Temples, monasteries and caves of historical and religious interest located in the prefecture of Herakleion attract the interest of foreign and Greek visitors for their rich history.
The writer and historic researcher George Panayiotakis in his book “CRETE-WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW” mentions the most significant landmarks of the prefecture and unfolds their rich history in course of time. Our magazine thanks him for his courtesy. More particularly:
– ST. TITUS CHURCH IN HERAKLEION
According to the book, the church of St. Titus is located in center of the city of Herakleion, on a square named after his name on the 25th August street that leads from the port to the city. It was probably built during the second Byzantine period when the capital of Crete was transferred from Gortyna to Chandax (Candia), after Crete was conquered by the Saracens and Gortyna was destroyed.
In the new temple sacred vessels of Divine Worship, religious relics as well as the Holy skull of St. Titus were gathered. During the Venetian domination, the temple housed the headquarters of the Latin Archbishop. Later, the Turks turned it into a mosque known as Vezir mosque.
The above alterations have left architectural elements which shape the face of the temple, where the Art of the East as well as the Art of the West coexist.
‘St. Titus Church among others was one of the victims of the disastrous earthquake in Herakleion in 1856. It was rebuilt in 1872 and later after some changes it operated as an Orthodox church.
When the domination of Crete by the Turks began, the Venetians brought to Venice various religious relics, icons as well as the holy skull of St. Titus, which they placed in San Marco Cathedral. Finally, in May 1962, St. Titus’ holly skull was replaced in the church filling, therefore, an absence from 1669.
– THE BASILICA OF ST. MARCUS
The Basilica of St. Marcus is located on the same street as St. Titus Church, on Elefterios Venizelos square (at the fountain of Lions). It was built by the Venetians in 1239 dedicated to the name of the patron of Venice. The Turks turned it to a mosque. The minaret was placed where the bell tower was located, the foundations of which are preserved till today.
The mosque was known as the Deftedar mosque.
In 1956, the Society of Cretan Historical Studies restored it to its original form. This is the place where the great exhibition dedicated to the works of El Greco was housed. The works of art were gathered in 1990 from various countries, after the completion of 450 years from his birth. Today, it operates as an art gallery that hosts the works of art of famous contemporary Cretan artists.
– ST. PETER’S CHURCH
St. Peter’s Church is located on the eastern side of the Historical Museum of Crete, surrounded by Byzantine ruins. It was built during the Venetian rule and belonged to the Order of Dominicans. The church was converted into a mosque by the Turks. Due to the restoration works in the temple, the city of Herakleion is proud to have such a significant and elegant monument. This monument with its rich interior can cover historical needs or facilitate other spiritual or cultural events.
In Herakleion, there are other remarkable temples like the small church of St. Minas, Notre Crusaders, St. Catherine’s Church as well as others with a notable presence during the city’s historic timeline.
MONASTERIES IN THE PREFECT OF HERAKLEION
It is unknown when exactly the first monasteries were built in Crete. It is believed that they were established during the early Byzantine times. The early christianization of Crete and the relatively short distance from Egypt, a place where the Holly Fathers of the desert founded monasticism, contributed to Crete receiving early these messages. Thus, the first notions regarding monasticism received acceptance, there.
The southern beaches of Crete that offer shelter, mild temperatures and isolationism became places that attracted the first monks. These places facilitate spiritual elevation, temperance, exercise and prayer. Slowly, due to the spread of monasticism and the creation of monastic centers spiritual bastions are shaped, which reinforce religious consciousness, preserve Christian tradition and assist national affairs.
Thus, the monks become defenders and guardians of Orthodoxy and their role is obvious during the eventful history of Crete. In the Byzantine era a lot of monasteries operated in Crete.
Within the first years of Venetian rule, the new occupants saw that the clergy strengthened and instigated local riots and took severe measures.
However, the Venetians’ policy has changed in the last 100 years on the grounds that there is a need of co-existence regarding the Christian element.
This shift was realized due to the perceived Turkish threat and the need to jointly deal with it.
However, this situation has favored the spread of monasticism.
Thousands had embraced monasticism and lots of monasteries were founded or renovated, many times with the Venetians’ financial aid.
