Traveling Classroom Foundation
Thursday June 8th 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.


On the Greek Orthodox calendar, this day marks ‘The Assumption’ – when the devout believe Mary (the mother of Jesus) was taken to heaven. It is one of the major religious festivals in Greece, as many thousands of people attend religious services and celebrations.

The Death and Assumption of the Virgin Mary is a major religious event

Mary is a holy figure for Greeks, not only as the mother of Jesus but because many link her with the nation’s freedom. She has been given quite a lot of different names all over Greece, as locals wanted to give thanks for her aid in some of the woes they faced. Local beliefs of people affect their festivals, so Assumption celebrations can be quite different from one place to another.

Assumption procession in Irakio is led by priests

Orthodox Greeks prepare themselves by fourteen days of fasting, which happily ends on August 15th with church services and great feasts. Many Greeks travel to their home towns – a kind of pilgrimage, to family, culture, faith, and country. Big cities like Athens are almost emptied, while islands and small villages are suddenly very crowded.

Bread is blessed and divided up among the congregation in Irakio

On Crete there are almost as many different kinds of celebrations as there are villages. Many times, even their dances vary from place to place. In hard times, dances were used to educate people and maintain a strong national memory and awareness. Cretan dances have kept some of these special characteristics, but in recent years have been performed mainly for entertainment purposes.

Traditional dances are nearly always a part of festivals on Crete

At the foot of the White Mountains in the small Sfakian village of Anopolis (population: 300), more than 3,000 people showed up for the festival. These were former residents and their descendants who now live in other places around Greece. Our Sfakian friend, who grew up in the village, said dinner consisted mainly of lamb (cooked in every possible way lamb can be prepared). The celebration included singing, dancing and celebratory shooting of guns into the air.

Pilgrims praying for miracles crawl uphill to the Cathedral of Tinos

On Tinos (which a friend of ours calls “a very religious island”), thousands of faithful gather to celebrate in the presence of Evangelistria of Tinos (Our Lady of Good Tidings). This ancient and mysterious icon was discovered in 1823 by a young nun, after she had a dream in which she was told where it was buried. The icon is said to heal the sick – and there are documented cases of miracles. On past visits to Tinos, we have seen people crawling up the hill to the beautiful Panagia Evangelistria Church, to pray before the famous icon.

Bier containing the famous Tinos icon is carried by an honor guard

This year, the famous icon was carried through the streets by a military honor guard, and church services were celebrated by five metropolitans of the Orthodox Church. Many notable politicians also attended the services and the festival that followed.

On the island of Paros, which we visit regularly, the Assumption festival is focused at Panayia Ekanontapyliani (meaning Virgin Mary of One Hundred Doors). It is one of the oldest and best preserved Christian churches in the world. We have never counted the doors, but it is said to have 99 visible doors and one that cannot be seen. The 100th door will be revealed only when Greeks once again occupy Istanbul, which they call Constantinople (once the center of Christian religion).

Ancient Paros church of Panayia Ekanontapyliani

Faithful people from all over Greece gather here in mid-August to venerate the image of Panagia Ekatontapyliani (created in the 17th century) and take part in the festivities. After the solemn Procession of the Bier (Epitafios) symbolizing the tomb of Mary, there is a great festival of the people, partying until the early hours, with traditional music, Parian wine and local delicacies. At the same time, dozens of fishing boats approach the pier with lit torches. It is more impressive with the arrival of “pirates” who start the festival with island dances. Finally, there is a huge fireworks display over the harbor.

The festival on Paros always climaxes with a fireworks display

Ghosts of Warriors

It is a long drive, past Rethimno and then to the southern coast. We stop for a rest in the village of Vrisses, where large plane trees offer cool shade. The village is quiet today. We consider sampling their famous yoghurt with local honey, but we settle for an ice-cold frappe and then get back on the road.

