Rethymno History

Rethymno, as a part of Crete, has a rich historical background! The long history of Rethymno traces back to the Palaeolithic, with Acheulean tools found at Plakias dating to 130.000 BCE; these finds are so old, that they have caused a total reexamination of the history of seafaring, previously thought to have been less than 15.000 years old! The northern coast shows signs of human habitation starting in the Neolithic, with Gerani Cave as well as Paleokastro Hill in Rethymno Town, revealing traces of human habitation between 6000 BCE and 3800 BCE.

Ancient Times

Rethymno, like most of Crete, underwent significant growth during the Minoan period, being at the center of Europe’s first civilization, growth that carried on when the Mycenaean Greeks took control of the island. Important sites from this period include the sanctuaries at the peaks of Mounts Kouroupa and Vrysinas, the settlements at Amari (Monastiraki, Apodoulou) and Anogia (Zominthos, Sklavokampos), as well as tholos tombs (Apodoulou, Margarites) and a necropolis at Armenoi.

Following the Bronze Age collapse, Crete was one of the regions settled by the Dorians. Ancient Eleftherna, Rethymno’s most important city, was constructed around this time. Crete spent most of the Archaic and Classical periods in the background but rapidly became an important region during Hellenistic times. Eleftherna kick-started the Lyttian War in 220 BCE, declaring war against Rhodes, before switching sides twice over the four-year conflict. This war resulted in the defeat of Crete’s major powers and the island was thus placed under Macedonia’s sphere of influence.

Many other cities were constructed at this time, including Rithymna where the modern-day city Rethymnon stands, as well as Lappa, Axos, Syvritos, and even the smaller towns of Amphimalion and Phalanna, the ruins of which are all possible to see today. Special mention must be made of Frati and Myrthios, built in times of severe crisis when people sought refuge up at mountaintops to hide from pirates that raided the coasts of Crete.

During this period., the Ideon Cave at Mount Ida was one of ancient Greece’s most sacred sites, as it was believed to be where Rhea hid baby Zeus to protect him from his father. Astoundingly, archaeological evidence suggests the sanctity of this Cave predates the Greeks and even the Minoans, dating all the way back to the Stone Age!

In the 2nd Century BCE, Crete was the center of two major wars which saw the cities divided among themselves and siding with either Macedonia or its opponents. The Romans eventually conquered Crete during the Third Mithridatic War, bringing peace and stability to the island. 

Middle Ages

Crete initially flourished under Roman rule, however as the Empire went through crises in the early Middle Ages, the island suffered constant pirate raids and was eventually taken over by the Arabs. This period saw Rethymno and all its surrounding cities lose their status and disappear into the background.

Rethymnon only returned to prominence following the Fourth Crusade. As the Venetians were granted the entirety of Crete, they moved to establish a port halfway between Chania and Heraklion. They chose the site of the rump city of Rithymna to build this port and created one of the island’s biggest cities, modern-day Rethymnon. By the 16th century, the city was home to about 7.500 Greeks and 2.500 Venetians, with many of the modern Old Town’s buildings dating to this period, including the old Venetian Port, Loggia, the Rimondi Fountain, and many houses. Under Venetian control, Crete prospered economically and culturally, as evidenced by the Cretan Renaissance. Rethymno’s greatest example of the Renaissance was Georgios Chortatzis, author of the tragedy Erofili.

However, Rethymno’s fortifications were weak, and the city suffered continuous raids. In 1538, the legendary corsair-turned-admiral, Hayreddin Barbarossa razed the city, while Uluc Reis had his go in 1571. These successive attacks prompted the Venetians to build better defenses. A wall was built on the city’s southern edge in 1540, of which only the gate of Porta Guora still stands, while the imposing Fortezza was built in 1573.

Eventually, the Ottoman Empire took over Rethymno Town in 1646, prompting the vast majority of its population to flee, leaving just 1500 inhabitants. This allowed the Ottomans to settle many Muslims in the city, who created many mosques, most of which still stand today – a sight uncommon in Greece.

Ottoman Rule and War of Independence

The demographics of the city meant it was pretty calm during even the most tumultuous times of the Ottoman period. The hinterlands, however, like in much of Crete, were harder to subdue and often saw rebellious activity. This came to a head in the 19th century, with the Greek Revolution in 1821, which saw the execution of the Four Martyrs. Crete was subdued by Muhammad Ali of Egypt, who was then ceded control of the island. The most recognizable trace of this Egyptian presence is the lighthouse that stands on the pier of the old Venetian Port.

Rethymno remained in the background of rebellious activities for the rest of the century, but the Arkadi Monastery in the hinterland was the site of the most important clash of the 1866 Revolt: 259 rebels and 700 civilians had taken refuge at the monastery and were besieged by Ottoman forces, who broke through after two months; the monastery had fallen, those inside opted to move into the magazine, which they then blew up, losing their lives rather than submitting to the authorities.

Rethymno was part of the 1896 revolution that led to the establishment of an autonomous Cretan State. When an international Squadron was assembled to quell the revolution, Russian soldiers occupied the city. This period of autonomy lasted until 1913 when Crete was integrated into Greece. During this time, the Muslim majority of Rethymno fled from the city to Asia Minor, leaving the city almost empty. By 1924, all Muslims had left; their now-vacant homes were filled by the more than 6000 Greek refugees who arrived from Asia Minor.

Recent History

The city of Rethymno was one of the German targets during the Battle of Crete. After a valiant effort by Australian and Greek forces, the city had to surrender following the German landing at Maleme. Bombing during this battle and the subsequent German occupation left the city in a bad state. However, following World War II, Rethymno quickly started growing again, surpassing its Venetian peak of 10 thousand inhabitants by 1951 and doubling its population between 1971 and 2001. This was due to the increase in urbanism throughout Greece, which saw many people move to the city from the surrounding villages, creating most of the New Town.

Today, Rethymno is one of the best-preserved towns in Crete, maintaining its aristocratic character with a plethora of elegant buildings dating to the 16th century, as well as narrow alleys and Venetian and Ottoman landmarks.