The sleepy suburb of Halepa in Chania is one Crete’s most precious historical locations, and for those wishing to explore the turbulent modern history of the island, and Greece itself, this neighbourhood offers many fascinating sites. Strolling its quiet streets and the nearby Tabakaria harbour area, a visitor is walking through time itself. And it is the echoes of the late 19th and early 20th century that are still to be heard here most clearly.
The period between 1870 and the 1900s was a time when the ‘great powers’ – Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and the Austro-Hungarian empire – exerted huge influence on Crete’s affairs, as part of their wider intervention in the affairs of the Ottoman Empire throughout the 19th century.
As the power of the Ottoman empire began to wane, the 1870s saw the Turkish agree to far-reaching reforms to their administration of Crete, which the Ottomans had controlled for more than 200 years. The reforms, set out in the 1878 Pact of Halepa – signed at the grand home of the Mitsotakis family (one of Greece’s most famous political dynasties) – ruled that Crete’s majority Christian population would play an increased role in the governance of the island. As a result, while remaining within the Ottoman empire, Crete gained a degree of autonomy. But in 1889 the terms of the pact were broken by the Ottomans. As hostilities between Christian and Muslim communities intensified, by 1896 the situation on the island had turned into a full-scale insurrection by Cretan Christians against Ottoman rule.
Against this backdrop, in spring 1897, as war between Greece and the Ottoman Empire broke out, the great powers sent a peacekeeping force to Crete which took responsibility for ensuring the safety of the Turkish garrisons on the island and to preventi both the Cretan Christian and Cretan Muslim communities from committing acts of aggression against the other.
Britain played the pre-eminent role in the great powers’ intervention in Crete, and the British consul Alfred Biliotti played a central part in the events, being a go-between between the powers, Crete’s Ottoman governors and the island’s Christian and Muslim community leaders.
As the diplomatic head of the most powerful of the great powers in Crete, Alfred Biliotti is most remembered for his actions in supporting the Muslim community of Kandanos as hostilities raged between Christians and Muslims.
“In March 1897, the British Consul in Crete, Sir Alfred Biliotti, was the only consul of the European powers to accompany the expedition sent to rescue Cretan Muslims and Ottoman troops besieged in Kandanos. On his arrival there, he negotiated the safe passage to Canea of some 523 men, 1047 women and children and 340 Ottoman soldiers.”
At his consulate residence, Biliotti and his wife regularly entertained Ottoman leaders and senior representatives of the Christian and Muslim community, as well as other foreign consuls. In April 1897, 2,500 soldiers from the great powers landed on Crete, charged with bringing an end to the hostilities between Christian and Muslim communities that had beset Crete throughout the 19th century. The international troop presence on the island lasted until 1908.
After the expulsion of Ottoman forces in November 1898, the autonomous Cretan State Kritiki Politeia – headed by Prince George of Greece as High Commissioner – was founded. In 1908, the Cretan government declared union with Greece, but this act was not recognised internationally until December 1912, when the Greek flag was raised at the Firkas fortress in Chania.
Halepa’s old villas where much of this chapter of Crete and Greece’s story was written and negotiated during this period still stand; silent witnesses to the remarkable events and many of the individuals that shaped that history.
The Mitsotakis villa, which in 1898 became the home of Prince George, is still there – an overgrown ruin on the street named Eleftherios Venizelou – after Greece’s most famous prime minister, known by many as ‘the father of modern Greece’. The street that bears his name, connecting Chania’s centre to Halepa is a treasure trove of historical properties.
Next door to the Mitsotakis villa is the former home of Venizelos. Today it is a remarkable museum telling the story of the Crete-born Greek prime minister and statesman, and even features the car that wears the bulletholes of an assasination attemtpt on him in 1933.
Home to the 19th century consulates of France, Italy, Russia, Germany, and the Austria-Hungary empire, Odos Eleftherios Venizelou also hosts what used to be the British consulate and is today the classically elegant Halepa Hotel.
For those wishing to stay a while to explore Halepa, the former home of Alfred Biliotti makes for an ideal base. Converted into a hotel in 1990, the sweeping exterior staircases ascending to the first floor of this fin de siecle diplomatic property, make it the most elegant facade of all the former foreign consulates in Halepa.
Today the hotel retains a classic ambience, with its reception and lounge furnishing paying homage to its 19th century heritage. Most imposing are the six high-ceilinged superior rooms and suites at the front of the original 19th century building.
Sir Alfred may no longer be in residence, but if walls could speak, what tales would be told here of the birth pains of modern Greece.
The Halepa Hotel
El. Venizelou 164