The Cretan villa

December 2 2014

The present writer received his first intimation of the mortality of the Western Civilization in an experience […] at the south-eastern corner of the Island of Crete, en route from Khandrà to Palaíkastro, on the 19th March, 1912. Rounding the southern shoulder of a mountain, he was startled at suddenly finding himself face to face with the ruins of a country house in the Baroque style of architecture. If the date of this experience had been A.D. 1952 instead of being A.D. 1912, probably he would not have felt the same shock; for by A.D. 1952 a deserted and dilapidated seventeenth-century country house was no longer an unimaginable object in the landscape of the writer’s native province of the Western World; but in A.D. 1912 every house of the kind in England would have been intact and have been inhabited – as likely as not, by descendants of the country squire who had had the house built for him some two or three hundred years back in the past. What was startling and disturbing for a Western observer in A.D. 1912 was to see a piece of architecture which, in his mental picture of his native country, was associated with the living world of his own generation standing here in Crete as starkly dead and deserted as the monuments of an Hellenic architecture at Gortyna and Praesus, and the monuments of a Minoan architecture at Cnossos and Phaestus, that he had been inspecting within the last few days in the course of his journey. This inevitable comparison awakened his imagination to the truth that, on this island, a civilization which was his own, and which on his own island was then still self-confidently alive, was already as dead as the civilizations that had come and gone in earlier generations of this species of society.

Gazing at what, at that date, was so portentous a spectacle for Western eyes, the English traveller realized that this house must have been built, on the eve of the Great Veneto-Ottoman War of Candia (gerebatur A.D. 1645-69), by some Venetian country gentleman or official, and that this seventeenth-century Venetian builder must have taken it just as much for granted as his English contemporaries, who were then building other houses in the same style on another island, that his new family mansion would continue to be occupied by his descendants for many generations to come. The Englishman then reflected that a Venetian rule in Crete that had been extinguished by Ottoman arms in A.D. 1669 had by that date been in existence for no less than 457 years – a span of time which, in A.D. 1912, was longer than that of the duration, up to date, of British rule in the oldest of the overseas possessions of the British Crown. The inference was inescapable. If the Venetian Empire had perished, the British Empire could not be immortal; and, if the Western Civilization, in which Great Britain as well as Venice lived and moved and had her being, had become extinct in a former Cretan province of its domain, there could be no province, on any shore of either the Mediterranean or the Atlantic, in which a Westerner would be justified in assuming that his civilization was invested with the incredible privilege of being exempt from the jurisdiction of Death the Leveller.

Except in his journalism, Toynbee isn’t an especially repetitive writer, but he tells the story of this disturbing epiphany several times.

Crete had passed from Byzantium to the Arabs in 824. The Arabs destroyed the old city of Gortyn and made a new capital, Khandak, known to the Venetians (as was the whole island) as Candia, to the Byzantines as Chandax, and now called Heraklion.

Byzantium reconquered Crete in 960 and held it until it passed to Venice in 1204-12, after the Fourth Crusade. The Turks conquered it in 1669.

In 1897 an insurrection in Crete led the Ottoman Empire to declare war on Greece. Great Britain, France, Italy and Russia intervened on the grounds that the Ottoman Empire could no longer maintain control. It was the prelude to the island’s annexation to the Kingdom of Greece, which occurred de facto in 1908 and de jure in 1913 at the end of the Second Balkan War.

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954 (footnote)

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