You may wish to read an introduction to the history of Venetian Crete first.
The almost uninterrupted range of high mountains which separates the northern part of Crete from the southern one caused different historical developments. The southern part of the island acquired importance during the Roman Empire when the city of Gortyn was the capital not only of the island, but also of Cyrenaica, the eastern region of today's Libya opposite Crete on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea.
Detail of a 1692 map by Vincenzo Maria Coronelli showing the south-western coast of Crete: 1) Castelfranco; 2) Sfacchia; 3) Castel Sfacchia; 4) Castel Selino; 5) Samaria Gorge
After the conquest of Libya by the Arabs in the VIIth century the importance of southern Crete was greatly reduced. Venetian ships on their way to the Levant called at the ports on the northern coast and this explains the limited number and the small size of the fortresses which were built along the southern one.
An ascent of a few minutes up the
rocky elevation at the foot of which the hamlet of Rhiza
is built, brings us to (..) see along the southern coast as far as the
projecting point of Mesara. Franko-kastello is
about twelve miles off: the white-washed church of the
Panaghia, just by the castle, is a very distinct object.
Robert Pashley - Travels in Crete - 1834
Castelfranco is situated on a small plain and very near a sandy beach; its location is not very suitable for a fortress because it does not have any natural protection and in addition it does not defend a harbour or a small town. As a matter of fact the Venetians built it in 1371 mainly to show their presence in this part of the island which, as Coronelli noted four centuries later in his map, was inhabited by Sfachioti popoli bellicosi (Sfakians, aggressive people).
The clans into which the Sfakians were divided often clashed amongst themselves or raided peaceful villages outside their region. The presence of a Venetian garrison had a policing purpose rather than that of responding to an external threat. The Venetians called the fortress S. Nichita, after a nearby village, but the Sfakians soon dubbed it Frangokastelo, Castle of the Franks, a term they used to indicate all Catholic foreigners. Over time the name was adopted also by the Venetians.
Decoration of the main gate which included an inscription; (inset) XVIIth century Venetian engraving
The fortress has a plain rectangular layout with a tower at each corner. The main gate was placed very near a tower higher than the others and it was decorated with St. Mark's Winged Lion, the symbol of the Republic of Venice.
Given its policing purpose Castelfranco was not upgraded to the needs of cannon warfare. The fortress was the site of fierce fighting between Greek rebels and Ottoman troops in the XIXth century; it was severely damaged and then reconstructed; however it is not very different from how it appeared in old engravings.
Views of Samaria Gorge and in the lower right corner the ruins of the Ottoman castle at Agia Rumeli, a village near its southern end. Samaria Gorge is an impressive 8 mile long canyon cutting through the mountains of Sfakia and one of the few natural passages between the northern and the southern coasts of Crete
The bold hanging mountains on each side of
the glen, and the noise of its river as it rolls along its
rocky bed, make me impatient to see, in broad daylight,
what I suppose must be the grandest and at the same
time the most picturesque spot in the island. A mile's
ride up the glen brings us to the village of Haghia
Rumeli. Notwithstanding the lateness of the hour, I
got very good lodgings in the cottage of one of the
villagers. (..) At half-past eight I left this sequestered village,
intending to explore the inner recesses of the glen as far
as Samaria. The path in some parts is so narrow,
where it winds round the abrupt precipices, that no horse
would be able to pass along it. At one spot it was
necessary to take off the saddle from the mule on which
I was mounted, during the greater part of the way, in
order to avoid the likelihood of precipitating the animal
into the river below. In the first half hour after leaving Haghia Rumeli,
I crossed the river five or six times, and then arrived at a very striking pass called "The Gates".
The width of this lofty chasm is about ten feet at the
ground, and widens to about thirty, or at the most forty
feet at the top. The length of way along which we have
to pass in the middle of the rapid stream, is about sixty
paces: and for a hundred paces further we are more
in the water than out of it, having to cross the torrent
several times. Pashley
Sfakia was for Crete what Mani was for the Peloponnese, i.e. a region where the Venetians and the Ottomans were unable to impose their rule because of its rugged landscape and they were unwilling to do so because they were not interested in it from an economic and military viewpoint.