Route through the White Mountains (Lefka Ori) to southern Crete

The next village is Kares, where there are many old buildings from the Venetian and Turkish times, a few churches, and the remains of a Venetian fortress. From here we climb to the Askifou Plateau – Sfakian country – surrounded by the high peaks of the White Mountains (Lefka Ori). There are four villages on the plateau. We stop in Askifou to see the new church dedicated to two Sfakian saints (Manolis and Ioannis), and a small monument to the 1866 uprising against Turkish occupation.

The new Askifou church dedicated to Sfakian saints

Another monument also attracts our attention. It honors the memory of Sfakians who died fighting against Janissaries in 1774. The townsfolk learned that Ibrahim Alidakis, commander of a Janissary fortress in the lowlands, planned to seize their flocks and pastures. At that time the Turko-Cretan Janissaries were the most feared military force in this part of the world – but the Sfakians needed sheep in order to survive.

Monument to those who died protecting their sheep and a way of life

Manousos Pattakos, who had fought against the Turks with Daskalogiannis in 1771, gathered a force of armed citizens from Askyfou. After receiving blessings from their priests, they hiked down from the mountains and attacked the fort. The Sfakians lost 18 men and 2 women warriors in the battle. But they destroyed an army of more than 200 Janissaries … and saved their sheep.

Sfakian fighter during Turkish occupation

Considering the independent nature of Sfakians (descended from Doric warriors who conquered Crete around 1100 BCE), it is not surprising this has been a place of ongoing conflict when outsiders intruded on their way of life. Venetians, Ottomans, Egyptians, and (more recently) Nazi German troops have all attempted to subdue Sfakians – and they failed.

Descending from the Askyfou plateau, we make our way down the winding road to the south coast. As they have for centuries, local shepherds still use this route to move their flocks. And sheep have the right of way.

Sheep have right of way on the mountain road to Hora Sfakion

When we finally reach Hora Sfakion, we are surprised it is so small and isolated. The village lies on a hidden cove at the base of a rugged mountain. Sfakians were once great sailors – and even better pirates. But isolated as they were in this remote place, they always played a leading part in Crete’s struggles for freedom.

Hora Sfakion is a village on a hidden cove at the foot of a mountain

Many revolts against Venetians, and later the Turks and Egyptians, began here in Sfakia. The conquerors seldom lived here, and not just because it was a tough life in the mountains. They were afraid of the inhabitants, who were used to living free and did not tolerate oppression.

Because of this, the Venetians built Frangokastello (meaning the Castle of the Franks) a short distance from Hora Sfakion. However, for a while, local Sfakians destroyed every night what the Venetians built during the day. More Venetian troops were brought in to protect the building project.

Frangokastello was built by Venetians to bring Sfakians under control

Later, when the Ottoman Turks took control of the island, Sfakians from this area were the heart of the revolutionary movement. They organized the first major insurrection in 1770, five years before the American Revolutionary War.

One of the battle towers of Frangokastello, overlooking the Libyan Sea

A famous battle was fought at Frangokastello on 17 May 1828. Hatzi Michalis Dalianis, a Greek patriot attempting to spread the Greek War of Independence to Crete, led 600 Sfakians and other Greeks to occupy the castle (abandoning the usual Sfakian style of guerrilla warfare).

Dalianis was a hero of the Greek War of Independence

The governor of Crete, however, sent a Turkish army of 8,000 to reclaim the castle. The siege continued for a week. After Dalianis was killed along with 385 of the defenders, the survivors surrendered and were allowed to leave. However, many of the Turkish soldiers were later killed in Sfakian ambushes launched from the local gorges.

Sfakian freedom fighters attack Turkish army troops

Sfakians never gave up. Their motto was “Freedom or Death,” and they kept fighting Turks until they finally won freedom, more than a century later.

