Arkadi Monastery is in the top ten of all travel guide charts. But you will only experience it as a truly great sight if you know something about its history and let your imagination run wild. Then you will understand why Arkadi Monastery is considered Crete's national shrine.
Today, three asphalt roads lead up to the small plain at an altitude of 500 m, in the centre of which stands the very fortified-looking monastery.
Now take yourself back about 150 years. Numerous monks lived in the monastery, cultivated the fields on the plain, kept chickens, sheep and goats, harvested olives and pressed their own oil. Only a donkey path led up from the coast, the pious men lived in great silence and, of course, still without electric light, not seeing the coast and the sea from their cells. Down there, the Cretans suffered under Ottoman rule and wanted nothing more than to be allowed to join Greece, which had been free of Turkish rule since 1829. 'Freedom or death' was the motto of many men who rose up against the foreign masters.
On 1 May 1866, over 15,000 Cretan rebels had again met secretly to plan the next uprising. They elected leaders for the different regions of Crete. They designated the acting abbot of the Arkadi monastery as leader for the province of Rethymno. Soon afterwards, the Pasha of Rethymno ultimatley demanded that the abbot resign as rebel leader - otherwise the monastery would be razed to the ground.
Abbot Gavriil did not resign. When the pasha then tried to carry out his threat in November, almost 1,000 people entrenched themselves behind the walls of the monastery. Only 325 of them were armed men, the rest women and children. So imagine the confinement and fear in the monastery when the Turkish troops marched in. They came through the gorge that you probably also passed through from the coast.
The fighting lasted for two days, then it was clear: Arkady could not be held. As a result, women and children gathered in the powder magazine in the south-east corner of the convent. To avoid being raped by the pasha's soldiers and sold as slaves, they had themselves blown up by a fighter named Kostas Giamboudakis. His monument stands today in the main square of Rethymno, the Platia Tessaron Martyron. The men fought until their last breath. In total, the Turks took only 14 prisoners, but suffered about 1500 casualties.
The uprisings against the Ottomans had always claimed many lives. But the sacrifice of the women and children in Arkadi was something very special and finally drew the attention of the world to the Cretan struggle for freedom. The news spread like wildfire in Europe and North America. Famous men and women like the French writer Victor Hugo, the Italian freedom fighter Garibaldi and the American Harriet Beecher-Stowe, author of 'Uncle Tom's Cabin', called on their governments to support the Cretans.
Of course, the European royal houses themselves had the spectre of bourgeois revolutions in their own countries breathing down their necks. They were not particularly committed to a free Crete. On the other hand, they naturally saw the possibility of weakening the already weakening Sultan and the Ottoman Empire. Thus, a development was initiated that led to the island's extensive autonomy in 1898 and finally to its annexation to free Greece in 1913.
Today, the traces of the struggle at that time have largely been removed, and the exterior of the monastery has long been completely intact again. You enter through the main portal and see directly in front of you the beautiful Renaissance façade of the monastery church, consecrated in 1587 and rebuilt in 1927. The former refectory, i.e. the monastery's dining hall, and the monastery kitchen have also been beautifully restored in the meantime. The powder magazine, however, where women and children were blown up, has been left roofless. A simple memorial plaque, where fresh flowers are still often laid, commemorates the victims of that time. Some of the monks' cells have been restored in the old style and can be visited. The monastery museum has been completely redesigned and displays beautiful icons as well as mementos of the battles of that time.
When you leave the monastery, directly opposite, on the other side of the large car park, you will see a detached building with steps leading up to it. It is the convent's former windmill. It now serves as an ossuary where the skulls and bones of some of the Christian victims of 1866 are kept.
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