After the Ottoman conquest of Crete in 1645-1669, many inhabitants of the island converted to Islam, but the Sfakians retained their allegiance to the Orthodox Church. When in 1821 the Greeks of the Peloponnese rose against the Ottomans, so did the Sfakians. For some time they were on the attack, but eventually they had to surrender because a large Egyptian expeditionary corps landed on the island to help the Ottomans.
Hora Sfakion (Town of Sfakia): ruins of the fortress
We came to anchor at the castle of Suatia or Sfachia:
The Greeks, with their priest at the head of them, met us on the shoar
when we landed, and asked us what was our pleasure; the captain told
them we wanted to take in water. I found I could not get mules in
order to go to Canea, which they told me was forty miles distant. (..) Under Sfachia there is a small natural port defended from the
south winds by some rocks that are not above water, where little ships
may enter and lie securely; the uninhabited castle is a Venetian building,
and over the entrance of it are the Venetian arms, and the arms of some
of the governors. (..) To the west of this there is only the Castellate of Silino. The people of this part of Candia are stout men
and drive a great coasting trade round the island in small boats, by carrying wood, corn, and other merchandizes.
Richard Pococke - A Description of the East and Some Other Countries - 1745.
Hora Sfakion was the main centre of the region and it was one of the few ports on the southern coast. The ruins of a Venetian fortress are still visible on the hill overlooking the harbour. Another Venetian fortress known as Castel Sfacchia was built to protect Porto Lutro (Loutro), a large natural harbour a few miles west of Hora Sfakion. Even today there is not a coastal road west of Hora Sfakion and small ferries link the town to Loutro, Agia Rumeli and Paleochora (Castel Selino).
(above) The fortress seen from the east; (below) view from the fortress towards Cape Krios (in Venetian maps Capo S. Giovanni) the south-western tip of Crete
Soon after sunrise I walked round what is called
Selino-kasteli: it consists of the remains of the old Venetian fort. It is about fifty paces square: the height
of its walls, where they are now standing, is about thirty
feet. There is a good engraving of the ancient fort and
bay in Dapper's work (it is shown in the image used as background for this page). Pashley
Old Venetian maps call the fortress S. Elleno, probably the name of a church dedicated to St. Helena. Castel Selino (today Paleochora - Old Town) was built on a key position at the western end of the southern coast of Crete. It was first built in 1279, but it was damaged during a rebellion of the Cretans in 1322. It was repaired afterwards, but in 1539 Hayr-ad-Din Barbarossa, an Ottoman admiral, captured and destroyed the castle. After the 1571 loss of Cyprus, the Venetians rebuilt Castel Selino, in the context of a general upgrading of the fortifications of Crete.
In 1644 the Maltese ships which had attacked an Ottoman convoy stopped at Castel Selino on their way home with the loot to take on board water. In the following year the Ottomans landed on Crete and in two years they conquered the whole island, exception made for Candia, the capital, and a few small fortresses including Castel Selino. In 1652 an Ottoman army marched across the mountains and conquered this remote fortress.
July 1795. We set out from Setia about five o'clock, and as we
had a full moon travelled all night, except for about
an hour and a half, and got to Girapetra about eight
the next morning. (..) A full moon is no
bad light to see a pretty country by, and it is
better to go even in the dark than by the sun, of
which really you have not an idea. There is a low
chain of hills, and on each side a high range of mountains, between Setia and Girapetra. This last is the
usual name in maps of a small town on the south-east part of the island. The Greeks have preserved
one of its ancient names, and call it Hiera Petra. (..)
The ancient town was nearly on the situation Girapetra now stands in. We found one of its temples, that
is, a foundation with some finely wrought ornaments
scattered near it, in a field. A large basin, now dry,
was the ancient port. (..) We saw the aqueduct and cisterns that
once supplied the town, and are now in ruins. Some
large columns thrown down, the foundations of a thick
wall round the port, broken pillars and bits of marble
up and down the town, voila tout.
The letters of John B.S. Morritt of Rokeby descriptive of journeys in Europe and Asia Minor in the years 1794-1796.
