Friday, 25 August 2017

Saint Titus and the massacre
on 25 August that secured
Crete’s unity with Greece

The Church of Saint Titus in Iraklion … 25 August is the feast of Saint Titus and gives its name to the main shopping street in Iraklion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Today is the feast of Saint Titus, the patron saint and first bishop of Crete. His feast is celebrated today [25 August] throughout the Orthodox Church. However, he was only added to the Calendar of the Western Church as late as 1854, when he was assigned to 6 February.

In 1969, the Roman Catholic Church moved his feast to 26 January so he could be linked with Saint Timothy and celebrated on the day after the feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul.

Saint Timothy and Saint Titus are named on 26 January in the calendars of many Anglican churches, including Common Worship in the Church of England, and the Episcopal Church, but not in the calendar of the Church of Ireland.

But 25 August remains the feast of Saint Titus in the Orthodox Church, and his head is the important relic in the Church of Saint Titus in Iraklion in Crete.

Saint Titus (Αγιος Τίτος) was a companion and disciple of the Apostle Paul and an early missionary. He is referred to in several of the Pauline epistles, including the Epistle to Titus, and brought a letter from Saint Paul to Corinth to collect for the poor in Jerusalem. He is believed to have been be a Greek from Antioch. Tradition says he was the first Bishop of Crete and appointed priests in every city in Crete.

The first church dedicated to Saint Titus was in the old capital Gortyn, until its destruction by earthquake and the Arab transfer of the capital of Crete from Gortyn to Chandax (Iraklion) in the year 828.

In 961, Nicephorus Phocas drove the Arabs from Crete, bringing the island back under Byzantine rule. The first Church of Saint Titus in Iraklion may have been built then, and the skull of Saint Titus, the miraculous icon of the Virgin Mesopanditissa and other sacred relics from Gortyn were moved to the new church.

The reliquary with the head of Saint Titus in the Church of Saint Titus in Iraklion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

When Iraklion was captured by the Turks in 1669, the Venetians removed all the relics from the church and took them to Venice.

Under Turkish rule, the Church of Saint Titus was taken over by Vizier Fazil Ahmet Kiopruli, who converted it into a mosque known as the Vezir Mosque.

A major earthquake devastated the city in 1856 and totally destroyed the mosque or former church. It was rebuilt as an Ottoman mosque in 1872 by the architect Athanasios Moussis, who also designed the Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Minas.
The minaret of Saint Titus was demolished in the 1920s, when the last Muslims left Iraklion with the ‘exchange of populations’ between Greece and Turkey under the terms of the Treaty of Laussane.

Restoration work on the church began in 1925, and it was consecrated as the Church of Saint Titus in 1926. The relics of Saint Titus remain in Venice to this day, but his skull was returned to Iraklion in 1966 and is now kept in a silver reliquary in a side chapel in the church

25 August Street is a pedestrianised street leading down to the harbour in Iraklion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Church of Saint Titus is one of the most important buildings in the centre of Iraklion. It stands on one side of Aghios Titos Square, a pretty plaza close to small cafés and bars and that faces onto 25 August Street (Οδός 25ης Αυγούστου).

The street is the elegant, main shopping street in Iraklion, connecting the port of Iraklion with Lion Square. It takes its name from this day, the feast of Saint Titus, because of events almost 120 years ago on 25 August 1898 in the conflicts leading to the end of Ottoman rule in Crete and the incorporation of the island into the modern Greek state.

This street, 25 August Street, runs from the Lion Fountain or Morosini Fountain at Platía Venizélou (Venizelos Square, also known as Lion Square), the central crossroads of the city, down to the Venetian harbour and the fortress of Koules.

The Morosini Fountain in Lion Square at the top of 25 August Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The street may have been first laid out by the Arabs in the ninth or tenth century. Ever since, it has been the main street in Iraklion, linking the city centre with the harbour.

During the Venetian period, from the 13th to the 17th century, it was called the Ruga Maistra (Main Street). Here stood the palatial mansion of the Venetian Dukes or Governors of the island, and the Venetian buildings still lining the street include the Basilica of Saint Mark and the Loggia, all close to the Church of Saint Titus.

The former Venetian loggia on 25 August Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In Ottoman times, the street was known as Vezir Tsarsi (Βεζίρ Τσαρσί, Vizier’s Market) after the Vezir Mosque.

The street’s modern name is taken from a clash during the Cretan struggle for independence on 25 August 1898. On 25 August, a Christian official who had been appointed to manage the customs office in Heraklion was being escorted by British troops along the street from the harbour when they were attacked by a mob of Turkish fanatics.

The Turkish mob went on a rampage through Iraklion. On this day in 1898, about 500 Christians and 17 British soldiers were killed, along with the British Honorary Consul, Lysimachos Kalokairinos, and houses and shops lining the street were set ablaze.

In the reprisals that followed, 17 Turkish Cretans suspected as being the ringleaders were hanged, and many more were jailed. The British navy sailed into the harbour and the city was cleared of Turkish troops.

Crete became a self-governing island, with its autonomy guaranteed by the European powers. Within 15 years, the Great Powers were forced to accept the Cretan demand for the union of Crete with Greece, which was finalised in 1913.

The former Venetian Basilica of Saint Mark on 25 August Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In the early 20th century, after Crete had been incorporated into the modern Greek state, 25 August Street became the most fashionable street in Iraklion. New buildings on the street provided offices for the new Greek authorities and state bodies, transforming Iraklion into a modern city and enhancing the majestic vista from the port into the heart of the city.

However, that first impression given to visitors belied the reality of life in the side streets and alleyways off the street, and many local people named it the ‘Street of Illusion’ (Οδός Πλάνης).

Today, 25 August is a paved pedestrian street, lined with the most beautiful neoclassical buildings in Iraklion. Many of the neoclassical and Venetian buildings now house banks, travel agencies, tourist shops and cafés. But the Loggia has been restored and San Marco, which also became a mosque in the Ottoman era, is now an exhibition area.

Walking down the street towards the harbour on a summer day, you can feel the cool sea breeze blowing up from the harbour and the Mediterranean. The parallel side streets and squares off 25 August Street have enticing ouzeri and tavernas. And today the street will be packed with people at procession and festivities celebrating the feast of Saint Titus.

Inside the Church of Saint Titus in Iraklion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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