The fortress was built by the Venetians in the early years of their rule in Candia, in order to better protect the city’s port, which had prominent strategic and commercial importance. The original low building, which had no escarpments, was destroyed by an earthquake in 1303 and later rebuilt.
In the early 16th century, in the context of the overall redesign of the city’s fortifications, the old castle was demolished and the fortress that still survives today was built in its place during the period from 1523 (the date indicated in an inscription over the north gate) to 1540. Massive structural sections were brought from Fraskia and Dia. The fortress is built on two storeys and in its final form covers an area of about 3,600 m2.
The ground floor is separated by thick walls into 26 apartments that served as food and ammunition warehouses, as well as prison cells, in which many Cretan rebels were kept and tortured. Upstairs were accommodations for the castellan and the officers of the garrison. There was a bakery, a mill and a small church. On the three sides that looked towards the sea, there were embrasures for the cannons protecting the harbor. In 1630 there were 18 cannons on the ground floor and 25 on the upper floor. A ramp was used to transport cannons as far as the rooftop. The north east, west and south outer walls were decorated with marble reliefs of the winged lion of Venice, which are partially visible today. The ramparts of the fort have been rebuilt.
(Text by: Vasiliki Sithiakaki, archaeologist)
At the northern entrance of Elounda Bay, at a key-position for the control of the natural harbour, is located the islet of Spinalonga, with an area of 8,5 ha and an altitude of 53 m. The island was fortified in the antiquity, possibly in the Hellenistic period, with a large enclosure.
On the ruins of the ancient castle the Venetians built a strong fortress, which was designed according to the bastion fortification system by Genese Bressani and Latino Orsini. The first construction stage of the fortress lasted from 1579 to 1586. Repairs and alterations to the fortress were also made during the Cretan War (1645-1669). During the Venetian rule the fortress was used for military purposes. The buildings in its interior covered the accommodation needs of the guard. During the Cretan war (1645-1669) Spinalonga offered shelter to refugees and rebels, who harassed the Turks, using the islet as their base. Their action lasted as long as the fortress was occupied by the Venetians. According to the treaty of the surrender of the “Khandax” in 1669, Spinalonga remained under the rule of Venice.
After the island was occupied by the Ottomans in 1715, a purely Ottoman settlement was gradually formed in Spinalonga. During the first two centuries of the Ottoman rule the fortress was marginalised and used as a place of exile and isolation. The situation changed, however, at the end of the 19th century. Its role was upgraded as it obtained an export trade permit. In the middle of the 19th century a large number of inhabitants concentrated on the islet, mostly tradesmen and seamen, who exploited the seaways of the eastern Mediterranean and the advantage of a safe fortified settlement.
The life of this settlement was soon interrupted abruptly due to the political developments that took place in Crete during the last years of the 19th century. Most of the inhabitants of Spinalonga were forced to emigrate, as the revolutionary activity of the Christians spread insecurity among the Ottomans of Crete. From 1897 French military forces settled on the island and stayed there for about one year. The Cretan State established the isolation of the lepers in 1903 and decided to create a leper hospital in Spinalonga, in order for coordinated help to be available to Hansen patients. The hard life of the patients, who lived on the island until 1957, marked the area as a place of martyrdom and heartbreaking memories. (Author: Georgia Moschovi, archeologist)
Phaistos is built on a low hill (altitude of about 100m from sea level), in the south of river Geropotamos (ancient river Lithaios), and dominates the fertile valley of Kato Mesara, which is surrounded by imposing mountains (Psiloritis, Asterousia, Lasithi Mountains).
The Libyan Sea extends in the south. Lithaios surrounds the hill of Phaistos in the east and the north and was a source of water supply for the city. The mild and warm climate of the area made the life of its residents comfortable and pleasant. Phaistos was one of the most important centres of the Minoan civilization, and the most wealthy and powerful city of southern Crete. It is mentioned in the texts of ancient writers (Diodorus, Stravon, Pausanius) and Homer. It is one of the three important cities founded in Crete by Minos. According to mythology, the dynasty of Rodamanthus, the son of Zeus and brother of Minos, reigned in it. Homer refers to its participation in the Trojan War and describes it as a “well populated” city. The period of prosperity in Phaistos began with the coming of the Bronze Age in Crete in the middle of the 3rd millennium B.C., when the foundations of the Minoan civilization were laid.
Habitation in Phaistos started in the Neolithic period, as revealed by the foundations of Neolithic houses, tools, statuettes and potsherds discovered under the palace during the excavations. The Neolithic settlement is believed to have covered the top of the hill and its southwestern slope. In the middle of the 3rd millennium B.C. the use of metals began, which favoured the development of the city.
Development continued until the foundation and consolidation of the Minoan palaces (15th century B.C.). In the beginning of the 2nd millennium kings took the rule and established large palaces. The first palace was built in around 1900 B.C. and along with its surrounding buildings it covered an area of 18.000 m2, a little smaller than that of the palace of Knossos. The major earthquake in around 1700 B.C. was the cause of its destruction and the destruction of Knossos. A new, more imposing one was built in its place. Most of the remnants preserved today belong to it, while some parts of the first palace, mainly in the southeast, have also been discovered. The Minoan city covered a considerable area around the palatial centre.
