Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Visiting the Venetians and finding the Turks

Mycaeneans, Dorians, Romans, Arabs, Venetians and Turks: Crete is one of the most colonised regions in the world. Strategic importance can be a mixed blessing. Civilisation after civilisation, culture after culture left their remains on these shores.

Evidence of Venetian occupation is all around you. Frankocastello (Fragocastello, Frangocastello...the castle of the Franks) has guarded the southern shore since the early 1370s.

The Venetian lion can still be made out over the doorway.

Re-used by Ottoman and local Sfakian militia over the centuries, its impressive battlements were constructed by the Turks. The fortress's main purpose was to provide protection against pirates, at least giving the local people time to take refuge in the mountains. It also served to impose order on those same fractious locals.

In many places, such as Heraklion, the Venetian fortress remains a dominant landmark, while other buildings with less obviously military purposes have long since disappeared.

The Venetians built their harbour at Heraklion in the early years of the 13th century, following the Minoans, Byzantines and Arabs before them. The rather rusty coastguard vessel below left continues to keep an eye on local waters, though these days it is refugees from the Libyan coastline that it watches out for. The wealthy yachts of the super-rich who use the Mediterranean as a playground make a stark contrast, like the British-registered vessel below.

Heraklion's shipyards and arsenals were developed at the same time as the fortress, which still retains its Venetian coat of arms on each external wall.

The inside is a fascinating warren of interconnecting corridors, with leftover cannons and cannonballs.

Recent finds from shipwrecks excavated by marine archaeologists include amphorae which once contained wine or olive oil.

Climb the stairs and you grasp the fortress's dominant position on the coast.

Subsequent occupiers built on what their predecssors had constructed, hence the distinctly Turkish lookout posts and battlements.

At Rethymnon, the impact of Turkish occupation on the Venetian fortress is even more obvious.

Originally built in the 1570s, the fortress was designed to repel attacks by pirates and big enough to house all the city's inhabitants. Unfortunately, it wasn't.

Nevertheless, it was large enough to house a cathedral, converted into an Ottoman mosque (above). The decorated dome and mihrab can still be seen.

The Cretans rebelled on various occasions, but the Venetians bedded in. The northern areas of Crete were fertile and colonisers from Venice were sent to farm them. Indeed, domestic architecture, in Rethymnon, Chania and villages all over the island, may retain more features of Venetian architecture than the military forts.

Venetian fountains have survived quite well, probably because they perform a useful function. Here is the fountain at the tiny village of Fotinou, south of Rethymnon.

A rather grander fountain is the Rimondi fountain in Rethymnon itself.

In the central fountain attached to the old church in Tylissos, you can still see Turkish plaques inscribed using Arabic script.

The church itself, like many in Crete, still retains its Byzantine frescoes.

In many old villages, and in cities like Chania and Rethymnon, remains of Venetian houses are built into walls. Doorways are sometimes all that survive. These dilapidated buildings in Meladoni village, situated just below the famous caves of the same name, may not survive much longer. A few houses are being renovated, room by room, but most are simply crumbling into the ground.

The Venetian occupation lasted from the mid-13th to mid-17th century, when the Turks invaded, and up to 50 years later in some parts of the island. Four hundred years provides plenty of time in which to make a mark. In art history, that period is called the Cretan Renaissance. During those years, elements of Italian and Byzantine art merged to produce stunning icons and an amazing painter, El Greco or Domenikos Theotokopoulos, who worked and died in Spain. The art and artefacts of those times are in churches, monasteries and, now also, museums.

As for the Ottoman occupation, it lasted until the late 19th century. The Cretan Muslims have a sad history, which is not to deny atrocities committed by Crete's Turkish overlords. Most Muslims were Cretan converts, though Cretan Christians called them 'Turks'. The two communities got on reasonably well for much of their shared history, socialising together and Muslims even becoming godfathers to Christian children. The Muslims, however, began leaving Crete in the second half of the nineteenth century during periods of sectarian violence and following Crete's unilateral declaration of union with Greece in 1908. After the Greco-Turkish War of Independence 1919-1922, the Muslims of Crete and other Greek islands and settlements were compulsorily exchanged for the Greek Christians of Anatolia, under the terms of the Treaty of Lausanne. Both these populations had lived in their respective regions for generations. The Cretan Muslims went to Syria and Lebanon, where they continue to speak a Cretan dialect of Greek. Indeed, in recent years when these Syrians have come to Crete to work, they have been able to make themselves understood, to the great surprise of local Cretans.

Like the Venetians, the 'Turks' of Crete developed their own culture, culinary, musical and literary. Their buildings, however, largely fell into disrepair or were converted for other uses, like this old mosque in Chania, now an art gallery. Whereas the Catholic churches of the Venetians mostly survived alongside the dominant Orthodox Christianity, Islamic culture and architecture largely disappeared with the people who created them.

Many Turkish buildings in well-frequented tourist areas like Rethymnon and Chania are now being restored. Others, however, remain in ruins and are unlikely to be saved from collapse any time soon, like this fortress on the hill above Loutro on the south coast.

Colonialism brings with it oppression, submission, denial of local culture and, often, conflict and the horrors of war. We British should know: we inflicted it on so many other countries.

However, time passes. What can be left behind after the invaders have gone and the settlers have merged into the local population can be a rich mix of cultural influences, both local and from beyond the immediate context.

Crete is such a region. Visitors experience, often with surprise, layer after layer of civilisation, some ancient, some - like the Venetians and Turks - more recent, though still old from our own perspective. Over centuries, the pain of colonisation has gradually passed and beauty, or at least the ruins of beauty, has emerged.

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