Traveling Classroom Foundation
Monday October 2nd 2023

Symbol of Freedom

We decide to visit the Arkadi monastery, perhaps the most important shrine of Cretan independence. Our journey takes us through Iraklio and towards Rethymno on the National Highway. We turn southward at Stavromenos and continue towards Mount Ida (Psiloritis), the highest peak in Crete and the sacred mountain of Rhea, known as the mother of the Greek Gods. It is also thought to be where Zeus was born and raised.

The road to Arkadi is a winding route through beautiful country

Our route through the foothills is winding, but there are few travelers at this time of the year – so we can enjoy the rugged landscape. We find the monastery on a fertile plateau, with the great mountain rising in the distance.

Arkadi Monastery is located on a fertile plateau beneath Mt. Ida

Arkadi does not look like other monasteries we have visited. In fact, its outer shell is more like a stone fortress. The large rectangle encloses rooms of the monks, a dining hall, work places, a school and fine library, storerooms for food, and stables for farm animals.

Arcadia Monastery is built like a fortress, with thick battle-scarred walls

In the center of the monastery compound stands Saint Constantine, a beautiful church designed by someone familiar with Italian Renaissance architecture in the late 16th century. The exterior does not match up with the interior of the church, which is made up of two identical prayer halls.

St. Constantine church in the middle of the monastery compound

The monastery was built at a time when bandit gangs would attack churches and steal their religious treasures. Because of this, it was designed as a stronghold where the monks could defend themselves and any local people who might take refuge there in times of trouble. No one imagined Arkadi would have to fight an army. But it did … and became the most famous monastery in Greece.

Below is a nice 3D tour of the entire monastery (from YouTube).

When a revolt against Turkish rule broke out across Crete in August 1866, Gabriel Marinakis (the Abbot of Arkadi), was a member of the Rethymno revolutionary committees. A small force of Cretan rebels commanded by Ioannis Dimakopoulos took refuge in the monastery, which was against the laws imposed by their Ottoman rulers. They were soon joined by hundreds of local residents, bringing their valuables in hopes of saving them from the Turks. By late October, the monastery was sheltering 964 people. Of the 325 men inside the monastery, only 259 were armed; the other refugees were women and children.

Mustafa Pasha was commander of the Ottoman military in Crete

The Ottoman ruler responded to the monastery “rebellion” by sending Mustafa Pasha, the military commander of Crete, with an army of 15,000 towards Arkadi. Mustafa stopped along the way to destroy the village of Episkopi, another rebel stronghold. From there, he sent a letter to the revolutionary committee at Arkadi, ordering them to surrender and informing them that he would arrive at the monastery in few days.

The freedom fighters answered by raising their rebel flag. It featured the initials of the motto “Enosis” (meaning union with Greece), “Freedom or Death”, and a cross with the inscription “Jesus Christ Conquers.”

The Arkadi rebel flag, still stained with the blood of martyrs

When the Ottoman army arrived at Arkadi,  Mustafa Pasha was in comfortable lodgings elsewhere. The field commander (Suleyman) placed his troops and 30 small cannons around the monastery and sent a last demand for surrender. He received only gunfire in response, and so the siege began. The battle lasted all day without the Ottomans breaking into the monastery compound. The Cretan rebels had barricaded the main door and taking it would be difficult. They were protected by the thick monastery walls, while their enemy suffered many losses in the open fields.

The rebels refused to surrender, and the Ottoman siege began

The battle ceased with nightfall, and Suleyman received two heavy cannons from Rethymno. He aimed them at the barricaded entry of the monastery. The defenders sent two men, disguised as Turks, over the wall and across the Ottoman lines to seek reinforcements. The messengers returned later that night with bad news. No help would be coming, because all roads had been blocked by Ottoman forces.

Combat resumed the following day. Heavy cannons smashed the doors and Turkish soldiers swarmed into the compound, where they suffered more serious losses. However, the Cretans were running out of ammunition and many of them had to fight with only bayonets and farm tools. The Turks had the advantage.

Arkadi defenders were vastly outnumbered by the Ottoman army

After three days of desperate fighting, the rebels realized they could not win. They also knew torture and execution awaited them if they surrendered. This was when they made a decision that changed the history of Crete. They chose to die.

Artist’s impression of the last minutes in the gunpowder storage room

The wounded fighters, monks, women and children crowded together in a wine cellar used for gunpowder storage, leaving the last few armed defenders outside to carry on the fight. When Turkish forces killed the last defenders and swarmed the door and over the roof of the munitions room, the gunpowder was ignited. Everyone inside died instantly and the huge explosion took many Ottoman soldiers with them.

Arkadi memorial stamp, showing destruction of the gunpowder room

One account suggests Abbot Gabriel set off the explosion, but others claim he was killed on the first day of the siege. In another version of the story, Kostis Giamboudakis was the hero who ignited the gunpowder storage room.

Kostis Giamboudakis, a Cretan hero of the Arkadi siege

Kostis was a villager who loved freedom. When the 1866 revolt broke out, Kostis moved his wife and children to safety in the mountain village of Amari. He told his family, “Farewell forever. I will go to Arkadi and I will fight to death. I will never surrender to the Turks.” Then he hiked to the monastery, where glory and immortality awaited him.

The Ottomans considered Arkadi a great victory. But the events at Arkadi provoked international outrage. Giuseppe Garibaldi – the leader who unified Italy – urged his supporters to join the Cretan struggle. One popular novelist compared the Arkadi tragedy with the Siege of Missolonghi, where many innocent people died. Money was raised in Britain to send a ship, the Arkadi, to run the Turkish blockade. American volunteers came to aid Crete in their battle for freedom, and the great powers of Europe committed themselves to ending the Ottoman Empire.

In 1897 – 31 years after the Arkadi massacre – British Marines marched into Hania to help free Cretans remove all Turkish troops from the island

Turkish forces were expelled in 1898, and an independent Cretan state was founded. In 1913, after the Ottoman Empire lost virtually all of its Balkan possessions, Crete was united with Greece. The last Turkish residents in Crete were sent back to Turkey in 1923.

The Arkadi monastery remains a symbol of the struggle for independence in Crete. But it is also a working monastery, although there are only three monks living here today.

An ossuary at the monastery holds the bones of Arkadi defenders

Outside the monastery, a windmill was converted into a monument to those who died at Arkadi in 1866. Their skulls and bones, clearly showing bullet holes and sword cuts, are displayed behind glass on shelves.

An inscription commemorates the sacrifice of the fallen Cretans:

“Nothing is more noble or glorious than dying for one’s country.”

The skulls of Arkadi heroes are carefully protected behind glass
 For American teachers who want to compare the events at Arkadi Monastery with something more familiar, consider the circumstances at the Battle of the Alamo – and the impact it had on Texans seeking independence.
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