28 August 2014

Finding peace in Previli monastery
after years of rebellions and wars

Monastic bells in a tree in the courtyard of Preveli Monastery on the south coast of Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

During the long expedition to the south coast of Crete earlier this week, it was good to spend some time in Preveli, visiting the monastery that is famous for its role in struggles against both the Turks and the Germans in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The monastery is celebrated in Greek lore and in books and movies for its part in helping allied soldiers escape Crete in World War II. With all the tales of bravado, daring-do and great escapes, it is easy for tourists and visitors to forget that this is also a holy place.

Preveli is 37 km south of Rethymnion, where I am staying, and while the monastery lies is within the Diocese of Lambis and Sfakion, it comes under the direct oversight of the Ecumenical Patriarch, making it the Holy Stavropegic and Patriarchal Monastery of Saint John the Theologian.

In fact, the Monastery of Preveli is not one but two monasteries, with two sets of buildings. The ruined Lower Monastery (Kato Moni) is dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, but is now deserted. This part of the monastery is fenced off and closed to visitors. It was another 3 km or so to the second living, active monastery, known as the Upper or Rear Monastery (Piso Moni) and dedicated to Saint John the Theologian.

There is strong evidence that an early monastery stood on the site of the lower monastery during the Second Byzantine period in Crete, in the 10th or early 11th century. But the monastery was probably founded in the Middle Ages, when Crete was under Venetian rule.

Documents show the original name of Preveli was “The Monastery of the Great River at the Island of Crete.” The present name is explained in different stories about who founded Preveli. Some say it was founded by a feudal lord named Prevelis. Others say it is named after a repentant murderer who fled his home in Preveliana village in the 16th century, found refuge in the monastery and gave his life savings in thanks for his life being saved. Another tradition says Preveli takes its name from Abbot Akakios Prevelis, who renovated the monastery in 1670.

Indeed, at least three or four of the abbots in the 17th and 18th century were from the Prevelis family, a family from Rethymnon descended from the Kallergis, a Byzantine noble family.

The earliest records for the monastery go back to 1594, a date engraved on a monastery bell. When the Turks occupied Crete in 1649, they destroyed many churches and church buildings, including the monastery of Preveli. But the monastery survived and was restored, and in the centuries that followed became a centre for education and a centre for resistance to Ottoman rule.

In 1770, Abbot Efraim Prevelis took part in the revolution led by John Vlachos or Daskalogianis. He was convicted for the assassination of a Janissary, Gioussef Fassaros, and was sentenced to death by the Turks. He was finally pardoned in 1798 after Patriarch Gregory V intervened with the Sulktan in Istanbul.

To secure the monastery’s privileges and estates, Abbot Ephrem sought the protection of the Patriarchate, and Preveli was given the status of a patriarchal and stavropegic monastery. As a sign of this new status, he returned from Constantinople with the Cross that has remained the most prized relic in Preveli.

A plaque commemorating Abbot Melchisedek Tsouderos in the courtyard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

In 1821, the Abbot of Preveli, Melchisedek Tsouderos – whose family was from Rethymnon and who were said to be descended from the Byzantine imperial family – became a member of the secret Greek revolutionary organisation, the Philiki Etairia (the Society of Friends).

On 25 May 1821, the abbot and a group of rebels hoisted the Greek flag on the hills overlooking the village of Rodakino, and he soon became the leading figure in the revolutionary events of 1821 in Crete.

The abbot organised, equipped and financed the first rebel units against the Turkish forces, and managed to rescue the monks before the Turks destroyed the monastery in a reprisal attack.

Abbot Melchisedek’s force, made up of monks and civilians, went on to fight in many battles in western Crete. He was fatally injured in a battle near the village of Polemarchi in the Kissamos area on 5 February 1823. He died while his companions were trying to move him to the village of Platania, where he was buried. He is commemorated in the name of Tsouderon Street, where I stayed last year and the year before in Pepi Studios.

