa, Kissamos. The fort occupies the top of a rocky promontory, its walls rising abruptly from the sea and it commands majestic views from its site. Between the island and the cape there is a small boat anchorage in the event of bad weather.

The well-preserved Venetian fort of Frangokastello, near Sfakia in southern Crete is beside the sea and has the Lefka Ori dropping abruptly behind it. Frangokastello is associated with the Cretan revolution of Chrisomalousa against the Venetians and with the heroic battles of Greeks against the Turks in 1828.

Several other Venetian castles may be found on Crete, such as Itzedin, above Souda Bay in Chania, the castles of Ierapetra, Sitia, Spinalonga, and the island of Souda.

In some cases a castle was Byzantine and was also used in the Venetian era. The remains of the extensive fortifications of Profitis Ilias (Kanli Kastelli), Polirinia, Kissamos, are Byzantine with Venetian additions. Nearby in Polirinia are also the remains of very large Greek walls beside a Byzantine church with ancient Greek inscriptions on its stones. The fort of Kyriakoselia in Apokoronas, was also a Byzantine fort which passed to the Venetians.

The Turks used the Venetian castles and constructed new ones, usually of smaller size, in order to maintain communication across the island and to protect themselves from the Cretans. The castles of Aptera, Agia Roumeli and the Kouledes of the Askifou Plateau are such examples.

There is historical evidence for the existence of more than 5,000 Byzantine and Venetian churches in Crete. Byzantine churches were built during the first and second Byzantine Period as well as during Venetian rule (13C to 17C). It is difficult to separate completely the Greek Orthodox from the Catholic churches. The same church may have been used for the one or the other religion at different periods, or even in the same period. In general, in the large cities, the dual nature of the Orthodox and Catholic churches is evident from the external appearance. In the countryside however, because of the vast predominance of the Orthodox population during Venetian rule, it can be assumed that the very large majority of the small churches that exist in Crete were Orthodox, with few exceptions.

The Three-Aisled Basilica
The first architectural style of Byzantine churches was developed during the early years of the Empire (4C to 6C A.D.). Called "Three-aisled Basilica" (Trikliti Vasiliki), it was a rectangular room, typically of a length double the size of its width, separated into three parts or aisles (kliti) along its longer dimension. The central aisle (klitos) was often wider and higher than the other two, allowing light to enter through windows. Frequently there were three doors in one side of the church for entry to each aisle. The aisles were separated by arches and marble columns, which commonly had decorations on the capital (kionokrana). The floor was often mosaic with simple representations. The priest˘s stand was at the end of the central aisle, opposite to the side of the entrance doors. In some cases, a fourth aisle was placed at right angles to the other three aisles, in front of the priest's stand. In some other cases, a smaller aisle or separate room was constructed just inside the entrance, at right angles to the three other aisles (a prothalamos or narthex). This is where non baptized persons could attend the liturgy.

The remains of over 40 basilicas have been found in Crete. One of the oldest three-aisled basilica on Crete is the Panagia Paliani in Venerato, which was referred to from 668 A.D. as "Palai" (old). Capitals of marble columns from earlier buildings can be seen in several places. Another old basilica with marble capitals from columns taken from older buildings is the church of Agios Pandeleimonas in Bizariano (Pigi), Pediadas. Mosaic floors of basilicas with representations of fish are in Elounda, Lassithi, and with representations of birds in Sougia, Selino. The three-aisled basilica of Agios Ioannis in Liliano, Pediada, has a room (narthex) immediately after the door at vertical angles to the three aisles. The remains of the basilica in Panormon, Milopotamos, show a fourth aisle at right angles to the other three which is on the opposite side of the church to the entrance. The aisle extends more than the width of the three other aisles to form a T. There are remains of ancient basilicas in Vizari, Amari and Itanos, Sitia.

The Domed Basilica
A second style of Byzantine building which was built from the fifth century A.D. in Byzantium was a round building with a dome supported internally by columns. A variation of this type was octagonal buildings; their dominant feature was their height. This style of building was called a domed basilica (Vasiliki with troulo).
An unusual example of a domed basilica in Crete is the Rotunda in Episkopi, Kissamos.

Cruciform Architecture
The third type of Byzantine church architecture style was created in the sixth century during the reign of Ioustinianos. The beginning was the building of Agia Sofia in Constantinople. It combined features of the previous two forms of basilicas. The dome was placed on top of rectangular buildings, but in order to support it, extensions of the building, at right angles to the main axis of the rectangle, had to be built. This created a building in the shape of a cross with the dome placed in the intersection of the two lines of the cross (cruciform architecture or stavroti). This basic architectural shape has many variations depending on the relative dimensions of the two lines, their relative placement, the relative heights of the two rectangular parts, the shape at the end of the two parts (either plain or recessed to form an apse), the way that the remaining space outside the lines of the cross is used, and the number and shape of domes supported.

