We used the ancient port city of Heraklion as our January base on the radiant Grecian island of Crete.
Heraklion, in Greek, Iráklio, is the largest city on the island of Crete, in Greek, Kriti, and capital of the island. It is one of the largest cities in Greece with a population of 315,000 and has the 2nd busiest airport is Greece.
The city took its name from Hercules – not Hercules, the son of Zeus – but from Curete Herakles, founder of the Olympic games. Legend says there were five Curete brothers who were said to be the first inhabitants of Crete and who would continually race and compete against each other. (Crete is derived from the word Curetes.)
There has been a port at the site of Heraklion from the beginning of the Early Minoan period (3500 to 2100 BCE). Around 1500 BCE, the bygone Minoan port was destroyed by a volcanic tsunami from nearby Santorini (Thera), leveling the port and surrounding area and covering it with ash. An OSU website defines a volcanic tsunamsi: “Volcanic tsunamis can result from violent submarine explosions, caldera collapses or tectonic movement from volcanic activity. As the wave is formed, it moves in a vertical direction and gains speeds in deeper waters that can reach as fast as 650 mph. In shallow water it can still be as fast as 200 mph.” 😨 Clearly a very wave fast that would be strong enough to devastate a port.
Present day Heraklion was founded in 824 by the Arabs who ruled the island and offered protection for the many pirates working the seas. The former Roman capital city of Gortyn was annihilated and the Muslims instead built a city (today called Heraklion) on the northern coast with a moat around it and named the city al-ḫandaq. In 960, Byzantine forces attacked the city. The following year the city fell and the conquering Byzantines rebuilt the destroyed city, altered the name to Chandax and controlled the city and island for the next 243 years.
In 1204, the city was purchased by the Republic of Venice as part of a political deal. The Venetians built massive fortifications, many still in place, including a giant wall, in places up to 44 yards (40 meters) thick, with 7 defensive bastions or bulwarks and the old Fortress of Koules guards the city’s port to this day. Chandax became Candia and the Venetian district of Crete became known as the Kingdom of Candia. Both the city and the entire island would be known as Candia for several centuries. Candia remained a part of the Republic of Venice for more than 400 years.
The long and bloody Cretan War (1645–1669), saw the Ottomans finally conquering the city in 1669. Under the Ottoman rule, the city name changed again to Kandiye. Kandiye remained the capital of Crete until 1849, but the harbor filled with silt so shipping and the administrative capital was moved west to the city of Chania.
In 1898, an autonomous Cretan State was created with Prince George of Greece as its High Commissioner. Between 1898–1908, Candie was part of the British zone and the city was renamed “Heraklion”. Following the Balkan Wars of 1912–1913, Crete was incorporated into the Kingdom of Greece and in 1971 Heraklion once again became the capital of Crete.
We enjoyed a lovely outdoor lunch in this historic city square next to a 17th century Morosini Fountain.
Heraklion Archaeological Museum
This museum is listed as both one of the top museums in Greece and the best in the world for Minoan art and the ancient civilization of Crete. The museum began in 1883 but after three destructive earthquakes in 1926, 1930, and 1935, the museum nearly collapsed. Rebuilt in 1937-40, it houses artifacts of Cretan prehistory and history, covering a span of over 5,500 years. As soon as we entered the museum, we were smitten and spent the entire afternoon visiting these amazing finds and masterpieces inside. From 6000 to 2000 we saw interesting details and shapes of 4000+ year old pottery. The variety of designs have to be some of the richest and most varied we’ve seen from this time period.
We saw bronze tools and weapons and decorated bathtub shaped burial vessels. There were tablets, vases and cups inscribed in Linear A, an as yet, undeciphered language. The inscribed pieces have been found in numerous sites in both Crete as well as a few other Aegean islands. The infamous Phaistos Disc covered with inscriptions, that have also eluded attempts at deciphering, was here, as well as these two fine 3600 year old snake goddess figurines.
There were plenty of finely crafted jewelry pieces made of precious and semiprecious materials like gold, bronze, ivory, bone, amethyst and nephrite, a form of jade, made around 2000 BCE.
We appreciated the design and coloring of the wall frescoes. See our Heraklion Archaeological Museum link below for these photos.
