Chania History

Inhabited since the dawn of civilization in the Helladic territory, the area of Chania is literally steeped in history, and a plethora of monuments still reflect this rich heritage.

Prehistory and Antiquity

The town of Chania is built on the site of ancient Kydonia, one of the most important cities of Crete according to Homer. Legend has it that Kydonia was founded by Kydonas, the son of Hermes (or Apollo in other versions of the myth) and the nymph Akakalida, daughter of King Minos.

Its history begins in the early Minoan era, around 3650 BC, when its first inhabitants established a settlement on the hill of Kasteli. Over the course of the next millennium, it evolved into a significant palatial center, whose economy was based not only on agriculture but also on trade and shipping. At its zenith, it boasted rich residences with elegant facades, as well as a sewage system. Over a hundred clay tablets inscribed in the Linear A script have been excavated, testifying to the city’s advanced administrative organization. However, Kydonia was destroyed around 1150 BC, when the Minoan civilization abruptly came to an end.

During the post-Mycenaean times, the city flourished greatly. The year 524 BC, when Samian citizens fleeing the tyrant Polycrates settled in Crete, was a turning point, as it was they who founded the classical Kydonia. Many ancient towns and temples were constructed in the region then, such as the temple of Asklepios in Lissos.

In 69 BC, the city was conquered and looted by the Romans and the Roman era began, but 39 years later August Caesar declared Kydonia independent and it started to flourish again. Lavish private and public buildings were constructed, along with a theater that no longer survives. The findings from the Roman times are truly impressive, comprising sculptures, ceramic kilns, and imposing edifices boasting marvelous mosaics. The most notable ones include a large Hellenistic rock-cut family tomb, a striking 3rd-century mosaic that depicts Poseidon saving a nymph from a Satyr and the Roman theater of Aptera.

The Middle Ages

The island of Crete was annexed by the Byzantine Empire in 330 AD, and Kydonia continued to thrive. Nevertheless, in 823 AD, the city was seized by the Saracens and in 828, it was destroyed, like many other Cretan cities. Crete remained an emirate until 961 when it was reconquested by the Byzantines. Then, they rebuilt the entire city using all the expendable material that was left from the ruins. To protect the city, they built a fortress around the hill, known as the Castle of Varypetro or the Castelos of Agia Kyriaki.

In 1204 AD, Chania was occupied by the Venetians, who fortified the town around Kasteli fortress and restored the ruined city. It was during this time that the city began to be called La Canea (Chania), though the origin of the name is uncertain. During their four-century presence, the Venetians built a Catholic cathedral inside the castle, as well as many elegant mansions. However, their strong fleet was soon attacked by the Genoese and they were defeated. As a result, the Genoese remained in Chania for some years, but, before they left, they burned down the whole town. The Venetians came back and rebuilt the entire city with a stronger wall enclosing it. During the following years, Chania thrived, and many elegant buildings and houses were erected in the Venetian style.

This was a very prosperous period in the history of Chania, as it gave an impulse to trade and culture. Elegant mansions were constructed and the connection with Europe led to the development of arts and literature, the so-called Cretan Renaissance. The famous painter Dominikos Theotokopoulos, also known as El Greco, was born at that time.

The Modern Era

In 1645, after two months of siege, the town surrendered to the Turks and the aspect of the city changed as all Catholic churches were turned into mosques. The Turks also added new ones, such as the Kucuk Hasan Mosque, and built fountains, bathhouses, inns, hospitals, barracks and other military installations.

After many battles and revolutionary acts of the inhabitants of Crete against the Turkish fleet, the island was declared autonomous in 1897 and became the capital of the Cretan State. Following this, Chania was transformed into a great administrative, commercial and cultural center. The city expanded outside the walls, and embarked on a process of modernization, with the construction of beautiful neoclassical buildings, such as the residence of the MP Manousos Koundouros, the palace of the High Commissioner, the house of Eleftherios Venizelos and the Russian-style church of Agia Magdalini. In 1913, Crete was reunited with the rest of Greece thanks to the many efforts of Eleftherios Venizelos, governor of Crete and later prime minister of the country.

Chania Town was the center of much activity during World War II, including the famous Battle of Crete (1941), in which the German troops suffered heavy casualties. This charming town was forcibly occupied by the Germans, and the city was partially ruined as a result of a series of bombings.

The extensive damages from the constant attacks against Crete wiped out the traces of earlier periods. From the Minoan Kydonia, only remnants of buildings and ceramics have been unearthed by excavations. However, a large part of the old town of Chania dating from the Venetian and Turkish periods has survived. The Venetian port and the historic alleys with their tall mansions create a nostalgic atmosphere. The history of Chania has had a huge cultural impact on the lives of the Cretans. In 1965, the town was declared a heritage monument, and efforts have been made to preserve and highlight its beauty so that it now attracts millions of tourists.