Byzantine Crete

Crete belonged to the Byzantine Empire in two periods: first from 395 (split of the Roman Empire) to the 820s (Arab conquest), and then from 961 (Byzantine reconquest) to 1204 (Venetian conquest). Many buildings survive in Crete from these periods, most notably churches. Remains of Byzantine fortresses and baths can also be found.

The oldest Cretan churches that can be identified today are Early Christian basilicas. These are all in a ruined state now. One can also see a big number of aisleless and two-aisled churches here, many built in the Byzantine period. More interesting are Byzantine churches with a dome. The oldest of these date from the 6th century and most were built in the 11th and 12th centuries. The spread of the cruciform plan with a dome can be credited to Saint John the Hermit (Agios Ioannis Xenos), an ascetic and a missionary who founded several monasteries and churches of this type in the western parts of the island in the early 11th century. Despite Crete being a province, many churches from these periods were designed following the contemporary architectural trends of the centres of the Byzantine Empire.

The interior walls of the churches were covered with frescoes. The best known examples of what can be called Byzantine frescoes are actually from the first centuries of the Venetian era.

Below I will introduce 14 buildings from the first and second Byzantine periods in Crete. My portfolio is in no way complete, but it includes some of the most famous examples. Notable structures that are missing include the Church of Agios Eftychios in Chromonastiri (Rethymno), the Monastery of Panagia Antifonitria in Myriokefala (Rethymno), and the Monastery of Panagia Gouverniotissa near Potamies (Heraklion). These churches were all built in the late 10th or early 11th century.

I took most photos in June and July 2021. Three photos are from September and November 2020.

You will find the locations of the mentioned sites on the map below:


1. Church of Archangelos Michail in Episkopi near Kolymvari

1 km north of Episkopi village, Platanias municipality, Chania regional unit
Second half of 6th century

This church, dedicated to the Archangel Michael, was built the second half of the 6th century. It is the best preserved Early Byzantine church in Crete. It is also called the Rotunda, after its central plan, which shows a circular domed core inscribed in a rectangle. The combination of a rectangular plan with a dome was a hot topic in Byzantine architecture before and during the reign of Justinian, culminating in famous Constantinopolitan churches, like the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus (527-536) and Hagia Sophia (532-537). The Church of Archangel Michael can, thus, be considered as an outstanding example of the innovative architecture of the 6th century in a Byzantine province.

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The most conspicuous element of the church is its dome, which shows, outside, five concentric rings that step up towards its apex.

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Internally, the dome is carried by thick piers with arches that are also placed as a circle. The central area defined by the piers was divided from the side compartments by chancel slabs.

The church has a semicircular sanctuary apse with a stepped cornice and a two-light window. It is flanked by the rectangular prothesis and diakonikon.

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Entrance took place through a barrel-vaulted narthex in the west, which was preceded by an atrium. The structure inclined uphill with a series of rectangular spaces that extended towards the north side.

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Many interesting objects can be found inside the church. On the floor of the central area are remains of a mosaic from the second half of the 6th century. In the the diakonikon there is also a floor mosaic, together with the remains of a cruciform baptismal font. Another baptismal font can be seen in the narthex. It may have originally been placed in the central area, indicating that the building was used as a baptistery. There is also a table built in a niche in the prothesis.

The walls of the church were painted with frescoes in five layers.

The oldest layer, from the 7th century, is represented with various frescoes here and there. It includes the donor fresco with Saint George in the diakonikon. This fresco has been compared to the mosaics in the Church of Saint Demetrius in Thessaloniki, which were created around the same time.

The second layer dates from the period of Iconoclasm (8th and 9th centuries). It is represented by frescoes in the prothesis and the adjacent space. These depict crosses standing on pedestals and with arms that end in teardrops (cf., the apse mosaic of Hagia Irene in Constantinople). Painted arches around crosses imitate marble revetments.

The third layer is from the late 12th century. The iconographic program includes the figures of saints in the lower zones, the scene of the Ascension on the bema vault, scenes from the Passion in the dome, and scenes from the lives of Jesus and Mary in the side compartments. These frescoes are considered to be fine examples of Komnenian art.

The fourth layer was painted in the late 13th century. It is made of frescoes that replaced those of the previous layer which had been damaged.