The folks of Hora Sfakion claim that, on the anniversary of the Frangokastello battle,  the shadows of armed warriors have been seen passing over the fortress and moving toward the sea. The phenomenon, which is visible for about ten minutes, occurs at dawn when the air is filled with dew, hence the name drosoulites (literally “dew-men”) given by the locals. Some witnesses have heard voices and clashing weapons as well. In fact, there are recorded accounts of frightened Turkish and German guards at the fortress actually firing their rifles at the charging phantoms.

Drosoulites are the ghost warriors of Frangokastello

Local folks believe the drosoulites are spirits of those who died during the siege, but were never given a proper burial. Others think they are ghosts of Sfakian warriors, ready to battle once again for freedom.

Measuring the Past

Turning southwest from Mirabello Bay, we drive through Kritsa village and up towards the Lasithiotika mountains. We are on our way to visit the research site of our friend Sabine, an archaeologist who is studying a Minoan farming community in a remote forest. It’s not an exploration you might imagine (no digging in ancient ruins), but it is one of the most common types of archaeological work.

View of Kitsa village from high in the mountains

Archaeologists have been studying Minoan palaces and cities for over a hundred years. Much less is known about the lives of ordinary people. Sabine has focused her research on the way common folk lived during those ancient times.

The only image of Minoan farmers we have seen is on the famous “Harvester Vase” of Ayia Triado (in the Iraklio archaeological museum). Around it is a low relief showing a happy procession of peasants carrying three-pronged pitch forks on their shoulders, singing as they march out to harvest the crops.

Image on the black vase is reversed here to make it easier to see

Climbing higher into the mountains and passing through small farming villages, it is almost as if we are moving back in time. The last village is nearly deserted because most of the residents are in their orchards and fields tending crops and livestock. This is where food is produced for markets in lowland towns.

Following Sabine’s instructions, we drive through a thinly forested area until we spot her car parked off the road. While collecting our gear from the trunk, we hear people talking on the hill above us.

After parking the car, we hike uphill through the forest

We follow the voices until we come upon Sabine, with her husband, two sons and daughter Lisa (who we met years ago on a survey project). These are her research assistants today. They are stringing twine between stakes along stone walls. At first glance, these might be any field walls. However, Sabine points out features of structural foundations. We are looking at a Minoan farmhouse with an attached livestock pen.

Stone foundation of ancient Minoan farmhouse

Sabine is not here to investigate one farmhouse. She is studying the layout of an entire farming community: how the homesteads are distributed over the land, and their correlation with environmental resources. After doing a site survey to find evidence of  archaeological remains, an archaeologist must decide what recording steps are needed.

Helpers take measurements from string grid while Sabine makes notes

There are several ways to record a site. Some don’t require any high-tech equipment. In fact, simple methods can be used by anyone with some basic tools and a familiarity with geometry. To record the exact location of features and artifacts, an archaeologist must measure distances and directions from a specified control point known as the site datum (usually GPS coordinates to which all measurements are tied).

The grid is expanded into a connected network of triangles

One way to measure a large area of land is to establish a baseline from which a network of triangles is laid out. Triangulation uses a formula developed about 2,500 years ago by a Greek genius named Pythagoras. He discovered an amazing fact about triangles:

If the triangle has a right angle (90°) …

… and you make a square on each of the three sides, then …

… the biggest square has the same area as the other two squares put together!

It is called “Pythagoras’ Theorem” and can be written in one short equation:

Sabine has already established the site datum, and is now using a string grid and tape measure to mark off sections of the farming community into a network of adjacent triangles. This isn’t as easy as pacing off the distances at the site, but is definitely more accurate – and the results are more easily transferred to an area map.

Sabine makes notes as helpers call out measurements and angles

By constructing a series of triangles, each adjacent to at least one other, it is possible to determine distances and angles not otherwise measurable. This method can be used to map archaeological features that are important to record.

Triangulation makes it possible to document large study areas

During the course of her research, Sabine has uncovered hundreds of Minoan farms of varying sizes – depending on the each farmer’s status and wealth (that is, the number of sheep and other animals he owns).