In antiquity Ierapetra (actually Hierapetra - Holy Rock) was an important port in the south-eastern part of Crete because of its position on the maritime route to Egypt. In the early Ist century BC it became a haven for pirates to the point that in 67 BC Pompey destroyed it (you may wish to see a section on other locations which were a pirates' nest). The location of the town however was so good that a few years later Ierapetra was rebuilt and embellished with temples and other buildings.
Fortress: side towards the sea
Ierapetra was destroyed by the Arabs, but again it was not entirely abandoned. The small fortress which protects the harbour is similar to that of Frangokastelo and according to some sources it was built in 1212 by Enrico Pescatore, a Genoese corsair who challenged the Venetian possession of the island. In the XVIIth century the Venetians made some changes to the fortress in order to place some cannon on its walls to prevent enemy ships from entering the harbour.
Fortress: mainland side
The City of Girapetra is to the South of the Island, having no secure Port, but an open Road, where Vessels in the Summer time may be with security from the Weather, but not from Privateers (corsair ships); for while I was there, they carryed away a Saike which came from Alexandria. The Town is wall'd round, and hath a small Castle which lyes higher then the Town. Here is continually a Garrison of 200 Janizaries, besides there are several Turks, who are Merchants, so that in all they can raise 500 fighting men. There is about it a very fine plain full of Olive trees and some pleasant Gardens.
Bernard Randolph, b. 1643. The present state of the islands in the archipelago.
In 1647 the Ottomans seized the fortress without much effort and made some changes to one of its walls which nowadays shows typical Ottoman crenellations. The fortress is locally known as kale, the Turkish word for castle, rather than as kastro, the Greek one.
(left) Mosque; (right) Napoleon's House
Most of the inhabitants of Ierapetra converted to Islam; in the XXth century the centre of the town was moved eastwards so Kato Mera, the old town, has retained its almost Turkish aspect.
In June 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte, after having conquered Malta, was on his way to Egypt. L'Orient, his flagship, was the most heavily armed ship in any navy at that time and she likely had appropriate accommodation for the commander of the expedition. Yet Napoleon, probably seasick, chose to sleep in a modest house when his fleet called at Ierapetra.
Introductory page on the Venetian fortresses in Crete
An Excursion to Moni Arkadi
La Canea (Xania) and Souda
An Excursion to Kritsa
Sittia and Paleocastro
Other Venetian fortresses in Greece:
|Geographic area||Location||Ionian Islands||Corfų (Kerkyra) Paxo (Paxi) Santa Maura (Lefkadas) Cefalonia (Kephallonia) Asso (Assos) Itaca (Ithaki) Zante (Zachintos) Cerigo (Kythera)||Greek Mainland||Butrinto (Butrint) Parga Preveza and Azio (Aktion) Vonizza (Vonitsa) Lepanto (Nafpaktos) Atene (Athens)||Peloponnese (Morea)||Castel di Morea (Rio), Castel di Rumelia (Antirio) and Patrasso (Patra) Castel Tornese (Hlemoutsi) and Glarenza Navarino (Pilo) and Calamata Modon (Methoni) Corone (Koroni) Braccio di Maina, Zarnata, Passavā and Chielefā Mistrā Corinto (Korinthos) Argo (Argos) Napoli di Romania (Nafplio) Malvasia (Monemvassia)||Aegean Islands||Negroponte (Chalki) Castelrosso (Karistos) Oreo Lemno (Limnos) Schiatto (Skiathos) Scopello (Skopelos) Alonisso Schiro (Skyros) Andro (Andros) Tino (Tinos) Micono (Mykonos) Siro (Syros) Egina (Aegina) Spezzia (Spetse) Paris (Paros) Antiparis (Andiparos) Nasso (Naxos) Serifo (Serifos) Sifno (Syphnos) Milo (Milos) Argentiera (Kimolos) Santorino (Thira) Folegandro (Folegandros) Stampalia (Astipalea)|
You may refresh your knowledge of the history of Venice in the Levant by reading an abstract from
the History of Venice by Thomas Salmon, published in 1754. The Italian text is accompanied by an English summary.