10 October 2013

Agia Irini: A newly-restored
Byzantine monastery in Crete

The bells of Agia Irini are ringing out again after being quiet for decades (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

A holiday in Greece has always had its spiritual dimension for me. Late summer was turning to early autumn in Crete this year when I caught a morning bus from the centre of Rethymnon up into the mountains above the town and visited two monasteries about five to 12 km south of the town.

It was a beautiful sun-kissed day, and the olive groves were basking in the warmth of the morning sunshine as the bus climbed up through the hills, leaving the blue sea behind us as we drove on through the Gorge of Myli.

My first stop was at the Monastery of Panagia Chalevi, on the way to the village of Chromonastiri, about 12 km south of Rethymnon.

This Venetian-era monastery dates from the 16th or 17th century, but all the monastery buildings have been abandoned since the end of the Turkish occupation and only the single-aisle church remains in repair and in use.

Agia Irini may have been founded sometime between 961 and 1204 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The church is dedicated to the Dormition of the Virgin Mary (Panagia), and has magnificent flame or teardrop-shaped windows. Beside it stand the ruined monastic buildings, which were built like a fortress and since 1980 it has been a protected monument.

The monastery once had stavropegic standing, which meant it was under the direct authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Although the stavropegic standing was lost in 1725, it was restored in 1850 by Patriarch Anthimos IV, and the church which had been abandoned once before was restored in 1864.

The church at Chalevi is known for its magnificent flame or teardrop-shaped windows (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

However, Chalevi ceased to function as a monastery once again in 1900, and in 1935 it became a dependency of the Arsaniou Monastery. In 1991, the monastery was attached to the restored monastery of Agia Irini.

We stopped briefly to have a look at the military museum in the village of Chromonastiri, before returning to the Gorge of Myli, and along the winding road through the village of Roussospiti, which clings to the side of the rocky mountain, before arriving at the gates of the Monastery of Agia Irini (Saint Irene), which stands 260 metres above Rethymnon, which is 5 km to the north.

Agia Irini is one of the oldest monasteries in Crete. Some accounts say it was founded sometime between 961 and 1204, and it was certainly built before 1362, when a Venetian document testifies to its existence.

But the monastery was destroyed several times during the many revolutions in Crete against Ottoman rule, and after the revolution of 1821 at the beginning of the Greek War of Independence, the monastery went into decline.

In 1844, the Schools Commission assumed the management of the monastery and in 1866, after it suffered great damage at the hands of the Turks, the monastery was granted to the nearby monastery of Chalevi.

However, during the last Cretan revolution of 1897-1898, the Turks burnt the monastery, the ruined monastery was formally closed in 1900, and the ruins remained deserted for most of the 20th century.

At first, the monastery lands were granted to the monastery of Arsani, but in 1925 the lands were distributed among local Greek war veterans. Sister Akaterina, who brought us on a tour of the monastery, told us how the Metropolitan of Rethymnon, the late Bishop Theodoros Tzedakis, had a vision in 1989 for the restoration of the monastery and invited a group of nuns to form a new community at Agia Irini.

A quiet corner in the monastery of Agia Irini, 5 km south of Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The nuns moved into the buildings and restoration work started in 1990. At the time, Agia Irini was a jumble of dilapidated buildings. Today, it must be one of the most beautiful monasteries in Crete, having been restored with great care, using the principles of monastic architecture from a bygone era.

The restoration work was acknowledged with the Europa Nostra Award in 1995 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The restoration work was acknowledged in 1995 with the annual European Union award for cultural heritage, the Europa Nostra Award. From the entrance, the monastery looks like a walled fortress. Unlike other churches, the main church is not in the centre of the enclosure but outside it on the higher level of the sacred rock.

Sister Akaterina told us how the church was officially opened in 2003, and was consecrated two years ago on 20 August 2011 by Patriarch Theodoros of Alexandria.

On the ruins of an old olive mill stands the smaller chapel of Saint Raphael, Saint Nicholas and Saint Irene. The monastery also has a small museum, a refectory, and workshops for icon painting, embroidery and sewing. The nuns use olive oil and tsoikoudia from their own trees and grapes to make hand-made soap and herb extracts.

Outside the courtyard, an older three-aisled church of Saint Irene, Saint Catherine and Saint Euphemia is awaiting restoration.

Eight nuns now live in the monastery. In their shop, the nuns sell traditional handicrafts of weaving and needlework, their own almond-flavoured drink, candles, religious books and icons, including unusual icons written on odd pieces of ceramic. Two of the nuns took part in the recent icon exhibition in Rethymnon as part of the Renaissance Festival which closed that Sunday.

It was another 5 km journey back down the mountain to the coast and Rethymnon, where we spent the late afternoon in the sun on the beach, swimming and walking along the shore.

The grave of Metropolitan Theodoros Tzedakis outside the church in Agia Irini (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. This essay and these photographs appear in Koinonia (Kansas City, MO), Vol 6, No 23 (Trinity II), pp 12-13.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thanks for this informative visit to Agia Irni. We were delighted by the grounds, architecture and tour led by Sister Katherine in April 16. Your historical perspective enriches our understanding and appreciation.

Rev. Jeffrey Kelley, USA