Sheep still graze in the mountains, much as they did in Minoan times

The area around us seems deserted, except for numerous bee hives and flocks of sheep foraging among the trees and rocks. Although the farmers do not live here (they have houses in nearby villages), it is quite clear that nothing much has changed since ancient times. This region has always been famous for high quality honey, sheep milk cheeses, wool and meat production.

Materials for teaching triangulation are found at Math Is FunFor ideas on teaching archaeology at various levels go to Lesson Plans



Last Day of Digging

We revisit the Minoan town of Gournia to learn what new things have been discovered at those excavations. Sadly, we find the project is wrapping up for the summer. Many of the student workers are gone, and some of the areas are covered with heavy fabric and soil, to shelter them from the weather.

Students scramble to finish work before the deadline

A few excavations are still active, as teams struggle to complete final tasks before leaving the site. Dr. John Younger and his team are focused on the same area as last year, determined to finish their work. They have made great progress since our last visit. John explained that his team had uncovered older layers and artifacts, revealing more information about earlier generations of Minoan inhabitants.

Professor and assistant attend to final details in trench

Just north of his dig, another team has excavated additional buildings and what has been identified as the main road to the Gournia harbor. The road is broader than the little lanes in the town itself. It was certainly intended for heavier traffic, such as cargo being hauled to and from merchant ships. Parts of the excavation are already covered, but workers are laboring in other areas – trying to meet today’s deadline.

Team covers excavated buildings next to harbor road

East of this site, where excavation was barely underway last year, several house foundations have been uncovered. A cobblestone lane has also been exposed. It is an extension of the lane that continues uphill to the palace.

More houses and part of a cobbled lane are now revealed

Dr. Younger suggests we visit what has been labeled “The Mycenaean House,” on the southeast side of town. That excavation was suspended by the Ministry of Culture (due to a permit mix-up), but the team made an exciting discovery before shutting down.

We hike up the hill and beyond the palace complex, to the Mycenaean dig. We watched this excavation progress over the past several years. The main structures here are clearly post-palatial. That is, they were built after Crete was invaded by Mycenaean Greeks – ending the Minoan empire.

Building at the South gate shows typical Mycenaean architecture

The Mycenaean building is constructed in typical cyclopean style, using huge stones more suitable for fortress ramparts than for normal buildings. It is very different from Minoan structures. The new discovery made during the short time the team worked this year, is a gateway. This opens on a road leading the isthmus of Ierapetra, which is the most fertile flat area of Crete, and the easiest route to the Libyan Sea. Some experts suggest this is the reason Gournia was built here. It is ideally situated for cross island trade.

Mycenaean gate was discovered early in the season

This trade route may have been on the minds of the Mycenaeans, which makes their gateway even more noteworthy. Except for the large base stones, there is not much to identify it as a gate. However, the measurements and calculations made by archaeologists indicate this gateway is larger than the Lion Gate of Mycenae itself. That is impressive for such a small port town.

The famous Lion Gate of ancient Mycenae

On our way out of Gournia, we stop at the ancient cemetery. It is located on the slope to the north and consists of eight tombs, of which only four are visible today. Minoans did not build tombs until they began to build monumental structures (such as palaces). Before that, they buried their dead in graves.

House tombs on the north side of Gournia

In early and middle Minoan periods, tombs appear to imitate domestic structures, which is why they are called ‘house-tombs.’ Some experts theorize that Minoans viewed the world of the dead as a copy of the living world. This would explain why they built houses and furnished them with the dead person’s belongings. The richness of grave goods may reflect the social status of the tomb occupants during their lives.

Digital reconstruction of north cemetery tombs I and II

An altar and stone kernos (for offerings) indicates ritual activity at the tombs. Perhaps families visited their departed relatives to offer provisions and the latest news about the living world. There is so much more to learn about the ancient Minoans, how they lived, and what they believed. It will take time, as researchers continue to excavate and analyze new evidence.

For more information about the Gournia excavations, presented by Dr. Vance Watrous, go to

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