Heraklion: Venetian fortress. (Photo by Stamatina Mylonas)
Long ago, there was a vast and rich kingdom in the southern Mediterranean. The leaders of Minoan civilization ruled over the island of Crete, setting the foundations for their empire in the form of palaces and citadels. Most notable is the palace of Knossos, located a few kilometers south of the modern city Heraklion. Parts of the palace are believed to have been built as far back as 1900 BC. The more ancient buildings were either leveled from the earthquakes that often shook the region or renovated and built upon to extend the palace. The structures and footprint that remained were properly excavated in the early 20th century, revealing the extent of the palace and its grounds. The excavations and studies of Knossos revealed intricate details of monumental events that shaped ancient Greece. The volcanic eruption that covered the island of Santorini in 1600 BC fueled a tsunami to the south that hit the coast of Crete. Lucky for us in the modern day, much of the palace survived the environmental and anthropological mayhem that took place during those centuries.
Today we admire the outlines of the grand structure that shows the artistic and engineering wit of the people of ancient Heraklion. Centered around a large courtyard, the palace has long corridors that wrap around it in each direction. Archeologists found that many of the rooms lining these corridors were used as storage for weapons. Other rooms include the grand throne room with the alabaster stone seating still intact. This ancient throne is the oldest monument of its kind in Europe, built around the 15th century BC. The throne room was important for ceremonial practices and was decorated intricately with frescoes on every wall. These vibrant red and gold paintings are still visible today, depicting the mythological and cherished creatures of Crete, like the griffin. This room may have been used for political matters, although the archeological findings like the fresco paintings and the ceremonial basin in the floor suggest it was used for religious purposes as well. Priceless pottery artifacts were found in adjoining rooms, and now grace the cases of the Heraklion Archeological Museum.
The details in architecture at the palace of Knossos seems modern in its designs, which included strategic windows and corridors to let the sunlight in and cozy bedroom and bathroom quarters. The influence of the palace and the ancient settlement at Heraklion was great. The rulers living there had their coins accepted all over the island, and artworks and pottery in the Aegean region followed their artistic designs. What remains of the Minoans and their palace is preserved and open for exploration from visitors. These ancient people were brilliant in their creations but remain mysterious to us because their Linear A script has not yet been deciphered.
The mythological and archeological history of Heraklion is immortalized in the legends and landscape that shaped the city. Through the centuries, it progressed into a major city with a busy sea port. Today the port is the busiest on the island, with ships taking regular trips to and from Athens’ Piraeus port and the surrounding islands. This port was a lifeline to the Minoan people, and still continues to connect the island of Crete to the rest of the Mediterranean.
The city of Heraklion is the largest in Crete with a population of approximately 150,000 people who call it their home. During peak summer months, the city is filled with tourists who arrive either by air at Heraklion’s Kazantzakis airport or by sea to the port. It is easy to get to the center of town or the old historic Venetian harbor and docks. Much like Chania, Heraklion has a long narrow singular dock that jets out into the sea and acts as a sort of wall shielding the port with a tall lighthouse at the very end. Along this coastline there is a stone Venetian fortress and a cozy little harbor that are in stark contrast to the neighboring industrial and port areas.
From the seaside it is a short walk to town where there are restaurants, shops, and accommodation throughout. Cultural institutions like the Archeological Museum and the Historical Museum of Crete mark the borders of the center of town. Near the old Venetian harbor is Theotokópoulos Park and a town square full of ornamental buildings and shops. The wide paved walkway leads to the antique Fountain of the Lions commissioned by a foreign governor in the 17th century AD. Along the walkway of the town square there is the Church of Agios Titos and the Municipal Art Gallery, both displaying the same detailed and historic architecture.
Farther out, another border marks another section of Heraklion. The ruins of a Venetian fortress walls with adjoining buildings and courtyards are the imprint of the historic boundaries of Heraklion. The walls are relatively straight and come together at points at different ends of the city. Today, Heraklion extends far beyond these walls which have been swallowed up by the city. Residential and commercial developments have now extended from the sea all the way to the palace of Knossos at the foot of the mountains.
In contrast to other cities on Crete, Heraklion is industrialized, with large universities, venues for sporting and cultural events, and seaside developments for business and pleasure. Heraklion was the birthplace of one of the greatest Greek writers Nikos Kazantzakis, who is the namesake for the city’s airport. Kazantzakis’ literature is revered in Greece as well as globally with his works available in different languages that communicate the depth and passion of his words. When he was born in 1883, Crete had not get joined the newly free Greek state that had been officially formed fifty years prior. Perhaps the injustices he saw on his island under the rule of the Ottomans is what inspired his studies in law and philosophy. Along with El Greco – Domenikos Theotokopoulos – Kazantzakis remains one of the two most famous and honored of Heraklion’s and Crete’s natives.
On the coast on either side of the city are long sandy beaches with some scattered resorts and spas. Crete’s size and diversity in experiences is what attracts a global market of travelers. A popular neighboring beach town located a twenty minute drive east of the airport is Limenas Chersonisou. Along the coastal villages leading to the town there are various beaches and entertainment options for families and vacationers of all ages. The cultural and natural sights continue along the coast heading east, where there are more Minoan era ruins and even a historic seaside cave. West of Heraklion are the island’s other major cities Rethymno and Chania, similar in their architecture and communities centered around their old harbors.
Heraklion was once the center of an admired ancient kingdom that dominated a region and left its mark on the world. Visiting a city like Heraklion and all of its sites is like traveling back in time and witnessing history.
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