Architecture of Crete
Crete was the first place in Europe where fine buidings of the stature and high standards of construction such as we find at the Minoan Palace of Knossos were built, over four and a half thousand years ago. We can rightly compare Minoan culture, even though it is on a smaller scale, with the high standards in contsruction technologies, mercantile expertise, cooperative enterprise as well as in the rule of law and the role of courtly ritual attained by the ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures.
The influence of Minoan contruction styles is still evident in modern day Crete, notably in Cretan ceramic work and in the exceptionally refined wall plastering techniques first seen at Knossos but still used today to give such a delicately polished finish to the walls of many villas and hotels across the island. Due to the long history and the many occupations by foreign powers, Cretan architecture manifests itself in different forms and varies from town to town and village to village. Some of Crete’s settlements were established and still retain the same names as during the Minoan times over five thousand years ago.
Excavations have unearthed very well-organized towns with public buildings, beautifully constructed palaces with fine frescos depicting scenes from Minoan daily life and courtly rituals with large courtyards and ceremonial urban areas and with well paved streets running between well designed and spacious houses. No remains of fortification walls from Minoan times have been discovered, peace-loving and commercially minded as they obviously were. The Minoan palaces of Knossos, Phaestos and Zakros are the prime examples of this period.
The Minoan civilization gradually collapsed and came to an end after the major volcanic explosion on the island of Santorini, in the late seventeenth or sixteenth century BCE. Santorini’s explosion was devastating to the Minoans. Santorini, lying to the north of Crete in the Aegean Sea whose prevailing winds are almost always to the south, when it exploded, caused a terrifying tsunami. The Minoans suffered many months of ash fall, likely to have caused fires, the collapse of roofs and also crop failures.
More than one hundred years after the Santorini eruption, around 1450 BCE, Crete was invaded by the Mycenean Greeks from the mainland of Greece and since then Crete has been a part of the wider Hellenic world. The Myceneans brought their own architectural style, including the usage of very large stone blocks to build what we now call Cyclopean walls, remaining instances of which are visible in many locations across the island.
As some time towards the end of the second millenium BCE, the Dorians, a Hellenic tribe that ruled Sparta in the Peloponnese of mainland Greece, came to Crete and the dialect of Greek spoken on the island came to be Dorian. Many citadels were built by the Dorians and vestiges of them are now the foundations of later forts and castles which the island’s subsequent occupiers have built upon.
As the Hellenic world emerged from its period known as the Dark Ages, from the 11th to the 8th centuries BCE, Cretan Dorian city states had already been formed. They were in such places as Kydonia (modern Chania), Aptera, Lappa (modern Arghiroupoli), Eleftherna, Gortyn, Lyttos, Dreros, Lato and other ancient towns whose ruins can be visited today across the island, giving an understanding of ancient Greek town planning, architectural floor plans and house and temple contruction. These city states and towns continued to flourish during the time of Classical and Hellenistic Greece.
Crete was not involved in the Persian invasions of Greece during the reigns of Darius and Xerxes in the early fifth century BCE and so did not suffer the major devastation which befell mainland Greece. It was during the rebuilding at the initiation of the period that we call Classical Greece that Cretan architectural traditions such as the refined originally Minoan plastering techniques came to be a constituent part of Greek architecture. How these techniques had survived from Minoan times we do not know but the passing of knowledge from father to son and the adherence to traditional methods in all the many fields of expertise that Cretans are proud to retain has been for millenia a very Cretan character trait. The Romans in turn incorporated these originally Cretan architectural techniques into their architectural repertoire, notably in plastering and they can be seen in situ and perfectly preserved in the many fine Roman villas among the ruins of Pompeii in Italy’s Campania region.
Cretans were early converts from paganism to Christianity. Meeting places for Christians and later churches were built from the early years of Christianity on the island. None have survived from the first five centuries. There are, though, across the length and breadth of Crete, hundreds of Byzantine churches, some dating from as early as the sixth century CE.
Almost nothing has survived from the period of Arab rule except the foundations of Koules Fortress standing proudly at the entrance to the old harbour of Heraklion and on which the Venetians later built the present structure. The lack of any remains of Arab period buildings is most likely the result of the deliberate destruction by the Byzantines, when they regained control of the island in 961 CE, of all that the Arabs had constructed during the more than 130 year existence of the Emirate of Crete.
The second Byzantine period of the island’s history, from 961 CE to 1204, saw the construction of many churches and the founding of monasteries.
Architecturally, Crete was much influenced by the Venetians, who, in a complicated series of payments, political manoeuvres and battles from 1204 till 1212 CE managed to wrest control of the island from their rivals, the Genoese who had tried to gain control of it from 1205. During their rule, the Venetians constructed many fortresses across the island. The Fortezza of Rethymno, Koules Fortress also known as Rocca al Mare in Heraklion, the Castle of Frangokastello, the fort of Gramvoussa, Spinalonga and Ierapetra castles are a few of the finest examples but there are countless others. Even standing guard above the small village of Aghia Roumeli at the end of the walk through the Samaria gorge, you will find the ruin of a Venetian fort.
The old towns of Chania and Rethymno, for example, have typical Venetian architecture with paved streets, often with arches over them, two to four storey buildings in narrow streets suitable for the traffic of the time in which they were built but not for modern vehicles. It is notable that it is rare to see balconies facing onto the main streets. The houses face inwards onto fruit tree planted courtyards which are small oases of tranquillity even nowadays.
As trade was the main emphasis of Venice’s rule of the island, the Venetians also constructed ports, those in Chania, Rethymno and Heraklio being the best surviving examples, and dockyards, such as the Venetian arsenals in Chania that host the Arsenali Centre of Mediterranean Architecture today.
On almost any drive around Crete you will encounter Venetian castles and towers while most of Crete’s villages have buildings, some of them fine mansions, that date from the island’s Venetian period. Many of the castles were later reconstructed by the Ottomans, who conquered the island and expelled the Venetians ending their rule of the island. The Ottoman occupation lasted from the second half of the 17th till the late 19th century and also influenced much of the architecture of Crete. Any balconies built by the Venetians which overlooked the streets will, when Ottomans lived in those same houses, have been covered over with wooden mashrabiah screens, to create greater privacy. The Ottomans built fine mosques as well as baths and public buildings, many of which survive till the present.
Today the traditional architecture of Crete is better seen in the mountainous villages. These authentic villages are remarkable for their narrow streets, the small squares, the cascades of colour from flowering plants, especially bouganvillea and jasmine, growing in abundance along the narrow alleyways and in the courtyards of the traditional stone houses. The most typical scene in these villages is of old men sitting in the square and chatting over a cup of coffee or a glass of Crete’s traditional strong liquor, tsakoudhia, also known as raki.