We felt a real sense of achievement when we reached the quayside overlooking Chania harbour. Not only had we successfully negotiated our way through busy traffic and winding side streets from the city’s main bus station, we’d overcome uneven pavements, cobblestones, roadworks and tourist-clogged alleyways with a pushchair. Our reward: a panoramic vista of Chania harbour, its crystal clear waters glittering under a brilliant blue sky.
The houses on the waterfront swept around us in a broad arc. Above the white awnings of the restaurants, bars and souvenir shops, earthy coloured façades huddled side by side, enclosing neat arrangements of windows framed by Venetian shutters and wrought-iron balconies.
The effect was more Italianate than Greek; a reminder that, for nearly four centuries, Crete was part of the Venetian Republic, with Chania the capital of the island. For nearly four-hundred years, Chania’s harbour was a flourishing port filled with ships crisscrossing the Mediterranean. Close your eyes, and you might be able to imagine the present-day swarms of tourists to be the crews of sailors embarking and disembarking from their vessels, the overzealous, menu-wielding restaurant staff to be stevedores hawking for work, and the quayside itself to be crammed with goods that reflected Crete’s position as an important staging point between Europe and Asia: salt, grains, porcelain, pearl, spices, silks, brocades, slaves…
But such a scene could not distract my attention from a single building at the eastern end of the quay. Sitting incongruously amongst its Italianate neighbours was a mosque – or more correctly, a former mosque, the Küçük Hasan Pasha Mosque. I only found out its name later, because on the building itself there was little indication of its history, bar an Arabic inscription on the façade that I could not read. But a lack of information could not distract from the beautiful simplicity of the building. Its semi-spherical domes and unadorned stonework producing a structure that was understated, functional, exquisite.
The mosque was built by the Ottoman Turks, who had conquered Venetian Crete in 1646. Through the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, the Ottomans expanded their empire north and eastwards into Europe. Chania itself fell to the Ottomans in August 1645 after a two-month siege. The aftermath of the siege was bloody and violent. Most of the city’s churches were converted into mosques.
Constructed in 1649, the Küçük Hasan Pasha mosque was the first new mosque built in Crete during the island’s Ottoman history. Standing on a plot formerly occupied by a Christian site of worship, it was dedicated in name to Chania’s first Ottoman governor. Chania’s Muslim population used the Küçük Hasan Pasha Mosque as a place of worship for nearly three-hundred years, until 1923, when the mosque closed its doors after the final population exchanges between Turkey and Greece in 1922, in the wake of the Greco-Turkish War. The mosque’s minaret was destroyed in 1939.
Nearly one-hundred years after it ceased to be used as a place of worship, and after spells as a storehouse, folklore museum and tourist information office, the Küçük Hasan Pasha Mosque is, at the time of writing, being used as an exhibition space for local artists. Fortunately, the temporary exhibition display boards have not damaged or obscured the building interior. Inside, I found an internal space that was as delicately, tastefully executed as the exterior.
Ten minutes’ later, after I’d stepped out of the mosque and back into the intense heat of the early afternoon, I could not remember taking more than a cursory glance at any of the exhibited artworks on display inside the building. With no disrespect to the artists or their works (which may have been very good, had I taken the time to look at them) I could not help but feel that there was something amiss. A building this good, with so much history invested in its walls, deserves to be looked after more carefully and put to better use.
I also wondered how many of my fellow tourists took any notice of the mosque itself. Most of the people I encountered inside were looking at the artworks on display for sale, rather than the building they were standing in. Outside, there were no signs explaining the mosque’s date, or the circumstances of its construction and later closure. If the city of Chania needed a museum dedicated to its own modern history (and as far as I’m aware, there isn’t one), then what better place could be chosen to accommodate it.
Sources and further reading:
Alexandros Roniotis “Küçük Hasan Pasha Mosque” My Crete Guide [www.cretanbeaches.com, accessed 6 October 2017]