Konstantin Leontyev and Chania, Crete

Click on photos to enlarge.

Awhile back I wrote about Russian writer, critic and philosopher Konstantin Leontyev in regards to the neighborhood of Chalepa in the city of Chania, where he lived when he was a Russian diplomat on the island of Crete in 1864 (maybe or maybe not catching a few days or weeks at the tail end of 1863). As I pointed out, Leontyev was quite enamored of Chalepa and of Crete’s villages, to which he apparently traveled with frequency. He was less fond of Chania proper, which, in those days, was still closed entirely behind fortress walls that were locked shut each evening and did not open again until morning. Here is how Leontyev described it in an exotic love story titled “Chryso”: “Our city, you know, is cramped. The streets are narrow. The walls surrounding the city are fat. The gates of the fortress are locked up overnight and there is no way to escape unless you throw yourself into the sea. The city’s Christians were terrified. [Leontyev refers to a time when the Turks went on a rampage against the local Christians who could not escape the city.] As soon as night came not a soul was to be seen. It was as if cruel death were trailing after you! What do you do? Where do you run?
Today I select several photos of Chania (Leontyev, using the name of the time, called it Canea) that represent images which Leontyev probably saw more or less as they still are today. Before I begin I should allow Leontyev to make one of his most categorical statements about Chania (this, too, is drawn from “Chryso”): “I almost never go to Canea.” But the “almost” and the great detail that he provides of why he did not like the city makes it quite clear that he did in fact go there and remembered it well. As such, I feel safe suggesting that he would have seen much that I show here today.
I start above with four shots of what was, and still is, one of the main entrances and exits from the city in the far east of the Splantzia neighborhood nearby the Sabbionara Bastion, or Rampart (the rounded structure that juts out into the Cretan Sea). The gate located here, the only one that still exists in the city, was called Sabbionara Gate (the Italian meaning of which is the Gate of the Sand) or Koum-Kapi (the Turkish name meaning the same thing). Of course, there is no actual “gate” today, just a gaping hole that vehicles and pedestrians walk through. However, the post for the guards at the gate is preserved, as you see in the arched section of the wall in the topmost photo. That interior there is now used for art exhibits. If you look closely at the upper part of the wall of the bastion, you will see the Venetian emblem of the lion of St. Mark with wreath and insignia. It dates to 1591, when the structure of the bastion was built on an artificial peninsula jutting out into the sea. The “gate” and fortress walls that we see today were changed forever in 1645 when the Turks attacked the wall and destroyed much of it. Leontyev, when walking into Chania from his home in Chalepa, would have passed through this area many times and would have seen it very much as it looks here. Since the Turks still ruled Crete for most of the 19th century (they slowly wrested it from the Venetians between 1645 and 1669), Leontyev probably would have called this gate and area Koum-Kapi. (He probably didn’t see the gate in snow as the second photo depicts, as snow is quite rare in Chania. But since he arrived in December or January, he would have experienced the local winter, which is spectacular in its skies, winds, rain and rapidly changing weather.) If you wish to see an old photo of the gate and bastion as Leontyev presumably would have seen them, here is a good one.
Five of the six photos below show aspects of Chania (Canea) that Leontyev would readily recognize today. The first looks back at the central part of the city over the famed Venetian Port. It would have looked very similar to this, though perhaps less colorful. The Muslim mosque that you see at left center, and which is an exhibition hall these days, would have been a functioning place of worship in Leontyev’s time here.
The famed lighthouse which is arguably Chania’s central focus nowadays, began to appear in the last five years of the 16th century, constructed by the Venetians (who ruled Crete from 1206 to the middle of the 17th century). It was rebuilt by the Turks who completed renovations in 1839, making the tower resemble a minaret. It was reconstructed again in 2006, softening, but not removing entirely, the Turkish influence, and returning, to some degree, the original Venetian design.
Right across the port entrance from the lighthouse is the famed Firka fortress. It was built in 1629 and has virtually not changed since then. Aside from the slightly modernized lighthouse on the right, the only real anachronism in the photo of the fortress below is the Greek flag flying high above it. That first appeared here in 1913 when the Turkish flag was lowered for the last time.
Next in line is a photo of the church of St. Nicholas (Agios Nikolaos), located in the heart of the Splantzia district. Construction on it was begun in 1205 and completed in 1320. After the Turkish conquest began in 1645, the church was converted to a mosque, and we still see the minaret which was erected by the Turks to tower over the Orthodox Christian bell tower. I find it fascinating, and telling of the local world attitude, that the Greek Orthodox Church has never attempted to remove the minaret. It remains as a monument to history, as do many other minarets around the city. (See one of the photos in the last block below.) Leontyev could very easily have seen an image like my photo of the church against a full moon and winter sky.
The last two photos in the block below show two aspects of the wall that reaches from the far east of the old city out to the lighthouse. It serves as a breakwater that is especially important in stormy weather. The penultimate photo in the section below shows what was once the Bastion of St. Nicholas of Molos. As part of the active defenses of the city where soldiers could take cover and fire on the enemy, this was also a small chapel. I do not know if this would have been functioning during Leontyev’s tenure in the region, but he would have seen the structure itself more or less as we do now.

