Chania is built on the site of Kydonia, an ancient city that according to legend was founded in prehistoric times by Kydonas, a son of Hermes or Apollo. Homer described the town as ‘important’ in Crete.
The settlement was located on the hill of Kastelli: the finds indicate human activity going back to the Neolithic period. The later Minoan period (1400-1100 BC) seems to have been a period of prosperity. As was the classical period, according to the ancient authors’ comments.
Roman occupation in 69 BC marked the beginning of a time of peace and a significant floruit: they built luxurious private and public structures, including a theatre. (This last was destroyed by the Venetians for building the fortification walls of the castle.) The Romans were the first to erect walls around the acropolis hill of Kastelli. From this period numerous valuable sculptures have survived.
This prosperity went on to the end of late Roman antiquity and then on into the First Byzantine period: it was halted by the ‘dark’ period of the Arab incursion (824/828-961 AD), from which little historical data exists. With the liberation of Crete by Nicephorus Phocas and the start of the Second Byzantine period, it became imperative that the city was fortified so as to be able to defend itself against attack: a fort was built on Kastelli hill on the ruins of the earlier circuit wall. It is most likely about now that the city got its name of Chania.
After the dissolution of the Byzantine Empire by the Latins, Crete was sold to the Venetians. Their enemies, the Genoese, managed however to snatch the island, and looted the city. In 1252, Venetian colonists settled in Chania, repaired the castle on Kastelli and rebuilt the city to their own designs – so creating the modern street plan. The ‘new’ city acquired beautiful buildings, houses and the Rector’s palace. It became, as today, the second largest and important of the Kingdom of Candia – and was the seat for both the Latin Archbishop and the Rector.
Gradually, the city began to expand outside the fortified zone of Kastelli: new defences were required. The project was under way by the mid 16th century, under the Veronese engineer Michele Sanmichielli. The walls, the moat and other works and buildings of this time follow the norms of the Venetian manner.
In 1645, the siege of the town by the Turks began: it lasted a mere 57 days. On the conquest, the Catholic churches were turned into mosques, public baths were installed (today three survive), fountains, barracks and hospitals. Chania was home to the Turkish Pasha.
The Revolution of 1821 caused great massacres amongst the Christian population of the town at the hands of the Muslims. Then came the period of Egyptian suzerainty (1831-1841), when Crete was handed over to the Viceroy of Egypt, Mohammed Ali. At this time the quay and the famous lighthouse were rebuilt. During the final stage of the Ottoman rule (1841-1898), the status of capital was transferred to Chania – accordingly the city prospered and grew.
In December 1898, Prince George of Greece disembarked at Souda – as High Commissioner of the newly independent Cretan State. Now began a boom period for the town when Chania is an important administrative, commercial, cultural and manufacturing centre.
By the start of the early 20th century, the city has a population of 21,000. The constricting embrace of the fortification walls leads to the establishment of new-built areas outside them. From this stemmed the need to demolish the fort and make openings in the old walls. At the same time many public works (roads, schools etc) were undertaken, amongst them being the Municipal Market building.
With the raising of the Greek flag over the Firka fort on 1st December 1913, the official union of Crete and Greece was indicated. In the following years the city is modernized. Changes occur to its scenic character. More damage is suffered in WW II bombardments.
In 1964 the Old Town is listed as a historic and protected monument: many efforts are made to preserve its historic character, for the most part successfully.