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Crete’s capital Iraklio (ee-rah-klee-oh), also called Heraklion, is a bustling modern city and the fifth largest in Greece. Hectic, densely populated Iraklio lacks the architectural charm of Hania and Rethymno but is nonetheless a dynamic city. It has a lively city centre, chic boutiques, quality restaurants and buzzing cafés. Continuing redevelopment of the waterfront and new roads are helping to make the city more attractive. The port sees a constant procession of ferries, while charter jets bring thousands of visitors to Crete each year via Iraklio. Nearby the Minoan ruins of Knossos are the major drawcard, while further inland bucolic vistas of hillsides, full of olive trees and vines, predominate in what is Crete’s prime wine-producing region.
The Arabs who ruled Crete from AD 824 to AD 961 were the first to govern from the site of modern Iraklio. It was known then as El Khandak, after the moat that surrounded the town, and was reputedly the slave-trade capital of the eastern Mediterranean.
El Khandak became Khandakos after Byzantine troops finally dislodged the Arabs, and then Candia under the Venetians who ruled the island for more than 400 years. While the Turks quickly overran the Venetian defences at Hania and Rethymno, Candia’s fortifications withstood a 21-year siege before finally surrendering in 1669.
Hania became the capital of independent Crete at the end of Turkish rule in 1898, and Candia was renamed Iraklio. Because of its central location, Iraklio became a commercial centre, and resumed its position as the island’s administrative centre in 1971.
The city suffered badly in WWII, when most of the old Venetian and Turkish town was destroyed by bombing.
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