Thursday, 28 July 2016

A new icon from Rethymnon is
a reminder of the faith of martyrs

The icon of the Four Martyrs of Rethymnon by Alexandra Kaouki is now on the bookshelves by the desk in my study (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

I have added a new icon to the bookshelves in my study at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. The icon of the Four Martyrs of Rethymnon comes from the workshop of Alexandra Kaouki (Αλεξανδρα Καουκι) on Melissinou Street, beneath the slopes of the Venetian Fortezza in Rethymnon, which I visited two weeks ago [13 July 2016].

Having spent so much time in Rethymnon over the past 30 years, I thought it very appropriate to have an icon that represents the story, traditions and religious faith of the people of this town in Crete. The original of this icon is above the desk of the Bishop of Rethymnon in his office.

The Four Martyrs of Rethymnon were originally Crypto-Christians. They were members of the Vlatakis family and came from the Melambes region. All four were executed by the Turks outside the walls of Rethymnon in 1824 for adhering to for their Christian faith.

The Four Martyrs lived in Melambes in the Agios Vassilios district of Crete at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. They were farmers who were virtuous, humble and with great hearts and spirits. They were all married with children and all were they were brothers or cousins of each other and members of the Vlatakis family: Emmanuel and Angelis were brothers, the sons of Giannis Vlatakis. George was the son of Constantine Vlatakis and Nikolaos was the son of another Giannis Vlatakis.

Crete had been occupied by the Turks since 1669. The area of Melambes, including Agios Vassilios, Amari and Messara, was constantly raided by Turks from the Amari area, and many people were faced with three options: to remain a Christian and face discrimination and persecution; to convert to Islam; or to become Crypto-Christians, pretending to convert to Islam but secretly remaining an Orthodox Christian.

The Four Martyrs came from a family of Crypto-Christians who converted to Islam publicly but secretly remained Christians. Crypto-Christians fulfilled their religious obligations, including confession, Communion, marriage, baptism, and so, in secret and with discretion.

With the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence in 1821, the four future martyrs joined the cause and took leading roles. They were in the frontline at the battle of Melambes at Kako Ryaki (Bad Stream) and also took part in battles at Kali Sykia, Agios Giannis Kamenos and later at Vathiako and at Monasteraki.

In mid-1822, the Turkish forces in Crete were reinforced with troops from Egypt. Although the revolution was crushed in Crete in 1824, the four future saints continued to live in Melambes and were living openly as Christians. Mehmed Pasha of Rethymnon heard of their new open practice of Christianity and took this as an affront to the Sultan and as treason.

The four went into hiding in Santali, and the pasha sent troops to Melambes, where they met the president of the village, Katergaris. Katergaris and his sister, who was the wife of Nikolaos Vlatakis, were persuaded to send Mathios Katergaris to tell the four to return to Melambes with a promise of their safety. When the martyrs came down to the village, the Turks arrested them immediately and tied them up. Despite the protests of Katergaris that the Turks were not keeping their promises, the detachment left for Rethymnon with the four martyrs.

The old Venetian Harbour at Rethymnon … the Four Martyrs were held prisoners here for four months in 1824 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016; click on image for full-screen reolution)

When the detachment arrived at Rethymnon, the four martyrs were jailed in the prison in the old Venetian Harbour, on the site of today’s Customs House.

At first, Mehmet Pasha tried to convince the four to convert to Islam, promising high offices, honours and gifts. But they refused to engage in any discussion, insisting: “Christians we were born, Christians we want to die.”

The Turkish governor was enraged and ordered their strict isolation and torture, hoping to break their determination. For four months, from July to October, they endured tortures in prison, with the Pasha ordering a new and harsher ordeal each day. But their faith in Christ proved to be unyielding.

Mehmed Pasha then called a special court martial to try them for denouncing and insulting Islam. When they were sentenced to death, they heard the verdict with Christian calm and pride.

They spent their last night peacefully, according to a tradition recorded in a poem by Giorgis Avgoustakis of Melambes:

In their sweet dreams they saw a big miracle
four bright Angels were flying above them
they were holding golden crowns in their hands
they said to them,
Christ has sent us to be with you
because for his love you are giving your lives
.

The Four Martyrs were executed outside the Porta Guora, the Venetian gate that marked the entrance to the old town of Rtehymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The day before their execution, the news was proclaimed by a herald through the streets of Rethymnon. All shops were forced to close and the Turkish and Greek residents were ordered to attend the public execution.

