Crete: Moni Arkadiou

Church of the complex of Moni Arkadiou.

On a plateau to the southeast of Rethymnon we find the Arkádi monastery, a complex that plays an important role in the history of Crete. According to tradition the monastery was founded in the fifth century by the Eastern Roman emperor Arcadius (383-408). It was supposedly named after him, but the tradition is rather doubtful. Nobody really knows how old the monastery is, but the current complex mainly dates from the sixteenth century. The church in the centre is dedicated to the Transfiguration of Christ – Μεταμόρφωση in Greek – and to the emperor Constantine the Great and his mother Helena. It was built between 1562 and 1587, at a time when Crete was under Venetian rule. The building clearly betrays Italian influences. Whereas the façade of the church is very elegant, the rear of the building is crude and unattractive. The church furthermore has two naves, the left one dedicated to the Transfiguration and the right one to Constantine and Helena. Taking pictures inside is prohibited.

Visitors approaching the monastery will quickly notice that the walled complex looks a lot like a fortress. A mausoleum opposite the monastery, which contains a cabinet with 69 mutilated skulls, gives a clue that in the past horrible events took place here. And that is the sad truth. To put the story in the right context, we have to go back into history a little further. In 1204 Crete was acquired by the Venetians, after the crusader Boniface of Montferrat sold the island to the doge Enrico Dandolo. Already in the early thirteen century Venetian families started to settle on the island. The native Cretans revolted against the Venetian rulers on numerous occasions. One reason for their discontent was the fact that the Venetians monopolised most or all public offices and gave preferential treatment to their own Roman Catholic faith, while the majority of the Cretan populace was Eastern Orthodox. Nevertheless, although they were vastly outnumbered, the Venetians managed to consolidate their rule.

Rear of the church.

Venetian Crete ultimately came to an end because of an external enemy: the Ottoman Empire. As early as 1570 the Turkish pirate Uluç Ali Reis – whose real name was Giovanni Dionigi Galeni – captured Rethymnon and destroyed the city. His attack was just a raid, not an attempt to conquer the island. It was not until 1645-1646 that the Turks launched a full-scale attack on Crete. Cities such as Rethymnon and Chania were quickly taken, but Candia (modern Heraklion), by far the most important city on the island, continued to resist to the very end. In 1648 the Turks began the siege of the city and it was not until 1669 that Candia finally surrendered. The Turks sent colonists to Crete and some Cretans converted to Islam, but the majority of the native population stayed loyal to Eastern Orthodoxy. The situation under Turkish rule was essentially not much different from that under the Venetians: Muslims were given preferential treatment, Eastern Orthodox Christians were second-rate citizens who were highly dependent on favours to be able to practice their religion. The Arkádi monastery had been pillaged during the conquest of Crete, but it was later restored and then flourished again under Ottoman rule.

And yet, there was always resentment against the Turkish oppressors, and just like in the Venetian era there were multiple rebellions. In 1770 a certain Ioannis Vlachos, also known as Daskalogiannis, led a rebellion in Hora Sfakion in the south of the island. The Russians, who were the archenemies of the Turks back then, promised support, but in the end did not show up. Daskalogiannis was beaten, captured and skinned alive. The Cretan Revolt of 1866-1869 was, from a purely tactical perspective, also a Cretan rebel defeat. It was, however, a moral victory as well. In this revolt the Arkádi monastery played a pivotal role. Gabriel Marinakis, the abbot of the complex (the hegoumenos), was one of the principal rebel leaders. While the Turks under Isma’il Pasha, the Ottoman governor of Egypt and the Sudan, were gathering their forces, armed Cretan revolutionaries entrenched themselves at the monastery. In November of 1866 there would be an extremely violent confrontation here.

Main gate and galleries of the complex.

Remains of the gunpowder magazine.

In the night of 7-8 November a Turkish army comprising some 15,000 soldiers and 30 canons arrived at the complex. Over 900 Cretans had found shelter there (some sources say 943, others 964). About a third of them were adult men, the rest were women and children. Not all men were armed, so in the end just 225-259 Cretans had to take on the full might of the Ottoman force. On 8 November 1866 the Turks began their assault. There was heavy fighting all day long, but the attackers failed to break into the complex. The next day they resumed their attack. The gate of the monastery was shot to pieces, the Turkish soldiers poured in through the gap and the Cretan defenders were in severe danger of being overrun. Many women and children were hiding in the gunpowder magazine. When the Turks were near, a certain Kostas Giamboudákis decided to let the gunpowder explode. The explosion did not just claim the lives of many Cretans, it also took many Turkish soldiers to the afterlife.

Ottoman losses were horrendous. Possibly up to one tenth of the Turkish soldiers had been killed or wounded; sources claim they suffered between 1,500 and 2,000 casualties. Most defenders had been killed, either during the fighting or because of the explosion in the gunpowder magazine. Among the dead was the abbot Gabriel. One can find his bust in the monastery and in some of the surrounding villages. Cretan prisoners were taken to Rethymnon, where they suffered ill treatment, although they were ultimately released. The Cretan Revolt formally lasted until 1869, but it had in effect already been crushed at the Arkádi monastery. However, the rebels did win a moral victory, as was already mentioned above. Support for the Cretan struggle for freedom surged among European and American intellectuals, all because of the ‘martyrs of Moni Arkadiou’. The decline of the Ottoman Empire, ridiculed as the ‘sick man of Europe’, was inevitable. In 1898 an autonomous Cretan State was established, although still formally under Ottoman authority. Finally, in 1913, the island became part of Greece.

Turkish bullet.

Nowadays the Arkádi monastery is a peaceful place. However, the past is never far away. The mausoleum west of the monastery, which is housed in a former windmill, offers a macabre spectacle. Many of the skulls on display have clearly been hit by either bullets or Turkish scimitars. The gunpowder magazine was never rebuilt and currently features a highly dramatic image of Kostas Giamboudákis causing the explosion among dozens of Cretans (see the image above). And then there is a silent witness to the carnage of 1866, a lone cypress tree in the courtyard, to the left of the church. Over 150 years ago the tree was hit by a Turkish bullet. That bullet is still there; a large arrow helpfully points out where we can find it (photo on the right).

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