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Rowan Parkes

The Virgin’s Fort

The sea sparkled and the roads were hazy in the heat as I walked up the alley steps in Chora towards the castle. It towers over the town, a landmark atop the mountain on the opposite side of which it is said you can see three seas: the Ionian, the Aegean and the Cretan Pelagos.

The historian for whom I was looking, Mrs. Eleni Xarou, was in her office. I had become interested in learning more about this familiar monument when Mrs. Xarou gave a party of us from my school a guided tour around the ‘castro’. When I asked for some further information she gave me a small photocopy on which she hastily corrected a few ‘mistakes’! I had some particular questions for her and when she had answered these I gratefully took my leave and proceeded to the South Tower with my sketch book.

The first stages of the Castle were built around 1200 to 1300 during the period of the rule of Marco Venier, a Venetian, who received the island as a marriage settlement when he married Veriolas Eudaimonoyannis. This marriage produced four sons who jointly administered the island after their father’s death. The building continued in stages throughout the Venetian Period when the fort that we can see today was completed. It was built with stone and earth and the earth was carried up by the townspeople. Men, women and children struggled up the hill laden with the mud for the walls.

On the main castle wall, facing the town, was mounted the Venetian Lion, later knocked down by some headstrong French soldier in 1797, at which time the “Book of Aristocracy” and the “???????” were also destroyed. In front of the entrance is the Court House with its distinctive stone doorway above which is a small square where there once was a replica of the Venetian Lion. This is a two-storey, four-roomed apartment with dungeons in the cellar. To the right are the big wells or ancient water tanks stretching out below the ground and providing the castle with a very good plumbing system.

Walking further on up the path, to the right and left are two-storey houses once occupied by 200 people who left with the arrival of the Turks. Continuing on there is a long building divided into two sections. The first on the right is the gun powder hold and the second is the Pantokratoras Church. The large building with the central arched gateway entering the ‘Plateia’ now holds the archives where all the historic records of the island are located. Records of families – births, marriages and deaths, events, buildings and animals and animal husbandry. It was once the home of the Venetian Rulers and their families and later of the English Governors. In the open space in front of this building known as ‘the Plateia’ is a large Church built in 1600.

At first, under Venetian rule, it was the Catholic Church of the Virgin Mary which later became the Orthodox Church of the Myrtidiotissa. In the Church the Icon of the Virgin Myrtidiotissa was kept whenever pirates invaded the island. Various myths concerning the Virgin are painted in the bottom of her picture:- one depicts the lightning that hit the Gun Powder Room and left the contents untouched, another shows a boat full of precious metal that reached the harbour just in time to escape the pursuing pirates and yet another shows the cripple who was cured by the Virgin when laid in front of the Icon. Next to the big church is a smaller, family church, the Church of Saint Orfani of the Kallona family.

The canons that can be seen here are Venetian, Russian, Turkish and English, relics of successive occupying forces. Some still have canon balls in them waiting to be fired!

The ‘Eye of Crete’ as the castle was named was occupied by the following nations:-
Venetians 1300 – 1797
French 1797 – 1798
Russians and Turks 1798 - 1800
French 1808 –1809
English 1809 – 1864
Germans and Italians 1941 – 1944
The Castle (opposite the so-called ‘Tourkovouni’ - the ‘Turkish Mount’ on which part of the town is built) is open at all times to visitors.

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