On the northwestern coast of Crete sits a town with a history that began before the Greeks arrived three thousand years ago. Around the tiny medieval harbor today there are restaurants and remnants of the time of the Ottoman Turks. The Ottoman special forces, the Janissaries, had a dedicated mosque at the harbor’s edge. Today the town is peaceful and ready for avid photographers. There is little to remind shoppers of a time 74 years ago when Chania was in the eye of the storm during World War II. There are still a few veterans who remember the Battle of Crete of 1941, which raged in Chania, engulfing the entire population.
Chania developed as a center of world trade in ancient times. Its strategic position in the Mediterranean Sea on the trade routes between the Holy Land, Turkey, Greece and Italy made it a coveted base for chieftains, kings, sultans, and generals over the literal march of military history. Chania is no stranger to war.
Early Christians occupied Chania until Arabs forced them into the mountains of Crete in 824 CE. The Byzantines fought the Arabs to reclaim the city in 961. The Fourth Crusade, in which the Venetians and French burned Constantinople and brought its treasures to Venice, was also ruinous for Chania. Chania came under the control of Venice, as a Byzantine, Venetian, and Greek city. With the Ottoman conquest of the Near East many Christian refuges left Turkey for Crete.
The Ottoman Turks desired to control Crete and laid siege to Chania several times, finally overtaking the city in 1645. For 250 years there was tension and often fighting in the city between Christians and Muslims. Although minarets have been removed from churches, the old harbor enjoyed by tourists today looks as it did during the Ottoman period. In the dark period of population exchange of 1922, the entire Turkish-Muslim population of Crete was moved to Turkey. The Battle for Crete, begun in Chania in 1941, lingered in resistance actions until 1945. The local population was unrelenting in their desire to be free of the German occupation. The population suffered greatly in retribution for their efforts.
British troops were stationed on Crete, around Chania, in 1941 when German paratroopers landed. The Battle of Crete would become a ten-day scene of intense carnage. At first, the British held the day by using their well-entrenched artillery units to decimate the Germans as they filled the sky. Then the British ran short of ammunition. The sheer number of Germans eventually overtook the British troops and the casualties became massive among the British.
When the Germans held the Chania airport on May 20, 1941, the British troops fled south into the mountains. Among them was George II of Greece, who was forced into Crete by the German occupation of mainland Greece. Locals aided in the evacuation of British troops and Greek royals to Egypt. All the while, the Germans pelted Chania with bombs.
When the military barrage stopped, the local resistance persisted in their efforts to harass the Germans. A substantial number of the population of Chania was either imprisoned or executed. The entire Jewish population was transported to Europe and was not seen again.
After the war, recovery was slow in coming to Chania. It took 30 years for the city to rebuild and find a new life as a tourist destination, renown for its beautiful setting and delightful climate. By 1990 Chania was able to engage in building infrastructure and domestic projects that enabled it to reclaim a period of prosperity not seen for 70 years. Today there are several ports that can accommodate cruise ships and a modern airport.
Walking the streets of the old harbor in Chania today there are groups of tourists speaking many languages. While the war is not forgotten, and the harbor bookstore has an entire section devoted to the Battle for Crete, all people are welcomed in the many cafes and bars of the historic city. One has the sense that while the futility of war is not forgotten, the devastation of war is to be overcome. It has been that way in Chania for 3,000 years. That is something to reflect upon while enjoying a cool drink on a comfy sofa facing the tiny harbor where the built vestiges of history are there to be enjoyed.