The fifth layer of frescoes was painted in the early 14th century by the workshop of Michail Veneris over the destroyed frescoes of the third layer.

The church was probably used as a cathedral in the second Byzantine period. The bishop lived here in the Ottoman era, as indicated by the dwelling in the western annex of the atrium.


2. Byzantine walls of Chania

Karaoli kai Dimitriou & Sifaka Streets, Chania
6th to 7th & 10th centuries

Chania has been inhabited since the Neolithic era. The city, known as Kydonia from the Minoan up until the first Byzantine period, developed on and around the Kastelli Hill, located immediately south and east of the city’s natural harbour. The first proof of defensive walls in this area is from the 3rd century BC. These walls were reinforced in the 6th and 7th centuries, but they failed to protect the city from the Arab conquest in the 820s. The fortifications were subsequently repaired and expanded by the Arabs and then again by the Byzantines, who had recaptured the city in 961. They became redundant in the last centuries of the Venetian period, when the city was endowed with a much larger and stronger belt of fortifications.

The old walls of Chania surrounded the entire Kastelli Hill and were protected by a moat with sea water, which transformed the hill to an artificial island. These fortifications only survive in fragments today. The most notable of them is probably the south wall, visible on Karaoli kai Dimitriou and Sifaka Streets, showing remains of a straight curtain wall with rectangular towers. Reused elements of much older buildings can be spotted here and there in the masonry.

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3. Church of Agios Titos in Gortyna

Archaeological site of Gortyna, Gortyna municipality, Heraklion regional unit
6th to 10th century

Gortyna was first inhabited in the Neolithic period. It was one of the most powerful cities in Crete in the Hellenistic and Roman eras, and its importance continued well into the Byzantine period, as shown by the remains of impressive buildings here from that time. It fell into decline following the Arab conquest of Crete in the 820s.

The best preserved Byzantine building in Gortyna is a church dedicated to Saint Titus, the first bishop of Crete. It is located near the ticket office of the archaeological site. Its eastern part stands in a relatively good condition, while the rest is in a ruined state.

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There is no clear agreement on when the church was built, what its original floor plan was, when it was dedicated to Saint Titus, and when it was destroyed.

The church is usually dated to some time between the 6th and the 10th centuries. It may have been built during the reign of Justinian or some decades later, then suffered damage in an earthquake, and then reconstructed in one of the following centuries. The ruins indicate that it was a domed basilica with a transept, but it is not clear whether it was originally built as such. It may have been constructed or reconstructed as the new cathedral of Gortyna, after the old cathedral was destroyed, most probably in an earthquake in the 7th century. The dedication to Saint Titus may then also be from this time. Some claim that the church was built in the last dedaces of the 10th century, after the Byzantine reconquest of Crete. Its final destruction may have taken place in a strong earthquake that took place some time later.

When one accesses the ruins from the west one sees the plan of a simple three-aisled basilica. Entrance took place through a narthex which was probably connected to the nave through a tribelon, as indicated by the position of two columns here. It is possible that there were galleries above the narthex and the aisles. Further to the east was a transept which ended in apses that protruded slightly from the north and south walls (a triconch church). The place where the nave and the transverse arm intersected was covered by a dome. These features show a transition from the basilica plan, typical of the Early Christian era, towards the cross-in-square plan, which became dominant in the Middle Byzantine period.

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On the eastern side of the church we see three apses: the large sanctuary apse with niches in the thickness of its northern and southern wall, and the apses of the pastophoria, which are walled in and only accessed through doors in the sanctuary and the transverse arm of the cross.

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4. Church of Agios Nikolaos in Ormos

Ormos neighbourhood, Agios Nikolaos
8th or early 9th century

This church is located some kilometres north of the centre of Agios Nikolaos, in the area known as Ormos. It overlooks the Katholiko Bay, which was used as the main harbor in the area for centuries, and is dedicated to Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors. The town of Agios Nikolaos later got its name from this church.

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It is an aisleless church with a dome. It was constructed in the 8th or early 9th century, in the period of Byzantine Iconoclasm, as shown by the traces of frescoes with geometric and vegetal patterns on its interior walls. These were covered with figurative frescoes after the 1303 earthquake, which devastated all Crete and must have caused some damage to this church as well. The new frescoes include the representations of Christ the Pantocrator, Saints Anne and Joachim, and the Ascension of Christ.