In Crete, a prime example of early cruciform style, and one of the most important remains of Christianity, is the church of Agios Titos in Gortyn, Iraklion. It was built in the seventh century A.D. or earlier, and combines the new cruciform shape with earlier styles. Many other churches in Crete are elegant examples of cruciform architecture; for instance, the church of the Panagia Serviotisa in Stylos and Ai Yannis Kyr-Yannis (Zoodohos Pigi) in Alikianos, Chania, which were built at the beginning of the second Byzantine period. The church of Michael Archangelos in Arkalohori, Monofatsi, is in the shape of a cross, without a dome, and the nave higher than the transept.

The church of the Panagia Gouverniotissa in Potamies and the church of the Panagia in Drakonero, near Prinos, has cruciform architecture with a dome at the intersection of the nave and the transept. Often the cross may fit into an enclosing rectangle where the remaining space is completely filled, as is the case with the church of the Panagia Serviotisa of Stylos, or with Michael Archangelos of Aradena, Sfakia. The filled area of the rectangle may create space for a three-part basilica-like church, or it may be very elongated in which case it looks like a single room inside, as is the case in Agios Nikolaos of Kyriakoselia. In some cases, there may be more than one dome; for example, in the church of Ai Yannis Kyr-Yannis of Alikianos, Kydonia there were two, in Agios Fanourios of Kitharida, Malevizi, three, and in Agios Salvadoros of Kounavi (Metamorphosis of Sotiras, Agios Nikolaos and Agios Dimitrios), Pediada, five.

The Single-Roomed Church
Another architectural style developed later when the Byzantine empire was suffering from the attacks by the Crusaders, Arabs, and pirates, was simply composed of a single rectangular room (monohoros). The large majority of the churches of Crete are of this style. These churches are often very small, and they do not have an impressive external appearance. However, their carefully chosen location often has an exceptional view and their interior decoration with frescoes will reward inspection.

Examples of such churches in Crete are Agios Stefanos in Drakona, Kissamos (9C) and the Panagia of Gonia, Kissamos (12C), and the single-aisled church of Agios Nikolaos in Agios Nikolaos, which is also domed (8C or 9C), Afentis Christos, Potamies; the Panagia, Agios Ioannis, Sfakia; Agios Georgios, Komitades; Agios Antonios, Avdou; Agios Georgios, Apodoulou; the Panagia, Alikambos; Michael Archangelos, Arhanes; Agia Pelagia, Ano Viannos; Agii Apostoli, Lithines.

Byzantine Churches During Venetian Times
During Venetian rule the great Byzantine architectural tradition in church construction described above continued unchanged. The influence of the West was only evident in the exterior appearance, which took on a more Gothic style with a heavy presentation in the front of the church and was then complemented with a bell tower. More ornate decorations of external doors and windows were also apparent.

Examples of such churches are the church of the monastery of Arkadi, in Rethimnon,and the churches of the monasteries of Agia Triada and Gouverneto on the Akrotiri, Kydonia. Ornate doors and windows appear in many churches built in this era, as is the case with Agios Fanourios of the Varsamonero Monastery, the church of the Panagia in Drakonero, Prinos, Rethimnon and the church of the Panagia in Thronos, Amari. The church of Agii Apostoli in Sfakia and some other churches are built so that the three ends of the cross are round, thus returning to the very old tradition of the first Byzantine churches, such as Agios Titos of Gortyn.

The Venetian Churches
The truly Venetian churches are limited in number because of the relatively small number of Venetians who lived on Crete. They include some large churches in the major cities, some monastery churches in the cities, some private chapels, and some churches in the forts across the island.

Amongst the truly Catholic churches of the Venetian era, the church of Renieri Chapel are examples of smaller Venetian churches within the city of Chania. In the fort of Gramvousa there is the little church of the Evaggelistria which was built in 1584.

Churches in Natural Formations
Many of the Cretan churches were built inside a cave, on top of large boulders, and on the foundations of older buildings. The oldest monastery on Crete, the church of Katholiko in Akrotiri, Kydonia is an example of a church built by cutting a hole in the sheer rock of a mountainside. The church of Agios Iasatos in Agios Thomas, Monofatsi, has been built by cutting a large rock to house it. An example of a church built above two boulders is the Panagia on Two Rocks, in Fres, Apokoronas. The church of Agios Mamas in Kyriakoselia, Apokoronas, is built completely within a cave, as is also the case with the church of the Panagia (Kera Spiliotisa) in Agios Thomas, Monofatsi.

