Long ago there was a vast and wealthy kingdom in the southern Mediterranean. The rulers of the Minoan civilization ruled the island of Crete, laying the foundations of their empire in the form of palaces and citadels. Most notable is the Palace of Knossos, located a few kilometers south of the modern city of Heraklion. It is believed that parts of the palace were built as early as 1900 BC. The oldest buildings were either razed by the earthquakes that often rocked the region, or renovated and built to expand the palace. The remaining structures and footprint were properly excavated in the early 20and century, revealing the extent of the palace and its park. Excavations and studies at Knossos have revealed intricate details of monumental events that shaped ancient Greece. The volcanic eruption that covered the island of Santorini in 1600 BC. AD fueled a tsunami to the south that hit the coast of Crete. Luckily for us in modern times, much of the palace has survived the environmental and anthropological chaos that took place over those centuries.
Today we admire the contours of the great structure that shows the artistic and technical spirit of the inhabitants of ancient Heraklion. Centered around a large courtyard, the palace has long corridors that wrap around it in every direction. Archaeologists have discovered that many rooms lining these corridors served as storage for weapons. Other rooms include the great throne room with the alabaster stone seats still intact. This ancient throne is the oldest such monument in Europe, built around the 15and century BC. The throne room was important for ceremonial practices and was intricately decorated with frescoes on every wall. These vibrant red and gold paintings can still be seen today, depicting the mythological and cherished creatures of Crete, such as the griffin. This room may have been used for political purposes, although archaeological finds such as frescoes and the ceremonial basin on the floor suggest that it was also used for religious purposes. Priceless pottery artefacts were found in adjoining rooms and now adorn the display cases of the Heraklion Archaeological Museum.
The architectural details of Knossos Palace appear modern in its designs, which included strategic windows and hallways to let in sunlight and comfortable bedrooms and bathrooms. The influence of the palace and the ancient colony of Heraklion was great. The rulers who lived there made their coins accepted throughout the island, and the artwork and pottery of the Aegean region followed their artistic designs. What remains of the Minoans and their palaces is preserved and open for visitor exploration. These ancient people were brilliant in their creations but remain mysterious to us because their Linear A script has yet to be deciphered.
Heraklion’s mythological and archaeological history is immortalized in the legends and landscape that have shaped the city. Over the centuries, it has become a large city with a very active seaport. Today, the port is the busiest on the island, with ships making regular trips to and from Athens’ Piraeus port and the surrounding islands. This port was a lifeline for the Minoan people and continues to connect the island of Crete to the rest of the Mediterranean.
The city of Heraklion is the largest in Crete with a population of around 150,000 people who call it home. During the summer months, the city is filled with tourists who arrive either by plane to Kazantzakis airport in Heraklion or by sea to the port. It is easy to get to the city center or to the historic old Venetian port and quays. Just like Chania, Heraklion has a singular long narrow quay that flows into the sea and acts as a sort of wall protecting the harbor with a large lighthouse at the very end. Along this coastline there is a stone Venetian fortress and a cozy little harbor which contrasts sharply with the nearby industrial and port areas.
From the waterfront it is a short walk to town where there are restaurants, shops and accommodations. Cultural institutions like the Archaeological Museum and the Historical Museum of Crete mark the borders of the city center. Near the old Venetian port is Theotokópoulos Park and a town square full of ornamental buildings and shops. The wide paved driveway leads to the ancient Fountain of the Lions commissioned by a foreign governor in the 17and century of our era. Along the town square promenade are the Church of Agios Titos and the Municipal Art Gallery, both displaying the same detailed and historic architecture.
Further on, another border marks another section of Heraklion. The ruins of the walls of a Venetian fortress with adjoining buildings and courtyards mark the historic limits of Heraklion. The walls are relatively straight and meet at points at different ends of the city. Today, Heraklion extends well beyond these walls which have been swallowed up by the city. Residential and commercial developments have now spread from the sea to the palace of Knossos at the foot of the mountains.
Unlike other cities in Crete, Heraklion is industrialized, with major universities, venues for sporting and cultural events, and seaside developments for business and pleasure. Heraklion was the birthplace of one of Greece’s greatest writers Nikos Kazantzakis, named after the city’s airport. Kazantzakis literature is revered in Greece as well as the world with his works available in different languages that communicate the depth and passion of his words. When he was born in 1883, Crete had not joined the new Free Greek State which had been officially formed fifty years before. Perhaps the injustices he saw on his island under the rule of the Ottomans are what inspired his studies in law and philosophy. Along with El Greco – Domenikos Theotokopoulos – Kazantzakis remains one of the two most famous and honored natives of Heraklion and Crete.
On the coast on either side of town are long sandy beaches with a few resorts and spas scattered around. The size of Crete and the diversity of its experiences attract a global market of travellers. Limenas Chersonisou is a popular nearby beach town located a twenty-minute drive east of the airport. Along the coastal villages leading into town, there are various beaches and entertainment options for families and vacationers of all ages. Cultural and natural sites continue along the coast to the east, where there are more Minoan-era ruins and even a historic seaside cave. To the west of Heraklion are the other large island towns, Rethymnon and Chania, similar in architecture and communities centered around their old ports.
Heraklion was once the center of an admired ancient kingdom that ruled a region and left its mark on the world. Visiting a city like Heraklion and all its sights is like traveling back in time and witnessing history.