21 June 2018

Saint George’s Monastery
and its ruined olive mills
find new life in Crete

The 12 arches of the old olive oil factory at Saint George’s Monastery, near Vamos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

On the last day of this year’s holiday in Crete, I took a trip in the countryside and the mountainous, olive-producing area west of Georgioupoli yesterday [20 June 2018], and visited the Monastery of Saint George in Karydi.

The monastery, about 2 km south-east of the village of Vamos, is best-known as an architectural monument because of its former olive oil factory with its 12 arches and the remains of four olive mills.

Before the foundation of the monastery, the area was a settlement and fiefdom controlled by a Venetian nobleman, whose house is still preserved.

Writing in 1577, the Venetian man of letters, Francesco Barozzi (1537-1694), who was born in Iraklion, mentions a church dedicated to Saint George at the current location of the monastery.

Given the heavy thunderstorms and rain in Crete throughout this week, I was amused to learn that Barozzi was charged in 1587 with apostasy, heresy, of engaging in the occult, and of causing a torrential rainstorm in Crete. He was found guilty, he was forced to donate silver crosses at the cost of 100 ducats and received a suspended prison sentence.

The Monastery of Aghios Georgios in Karydi was founded around 1600 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The Monastery of Aghios Georgios in Karydi was founded here around 1600, when there was a settlement in this place. The monastery took its name from this settlement in area abundant with walnut trees.

When the Turks captured Crete later in the 17th century, they realised the strategic location of the monastery on a road linking Sfakia and Vamos. There were about 10 Greek Orthodox families here, and the Turks forced them to either convert to Islam or to abandon their village. Four families changed their faith and asked the Turks to turn the Church of Saint George in the village into a mosque.

In the early 18th century, the taxes imposed on the priest were so oppressive that he felt he was being forced to leave the village. Eventually, with the help of the Monastery of Aghia Triada at Tzagarolon, near Chania, he found a way to pay his taxes, and in 1720 the monastery was given in thanks to Aghia Triada Monastery.

In the courtyard at the Monastery of Aghios Georgios (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Since then, Saint George and the lands attached to it have been a dependency of the Monastery of Aghia Triada. The Turks conceded more freedom to the Christians of Crete in 1821. They began olive cultivation in 1829, which helped the monastery to grow and provided work for many people.

The monks bought the properties of the Muslim residents in the locality, and gradually the monastery became an important place of work. The monastery’s property and estates expanded rapidly, as many people left bequests and legacies or donated their land to the monastery, including even some Turks.

The scale of olive oil production at the monastery was so great, that an impressive olive oil factory with four mills was built here in 1863. The size of the factory and the existence of four oil mills is evidence of the enormous quantities of olive oil once produced here.

The Monastery of Aghios Georgios is surrounded by olive groves (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

At one time, the monastery owned 3,600 olive trees, as well as numerous animals and vines. It produced up to 25,000 kg of olive oil, which was a unique example of oil production on a grand scale anywhere in Crete.

The old olive oil factory with its 12 arches has become a picture postcard image of the monastery. The 12 arches, said by some to represent the 12 apostles, once supported a roof that has collapsed. The remains of the four mills can still be seen inside the factory ruins, but only their bases survive, and the millstones have been removed.

Meanwhile, several monks moved from Aghia Triada to Karydi, and rebuilt the church its present form in 1850-1880. A reliquary in the church is said to hold a small part of a bone of Saint George.

A reliquary in the monastery church holds what is said to be a small part of a bone of Saint George (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The last monk left the monastery of Aghios Georgios in 1900, and five years later, in 1905, part of the monastery land is ceded to local farmers and the monastery became forlorn and deserted.

The rest of the monastery lands were granted in 1922 to Greek veterans of the Balkan wars and the Asia Minor campaign. The monastery and many of the surrounding olive groves were destroyed around 1923.

The monastery was left abandoned for many years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

For many years, the monastery was left abandoned. However, the Greek Ministry of Culture began working with Bishop Irenaeus Galanakis in 1986 on a plan to restore the monastery.

Almost a century after the last monks left Aghios Georgios, one lone monk, Father Dorotheos, moved back into the monastery in 1996. He continues to live here, and with the support of local people he is continuing the restoration of the monastery and the church, and welcoming visitors.

● The monastery of Saint George in Karydi is open from 7:30 to 14:00 and 16:30 to 20:00 each day. Entrance charge €2.

Inside the church in the monastery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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