Sunday, 1 September 2013

A street name in Rethymnon
honours a revolutionary abbot

Abbot Melchisedek Street in the old town honours the revolutionary Abbot of Preveli who was born in Rethymnon Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

After writing yesterday [Saturday 31 August 2013] about Emmanuel Tsouderos, the former Greek Prime Minister who was born in Rethymnon and who gave his name to Tsouderon Street, I came across the story of another local hero from the same family, Melchisedek Tsouderos, the revolutionary Abbot of Preveli who was born in Rethymnon and who gave his name to another street in the old town, Abbot Melchisedek Street.

Abbot Melchisedek Tsouderos (Μελχισεδέκ Τσουδερός), the legendary Abbot of Preveli (1803-1823), was a leading figure in the first two years of the Revolution in Crete, when Crete took part in the Greek War of Independence.

Many people outside Crete are familiar with the story of Arkadi Monastery, 23 km south-east of Rethymnon, and the role of the monastery and its abbot, Gabriel Marinakis, in the revolt of 1866 in Crete’s struggle for liberation.

The massacre in Arkadi in 1866 is recalled in the name of Arkadiou Street, around the corner from Tsouderon Street. But Tsouderon Street honours the memory of the abbot who organised and armed the first military force in the Greek Revolution in Crete in the village of Rodakino on 24 May 1821. In retaliation, the Ottomans ransacked Preveli Monastery. Tsouderos, who died fighting two years later in 1823, and remains a hero in this part of Crete.

The monastery of Preveli (Πρέβελη) is 37 km south of Rethymnon, in a beautiful natural setting on the western slopes of Megalos Potamos, close to the Kourtaliotiko Gorge and the famous palm groves of Preveli on Crete’s south coast.

The monastery may date from the tenth century. Tradition says it takes its name from a murderer who fled his home in Preveliana village and sought refuge there in the 16th century. However, the monastery probably takes its name from Akakios Prevelis, who renovated the monastery in 1670.

Melchisedek Tsouderos ... revolutionary abbot remembered in Abbot Melchisedek Street in Rethymnon

In 1821, the Abbot of Preveli, Melchisedek Tsouderos – whose family was from Rethymnon and who were said to be descended from the Byzantine imperial family – became a member of the secret revolutionary organisation, the Philiki Etairia (the Society of Friends).

On 25 May 1821, the abbot and a group of rebels hoisted the Greek flag on the hills overlooking the village of Rodakino, and he soon became the leading figure in the revolutionary events of 1821 in Crete.

The abbot organised, equipped and financed the first rebel units against the Turkish forces. He managed to rescue the monks before the Turks destroyed the monastery of Preveli in a reprisal.

Abbot Melchisedek’s force, made up of monks and civilians, went on to fight in many battles in western Crete. He was fatally injured in a battle near the village of Polemarchi in the Kissamos area on 5 February 1823. He died while his companions were trying to move him to the village of Platania, where he was buried.

The monastery in Preveli was active again in organising the rebellions against the Turks in 1866 and 1878 that helped to secure Crete’s eventual autonomy, followed by political union with Greece 100 years ago in 1913.

During the German occupation of Crete in World War II, 5,000 Greek, Australian, New Zealand and British troops who had fought in the Battle of Crete in 1941, were given shelter in the monastery by the Abbot Agathangelos Lagouvardos, who helped secure their escape on submarines to Egypt. In a revenge attack on 25 August 1941, the Germans plundered the monastery and many of the monks were sent to prison in Chania prison.

Preveli is officially the Holy Stavropegic and Patriarchal Monastery of Saint John the Theologian, a title that means it is under the direct protection of the Patriarch of Constantinople rather than a local bishop.

The monastery is actually two separate monasteries, which are located 1.7 km away from each other, the Kato or Lower Monastery of Agios Ioannis Prodomos (Saint John the Forerunner, or Saint John Baptist) and the Piso or Upper Monastery of Theologos (Saint John the Theologian or Saint John the Evangelist).

There are two daily buses from Rethymno to Preveli (10 a.m. and 4.30 p.m.) and two daily return buses (11.30 a.m. and 5.30 p.m.).

The first monastery complex the visitor meets is the ruined Kato Monastery, near the Megalos Potamos river. The monastery has laid in ruins since it was destroyed by the Germans in their revenge attack in 1941.The church of Saint John the Baptist is surrounded by monastic buildings that once included the dining room, the cooking room, the abbot’s room, the cells, an olive oil press and, warehouses. The monastery was looted several times during Turkish rule, and eventually destroyed by the Germans in their revenge attack in 1941.

The Piso Monastery of Saint John the Theologian continues to operate as a living monastery. It is built on the rocky cliffs of Mount Mesokorfi, at a height of 170 metres, with views down to the sea below.

The monastery complex is built in the shape of the letter Π, with the two-aisled church at its centre. The temple has an icon screen and the two aisles are dedicated to Saint John the Theologian (8 May) and the Annunciation (25 March). The monastery the buildings include the abbot’s room, the dining room, the baking room, the library, a creamery, a wax workshop, and the monks’ cells.

Many of the monastery’s sacred vessels, vestments, Gospels and icons from the 16th to 20th century are on display in a small museum.

Perhaps I should visit the monastery later this week.

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