Greek letters were taught in those monasteries, libraries operated and manuscripts were copied.
Renowned scholars emerged from the ranks of the monks such as Iosif Filagris, Nilos Damilas, Maximos Margounios etc.
Also, many monasteries highlighted bishops that brightened patriarchal thrones, such as the Patriarch of Constantinople Cyril Loukaris, the Patriarch of Alexandria Meletios Pegas, the Patriarch of Jerusalem Nektarios, Neofytos Patelaros etc.
Moreover, many other scholars were revealed whose role was not only restricted to divine worship and religious affairs in general but were crucial in the national-political sector. During the Cretan War 1645- 1669, the monasteries had suffered great damage.
A great deal of them were completely destroyed and exist today only as names. This phenomenon was more intense in the cases where the monasteries had played a partisan role against the conqueror. Icons painted by Cretan artists, utensils of divine worship, manuscripts, vestments, books and other religious items, were taken, wiped or destroyed.
After the prevalence of the Ottomans in Crete, the monasteries are found in a more difficult situation. Those which were located in the cities were converted into mosques. The poorer ones were abandoned and only some big monasteries survived that could afford the heavy taxation imposed by the Turks.
The Muslims’ sacred law faced the monasteries and the churches with hostility, prohibited the establishment of new as well as the renovation of old ones. At this period of time, the monasteries had become the headquarters and the operational bases of the rebels. Rebels and monks acted in common in order to punish the conqueror and liberate the island.
Inside or around them, bloody clashes were realized and the monks are recorded as heroes in the Cretan history.
Ioannis Markakis or Xopateras constitutes a typical case of a man who was fortified in the tower of Odigitria monastery and fought all by himself the furious Turkish crowd.
The monastery of Arkadi became the heroic tomb for many warriors, women and children providing a brilliant example of self-sacrifice and heroism.
Finally, their role was substantial also during the recent period of German Occupation, when many monks were killed or tortured because of their participation in the struggle against the Germans.
Briefly, a description of the most important monasteries that still exist today follows:
It is a parish convent that belongs to the prefecture of Chersonissos. It is 23 kilometers from Herakleion on the road of Herakleion-Episkopi-Sgourokefali-Agarathos. It is an old, historic monastery with an old reputation. One aisle of the church is dedicated to Virgin Mary’s Assumption while the other is dedicated to St. Minas. The time when the monastery was founded remains unknown, however, its existence is known since 1504. It belongs to one of the oldest monasteries in Crete named after agarathou plant which is endemic there.
The monastery is considered «first in rank» among the monasteries in the Archdiocese of Crete. Its presence in the spiritual and historic life of Crete is intense. Since the Venetian rule, it has been a top quality school and a great deal of its monks fulfilled Patriarchal and Episcopal thrones, such as Meletios Pegas, Cyril Loukaris, Sylvester as well as Gerasimos Paleokapas who became professor in the University of Padova.
During the Venetian rule, the monastery was flourishing. This peak was halted for 200 years, in the Ottoman period because Christopher, the abbot of St. Athanasios monastery with a group of monks, who were in the besieged Candia, fought the prospective occupier with uncommon bravery.
According to Bounialis, the abbot erected an arch which was comprised of the heads of the beheaded Turks so as the Venetian General Dolfin could pass under it. This event shaped the Turks’ later attitude towards the monastery, in the sense that they strictly prohibited even one stone to be placed upon another for this historic period in focus.
And if the Archbishop of Crete Neofytos Patelaros who was posted in this monastery did not mediate, it is certain that that it would be completely ruined.
During the Ottoman era, it was among the smallest monasteries in Crete. However, in the revolution of 1821, due to the fact that Bishop Joachim and his monks were considered to be involved in the preparation of the revolution, the Ottomans slaughtered the Bishop in front of the entrance of the small church of St. Minas in Herakleion, massacred the monks they found and set the monastery along with its buildings on fire.
Laborious efforts were made for the reconstruction of the monastery and its deliverance to divine worship.
During the Ottoman era, Agarathos was the chair of the Bishop of Chersonissos. In the revolution of 1866, the monastery played a charity role preserving the old Cretan tradition of hospitality. In the monastery, there was a crock with water, another crock full of wine as well as a basket with cheese, olives and bread available. Furthermore, the bakery of the monastery was always in full operation in order to feed the rebels along with the weary residents of the neighboring villages. The monastery also lends money helping, thus, in many ways the area and its inhabitants.
In the area of the monastery a special school operated with students helping one another. During the German Occupation those monks who did not participate in the Resistance offered their services to wanted partisans.
The building complex resembled a fort with main and one secondary entrance. The present church of the monastery is relatively newly-built. It was built from scratch and the inauguration took place in 1894.
– ST. IOANNIS THE THEOLOGIST
The monastery of St. Ioannis the Theologist is located southeast and very close to the village of Anopolis that is 15 kilometers far from Herakleion, in a wooded valley. According to the tradition it belonged to the monastery of St. George Aposelemis which was situated near its mouth.
The role of the monastery was crucial not only in the national but also in the educational sector. Its position occasionally facilitated militants that founded safety and hospitality on the premises. The monks also participated in the struggles against the conqueror. The Ottomans were aware of these events and their hatred turned towards the monastery. During the evolution in 1821, the monks were cruelly killed and the sacred vessels, apart the icons which were never found, were taken or destroyed. During the revolution of 1866-69 the monks abandoned the monastery and resorted to the mountains with other warriors.
After the revolution, the monks returned and saw a looted and deserted monastery, which with great difficulties and enormous efforts delivered again to divine worship.
During the events of 1896, the monastery had its share again regarding massacres and disaster. Among the 40 residents of the nearby villages that the Turks slaughtered, four monks were also included that belonged to this monastery which was looted for one more time.
The monastery hosted a school which functioned from 1840 till 1908, with intervals only during irregular periods of time.
The monastery has been rebuilt today and constitutes a real retreat.
– EPANOSIFI MONASTERY
It is dedicated to St. George. The north aisle of the church is dedicated to the Transfiguration of Christ the Savior. It is situated near Metaxohori village and it is about 32 kilometers from Herakleion. It is considered one of the most significant and richest monasteries in Crete.
It was founded by a monk called Paisios, however, the exact date of the establishment cannot be accurately defined. It is estimated that it was established around 1600.
The monastery was named after a shepherd who was in service of lord Lagouvardos.
The monastery acquired great real estate and during the period of Turkish rule it became a significant spiritual center. Scholar monks, brothers of the monastery such as the teacher of religious material and hynmographer Synesios, as well as the artist bibliographer George Gounales made a prominent spiritual presence in this field. However, the misfortune of the monastery lies in the fact that it is surrounded by many Turkish villages accumulating, therefore a great deal of suffering. In the revolution of 1821, the Turks that inhabited Kako Chorio (the present Metaxohori) killed 18 monks. Those that survived resorted to Sfakia where they transferred as many religious items as they were able to rescue, without finally having them rescued.
With the intervention of Commissioner Tombazis, the relics of other monasteries in Hydra Island were sold and weapons were bought for the Revolution.
The fact that the monasteries of Crete today are poor in manuscripts, books and relics is because some were used as fillings for weapons and others to buy arms.
In other words, they devoted their lives as well, to the freedom of Cretan people.
After the slaughter of 1821, the monastery was left to desertification. Neofytos, a monk in Aidini in Asia Minor which belonged to Epanosifi, came with two other monks and rebuilt the monastery which quickly evolves again as an important spiritual center.
The great earthquake in 1856 demolished the temple which was rebuilt with the Sultan’s firman in 1862 and the mediation of the Patriarchate. In the revolution of 1866, the monastery was again a victim of the Turkish raids. The newly-built monastery received the fury of the Turks who demolished it and removed whatever they could get. The relics and the holy vessels were saved because they had been transferred in time to the Apezanon monastery.
The majority of the young monks were recruited in the revolutionary bodies and fought against the invader.
During the German Occupation the abbey was converted into a hospital and many urban families threatened by hunger went to the monastery. The Germans ripped the monastery off which was automatically found poor in wheat, olive oil, cheese and other products that were previously available in abundance.
The assistance that the monastery offered to the Resistance was significant.
– APEZANON MONASTERY
It is located within a distance of 63 kilometers from the city of Herakleion and belongs to the municipality of Gortyna. There are three versions regarding its establishment. More particularly, the first refers that it was located in Agiofarago, a place where the Byzantine Church of St. Antonios exists. The second version mentions that it was established about 1600 by Papadopoulos brothers from Candia and according to the third version it was founded in 1458.
The building had cannon in the yard and the Turks called it “Tomblou Monastery”.
It is said that the monastery held a special letter of agreement for its protection against the Turks. This document was respected by the Turks until 1827. However, in the end, it did not become an obstacle for the Ottomans to put the temple on fire, which was totally destroyed.
The monastery is dedicated to St. Antonios and was restored by the monks again.
The revolution of 1866-69 completed the previous disaster. The Turks burnt it for a second time along with its belongings in Peri and Tripita in the province of Kenourgio. The relics of the saints that the monastery owned were rescued from the catastrophe of 1827.
– ODIGITRIAS MONASTERY
It is situated 65 kilometers from the city of Herakleion close to the village of Sivas.
The monastery showed strong resistance against the Turks. During the prerevolutionary period, a lot of Hainides that fought for freedom found refuge in the monastery. They were a kind of guerrillas called kleftes as they were known in the rest of Greece. The well-known hero Xopateras or Xopapas belonged to this category and he was also a brother in the monastery. His secular name was Ioannis Markakis.
As a monk called Ioasaf, he killed a janissary who insulted the honor of his family and the result was that he was made to abandon monasticism without denying, however, the monastery of his repentance. On the onset of the revolution in1821, he went to the mainland with his friend Dimitris Kormoulis from Kouse and they fought together to throw off the Turks.
Upon his return to Crete and having the Odigitria monastery as a base, he became the terrible persecutor of the janissaries of Messara. The Turks called him “Deli Papa” (Crazy Priest).
Since the Asterousia Mountains were full of rebels, the Turks decided to clear the situation. A force of 800 Ottomans led by the bloodthirsty Meremet Ali besieged the monastery in February 1828. Xopateras was shut in the tall tower of the monastery which is named after him since then and fought with two more warriors against the Turkish mob. 30 Turks got killed and other 15 got injured. The siege lasted 3 days. When his two comrades got killed and ran out of bullets, he jumped off the burning tower but just before he got caught he managed to kill three more Turks although he had a broken leg. However, inside the Turkish crowd it was impossible to be saved. They cut his head off, they put it on the flagpole and took it to Tymbaki or according to another witness it was transferred to Moustafa Pasha who besieged Fragokastelo near Sfakia. A few months later in August 1828, his friends took revenge for his death and killed the fearsome Janissary Agriolidis. This act was the cause of a new Turkish atrocity that took the life of 800 Christians in Herakleion alone. The monastery was under constant persecution.
KARDIOTISSA NUNNERY «KERA»
It is located 50 kilometers from the city of Herakleion on the way to Lassithi plateau.
The nunnery exists since the 9th century and the church is dedicated to the Birth of Virgin Mary.
The nunnery and the surrounding villages Kera, Krasi and Gonies constituted a feud that belonged to the Latin Patriarch of Constantinople.
The members of Magganaris family that came as refuges from Monemvasia settled it down in Lassithi plateau and gave their entire fortune to the nunnery. They renovated it and for many years the abbots came from this family.
Since 1720, the nunnery follows Stavropegic monastery, depends on and is given direct protection by the Patriarchate. In 1822, in 1841, and in 1846 the nunnery receives Turkish attacks. In 1866-69, the first revolutionary assembly was called in the nunnery that declared Antonios Zofrafos or Xanthoudidis as a deputy. The following year on May 1867, the rebels with their leader Michael Korakas used the nunnery as headquarters in order to prevent the seizure and the destruction of Lassithi, which eventually occurred by the numerous troops of Omer Pasha.
– PALIANI NUNNERY
It is located near Venerato village and it is 23 kilometers from Herakleion. According to the disclosed findings, it dates from 668 and it is dedicated to the Assumption of Virgin Mary, St. Panteleimon as well as to the three Hierarchs. It was an imperial abbey that belonged to the Patriarchate since it followed Stavropigi’s order. In the revolution of 1821, the nunnery paid a heavy price. Apart from three nuns, all the others that are estimated in a few dozens were slaughtered and the temple got burnt. The nunnery was reconstructed by nun Parthenia but it was burnt in 1866.
