National Geographic : 1943 Nov
Crete, W here Sea-Kings Reigned BY AGNES N. STILLWELL With Illustrations by Staff Photographer Maynard Owen Williams THE small Greek freighter Byzantion, on the deck of which my friend and I had passed two nights, tooted and churned her way into the harbor of Canea (Khania), westernmost of the chief ports of Crete. Immediately a swarm of rowboats came out to do the loading and unloading. These boats are often gaily decorated, and bear the names of girls, saints, or islands. Their rowers maneuver them with incredible skill, but not silently. Each man shouts a constant flow of advice, jokes, and imprecations. Historic Canea Now in Ruins Canea, the political capital, was a pretty town, with Venetian fortifications bordering the harbor and a Turkish minaret among the low, tile-roofed houses. It is now in ruins, systematically demolished by the German air force during the invasion of Crete. Behind the town rise the high mountains of a long range which runs east and west through the center of the 160-mile-long island. Out side Canea was the airfield of Maleme. A long promontory, Akroteri (cape), separates the harbor of Canea from Suda Bay to the east, one of the finest anchorages in the Mediterranean. The area immediately around Canea, Maleme, and Suda Bay was the critical point in the defence of Crete by the British, Aus tralians, and New Zealanders in May, 1941, although Rethymne and Candia, farther east, were also centers of resistance. The region saw 12 days of intensely bitter fighting before the overwhelming superiority of the German air force compelled the re maining British troops to retreat through the mountains to the southern port of Sphakia, and thence to Egypt. Later in the evening the Byzantion again loaded and unloaded at Rethymne, another attractive harbor ringed by Venetian walls. As at Canea, houses were of brightly painted stucco, and the slender minarets of old Turkish mosques rose above them. We were rowed ashore at four the next morning at Candia, or Herakleion, as the Greeks now call it. Here the student of history becomes keenly aware of the vast sweep of Greek history. The region was inhabited as early as the neolithic period. For about two thousand years it was the center of the Bronze Age civilization known as Minoan, which attained a high degree of culture and artistic achieve ment in the third millennium B. c. The position of Crete at the crossroads be tween Greece and Egypt and Greece and Asia led to its becoming a mighty sea power, whose rulers were called the Sea-Kings of Crete.* At Cnossus (Knossos), just outside Candia, the great Palace of Minos, chief Minoan ruler, has been uncovered. Following the Minoan era, Crete, like the rest of Greece, was over run by northern races, who brought with them the totally different culture characteristic of the early Iron Age. After an uneventful history during the classical period of Greece, Crete passed suc cessively to the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Venetians, and the Turks. The impress made by the Venetians is the most noticeable today. In Candia the harbor fortifications, city walls and gates, palace, and barracks are all of careful Venetian workman ship, some of them still emblazoned with the Lion of St. Mark. Guided at Cnossus by Sir Arthur Evans We wandered about the modern town and also made several visits to the vast ruins of the Minoan palace at Cnossus, where we occa sionally had the guidance of Sir Arthur Evans, its excavator. One day at the museum we met Nikolaos, a Cretan who had acted as fore man for Richard B. Seager, American excava tor of several ancient sites in eastern Crete. Nikolaos strongly urged us to stay at his house if we came to that part of the island, and we promised to do this after we had taken a trip to the southern coast to visit the Minoan palaces at Phaestus and Hagia Triada. To get to these we took a bus which went up over a high pass in the mountains and came down to the town of Moirais. Thence we walked through fields of grapevines to the village of Vori. On the way we overtook an old man dressed in the white Cretan costume, now rarely seen. He greeted us courteously and, after asking us in true Greek manner all sorts of questions about our names, nationality, and destination, told us that when he was a young man he had lived eighteen years in America. *See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, "Sea-Kings of Crete," by James Baikie, January, 1912, and "Cruising to Crete," by Marthe Oulie and Mariel Jean-Brunhes, February, 1929.