Piecing together the history of Sfakia is not an easy task. Even the name is confusing. Sfakia is the area, Hora Sfakion is the town. However, most tourists, myself included, call the town Sfakia.
Behind a grove of pine trees is an old ruined fortification part Venetian, part Turkish, and part craggy rock.
There is no clear reference to the area in written history before the 16th century. The first official recording of the fortifications was made June 21, 1526.
The people of Sfakia have always been fiercely independent. The Venetians who were busy for hundreds of years building fortifications along the Cretan coast found its most challenging opponents in Sfakia. Of the 11 castles they built along the coast, Sfakia is the least ancient. Surely the site was used as a fortification long before the Venetians arrived, but no one really knows what history lies beneath the stones they laid.
As a result of the war between Venice and the Ottoman Empire Crete fell under the rule of the Turks in 1669. This lasted until 1897 when the Ottoman Empire fell apart.
As the Ottomans moved out, the British occupied Crete. Their stated objective was to keep the peace between Muslims and Christians, and indeed their presence might have prevented a civil war.
Crete did not become part of Greece until 1913. The photo above was taken in 1914.
Sfakia is famous as one of the centers of the resistance against the occupying forces of both the Venetians and the Turks. The impenetrable White Mountains to the north combined with the rocky beaches on the south helped the locals fight off all invaders. It is interesting to note that neither the Venetians, nor the Turks nor the British ever fully controlled Sfakia. In fact, Sfakia thrived under all three rules.
I am writing this as Hora Sfakion quietly celebrates Ohi Day. On October 28, 1940 the Italian government presented an ultimatum to the Greeks, demanding that Axis forces be allowed to enter and occupy Greece. According to legend, the reply was a simple Ohi - No! Greeks aren't easily intimidated and Sfakians don't give up easily.
After the Battle of Crete during World War II, Sfakians helped thousands of New Zealand and Australian soldiers evacuate the island. In spite of great reprisals, the Sfakians continued in their rebellion against the Germans during the four years of their occupation.
A monument at the new harbor honors the great effort to evacuate the Allied forces when defeat was inevitable.
Another monument below the old castle honors the 26 men from Hora Sfakia and neighboring villages who were executed by the Nazis for aiding Allied troops.
Sfakians are still considered somewhat beyond the reach of the lawmakers and tax collectors of Athens with vendettas over stolen sheep and women's honor still fought late into the 20th century.
Stealing and banditry had been considered a way of life in the mountains, even appearing in a Creation myth, which made God Himself a Sfakiot, as recounted by Adam Hopkins:
- ...with an account of all the gifts God had given to other parts of Crete - olives to Ierapetra, Ayios Vasilios and Selinou; wine to Malevisi and Kissamou; cherries to Mylapotamos and Amari. But when God got to Sfakia only rocks were left. So the Sfakiots appeared before Him armed to the teeth. "And us Lord, how are we going to live on these rocks?" and the Almighty, looking at them with sympathy, replied in their own dialect (naturally): "Haven't you got a scrap of brains in your head? Don't you see that the lowlanders are cultivating all these riches for you?"
In spite of their warlike nature, Sfakians are also famous for their hospitality and generosity towards guests. During and after WWII, the town was never completely abandoned, but the population moved away from the coast into the hills. Gradually, the town fell into ruin. With the improvement and paving of the road from Chania to Hora Sfakia in the 1980's, more and more tourists discovered the town. Residents returned to the coast, restored many of the buildings and put up new construction. It was an easy transition for many Sfakians to turn from traditional labor to tourism.
We have certainly enjoyed our share of Sfakian hospitality!
The photos below are of the old fortifications as the look today.
The old fortification contained a cistern. I'm not sure how just how this played out, but under this slab of concrete is a water storage system. An excellent example of repurposing.