Zambolis apartments

Zambolis apartments
For your holidays in Chania

Tuesday 13 June 2017


"Walls are hot right now" 
Banksy, wall artist, and creator of the newly opened Walled Out Hotel in Palestine

The Byzantine and Venetian fortifications of Chania - Click to enlarge

The oldest walls delineating the limits of the town of Hania were built about 1500 years ago by the Romans who ruled in the East - those who conquered modern-day Istanbul (formerly Constantinople and originally Byzantium) at one point - otherwise known as the Byzantines, hence the 'Byzantine wall' (the green line in the above photo) as we refer to them in Hania. These walls were loosely based on the origins of the town which lie in the area of Kastelli, generally regarded as the oldest part of Hania. The Byzantine walls were built to protect the town from Arab invasions, but they were probably not very effective because the Arabs eventually invaded anyway, and despite their short rule, when the Byzantines took back the town, they needed to strengthen them due to the destruction that they had incurred.

The fear of losing what you gained - even if it was gained using illicit, violent means - was great in older times. Building a wall around your belongings has always been regarded as a way to keep yourself and your property safe. Even so, the newer Byzantine walls again failed to protect the town from invaders. The Venetians (Romans from the West) had conquered the city by the beginning of the 13th century. Their arrival also entailed a greater population. Builders began adding extra stories on the existing buildings, and new ones began to be built beyond the Byzantine walls. Since the town had expanded, new walls were in order. These newer walls - known as the 'Venetian wall' (orange line in the above photo) - began to be built soon after the Venetians established themselves in Hania, as they too feared attacks from other invaders (Arabs, Ottomans).

But the Venetian walls - built mainly by forced labour from the region - took a long time to be built. The Venetians weren't really very popular in Hania. For a start, they got rid of the high priests in the town, and installed their own ones. Different language, different customs, and a clearly urban attitude among the mainly rural people of Hania kept the two worlds apart, to the extent that the Venetians (read: Catholic) were living in the urban part of the province, while the Cretans (read: Orthodox) lived in the villages. The town of Hania was being constructed according to Venetian architectural standards - but beyond the urban area, the province remained decidedly Greek.

The arrival of the Venetians transformed Hania into a very beautiful one with distinct Venetians features. Hania was regarded as a mini-Venice. The Venetians built impressive walls around the modern town they created, with ramparts built at vantage points, enough room for a deep moat around the walls, and a large fortress on the west side. But these walls were not without their problems, which were known to the Venetians. They needed constant repair which was too costly to be done at regular intervals. It was to be expected that they too would eventually fail to secure the town against attacks. Barely had the fortress on the west side (known as 'Firka') been built than the Ottomans (read: Moslems) invaded and and conquered the island. The proposed moat had never actually been used, despite its existence. So the Venetian walls really did not live up to their expectations.

The Ottomans really didn't care much about the walls. They had already realised that the walls weren't very useful in performing their original function, so they basically went into decline after that. The Ottomans took over the Venetian buildings without changing them very much, and added a few landmarks of their own, like mosques and turreted towers on the churches and monasteries. Churches became mosques, storage areas, even soap factories. Such is the fate of the spoils of war. But the Ottomans were considered 'nicer' conquerors than the Venetians, because they reinstated Orthodoxy in the town, doing away with Catholicism. The Ottomans simply took over a pretty much ready-to-use town. When Greek independence became an issue of concern to the West, the Ottomans - who stayed in Crete longer than any other Greek territory of the time - must have realised that their time was almost up. Crete became a nation state in 1898, eventually joining modern Greece in 1913. It's been Greek ever since then.

When the Ottomans finally left Hania, and the Greeks took over, no more walls were built. The old walls were allowed to remain, but parts of them were knocked down in order to make way for roads. Ease of access was regarded as more important than preservation of the existing architecture. By then, Hania had become an important centre of trade as the capital of the Crete. Before town planning restrictions came into force in 1960, parts of the Venetian walls were knocked down to make way for roads, and people were living in houses built on, in and around both the Byzantine and the Venetian walls. The walls were therefore still serving a purpose, but it was quite different to their original use.

It's interesting to consider the failures of the fortifications of the town of Hania in the present time, when walls continue to be built (or are at least int he planning stages), and people continue to cross hypothetical walls - country borders - in order to reach their desired destination. The European Union is a prime example of having broken down barriers between countries by doing away with borders. But just 25 years after the fall of communism and the Schengen convention, borders are being reinstated in the EU, and in quite a few cases, physical walls are going up, such as the one between Hungary and Serbia, to stop immigration coming in mainly from Greece and Italy. Natural borders like the sea are no deterrent. A physical wall in such cases is impossible.

Beyond Europe, Donald Trump intends to build a wall to stop people entering the US from the Mexican side, while Theresa May wants the UK to leave the EU to curb migration. Yet Turkish authorities continue to turn a blind eye to people departing from its shores as they make their way to Greek territory, while Greek authorities continue to turn a blind eye to the disappearing migrants that were initially registered here. Whether a wall - physical or hypothetical - is able to prevent the movement of people is pure conjecture - history tells us that walls do not stop people's movements. The Cretan waters surrounding the island are a great deterrent to the movement of people as they are very rough and they are considered too dangerous to cross on a rusty leaky dinghy. But only a month or so ago, 60 illegal migrants were found hiding in caves near the north coast of Hania (they were temporarily housed in the gymnasium where my children do their sports activities), and another 113 were found on the south coast of Crete; the determined will always find a way to execute their plan.

Image may contain: stripesWalls come up and walls fall down. Sometimes they come back up again. Since the late 1980s, the existing walls in Hania have been prominently restored, with work continuing in the present day. Some of the houses were removed from the walls, and a whole hotel was knocked down on the western side of the fortifications, so that the walls could be renovated, restored and displayed. These fortifications are being given a new lease of life for sentimental and historical reasons: for tourists to marvel at, and for future generations to learn the history of the town. As recently as last month, the wall on western rampart was damaged due to bad weather. This part of the wall is deemed a precious relic of our history and will be restored: in fact, it isn't the first time that it has fallen and been restored according to historical records.

Walls against 'invaders' continue to be built, restored and maintained. But they aren't really working.

Image may contain: one or more people and outdoor

Collage of Hania's walls by Vaggelis Diamantakis: Byzantine walls (961 -1204AD) red colour. Venetian walls (1204-1645) yellow colour. Hania was captured (sic) in 961AD by the Byzantines led by Nikiforos Fokas who took it from the Arabs and they rebuilt the city with fortifications on the Kastelli hill, turning Hania into a walled city. Of the Byzantine wall, what remains is the north section near the coast  and a small part on Sifaka St.  

My photos were taken on a recent trip to Iraklio, Crete's biggest city, showing another use for walls in modern times: as an outdoor art gallery. This post is based on discussions I had with a group of 60 students from MAICh, when I conducted a tour of the old town of Hania with them at the beginning of the year. See for more information about Hania's landmarks.