09 September 2015

Spiritual refreshment in the monastery
and physical refreshment by the sea

The Main Church in Arkadi was built in the Venetian era and was influenced by Italian architecture (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

It takes only a little time to get out of the resorts that line the coast east of Rethymnon, with their shops and bars and restaurants, and to find yourself in the open countryside of Crete.

All along the road east to Iraklion, small signs invite you to turn into the country roads that lead up to the mountain villages and monasteries.

The steady climb on the roads up into the mountains first brought us to Adele, a small village 4 km east from Platanes, in a green and verdant plain rich in olive groves, with trees laden with oranges, lemons, apricots and prickly pears.

Adele is the home village of Kostas Giamboudakis, the hero of the destruction of the Monastery of Arkadi, which is one of the formative incidents in the history of Crete.

From Adele, we travelled another 1 km on to the village of Pigi, which dates back to Venetian times and takes its name from a rich source of water.

Olive groves on the road up to Arkadi (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

This journey through the mountains above Rethymnon continued along the corkscrew roads that weave their ways through olive groves and vineyards, across deep gorges and through pine-clad rocky outcrops and the villages of Loutro, Kyriana and Amnatos.

It took almost an hour to reach the north-west side of Mount Ida, where the Monastery of Arkadi (Μονή Αρκαδίου) stands on a fertile plateau at a height of 500 metres. Although the temperatures in Platanes and Rethymnon have been in the high 30s all this week, it was noticeably cooler at this height, even in the mid-day sun.

For Greeks, Arkadi is an important place in the struggle for independence and national identity. On 8 November 1866, the monastery was besieged by thousands of Turks. Kostas Giamboudakis asked Abbot Gabriel Marinakis for permission to set off the gunpowder stored in the monastery. Many women and children were inside the monastery, but Giamboudakis decided they should all die together to protect them from the shame of falling into Turkish hands.

Everyone present was given an option to leave, but each and every person there opted for self-sacrifice rather than surrender. The shocked reaction in Western Europe to the massacre and destruction was a major factor in forcing the Ottoman empire to concede autonomy to Crete and its eventual unification with the modern Greek state.

Today Arkadi is a national monument, but it remains a monastery and a place of prayer and worship. Before visiting the rest of the monastery, we prayed inside the main church or katholikon.

Inside the church in Arkadi (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The church is a basilica with two naves. The architecture of the building is heavily influenced by Renaissance art, as the church was built when Crete was ruled by the Venetians. The façade was probably influenced by the work of the Italian architects Sebastinao Serlio and Andrea Palladio.

The northern nave, on the left as one enters the church, is dedicated to the Transfiguration of Christ; the southern nave, on the right hand side, is dedicated to Saint Constantine and his mother Saint Helen.

A married couple stops to have photographs taken in the cloisters in Arkadi (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

As we wandered around the monastery, a newly married couple were having their photographs taken in the cloisters, the courtyard and in front of the church. Perhaps they had a secular wedding and now wanted their wedding photographs in a church setting. This was no photoshoot, for they were on their own and were using a timer on the camera or asking other people to take the shots they set up. Before they left, they were offered a small room to change back out of their wedding clothes.

In one large room in the monastery, a new icon of Christ with the Samaritan Woman at the Well (John 4: 1-26) hangs appropriately over a large covered well.

An icon in Arkadi of Christ with the Samaritan Woman at the Well (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

We bought some icons and gifts and then had coffee in the nearby café before making our way back down by the Arkadi Gorge and through the mountain villages and olive groves to Platanes.

Later in the afternoon, I spent a few hours at the beach in Platanes, swimming in the clear blue waters of the Mediterranean.

The long sandy stretch at Pavlos Beach in Platanes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Later in the day, Vena Fotaki, a dear friend from Iraklion joined me for dinner in Platanes and came laden with many presents, including a copy of the Icon of the Panagía tou Hárou (Η Παναγία του Χάρου).

This icon is in the Monastery of Panagía tou Hárou on the island of Leipsoi. The church was built by monks from Patmos ca 1600 and this is the only icon in Greece in which the Virgin Mary is depicted cradling the Crucified Christ, instead of the Christ Child, in her arms.

The annual commemoration of the icon takes place on 23 August, when the island of Leipsoi, between Samos and Leros, is thronged with pilgrims from throughout the Dodecanese, for the procession of the icon and to see the annual blossoming of the dead bouquet of lilies on the icon.

The story is told that at the height of World War II, a young woman who was praying at this icon had her prayers answered, and in gratitude placed a simple bouquet of six lilies in front of the icon in April 1943. These lilies withered but remained on the icon and on the feast day that falls on 23 August, eight days after the feast of the Dormition, it is said these lilies blossomed again, sprouting 12 new buds and giving a sweet fragrance. Since then, this miracle occurs annually on the day of the feast.

This icon was an appropriate gift to receive on 8 September, the Feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It had been a day of spiritual and physical refreshment.

A present from a friend … a copy of the Icon of Panaghia tou Haros (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

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