The Cretan society in the Autonomous Cretan State turned the eyes northwards towards Greece and westwards towards Europe, away from eastern memories of enslavement. The developing Cretan economy based itself on the Cretan drachma. A new wind of life blew in the Cretan society after extensive reforms in all aspects of social life.
Life in Heraklion during the years of Autonomy was a period of transformation. Imposing neoclassical buildings were erected in the centre of the town, a new quay was constructed to facilitate transportation of people and goods and people combined the gradually and steadily adopted European cultural habits with their local traditional customs. A new class of aristocracy was gradually formed with a different, Europeanlike lifestyle and tastes, from people of the working class whose lives kept the Eastern Mediterranean influences and the traditions. Multicultural kinds of recreation and entertainment made life more enjoyable. However, Cretan tradition had always been of top priority for the majority of the population.
On the other hand, the top for the Cretan State was education. Elementary schools for boys and girls were established all over the island. Heraklion was a major educational centre. Public and private schools opened in the town, and hundreds of pupils left the countryside to attend them. The “Vikelaia” Library contributed to the fight against illiteracy and the first newspapers came out to assist the whole effort. Archaeological research made significant progress with Arthur Evans.
The town centre was the trade centre where merchants exhibited their goods and both the inhabitants and the visitors made their bargains. Such places , which still play the same important role, were “Plathia Strata” , now Kalokairinou Ave. , “Vezir Tsarsi”, now 25th August Street , “Kislade”, now Dikaiosynis Ave. and “Meidani”, now the central market square.
Residents of the town could find particular professionals and craftsmen in certain areas or neighbourhoods. “Dermitzidika” was the place, where you could find blacksmiths. At “Terzidika” you could find tailors and at “Kouyioumtzidika” goldsmiths, while doctors and chemists could be found at “Yiatradika”.
The union of Crete with Greece was officially declared in 1913.
The island being part of the Greek state, shared the results of the Asia Minor disaster in 1922 receiving a great number of refugees. Thousands of them settled in Heraklion. As the population was growing, new suburbs such as Nea Alikarnassos, Atsalenio, Katsambas and Patelles were gradually formed. The contribution of the refugees to the financial development of Heraklion was very decisive in many ways as most of them came from flourishing societies and apart from being experienced in labour and hard working, they were a new vital consuming force.
Significant signs of progress influenced the residents’ lives. Heraklion turned into a rapidly developing residential area with the invasion of electricity, telephone and radio, with the extension of the port which grew into an import/export trade and shipping centre, with the construction of an airport for the fast transfer of passengers and with the appearance of numerous cars which, at that time, made life for some people much easier.
The direct link of the town with Greek ports, such as Piraeus and Ermoupolis of Syros, with Mediterranean ports, such as Alexandria, Smyrna, Marseille and Trieste and European ports, such as Hambourg, not only boosted trade and industry, but brought people of Heraklion closer and closer to the European taste of life and the trends of the time.
In 1940, Greece was forced to take part in the World War II . The failure of the Italian attack provoked the German invasion to Greece.
In May 1941, the Battle of Crete took place on the island. Repeated air raids bombarded the main towns and destroyed a large part of Heraklion. A vast number of paratroopers, managed to wear down the superhuman resistance of the local population who fought at the side of Greek and British organised forces, after ten days of fierce struggle. The period of Italo-German occupation lasted until Heraklion was liberated in October 1944, before the Germans finally surrendered in May 1945.
After World War II, the city became again a centre of considerable commercial importance. Grapes (especially sultanas), olives and olive oil, wine, citrus, vegetables, almonds, soap, and leather are some of the main exported products. A new harbour and moles, an airport, and many hotels contributed to the boost of the tourist trade, as well.
Nowadays, the sights of Heraklion can satisfy every tourist’s taste.
The modern enormous Archaeological Museum, which was founded in 1883 and was formerly a power station, is considered to be one of the most important museums in Greece. It contains fine collections of Minoan antiquities, including finds from Knossos, Archanes, Phaestos, Zakros and many other archaeological sites in Crete, the world famous Phaestos disc, gold ornaments, seals, metalwork, pottery, statuettes, stone carvings as well as marvellous frescoes from palaces and villas.
As it is a very popular destination, it would be wise to avoid “the rush-hour”, starting during the summer months, early in the morning or late in the day.
Check opening and closing times and admission fee before your visit.
The Historical Museum, which was founded in 1953, contains a simulation of the interior of a traditional Cretan house, a rich collection of local costumes, embroidered articles, textiles, laces, musical instruments, wood carvings and many important exhibits from the Byzantine - Mediaeval, Venetian and Turkish periods, as well as many documents from more recent times. It also contains the only existing painting in Crete by Domenicos Theotokopoulos (El Greco) entitled "View of Mount Sinai and the Monastery".
There are relics of the Cretan revolutions of the 19th century and of the Cretan State (1898-1913), such as flags, arms, portraits of local heroes, engravings, furniture, costumes, maps, mementoes, historic documents and photographs.
The Battle of Crete and National Resistance Museum is housed in a building in the centre of the town near the Archaeological museum and operates also as a research centre. There is an exhibition which of includes objects related to the War (arms, accessories, uniforms, items of everyday use, etc.), documents and newspaper cuttings of the period 1941-1945, authentic photographs, paintings and drawings of the Battle of Crete and the national resistance and books on the historic events of that period of time.