In his story “Sfakiot” (1877), Leontyev wrote, “You know, the walls of the Canea fortress are enormous, high, ancient, right by the sea. And the whole city (it’s not big, only 14,000 residents) lives inside the walls. And the sea is right there. Right beneath the walls at the sea there is a smooth place, sand.
The first photo below, of the north wall of the Sabbionara Bastion, could be one of the places that Leontyev had in mind when writing those phrases. For the record, in this same photo  one sees Leontyev’s neighborhood of Chalepa in the distance across the bay. With one exception, the other photos below are simply images that I feel quite certain Leontyev would have seen in Chania to one extent or another – the narrow streets, birds and bougainvillea, and the spectacle of nature showing off audaciously over the Cretan Sea.
The fourth photo below shows the Venetian dockyards, which, since the 16th century, have been among Chania’s most prominent structures. At their peak, in 1599, there were 17 dockyards where you now see seven. In all, there were 23 dockyards spread around the port of Chania. Leontyev, a lover of taking walks, despite his distaste for Canea, would surely have walked out on the spectacular breakwater and would have looked back, like I, to see the remaining docs, numerous sailboats, as well as one of the city’s minarets rising up over the rooftops.
Leontyev’s dislike for the cramped, dark quality of 19th-century Chania was preponderant, even if, on occasion, he allowed a grudging admiration to slip into his comments, as he does here in a general takedown of the city in his tale “Chryso”:
But Canea is Europe. The powers that be here are worldly – a Pasha who speaks French; here hang the consular flags of every nation, there is ‘la colonie européenne’ here; a handful of merchants of moderate wealth, doctors, European skippers, bureaucrats. Canea is our St. Petersburg, the ‘crayfish of Crete,’ as Rosenzweig [a character in the tale] put it.*
True, I don’ t know if it’s a crayfish or not and whether it will devour our national physiognomy, but I do at least know that the city is dirty and stuffy and locked up in a fortress, cramped and boring. But there is in it, if you like, a certain poetry. It reminds one of descriptions and pictures of the Middle Ages: narrow streets that until recently (under Veli-Pasha) fairly flowed red with blood… There are no carriages. Hordes of pedestrians and horse riders. All heavy objects are transported on mules and asses. Clothes are motley, conversations are loud, the shops are bad. As soon as the sun goes down the fortress gates are locked and they won’t let anyone in or out of the city except, of course, for consuls and consulate clerks, but even for them they open up the tiniest little wicket gate, through which even a man of modest size passes with the greatest of difficulty.”
* [Crete on a map looks something like a crayfish or lobster.]
Leontyev was a virtual unknown when he lived briefly on Crete. He had published only one novel, in 1861. A second was published in 1864, apparently when he lived in Chalepa/Chania. His writing took off and gained a readership in the 1870s and 1880s. Leontyev wrote in many genres on many different topics. He wrote journalism, essays, short stories, novels, philosophical treatises and literary criticism. I personally first discovered him as an astute critic of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky when I was inhaling Russian literature at Widener Library at Harvard in the 1980s. A meeting with famed Russian religious figure Amvrosy at Otyma Pustyn in the mid-1870s had a major impact on Leontyev’s world outlook. Throughout his adult years he grew increasingly conservative, coming to believe that “liberalism” was the greatest danger that the Russian empire had to face. He moved to Optyma Pustyn in 1887 and took monastic vows in August 1891, assuming the name Kliment. He died three months later.