Phaistos was the seat of the king – ruler who controlled not only the rich plain of Mesara and the settlements in the wider area but also the exit to the sea and the harbours of the gulf of Mesara. After the destruction of the palace (15th century B.C.) the city of Phaistos continued to be inhabited in the Mycenaean and Geometric periods (8th century B.C.). In the following centuries Phaistos experienced a new period of prosperity. The area of the city grew in relation to its area in the Minoan times. It became a rich, strong and densely populated independent city. It minted its own coin and during its period of prosperity, its rule extended from cape Lithino to cape Melissa, including the islets Paksimadia (ancient name: Litoae). The state of Phaistos had two powerful harbours, Matala and Kommo in the southeast.
In historical times the temple of Rhea was built south of the old palace. A time gap is observed in the classical period, from which no architectural remnants have been discovered yet. In contrast, the Hellenistic city was extremely prosperous. Houses of that period can be seen in the west yard (upper terrace) of the palace. In the middle of the 2nd century B.C. (around 1600 B.C.) the city was destroyed and occupied by the neighbouring city of Gortys. Even though it was not immediately abandoned, Phaistos lost its power. Traces of habitation dating from the Venetian period are scattered in the whole area. The modern village of Agios Ioannis on the southern fringe of the ancient city is the modest remainder of a glorious past.
From archaeological view, Phaistos is the second in importance Minoan city after Knossos. The site of Knossos was first identified by British captain H. Spratt. The archaeological research of Phaistos was started in 1884 by F. Halbherr and continued by the Italian School of Archaeology (Halbherr and L. Pernier, 1900-1904) and by Doro Levi (1950-1971). Restoration works were conducted during the excavations by the Italian School of Archaeology. Some spaces, mainly the old palace and the royal rooms of the new palace were covered with plastic shelters, while others, such as the storehouses of the new palace, were covered with concrete slabs.
According to tradition, it was the seat of King Minos and the capital of his state. The palace of Knossos is associated with the exciting myths “the Labyrinth and the Minotaur” and “Daedalus and Icarus”.
References to Knossos, its palace and Minos are made by Homer (the list of ships in Ilias mentions that Crete sent 80 ship under the command of the King of Knossos, Idomeneus, the Odyssey, T 178-9), Thucydides (reference to Minos), Isiodus and Herodotus, Bacchylides and Pindarus, Plutarchus and Diodorus the Sicilian. The city flourished in the Minoan Times (2000 – 1350 B.C.), when it was the most important and populated centre of Crete. It also played an important role and was particularly prosperous in later periods, like the Hellenistic Times.
The city of Knossos was constantly populated from the end of the 7th millennium to the Roman Times. In the Neolithic Times there was a stage of technologically developed agricultural life (stone tools and weaving weights). The residents turned from food-collectors into producers (farmers and shepherds) and a there was a trend towards more systematic and permanent settlement. The settlement periods in Knossos succeeded each other and the population of the settlement at the end of the Late Neolithic Period is estimated at 1.000 – 2.000 residents.
In the Bronze Age, which involved the processing of copper, the settlement possibly continued to develop. However, during the construction of the palace many older buildings were destroyed. The settlement is now referred to as Ko-no-so in Linear B texts of the 14th century B.C. Habitation was particularly intense, including the first palace (19th-17th century B.C.), the second palace (16th-14th century B.C.) and the luxurious villas, the guests’ rooms and the Minoan infrastructure works. The palaces were built on sites overlooking plains and having access to the sea, while important settlements were developed around them. The cities and the settlements were not walled, which confirms the so-called Pax Minoica. In around 1700 B.C. a major earthquake probably destroys Knossos and leads to large-scale works in the city and the palace. The city of Knossos was developed in a large area and its population was estimated by Evans at around 80.000 people.
In 1450 B.C., after a partial destruction of Knossos, the Mycenaeans settled in the city, without, however, rebuilding the palace. From the next periods few remnants are preserved, mostly tombs and a small classical temple in the area of the palace. The city experienced great prosperity during the Hellenistic Times (temple of Glaukus, temple of Demetra, chiselled tombs, the use of a northern cemetery, fortifying towers). In 67 B.C. Quintus Caecilius Metellus Creticus conquered Knossos and established a Roman colony with the name Colonia Julia Nobilis. The Villa of Dionysus, with wonderful mosaics, dates back to this period.
In the Byzantine Times Knossos was the seat of the Bishop, while the remains of the 6th century A.D. basilica are still preserved. After the Arab conquest of Crete, the harbour of Heraklion gradually became more important, while Knossos was slowly forgotten. A small settlement was built on the Roman ruins and is referred to as “Makritihos” (=long wall), named after a long wall, which was a remnant of the Roman Knossos. Knossos was spotted in 1878 by Minos Kalokairinos. A. Evans started systematic excavations in 1900, which continued until 1931 (discovery of the palace, a large part of the Minoan city and the cemeteries). Since then excavations are being continued in the wider area of Knossos by the British School of Archaeology and the 23rd Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities.
The Historical Museum of Crete was founded by the Society of Cretan Historical Studies in 1953, following the issue of a Ministry of Culture permit to establish a museum collection. The Museum was initially housed in the Andreas and Maria Kalokerinos House (1903), a listed neoclassical building granted by the A. & M. Kalokerinos Foundation in accordance with the donor’s wishes.
The Museum was founded and is run by the Society of Cretan Historical Studies, with the aim of preserving and showcasing the cultural heritage of Crete from early Byzantine times to the modern era. This aim has been achieved gradually, by the collection, purchase and donation of artefacts, together with artefacts on long term loan from the Ministry of Culture.