Mapping and documentation of the churches in Sitia region: an approach of the rural landscape of Crete during the Venetian period

Marianna Katifori, University of Crete

Keywords: Rural landscape; Survey; Cultural informatics; Crete; Venetian period

Sitia region at the eastern part of Crete, Greece, has been for centuries on the sidelines of history resulting its position on the sidelines of research. Since the “post-roman” and specially during the “post-byzantine” period the province of Sitia was far away from administrative centers, major cities, busy ports and communication networks. Therefore, very few scholars have focused their research on these periods in this area, usually having as results rather historical and less archaeological information and observations (Kolovos 2010, Chronaki 2010). Even in diachronic survey projects the sites and settlements of these cultural and chronological periods are just noticed and rarely studied (Gkiasta 2008, 216). Moreover, the distinct, long-lasting and with significant impact on the Cretan landscape and civilization, Venetian occupation period (1211-1669) constitutes a unique and relatively unexplored field of research in terms of topography.
The province of Sitia, an area of 760 or 10% of Crete, forming geographically an island within the island, is an excellent example for studying the topography of a rural area during the Venetian period. Based on the research so far, the most common structures of the period under consideration that can be recognized today in the Cretan countryside, are the numerous churches (Gerola 1908, 172-174, Gratziou 2010, 9). People have been conserving these churches for centuries, even if they have abandoned the surrounding settlements or cultivated parcels. Therefore, the churches are the most indicative -if not the only- witness of human settlement in the landscape.
This paper presents the methodology and the preliminary results of the recording, identification, mapping and documentation of the churches in Sitia region. The research was occurred within the framework of the ongoing project “Architecture and topography of churches in the Sitia region: Evidence of settlement patterns during the Venetian period” funded by the Research Committee of University of Crete. The ultimate goal of the project is to understand the development of the settlements and their in between spatial relations in the rural landscape of Sitia during the Venetian period, based on evidence that will be revealed by the study of the churches.

In this research, traditional and modern methods and tools of Landscape Archaeology, such as study of written sources, retrieval of published material, fieldwork, use of cultural informatics and geographical information systems (GIS), have been combined.
Analyzing the attributes of the archeological entities under consideration as well as listing the questions of the research, a conceptual model was designed following the standards of cultural documentation. The result was the construction of a poly-parametric relational database for indexing the project’s data. The historical and archeological available data which concern Sitia area during Venetian times -selected primary archival sources included- was retrieved and registered in the database.
Beyond the libraries, the discovery and identification of the churches mentioned in written sources was conducted through a targeted survey, site’s autopsy and cross-reference with the locals’ testimony. On the spot, local people ‘s knowledge of relative ruins and details of the surrounding landscape was recorded along with the documentation of material remains, geographical features and topographical correlations. All data collected was incorporated in the information system.
The location of the churches was recorded through global positioning system (GPS) or digitation and displayed on a digital elevation model (DEM) produced by satellite images, using the Geographical information system (GIS) technology. Residential settlements and other layers will be also digitized, and GIS will be used for further spatial analyses, such as site location modelling and site catchment analyses.

Findings and Argument
The main result of the project will be the digital corpus of all the churches of Sitia consisted of multi-layered forms for each church. The information included will be the geographically unique identity of each church, entries regarding the name, type, size, function, decoration, environment and the relative events such as construction, reconstruction, abandonment and collapse of the building. Moreover, plans and photographs will be incorporated, as well as references derived from written sources, modern oral testimonies and bibliography.
The corpus of the churches will allow a first quick and then a deep look into a series of issues and questions regarding their morphology and structure, their decorative elements and their dating. Studying the architecture of the churches as well as other elements of their construction and decoration, we will try to date these -rather simple- buildings. Α chronological classification of the construction phases or phases of interventions in the early or late years of the Venetian occupation, will be attempted. Τhis information could be used in the future study of the developments of the surrounding residential environment.
Using the coordinates of all churches identified as buildings in service or sites in use during the Venetian times, as well as all other digitized layers such as residential settlements, streams and springs, a thematic map of Sitia during the Venetian period will be produced.
For example, three churches were known from Venetian period at Dafni village area (Chronaki 2010, 153). During our survey four more were recorded, three of which are in ruins and we could date them as well in Venetian times. One of the findings, Agia Paraskevi, was identified based on its location, as the church “Agia Paraskevi at Vizas” mentioned in unpublished written sources, belonging in Venetian times to the nearby, abandoned medieval village of Vizas.

The mapping and documentation of the churches in Sitia produced methodological tools for collecting and synthesizing archeological knowledge. The conceptual model schema and the digital relational database used can be judged in terms of effectiveness in indexing and retrieving information consider the churches and their surroundings and thus enlighten the rural landscape of Crete during the Venetian period.
The targeted survey indicated that part of the medieval and premodern rural landscape and some of its changes are known to locals as heritage of their collective memory. Therefore, is concluded that archaeologists studying these periods in fieldwork, should take systematically under consideration the local’s testimony about their land and topography. At least Sitia’ s heart bit of Venetian times still bits out there.
Moreover, our study will add a multitude of churches to the corpus of the scientifically recognized monuments of the Venetian occupation period, reach the archaeological map of Venetian Crete to its eastern end and contribute to the research of the architecture that constitutes the most important material evidence for this period. Beyond art history, studying architecture as a means and not as an end will be proved to be a factor of expansion of current research of landscape archaeology, in the Venetian times.
Continuing our project, we will analyse the topography of the churches having as an objective to understand their spatial relation to other constructions, settlements and environmental features. We hope that the combination of the study of churches and their topographic physiognomy will contribute in reconstructing the historical topography of the province of Sitia during the Venetian occupation, illuminating aspects of the Venetian colonial countryside and filling one of the many gaps created between historical and archaeological data, between archival sources and material evidence.


  • Chronaki, Dafni. 2010. “Τα ορθόδοξα εκκλησιαστικά μνημεία του Διαμερίσματος της Σητείας μέσα από την απογραφή του 1637”. Πεπραγμένα Ι Διεθνούς Κρητολογικού Συνεδρίου (Χανιά 1-8 Οκτωβρίου 2006), τόμος Β1, Χανιά: Φιλολογικός Σύλλογος “Ο Χρυσόστομος”, 149-173.
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