05 July 2012

The Fortezza of Rethymnon ... a walk through the stones of history

The Venetian Fortezza ... with views across the old town of Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

I made my way through the back streets and narrow alleyways behind the old Venetian harbour of Rethymnon in the late morning sun [Thursday 5 July 2012], passing the tables of tavernas and caf├ęs, and walking up along the refurbished seafront road by the European Centre of the University of Cretem to visit the Venetian Fortezza that dominates the skyline of the old town.

From almost every corner of the old town, the giant Fortezza can be seen and from its walls and bastions it offers panoramic views across Rethymnon and out along the coast to the west.

According to one theory, the hill the Fortezza is built on was once an island joined to Crete by a narrow isthmus. Over the centuries, the channel silted up and the hill became part of the mainland.

The hill of Paleokastro (“Old Castle”) may have been the site of the acropolis of ancient Rithymna, with a temple of Apollo and a sanctuary to Artemis. But no archaeological evidence has been found to support this theory. In the 3rd century AD, there is a reference to a Roman temple of Artemis Roccaea on the hill. At that time, Rethymnon was an independent city with its own coins, but within the Roman Empire it was not particularly powerful.

Views out to the blue waters of the Mediterranean from the walls of the Fortezza (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

During the Second Byzantine period, from the 10th to the 13th centuries, a small walled settlement grew up east of the hill of Paleokastro – the Castrum Rethemi, Castel Vecchio or Antico Castello (“Old Castle”) as the Venetians would call it.

In the early 13th century, a Genoese pirate Enrico Pescatore, who was an enemy of the Venetians and claimed Crete for himself, repaired the Byzantine fortifications around the small town near the harbour. When the Venetians finally took the island in the 13th century, the Castrum Rethemi was preserved but nothing remains today of the fortifications with their square towers and gates.

The Venetians planned to use Rethymnon as a shelter between Iraklion and Chania and built a small harbour that accelerated the development of Rethymnon as a city, needing new fortifications.

The Fortezza was not strong enough to resist the Turkish assaults in the 17th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The looming Turkish threat from the 16th century on, and the development of artillery and gunpowder, forced Venice to strengthen the Fortezza and the Veronese architect Michele Sanmicheli was commissioned to design new walls, built between 1540 and 1570.

The walls of Rethymnon were only token defences, however, and were not strong enough to withstand an attack by the corsair Ulu Ali Reis, the Pasha of Algiers, who attacked Rethymnon with 40 galleys in 1571 and razed the city to the ground.

The Venetian and Cretan people of Rethymnon agreed to build a new fortress on the hill of Paleokastro and the Fortezza would become one of the largest Venetian fortifications built in Crete.

The Fortezza, designed by Sforza Pallavicini, was built according to the bastion fortification system, with bastions joined by straight sections of thick curtain wall, inclined outwards that made enemy missiles bounce off without damaging the fortress. The foundation stone was laid by the Venetian rettore or governor, Alvise Lando, in 1573, and the work was completed by 1580. As the Fortezza was being built, 107,142 Cretans were conscripted as forced labourers under the master builder Giannis Skordilis.

The city on the Fortezza was probably only inhabited by Venetians, without Greek Orthodox neighbours, for we know the Cathedral Church of San Niccol (Saint Nicholas) was reserved for the Venetians and their Roman Catholic liturgy and was never used by the Orthodox people of Rethymnon.

Rethymnon was captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1646. The layout of the Fortezza does not appear to have changed significantly during the Turkish occupation, but the Venetian cathedral of San Niccol became the Mosque of Sultan Ibrahim Han, and more houses were built for the Turkish garrison and administration.

A glimpse back before leaving the Fortezza (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

At the turn of the 20th century, when Crete was united with the modern Greek state, almost the whole of the interior of the Fortezza was still full of residential buildings. But immediately after World War II, the resident population abandoned the Fortezza and moved down to the streets of Rethymnon below. In the demolition of all the ruined houses, most remaining traces of the Turkish era were razed, including the local prison.

Today the outer fortifications of the Fortezza are preserved intact and some buildings are still being restored, including the main mosque, three churches, the governor’s and the councillors’ residences, and the vaulted stores, giving some impression of Venetian life in the Fortezza.

The Venetian harbour and lighthouse in the old town of Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

From the bastions, we enjoyed views across the city below us and out to the blue waters of the Mediterranean. After visiting the museum shop, we climbed back down into the town, and had lunch at the Seven Brothers’ Taverna in the old Venetian harbour beneath the Fortezza.

Later in the afternoon, the Fortezza was sill dominating the view as we swam at the old town beach, and we were conscious of the presence of this massive hulk as we wandered through the town again in the evening before dinner at Avli, on the corner of Xanthoudidou Street and Radamanthios Street, close to the Rimondi Fountain.

The town beach beside the Venetian harbour and beneath the Fortezza of Rethynon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

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