The header photo at the top of this blog is of the “Knossos Game”, circa 1600 BCE. It is the only game board of it’s kind found to date and it was discovered in 1901 during excavations of the Knossos Palace on Crete. The original game used a wooden base inlaid with ivory, rock crystal and glass paste and decorated with lapis lazuli, gold and silver. 4 ivory game pieces were found next to the board.
It is thought the game belonged to a member of the Minoan royal family who lived in Knossos Palace.
We also loved the variety of handsome bull’s head drinking containers called rhytons.
We recommend that you include this unmissable museum on your agenda when visiting Heraklion and Crete.
There are dozens of churches worth visiting and we have listed 3 of our favorites.
Agios Minas Cathedral
Saint Minas Cathedral is a Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Heraklion and serves as the seat of the Archbishop of Crete. Although this cathedral is relatively young, built between 1862-1895, the Church of Crete is Apostolic. The very first Christians were organized around 64 CE by the Apostle Paul.
For more than a 1000 years, between the 8th and 19th century the church in Crete was a battleground for control between Roman Christianity and Eastern Christristianty in Constantinople.
Saint Minas is truly a beautiful cathedral. Most Greek churches we visited have vibrantly painted scenes on the ceilings and walls and this cathedral was a sensational example.
Initially built in 961 CE, this church has survived earthquakes, fire and war. It has been used as both a mosque as well as a church. After the 1856 earthquake, the church was rebuilt from the ground up.
The church is dedicated to St. Titus. Titus was first mentioned around 49 CE as a former disciple of St. Paul’s in Jerusalem. Titus accompanied Paul on his journeys in Asia and Europe. Paul began teaching in Crete but his trip was cut short so he entrusted Titus with setting up the first Cretan church. Titus became the first bishop on Crete and guardian of the island. The relic of St. Titus’ can be visited in a small chapel in this elegant church.
An odd thing we noticed about churches in Crete was very often the church name was neither posted outside nor inside. The church was not far from our apartment and we searched everywhere for it’s name. It had no handouts and we could find nothing on the internet, but we believe it to be the Holy Trinity. It was small and truly beautiful inside. Look at the amazing chandelier.
Historical Museum of Crete
Founded in 1953 this neoclassical building houses yet another outstanding Cretan museum. The museum’s collections tell the story of 17 centuries of local history and culture. From Byzantine art and culture, the periods of Venetian and Ottoman rule, the revolutions endured to reunite with Greece, World War II, the Battle of Crete and the Resistance.
There are a couple of spaces dedicated to Crete’s prolific author and cultural icon, Nikos Kazantzakis with his personal effects, manuscripts and many first editions of his published books. Crete’s International Nikos Kazantzakis Airport bears his name.
A prized exhibit are the only two remaining works in Crete by El Greco: The Baptism of Christ (1567) and View of Mount Sinai (1570–2). (See photos in link below)
A second group of rooms exhibit a wonderful collection of religious icons. In 2014 the museum received sixty-five portable icons from the art collector Zacharias Portalakis. The art pieces range from the 15th – 20th century and are in very good condition. There is a triptych painted 1755-1779 by Cretan artist Zacharias Kastrofylakas that caught our eye as well as this lovely Russian icon entitled Birth of the Virgin.
The temporary exhibition rooms at the Historical Museum of Crete were hosting an exhibition by Alexis Akrithakis (1939-1994), entitled “On the Move”. His contemporary, innocent and happy paintings spoke to us and our current ‘on-the-move’ lifestyle.
Two former local residents that immediately come to mind are:
Writer, Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957) creator of the legendary Zorba the Greek and who was also nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature nine times was born in Heraklion.
Artist, Doménikos Theotokópoulos (1541-1614) better known as El Greco was born in Heraklion.
“Out in the dark blue sea there lies an island called Crete, a rich and lovely island, washed by the waves on every side, densely peopled and boasting ninety cities.” (Homer Odyssey 19, 172-174) Written circa 800 BCE.
Yasou from these Cretans,
Ted and Julia
The Historical Museum of Crete had two additional exhibitions showing when we were there. You can view them with the following links: