Greece, as a whole, is a religious country – and the island of Crete is no exception. With thousands of historic and picturesque places of worship and dozens of monasteries that have played a special role in the consolidation of Christianity and the struggle against the invaders, Crete is an ideal religious and historic destination.
Since the early Christian years, Crete has become a cradle of Orthodox Christianity.
This is reflected in the hundreds of religious monuments on the island. Even the struggles for liberation, in most cases, started from the monastic communities. Religious tradition is very intense in all areas of Crete and is present in the everyday life of the Cretans. Crete has an autonomous Archbishopric, separate from the rest of Greece.
Since the early Christian times, when Paul the Apostle visited Crete and preached the new religion for two years, the Christian tradition developed through the centuries. Remote places of monastic self-exile, traces of early Christian basilicas, cavernous chapels and painted Byzantine churches are found everywhere on Crete.
Many monasteries played an important historical role during the struggles of the Cretans for liberation. Moreover, Cretan iconography flourished especially in the Venetian Era, with El Greco and Michael Damascenus being the most important representatives.
After the liberation of Crete by Nicephorus Phocas from the Arabs in 961 AD, a period of cultural renaissance followed, which is reflected on the monuments of the period which continued during the Venetian rule. Most large and small monasteries operating today were established in that period. Apart from serving religious needs, most of them played an important role during the struggles of Cretans for liberation, especially after the conquest of Crete by the Ottomans.
Monasteries were the only places where Christians could find shelter and organize their military operations. Suspicious of the supportive action of the monks, the Ottomans destroyed several monasteries that functioned as revolutionary centers. Even today, visitors admire the story of the massacre of the Arkadi Monastery in 1866. The massacre occurred when the besieged Christians decided to blow up their powder kegs in order not to surrender to the Ottomans. All the monasteries of that time have similar stories to tell.
Churches and Monasteries Around the Island
HOLY PATRIARCHAL AND STAVROPEGIC MONASTERY OF ARKADI
According to the inscription, which has been preserved on the frontal support of the belfry, the church was built in 1587 – during the period of the Venetian occupation on Crete. This explains the plethora of architectural elements of the Renaissance, which visitors will notice at first sight.
The Holy Monastery of the Arkadi is located 25 km from the town of Rethymno, at the north-west foot of Psiloritis and at an altitude of approximately 500m.
According to records the Byzantine Emperor Heraklios founded the Holy Monastery of Arkadi, whereas the Emperor Arkadios, whose name was taken by the monastery, carried out its construction during the 5th century. However, scientists support the opinion that both the monastery’s foundation and its name are owed to a monk called Arkadios. Inscriptions testify that the two-aisled church in the centre of the monastery was built in 1587 and dedicated to Aghios Konstantinos and the Transfiguration of the Saviour.
Other inscriptions show that there had existed another church dating back to the 14th century, previous to the church of present day, the restoration of which resulted in the present day church.The nave is situated in the centre of the square ground plan of the complex, around which the monk cells and outbuildings of the monastery are built. The Monastery of Arkadi became beyond any doubt the symbol of self-sacrifice and freedom during the revolution of 1866-1869, particularly since the besieged inhabitants sacrificed themselves and preferred to die rather than to surrender to the Turks.
The brave hand of Kostis Giampoudakis from the village of Adele did not hesitate to set fire to the ammunition chamber, where the besieged had gathered, thus blowing up the entire monastery and turning it into a symbol of bravery and freedom. The sacred banner of the revolution as well as other relics such as monastery utensils, gold embroidered vestments and weapons are on exhibition in the Monastery Museum.
The foundations of the imposing cathedral of Saint Minas, one of the largest in Greece, were laid on March 25, 1862 as a token of gratitude by the citizens for the saint’s protection of the city. The site is said to have been indicated by a monk to whom St Minas appeared in a vision.
The cathedral was built by Athanassios Moussis, the architect of Agios Titos and the barracks in Eleftherias Square, which now houses the Prefecture and the Law Courts.
Building work on the cathedral was interrupted during the 1866 Rising which continued to 1883.
The effort to build the church in such difficult times was supported enthusiastically by all the people of Heraklion. The contemporary newspaper “Heraklion” reported that a sailing ship arrived in harbour loaded with building materials for the cathedral. However, the committee in charge of the project did not have the money to pay workers to carry the cargo from the ship to the building site.
Upon learning this, the schoolchildren of Heraklion enthusiastically offered to unload the ship, forming a human chain from the harbour to Saint Minas and singing along to the hard work. The cathedral was inaugurated in 1895, under Metropolitan Bishop Timotheos Kastrinoyiannis. Although Crete was still under Turkish rule, the celebrations for the new cathedral of Saint Minas lasted three days, and the whole city was unrecognisable with its decorations and bright lights.
MONASTERY OF PANAGIA CHRISOSKALITISSA
The monastery of Panagia Chrisoskalitissa is located 72km south of Chania, very close to the magnificent lagoon of Elafonissi. It operates as a nunnery and is reminiscent of a fortress, perched on a 35m high rock with boundless sea views.
The name of the monastery means Our Gold-Stepped Lady in Greek. According to tradition, this name was given after one step out of the 98 was gold. It is said that only those who really believe in god can still see it. However, another version says that the golden stair was sold by the Patriarchate to solve the economic problems of the monastery during the Turkish Era.
The temple has two aisles dedicated to the Virgin Mary and the Holy Trinity. The exact date of the establishment of the monastery is unknown. Near Chrisoskalitissa there was the monastery of St. Nicholas, which operated during the Turkish Period. On the beach, next to the monastery, a small fishing village of the Middle Minoan period has been found.
MONASTERY OF AGIA TRIADA TZAGAROLON
The monastery of Agia Triada of Tzagarolon is one of the richest and most beautiful monasteries in Crete.
The monastery was built by the Venetian nobles Jeremiah and Lawrence Tzagarolo. Jeremiah was a famous scholar of his era who had a rich education and was a friend of the Patriarch of Alexandria, Meletios Pigas. Jeremiah himself was a candidate for Patriarch of Constantinople. Moreover, Jeremiah designed and built the monastery complex, drawing inspiration from the architect Sebastiano Serlio from Verona, Italy.
Today, the monastery hosts a small museum with various pictures and icons. The most important are the 12th century cloths for covering the altar, the icons of St. John the Theologian (16th century), St. Nicholas (17th century) and the icons of the painter Skordilis: the Enthroned Christ, Living Spring and the Second Coming (1635-1645).
After numerous historical adventures, the monastery continues to play an important role in the religious and economic life of Crete. It is Stavropegic, which means that it is directly managed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Visitors will see an incredibly well-preserved and vibrant monastery that produces and exports organic olive oil, wine, honey, vinegar and olive oil soap of unique and superior quality.