Traveling Classroom Foundation
Thursday June 8th 2023

One Town – Three Cultures

We decide to revisit the city of Rethymno, which is about 100 kilometers from where we live. Several years ago we investigated the Fortezza (pronounced “fortedza”) – a huge Venetian castle that looms over the city.  Now our goal is to explore palia poli, the historic “old town” built around the harbor.

It can be dangerous to drive the E75 Highway

This is not a pleasant journey. From Iraklio to Rethymno, highway E75 is ranked as the most dangerous road in all of Greece, and for good reason. Although it is a two-lane road in rural areas, many motorists drive on the paved shoulder — allowing speeders to pass. This effectively turns a nice two-lane road into a four- or five-lane free-for-all. Speeders habitually cross the double lines on blind curves, and oncoming cars do the same. It is scary.

Missed exit to Rethymno

We are relieved to reach our destination without incident, but we miss the exit sign and must continue to the west end of Rethymno for the next off-ramp. This takes us uphill, providing a terrific view of the huge fortezza with old town wrapped around the outer walls and the harbor.

The old town of Rethymno wraps around the Fortezza and its harbor

Rethymno has a rich and varied history from the late Stone Age through the Minoan period (when it was called Rithymna), and into Greek, Roman and Byzantine times. However, today we are exploring the impact of shifting cultures over the past several centuries.  Driving into the city, we pause at the Veli Pasha Mosque, which is thought to be built on top of the Venetian Church of Saint Onophrio. It is a good example of how a dominant group alters its surroundings to its fit its own cultural and religious customs.

The Veli Pasha Mosque was built over a Christian church

We twist through narrow streets until we reach Venizelou Boulevard on the waterfront, and then quickly find a parking lot beside the marina. Happy to be walking after a long car ride, we plunge directly into old town by turning down an alley that leads us to Arkadiou, a market street displaying a peculiar blend of modern, Venetian and Ottoman architecture. (see Old Town Map)

Arkadiou has mix of Venetian, Ottoman and modern architecture

The history of this cultural mix began long ago, and in the middle of it were the Cretan people. They were subjugated by different conquering armies for thousands of years. During the Roman period (69 BCE – 395 CE) Rethymno became a Roman province and sank into decay, which continued through the first Byzantine period (395 – 824 CE). The most notable cultural development during Roman and Byzantine times was the spread of Orthodox Christianity throughout the island. There are over 300 Byzantine churches in and around Rethymno.

Aghios Evtichios, a Byzantine era church, is just outside the city

The island was controlled by Moorish corsairs (pirates) for 137 years, until a Byzantine general, Nikephoros Phokas, destroyed them in 961 CE and restored Byzantine rule (see The Great Castle). However, the Byzantines neglected Crete for another 200 years, and finally sold the island to Venice at a bargain price.

When the Venetians were masters of the island (1204 – 1664) there was a cultural revival. A massive building program was started, art and literature flourished, and Rethymno prospered. The Venetians imported architects and builders who worked with Cretans to strengthen and reinvent the town. They built extensive fortifications (including the gigantic Fortezza) created a new harbor, and basically remade Rethymno into a defensible Venetian-style town with many opportunities for trade and profit.

Porta Guora is the last surviving fortified city gate built by the Venetians

Continuing along Arkadiou, we reach Paliaologou street and find the Loggia, the Venetian government center of Rethymno for 400 years. It is a smaller version of the one in Iraklio. When the Ottoman Turks conquered the island, it was converted into a mosque. After the Turks left, the minaret was demolished and the building was restored to its original design. Now the Greek Ministry of Culture uses it as a shop, where copies of ancient artifacts are sold.

Town leaders met at the Loggia to discuss administrative matters

From here we walk to the old harbor and out onto the 13th century Venetian mole that protected the harbor. This breakwater with its high, thick wall protected ships and boats from the ravages of the Cretan Sea and survived intact. It is in amazingly good condition after so many centuries. At the end is an imposing lighthouse. It looks as if it is part of the mole, but it was built by the Turks after the 17th century. Today there is a much larger breakwater outside the Venetian mole, and a new port for modern ships and ferries.

Turkish lighthouse blends perfectly with Venetian breakwater

Looking back to the shore, we can see many tavernas and cafes crowded along the quayside. The row of similar frontages blends in with the Venetian buildings and later Turkish additions to form a charming scene. We are also reminded that we are very thirsty, so we return to quay in search of a coffee frappe with a side of iced water.

The quay of the Venetian harbor is lined with old cafes and tavernas

After refreshments in the shade, we plunge back into old town history, stopping first at Rimondi Fountain in the center of old town. The Venetian governor (Rimondi) started work on this fountain in 1626.  It was an important project because Crete suffered severe water shortages during the Venetian Period. Cretans in rural areas solved this problem by collecting rain water in cisterns or by digging wells.  However, town folks got their drinking water from public fountains. The Rimondi Fountain still provides clean drinking water from lion head spouts.  After the city was captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1646, the fountain was walled in and domed over for a time – closing it off from local inhabitants.

Boy armed with a toy sword prepares to attack the lion head spout

This was the beginning of a dark age for Crete (and for Greece in general). All of Crete fell to the Ottoman Empire within the next few decades. The Cretan Renaissance ended abruptly, and many Cretans who worked with Venetians fled to other countries. Those who remained came under the strict (and often merciless) rule of Ottoman governors. For nearly 300 years the Turks worked to remake Rethymno and other sea ports into Turkish towns. Churches were replaced with mosques and minarets. The Turks also modified Venetian houses – most notably by adding sachnisia, or wooden balconies, to the buildings — making them seem more like home.  The distinctive mix of Venetian and Turkish architecture is seen everywhere in old town.

Turks added wooden "sachnisia" to Venetian buildings

We walk a short distance from the Rimondi Fountain to Mikrasiaton Square, where the great Nerantze Mosque (formerly the Church of Santa Maria) stands. When the church was converted into a mosque, three domes were added to the building although it retained its original elaborate entrance. At the same time, the Chapel of Corpus Christi to the west of the church was turned into a library and a madrassa or Islamic religious school. The minaret (now under repair) is the tallest one in town.

Neratze Mosque had the tallest minaret in town

Rethymno has more minarets than any other town in Crete. Wherever we look, we can usually see a minaret poking up above the houses in old town. It is a constant reminder that this was a Turkish town for a very long time.

Minarets can be seen everywhere in old town

The other – less obvious – signs are the smells and sounds of the town. Walking through the narrow alleys at midday, we can smell the wonderful odor of cooking foods – dishes that originated in Turkey and were adopted by Greeks. Also, some of the favorite traditional music of Crete and Greece has a Middle Eastern ring to it – a constant reminder of how cultures influence one another over the years.

Many traditional Greek foods are identical to Turkish foods

Although the Cretans revolted against Turkish rule, and won their freedom after a long and painful war, the influence of the foreign populations remains.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

If you think of how people from foreign lands or different backgrounds have influenced your own town, you may begin to appreciate how this phenomenon works in different cultures everywhere on the planet.

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One Comment for “One Town – Three Cultures”

  • Jimmie says:

    Rethymno’s grown in the past 25 years, Rethymno’s economy has flourished thanks to the tourism industry, the culture is also benefiting because of the university based in the town. Rethymno has an old aristocratic appeal, search out it’s Byzantine and Hellenic-Roman remains, or have a wander through,narrow streets and alleys, arched doorways and old staircases of stone, admire the 16th century buildings and the pretty Venetian harbor.

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