Traveling Classroom Foundation
Tuesday October 17th 2017

Warrior Monks of Crete

A road trip with friends took us to the south coast of Crete and a monastery famous for much more than religious activities. We left our village and traveled west on highway E75 toward the port city of Rethymnon.

Leaving the coast, we passed through the mountains before descending to the south coast of Crete. From Rethymnon, we took the road to the south coast and the Libyan Sea.

At Rethymnon we turned south towards Spili, climbed into the White Mountains, and then descended into Kourtaliótiko gorge. This pass was cut through the mountains by many streams that combine to create Megalos Potamos (big river). As we descended the road narrowed. At one point the rock wall was only a few feet from the right side of our vehicle, while northbound travelers were close to a cliff that plunged into the river far below.

Driving through Kourtaliótiko Gorge can be a bit nerve-wracking at times. Winding road through Kourtaliótiko Gorge can be nerve-wracking.

The bottom of the gorge opened into a rich alluvial plain deposited by the river over thousands of years. Here the river irrigates productive farmland, green pastures, and wooded areas. We turned eastward, crossing the river at an ancient bridge and climbing into the hills, until we came to the Kato (lower) Preveli Monastery of St. John the Baptist. It was founded during the late 10th or early 11th century.

An ancient Venetian bridge over the Megalopotamos River near Kato Preveli Monastery A Venetian bridge over the Megalopotamos near Kato Preveli Monastery.

The battered monastery seemed empty, but in the process of being restored. Judging from the surrounding pastures and farmland, it was clear that monks are still tending the land.  This is the ongoing history of Preveli. It has been destroyed by enemies many times, but always rebuilt.

Kato Preveli Monastery is located in the foothills and surrounded by farmland. Kato Preveli Monastery is in the foothills and surrounded by farmland.

Over several centuries Kato Preveli developed as a religious, cultural, educational and art center for villages in the region, as well as an excellent farming cooperative. When the Ottoman Turks occupied Crete in 1649, they destroyed churches and monasteries, including Kato Preveli. It was rebuilt with the help of surrounding villages and church funding. Expecting more bad behavior from the Turkish overlords, they also began building a second monastery (Saint John the Theologian) on a high ridge overlooking the Libyan Sea.  This monastery, called Piso (back) Preveli, was fortified and difficult to reach. Fortunately, the modern road made our climb easier than it was in earlier centuries.

The first impression of Piso Preveli is one of strength. It looks like a fortress. The first impression of Piso Preveli is one of strength. It looks like a fortress.

Responding to the harsh Ottoman regime, Preveli became a leader in the struggle for Cretan freedom — in addition to their traditional spiritual and educational activities. The abbot and his monks established spy networks for information gathering and infiltration in the highlands. They also provided support and shelter for rebels fighting the Turkish overlords.

The first Cretan revolt against Ottoman rule (in 1770) was led by Ioannis Vlachos, a wealthy ship-owner from the mountain village of Anopolis. Because he was educated, some people called him ‘Daskalos’ (teacher). By adding his first name, he became the famous Daskalogiannis (Teacher John).

Daskalogiannis was a wealthy shipping tycoon from the Sfakian village of Anopolis. Daskalogiannis led the first rebellion against the Ottoman overlords of Crete

Daskalogiannis agreed to fund and organize a rebellion against the Turks after Count Orlov of Russia promised him military support and naval ships. However, Orlov was lying.  He only wanted to distract the Turks from Russian attacks elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire. Without the Russian support, the rebellion was crushed and Daskalogiannis was publicly executed. But Cretans do not give up easily, and even more freedom fighters joined the cause.

Abbot Efraim Prevelis was one of the organizers of that revolt. He provided supplies and armed monks to the rebel cause, as well as secure hideouts and launching points for raids against the Turks. He also encouraged the Cretan fighters by carrying a holy artifact (known as the Preveli Cross) into battle.

preveli-cross

He continued in the resistance for the rest of his life, and abbots who came after him followed this tradition.

Abbot Melchisedek led his monks into battle against Turkish military forces

Abbot Melchissedek led a group of monks and rebels during the Greek War of Independence in 1821. In retaliation, the Turks attacked Piso Preveli, but it was rebuilt and the monks continued their resistance. The abbot died of battle wounds in 1823, but those who came after him continued to organize and support rebellion against the Turkish overlords.

Because of its strategic location, Piso Preveli was an important base for freedom fighters. During the revolution of 1866, the beach below the monastery was a drop-off point for delivering guns and ammunition to freedom fighters.

great river Sandy cove below Piso Preveli was an ideal place to deliver weapons.

Under Abbot Agathangelos Papavassiliou, Preveli supplied rebels at Arkadi, a fortress monastery north of Preveli. However, the rebel activity at Arkadi angered the Turkish ruler (pasha), who sent and army of 15,000 to eliminate the problem.  The 259 Arkadi defenders refused to surrender, so the Turks began a siege that lasted several days.  Rifle fire and cannons gradually reduced the defenders, until only a few were left.  These men joined the monks and refugees in the gun powder storage room. They all voted to die rather than surrender.  As the enemy swarmed into the monastery, the gun powder was ignited — killing most of the Cretans and even more Turkish soldiers.