The impressive two-storey fortress, the Koules that guards the entrance to the Venetian harbour is very imposing and dates from 1523. Koules or Great Koules or Rocca al Mare served as an officers' quarters and a prison and stored foodstuffs and military supplies. It was built it in 1303 by the Genoese and was rebuilt in 1523, after a destructive earthquake. There are three relief carvings of the Lion of St. Mark, the best preserved of which is the north facing one. During the summer months, the second storey is used as an outdoor theatre for concerts and other performances.
On the east side of the Venetian harbour, opposite Koules, are the Arsenali or Tarsanades, the large vaulted arsenals which were used for building and repairing the Venetian galleons.
On the south side of the fortifications of the Venetian city walls one can still see two of the four gates to the city: the Chania Gate (Chanioporta) and the New Gate (Kainouria Porta).
Chania Gate (Chanioporta), dating from the sixteenth century when the Venetians completed most of the defences, is at the end of Kalokairinou Street. Elaborate carvings, such as a winged lion and a relief bust of God the “Pantocrator”, can still be seen on the gate. This exit out of the city leads to the western part of Crete.
The New Gate (Kainouria Porta), constructed in 1587, as a plaque in the middle prevails, is the name that the locals gave to the gate that the Venetians called the “Gate of Jesus”, because it was the last of the gates to be built. This exit leads to the southern parts of Crete.
The old fortifications are still in relatively good condition and of the seven bastions the one that survives is “Martinengo”, overlooking the ground of the football team “Ergotelis” and offering a panoramic view of Heraklion.
On top of “Martinengo” is located the tomb of the world famous Cretan writer Nikos Kazanzakis, who was not buried in a church cemetery because of his unorthodox views. The tomb bears the famous inscription from his own writing : "I hope for nothing, I fear nothing, I am Free"!.
Τhe 13th c. Basilica of St. Markο ( San Marco Basilica) , opposite "Lions’ Square", was the most important Venetian church of Heraklion and all the official ceremonies took place here . The original church belonged to the Venetian Dukes and the Venetian nobility who died in Heraklion were buried here. Earthquakes damaged the original building of 1239 and the Turks transformed it into a mosque, as which it remained until 1915. Now, after extensive renovations, it is an exhibition hall which houses a variety of interesting short and long time exhibitions of works of art.
The eye-catcher of the “Lions’ square” is the Morosini Fountain. Built in 1628 by the Venetians and named after the Venetian governor of that time, it was designed in the same style as the Piazza San Marco in Venice, but it is also decorated with coat of arms and scenes from Greek mythology. It was built to immortalize an impressive construction which the Venetians made to bring drinking water to from Youktas, a mountain 15km away.
Very near the “Lions’ square” is the reconstructed Venetian Loggia. During the Venetian times it was a nobility meeting place. Later, during the Ottoman times, it was used as a government building by the Turks. On the north side of the Loggia is the Sagrendo Fountain, built in 1602. The fountain has a defaced female figure which is assumed to represent the nymph Crete, who according to the Greek mythology was the mother of Pasiphae, the wife of Minos. The Venetian Loggia was badly damaged by heavy bombardments in World War II. It has been restored and is presently used as an exhibition hall.
The Venetian Bembo Fountain (1588) at Kornarou Square is a mixture of Venetian and Roman art, decorated with coats of arms and scenes. In front of the Bembo Fountain, contained in a fountain house which serves as a lovely cafe today, is a Turkish fountain. The modern statue at the side of the square immortalizes the Greek Romeo and Juliet “Erotokritos” and “Aretousa”, the hero and heroine of the poet Vincenzo Kornaro's Renaissance epic poem “Erotokritos”, a Cretan-Greek classic.
The massive cathedral of Aghios Minas , dedicated to the patron Saint of Heraklion, which was built in 1895, is one of the largest churches in Greece with a congregation capacity of 8000 people. The original Aghios Minas is just in front of the cathedral and houses some eighteenth century woodcarvings and icons.
The Byzantine in origin orthodox church of Agios Titos (1446), was rebuilt in the 16th century by the Venetians. The Venetians took the skull of Saint Titos with them when the city fell to Turks in 1669. The Turks converted the building into a mosque and rebuilt it after the 1856 earthquake. In 1925, the Greek Orthodox Church renovated and re-consecrated it. The church has contained the skull of Saint Titos since its return from Venice in 1966. At the large square in front of the church there is an outdoor restaurant and another one by its side.
Northeast of the cathedral is the 15th-century Church of St. Katherine (Aghia Ekaterini). Originally, Aghia Ekaterini served as an art school where Byzantine and Renaissance painting styles blended to form a style known as the Cretan School. During the 16th and 17th centuries, this church hosted the Mount Sinai Monastery School, an intellectual centre on the island, where Domenico Theotokopoulos is said to have studied before leaving for Venice and Spain where he became known as El Greco. Vincenzo Kornaro the poet of “Erotokritos”, is believed to have been another prominent student along with many learned Orthodox theologians. The church houses a small museum of frescoes, woodcarvings and icons, including some by Michail Damaskinos, the most important member of the Cretan school of painting and notable pupil of the art school. “The Adoration of the Magi”, “The Last Supper”, “The Virgin with the Burning Bush”, “Christ Appears to the Holy Women”, “ The Ecumenical Council held at Nicea, 325 A.D.” and “The Divine Liturgy” are works of Damaskinos’ art.
Sightseeing or rather worth-seeing is the word that can be used for certain places of Heraklion. One of the best known streets and very important to find your way around in Heraklion is the 25th of August street, which has now been a pedestrian street with many cafes, tourist shops, car rental and travel agencies.
Some other interesting streets are Dedalou, Kalokairinou, Dikastirion, 1821 and 1866 which is the colourful outdoor daily market of Heraklion with some very interesting tavernas.