Michael Korakas the famous killer of the Turks resorted to the nunnery when he killed the Turk Alikos and this is the time when the struggle against the Turks really began from a man that became their relentless persecutor. It has to be noted that outside the sanctuary of the church, « St. Myrtle» exists which is worshipped as a tree with miraculous properties. Worshipping the trees is a devotional habit dating back the Minoan era.
– SAVVATIANON NUNNERY
It is located northwest Rogdia and 22 kilometers from the city of Herakleion. The two-aisled church is devoted to St. Antonios and St.Savas. It is an old nunnery and the abbot was Maximos Margounios in 1585. During the siege of Candia by the Turks, all the monks that participated in the war against the new conqueror, were captured and transferred to Constantinople where they stayed throughout the siege period. Upon their return, they realized that the Turks were now the new owners and those who were not captured were slaughtered. A monk that survived took over the reconstruction and the repair of the damage. In the revolution of 1866-69, a scholar monk called Eugene Vourexakis took his arms and with a group of rebels fought as if he were Athanasios Diakos himself around Gazanos River.
Due to the intense sword fighting, his scimitar broke and 40 Turks surrounded him, cut his head off and carried it through the neighborhoods of the city of Herakleion, and eventually threw it into the garbage following, thus, a brutal custom. When the head was found, it was delivered to the nunnery by some Christians and it is kept there till today. His grave is there, too. Another simple tomb hosts the bones of a young then, however, brave and bold warrior called Hercules Kokkinides who got killed in Dazi fighting against the conqueror. In the same place, his father the chieftain Nikolaos Kokkinides is buried, as well. Other significant nunneries in the perfect are: Gorgolaini, Vrodisi, Koudoumas, St. Panteleimon in Fodele of Kallergis, St. Irene Kalyvianis, Spiliotissa etc.
– SARHOS CAVE
It is located west the village Sarhos which is 22 kilometers from the city of Herakleion. Its length is estimated about 420 meters. It is the river bed of an old underground river, which in the period of major waterfalls is activated again and runs rapidly from the mouth of the cave.
It is referred that during the revolutions from 1794 until 1896, the cave was used as a safe shelter for the Christians of the area. The cave was more useful during the revolution of 1866-69. Many women, children and wounded people took refuge in the cave in order to save themselves. Zacharias Filipakis from Sarhos was responsible for the guard with 50 gunmen. The siege of the cave lasted for a few days but without result. The Turks put flammable material on the mouth of the cave and set fire. However, the wind that was moving in an outward direction drove away the smoke and fire. The fire spread to the neighboring forest and forced the Turks to retreat. The cave prevented a new tragedy as the one realized in Milati and Melidoni.
After consultation Filipakis and Rezit Pasha met and a protocol was signed that honored the defenders, then the Turkish army left. This event became widely-known and had a great impact on the Cretan struggle for freedom.
– MARMAROSPILIOS OR HAINOSPILIOS
It is situated near the village Kamaraki in Malevizi that is 24 kilometers far from Herakleion.
The large stalagmites and the cave’s massive columns which in many places in Crete are called marbles, gave their name to the cave. Its other name has to do with the Hainides (the guerrillas of the Greek mainland) that lived and fought on the mountains.
The cave was considered a refuge for the Hainides and captain Palmetis had his headquarters in there. His real name was Giannis Panteris and he was born in Kamaraki in 1790. He was a punisher of the Turks and during the revolution of 1821 his role was crucial. When the revolution finished, he fought in the mainland and on his way back to Crete although he was holding a Greek passport from the free part of Greece, the Turks captured him in Herakleion, killed him and threw his body in the sea. Other important caves that have an archaeological, historical and spiritual interest are the following: the cave of Ilithyia, the cave of St. Paraskevi, the cave of Arkalochori, the cave of Kamilari, the cave of Chosto nero, the cave of Kamares, the cave of Trapeza, the cave of Faneromeni, the cave of St. Photini, the cave of Doxa, the cave of Arkalospilios etc.
Source of publication 18th issue In-On