The Building Materials
The large majority of churches in Crete were built with materials found nearby. Often building material from other older churches, or ancient Greek or Roman temples, are used. In some cases a site was used as a Minoan Sanctuary, then as a Greek temple, then as a Christian church. An example of a church built on a mosaic floor from a previous Byzantine church is the church of the Panagia in Thronos, Amari. The church of Agios Iasatos in Agios Thomas, Monofatsi, has been built on a large hewn rock and its yard is on top of a space formerly occupied by a temple of the Hellenistic Period. The church of Agios Kirikos in Lissos, Selino, has been built on top of an earlier basilica of the fifth or sixth century, and has used building material (like marble parts) from a temple of an earlier period. The churches of Ai Yanni Kyr-Yannis in Alikianos, Kydonia, Agios Pandeleimonas in Bizariano (Pigi) Pediada, and the Panagia Paliani in Venerato have used the capitals of columns from temples of previous eras.

The decoration of several Byzantine churches is done with alterations in the brick patterns in the buildings˘ walls (cloisonne masonry). Examples of such patterns can be seen in Agios Nikolaos, Kyriakoselia, Apokoronas, in the Panagia Serviotisa, Stylos, Kydonia and in Agios Georgios in Episkopi, Ierapetra.

A second form of decoration is by means of rosettes, or small circular plates placed in the outside walls of churches, some of them with attractive pictures. The bird decorations of Agios Fanourios in Kitharida, Malevizi are an example.

The frescoes of the Byzantine churches of Crete have undergone years of neglect and abuse from human and natural elements. The churches were allowed to fall into such a state of disrepair that their roofs and walls have not only leaked, damaging the frescoes, but have completely collapsed in in some cases. The years of occupation took their toll also, and many eyes have been gouged out by Turkish bullets or knives, followed by wholescale destruction during the Second World War. The natural decline of the paintings over the years (a thousand in some cases) is also to be expected. However, even taking into consideration all these factors, there is still a great deal of pleasure for anyone who tracks down these frescoes throughout Crete, as some of the remaining ones are among the most beautiful to be seen anywhere in the world. The natural surroundings of the small chapels only enhances their beauty when one understands the philosophy of Byzantium that no place was to be neglected in honouring God.

The Byzantine church painter was very much influenced by cultural factors, especially after the Ecumenical Council of 787 A. D. The decision had been taken that Christ could be painted in the churches because He had, after all, taken a human form to save Mankind. The characters in the frescoes have the appearances of the emperors and courtiers--bearded, wearing fabulous jewelled robes and holding ornate jewelled religious articles. This is all in keeping with the philosophy that the saints were the courtiers of God, and therefore, in depicting them thus, the painters were honouring God.

Another cultural belief that is apparent in the frescoes is the theme of torment or mutilation. It was considered far more honourable in Byzantine culture to mutilate prisoners than to kill them and frescoes depicting the torturous punishment of the damned beside sensitive nativity scenes were quite acceptable.

There are very few frescoes from the first Byzantine period remaining. An exception is in the church of Agios Nikolaos in Agios Nikolaos, Mirabelo, Lassithi, where under the present frescoes, other frescoes showing geometric patterns, traditional in churches painted during the Iconoclast period when pictures in churches were forbidden, have been found.

Many of the basilicas are from the first Byzantine period but few show even traces of frescoes. Therefore most of the frescoes the visitor will see are of the second Byzantine period, that is after 936 A.D. and most are from an even later period, the fourteenth century.

During the Venetian occupation the Venetians did not bother the Greek churches and although the Cretans did not have the money to build magnificent structures they did embellish the insides of their chapels with rich frescoes. The quality of these frescoes greatly improved after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Many of the scholars and artists took refuge in Crete where they developed the Cretan School of painting, characterized by a blend of Renaissance and Byzantine art techniques, the result being more humanistic features in the frescoes, such as expression of emotion and character in the faces and the clothing was contoured to the body rather that falling straight. The gestures were much more detailed and expressive. The themes of the frescoes did not change greatly, except that the scenes now became framed in a bright red colour.

The Byzantine painter was governed by rules that applied to much larger churches, that is churches with a dome and large wall space for painting. The church itself was a symbol of the universe with heaven and earth being governed by the Almighty (the Pantocrator). In large churches the Pantocrator is in the dome but in the smaller chapels he looks down from the conch (the small section above and behind the altar). The Pantocrator has many different appearances as he views the universe. He may be severe, compassionate, awesome or indifferent. Below him in the apse are the saints and evangelists and occasionally the Virgin Mary seen between heaven and earth in her position as interceder.

