Settled since Neolithic times, Iraklio was conquered by the Saracens in AD 824 and reputedly evolved into the slave-trade capital of the eastern Mediterranean and the launching pad for the region’s notorious pirates. Byzantine troops ousted the Arabs after a long siege in 961 and the city became known as Handakas. This was changed to Candia in 1204 when Crete was sold to the Venetians.
Under the Venetians the city became a centre for the arts and home to painters such as Damaskinos and El Greco. The magnificent fortress and many of the great public buildings and lofty churches date to this period. The Candians fought tooth and nail to keep the Ottomans at bay, even extending the fortress walls. But the Turks overran Crete in 1645, and began besieging Candia in 1648.
Under the Turks the city became known as Megalo Kastro (Big Castle). Artistic life withered and many Cretans fled or were killed. In August 1898 a Turkish mob massacred hundreds of Cretans, 17 British soldiers and the British consul. Within weeks, a squadron of British ships steamed into Iraklio’s harbour and ended Turkish rule.
Iraklio got its current name in 1922. At the time Hania was the capital of independent Crete, but Iraklio’s central location soon saw it emerge as the island’s commercial centre. The city suffered badly in WWII, when bombs levelled much of the old Venetian and Turkish town. It resumed its position as Crete’s capital in 1971.