Artist's conception of the last heroic minutes at Arkadi Monastery. Artist’s concept of the last heroic minutes at Arkadi Monastery. Read More

This event became known as “the Arkadi Holocaust,” and it changed world opinion about the Ottoman Empire. Volunteers from America and European countries began arriving in Greece and Crete to fight. Preveli Monastery increased its efforts to support the rebellion, and armed monks fought against Turkish soldiers trying to enter their region.

The Turks retaliated against Preveli’s suspected role in the Arkadi disaster by attacking the lower monastery, destroying the church and ravaging farms in neighboring villages.  Again the monks responded in their usual way: the church and other buildings were renovated, and farming equipment was repaired or replaced.

Main church of the Piso Preveli monastery has been repaired many times over the centuries. The Piso Preveli church has been repaired often over the centuries.

The monks had a custom that continues today. Whenever they face a difficult situation, they shout a prayer to their protector: “Saint John, there’s a little dust in your courtyard, go in and out and clean it!”  It means that whatever enemy or problem comes along, get busy and fix it.

The monastery recovered quickly from disasters, and it was constantly focused on the national cause of freedom. For the next 30 years, the monks were active in organizing rebellions against the Turks, which helped bring about Crete’s eventual independence in 1898. The warrior monks then went to fight against Turkey in the Balkan Wars. This led to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and freedom for other countries.

Papamalekos (father Malekos), a heavily armed monk ready to go into battle in 1897. Papamalekos (father Malekos), armed and ready for battle in 1897.

After the liberation of Crete and its union with Greece in 1913, Preveli returned to its religious, farming and social activities. Unfortunately, peace did not last — Nazi Germany started a war.  In May 1941, thousands of German invaders landing in western Crete met fierce opposition from Allied troops and Cretan people — including women and children.  Nazi officers retaliated by ordering the massacre of entire villages.

Artist's view of German forces landing in Rethymnon. Artist’s depiction of the German assault at Rethymnon, north of Preveli.

Faithful to its traditions, Preveli monks supported Cretan resistance and Allied soldiers during fierce battles near Rethymnon. However, the defenders were overwhelmed by enemy soldiers, aircraft and war machines.  After most of the Allied troops and remnants of the Greek Army were evacuated, 5,000 soldiers from England, New Zealand and Australia were stranded on the island. For these men, the monastery and neighboring villages offered safe shelter.

Cretan resistance fighters protected allied soldiers from the Germans. Resistance fighters protected allied soldiers from the German invaders.

Abbot Agathangelos Lagouvardos organized his monks, local villagers, and resistance fighters operating in the mountains to hide, defend and feed the stranded allied soldiers throughout the German occupation of Crete. He also helped arrange for their escape.

Abbott Agathangelos organized resistance forces and protected allied soldiers. Agathangelos organized resistance forces and protected allied soldiers.

A group of Allied soldiers managed to contact a British submarine and — with the help of Preveli monks — were able to escape to the Middle East. Two rescue missions were organized by submarine from the beach below Piso Preveli. However, the second mission came to the attention of the Germans, and soldiers were sent to the monastery. Abbot Agathangelos went into hiding and the monks of Kato Preveli fled before the enemy arrived.

New Zealand soldiers waiting for evacuation from Crete New Zealand soldiers waiting to be evacuated by the resistance forces.

After stealing or destroying everything in the lower monastery, some of the German soldiers moved on Piso Preveli, where they took anything of value — including a precious relic: the Cross of Ephraim Prevelis. The Germans later returned it to the monastery under almost miraculous circumstances (every airplane assigned to take the cross to Germany mysteriously failed to operate).

Still searching for the abbot, three German officers later came to Piso Preveli and interrogated the monks, but got no information. The frustrated officers arrested the monks and charged them with possessing guns and a radio, and providing care to British fugitives and Greeks. After the Orthodox Church intervened, the monks were released. They returned to find the monastery badly damaged — and so began to rebuild with the help local people and other Cretan monasteries.

Some of the damaged parts of Piso Preveli are still awaiting renovation Some war-damaged buildings at Piso Preveli are still awaiting renovation

The enemy kept a close watch on Preveli, but the brave monks never stopped caring for hidden allied soldiers or giving information and support to the resistance movement operating in the nearby mountains. When the Axis forces finally surrendered and were expelled from Crete, Preveli helped the hidden soldiers return home — amid great celebration.

Sixty years after the German invasion, a memorial was proposed by allied soldiers who survived only through the protection and support of the Preveli monks.  This memorial — on the edge of a cliff outside the monastery — was officially opened a year later, on May 25, 2002.

Preveli War Memorial not far from the gates of the monastery. Memorial was installed not far from the gates of Piso Preveli

It includes a memorial plaque citing the role of Preveli monks in rescuing allied soldiers. This is flanked by two figures carrying rifles.  The one on the right is a soldier.  On the left is none other than Abbot Agathangelos, the man responsible for saving the lives of many stranded soldiers.

Statue of Abbot Agathangelos in the Preveli war memorial. Statue of Abbot Agathangelos in the Preveli war memorial.

After exploring the well-kept monastery grounds and buildings, we left the stoney ridge and traveled down to the village of Plakias, with its seaside tavernas and good food.

Plakias is a pleasant village not far from the monastery's stoney ridge. Plakias is a pleasant village not far from the monastery’s stoney ridge.

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