In the upper part of the church, starting on the Pantocrator's left and going across the vaulted ceiling criss-cross fashion to the back (west end) of the church and ending on the right of the Pantocrator, were scenes of Christ's life and the saints'. During the first Byzantine period these frescoes represented the main festivals of the church, arranged chronologically as to their timing in the calendar year as opposed to historical time. In the second Byzantine period these themes expanded to include the major events of Christ's life interspersed with scenes of the life of the saint to whom the church was dedicated.

The west wall (opposite the Pantocrator) was reserved for Crucifixion scenes and, later of the Second Coming, scenes from hell and the Raising of the Dead from the sea.

The lower part of the church traditionally had full length frescoes of the saints and sometimes the military saints (Agios Georgios and Agios Dimitrios).

Later additions to the rear wall were the donor of the church and his family, usually represented with a model of the church in his hands, other saints, a narrative tableau and occasionally medallions with saints' heads.

Some of the themes that are still easily recognizable in the Byzantine churches of Crete are:

  1. Punishment of the Damned is not hard to recognize as they usually involve grotesque scenes of torture and, as mentioned, are on the back wall.
  2. Lazarus rising from the dead is recognized by the bound figure of Lazarus in an upright coffin, giving the appearance that he is standing.
  3. The Nativity, characterized by the presence of an animal (ox or ass), a cradle and child and the reclining Virgin Mary.
  4. The Last Supper.
  5. Christ's Baptism, characterized by Christ in the river Jordan surrounded by fish and the impressive figure of John the Baptist.
  6. The Dormition of the Virgin depicts Mary lying serene and beautiful in death surrounded by saints with Christ behind her, cradling her soul (a baby) in his arms.
  7. The donor and his family can be recognized as they are on the back wall and do not have a halo, as do not any other lay people represented.
  8. Haloed Saints (on the lower part of the church) are usually flat two-dimensional characters that face forwards with dangling feet, as if they are floating. These saints are always fabulously dressed being as they were thought of as courtiers of God.
  9. The Crucifixion. The early Byzantine frescoes represented Christ as a spiritual figure, whereas the later frescoes shows a suffering Christ and an agonising Mary.

Many of the frescoes' painters are unknown and although some frescoes may be signed, little is known about the painters themselves. An exception to this is Ioannis Pagomenos, who painted many churches in the Chania prefecture. He is buried in the chapel of Agios Nikolaos in Maza and is known to be one of the more humanitarian painters of this era. Many of his works can be appreciated in the Selino area (southeast of Chania). Another known painter is Manuel Fokas who painted in the Pediada area of Iraklion.

The icons of the Cretan School (15C to 17C) are famous. The artists of the Cretan School painted not only in Crete, but also in several other places including the islands, the major centres of Orthodox religion like Russia, as well as in Venice itself. Collections of precious icons are kept in some places like the Agia Ekaterini, in Iraklion, as well as in several monasteries and churches all over Crete. Icons painted by Cretan painters can also be seen in many other places outside Crete, as in Patmos, Athos, Thessaloniki, and Russia.

There are many remains of beautiful Venetian buildings all over Crete. Particularly architecturally important are the Chania, Rethimnon and Iraklion still have visible evidence of their Venetian origin. The old town of Chania retains the ambience of a Venetian town of the past and buildings are protected by a historical preservation law.

Venetian Arsenali
Iraklion have the remains of the Venetian Arsenali in their harbours. The ones in Chania are extensive, better preserved, and they form an integral part of the picturesque Venetian harbour of Chania. The Arsenali were used to make or repair boats, each Arsenale being able to hold one ship.

The Venetian fountains are beautiful reminders of the Italian influence in Crete. The Morosini Fountain in the city of Iraklion was used to bring drinking water to the people of Iraklion (through a 15km conduct from Mount Youktas). Today the lower part contains a large number of very beautiful sculptures around the fountain as well as four lions on the central pillar where a statue of Poseidon had formerly stood.

The Rimondi Fountain in Rethimnon is also an interesting example of a Venetian fountain. It has three subdivisions in which the water runs from sculptured heads. Four columns with Corinthian-style capitals complete the piece of art.

The Venetian fountain outside the Moni Vrondisi, Monofatsi, is also very attractive. It consists of a number of sculptures, and the water flows out of four sculpted marble human heads, giving the impression of a strong wind blowing.

Other Venetian fountains of interest include, in Iraklion: the Bembo Fountain with several marble carvings and a headless Roman statue, and the Sagrendo Fountain with a statue that Gerola believes is Crete, the mother of Pasiphae; and the fountain (the lion-head spout was stolen) in Gorgoliani Monastery, in Malevizi.

The Idomeneas Fountain and the Koubes Fountain, in the city of Iraklion, are good examples of Turkish fountains.

Ibrahim Han Mosque (converted Venetian cathedral) is also noteworthy.

The Janissaries Mosque is in the harbour of Chania and was constructed in 1645 when the Turks captured the city.

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