On the morning of 28 October 1824, a procession began at the Turkish prison and made its way through the streets of Rethymnon, finishing at the Porta Guora, the big Venetian gate that marked the entrance to the old town. The four were then taken outside the walls of the city, to an open space by the big plane trees where the Church of the Four Martyrs stands todays.

Kneeling in the open space outside the Porta Guora gate, with their hands tied, they saw their executioner holding his sword, and heard him ask: “Will you adopt the Turkish faith?”

The standard answer was a humble “Yes, my Lord.”

But instead the first man in line surprised everyone with a scornful “No.”

A few seconds before his head was cut off, he added: “I was born a Christian and a Christian I will die.”

One by one, the others did the same.

The sword of the executioner came down four times and beheaded the four men. As each was executed, his dying words were: “Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy).”

Inside the Church of the Four Martyrs in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

For three days their bodies lay unburied outside the gate. But during those three days, it is said, a fragrant smell filled the air. On the fourth day, some brave Christians, led by Antonis Pourdounis and George Lagos, and assisted by Emmanuel Papadakis, the Pasha’s translator, collected the remains and buried them at the Church of Saint George, east of Rethymnon. The church was part of the Monastery of Arkadi.

A year later, Bishop Ioannikios of Rethymnon had the four bodies exhumed and brought the brought the bodies and the skulls to the Cathedral in in Rethymnon. Some remains were also brought to the Monastery of Arkadi.

Tradition says that the homes of the Four Martyrs in Melambes were razed to the ground and later burned the village.

It is difficult to ascertain with historical certainty what happened to the families of the four martyrs. Local people believe that in the case of the families of Nikolaos, George and Angelis, some family members were killed while others were been sold into slavery either in Crete or in the East.

However, the story of the family of Manouil or Emmanuel Vlatakis were passed on by one of his descendants, George Maragakis from the village Kouses, near Iraklion, who heard them from his father, Giannis Maragakis (1889-1976), a great-grandson of Emmanuel Vlatakis.

According to this account, Emmanuel Vlatakis and his wife had four children: two sons Nikolaos and Giannis, a daughter Kroustallenia and another son whose name is not recalled. After Emmanuel’s execution, his wife and two of their sons were shelter by an Italian widower in Rethymnon. One son later moved to Chromonastiri, a village outside Rethymnon, where he had three children: Stylianos, who later became Archimandrite Sofronios, Maria and Anastasia. Another son became a shoemaker and returned to Melambes and his son, Antonios Vlatakis, later became a lawyer in Rethymnon.

An influential Turk, Mirolai Pasha from Tymbaki, offered protection to Nikolaos Vlatakis and he became a carpenter by trade.

The daughter Kroustallenia was taken by a Turk for his harem, forced to convert to Islam and given the name her Fatme. Her brother Nikolaos, with the help of Mirolai Pasha, secured her freedom and she returned to Christianity. She named her child Emmanuel after her father, but he died as a young adult.

Nikolaos later married Maria Kolatsidakis from the village Kouse, and he settled there as a carpenter. They had four children who became known as the maragakia or “little carpenters,” and eventually their surname became Maragakis. One of those four children, Emmanuel, later returned to Melambes, where he resumed the name Vlatakis. But he was also known as Letzomanolis, a combination of his mother’s surname and his own first name.

Manolis Vlatakis or Letzakis died at the age of 94 in 2001. He had five sisters, Anastasia, Vasiliki, Maria, Chrysi and Sophia. All had children, and their descendants still live in Melambes.

Immediately outside the old town, beside the Porta Guora gate, the Church of the Four Martyrs is one of the largest and most-visited churches in Rethymnon, and it stands in a busy square of the same name, Tessaron Martiron.

The church is a fashionable venue for baptisms and weddings at weekends. It was completed on 28 December 1975, but stands on the site of two previous churches, the first from 1905 to 1947 and the second, which was demolished in 1972.

The church stands on the site of the where the execution of the Four Martyrs. The central aisle of the church is dedicated to these four local saints. The north aisle is also dedicated to the Forty Holy Martyrs of Sebaste – Roman soldiers martyred in Armenia during the reign of Licinius in AD 320. The south aisle is dedicated to the Ten Holy Martyrs of Crete who were beheaded by Decius in 250 AD.

Throughout Greece, 28 October is a national holiday, ‘Οχι’ Day, recalling Greece’s trenchant ‘No’ to Mussolini that brought Greece into World War II on 28 October 1940. But in Rethymnon, 28 October is also the day when the city recalls the Four Holy Martyrs.

The Church of the Four Martyrs stands on the site of their execution outside the walls of the old town of Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)