The monastery in Preveli was active again in organising rebellions against the Turks in the 19th century. The disaster at Arkadi Monastery in November 1866 did not deter Abbot Agathangelos and his monks, who fed and sheltered up to 200 rebels in Preveli on a daily basis. In a revenge attack on 7 July 1867, Resit Pasha and 8,000 Turkish soldiers set fire to the Lower Monastery and its farms in the neighbouring villages. The Rear Monastery was saved at the last moment and continued its active role until the end of the revolution in 1869.

When yet another revolution broke out in 1878, the Rear Monastery became rebel headquarters and the abbot fought at the front line. Captain Nicolaos Soumelis moored his ship Panellinion below the monastery at the mouth of the river at the beach in Preveli, bringing ashore guns and supplies.

The revolutions were instrumental in securing Crete’s eventual autonomy in 1896, followed by political union with Greece 100 years ago in 1913.

Tablets in the monastery courtyard tell of the rescue of allied troops by the monks of Preveli (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

During the German occupation of Crete in World War II, 5,000 Greek, Australian, New Zealand and British troops who fought in the Battle of Crete in 1941 found themselves stranded on the island. Many found shelter in the monastery and others were hidden in homes and farms nearby.

The Abbot, Agathangelos Lagouvardos, helped organise their escape to Egypt on two submarines, the Thrasher and the Torbay, came close to the Palm Beach at Preveli below the monastery on the nights of 31 May and June 1941 and 20 and 21 August 1941.

Two British submarines rescued allied troops from the Palm Beach below Preveli Monastery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

In a revenge attack on 25 August 1941, the Germans plundered the monastery, the Lower Monastery was destroyed completely, and many of the monks were sent to Firka Prison in Chania.

Among the precious items plundered from the Monastery by the Germans was its most precious relic, the miraculous Cross of Abbot Ephraim Prevelis.

But the monks who returned immediately began rebuilding the Rear Monastery with help from local people and from other monasteries in Crete. Meanwhile, Abbot Agathangelos had joined the Greek Army in the Middle East as a chaplain. He died suddenly, two days before he was due to return to Greece after the liberation.

The Lower (Kato) Monastery of Saint John the Baptist once housed the younger monks and lay people who worked at the monastery, and remains a mainly abandoned collection of buildings, with the main church or katholikon in the centre of the courtyard.

The icons and the remaining relics have been rescued and are now in the museum at the Rear Monastery, and many of the restored buildings are open to the public. In the courtyard, a series of monuments recall the role the monastery played in World War II, many of them financed by rescued Australian former soldiers.

The Rear Monastery is at the foot of a mountain and overlooks the Libyan Sea. The monastery is the shape of an irregular letter Π, with buildings on the north, the west and part of the east sides of a level area, with the main church or katholikon in the centre of the courtyard.

The katholikon or main church was built in 1835-1837 on the site of earlier churches (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

The katholikon stands on the site of the older, probably frescoed church that was demolished in 1835. The present church was completed in 1837 and was consecrated that year. The church is a large two-nave building, unified internally by a sequence of three arches.

The marble doorframes and the Byzantine double-headed eagle were put in place on the west front of the church in 1911, replacing much simpler doorframes from 1835.

Inside, the interior of the church has remained intact. The naves are separated by a series of three semi-circular arches supported on strong pillars with simple capitals and bases.

The icons of Saint John the Theologian and Saint Charalambos are the works of a very fine painter who worked in this area in the 1830s and is known as the “Painter of Sfakia.”

The icons of the iconostasis were painted by local painters in 1840-1841. This iconostasis spans the two naves of the church as one unit. The design and decoration link it to the tradition of the Cretan School of Painting at the end of Venetian rule.

The carved, wooden, gold-plated pulpit has wooden stairs that twist round the adjoining pillar, was carved in 1863 and decorated in 1874. The lower part of the pulpit is formed by three triangular bevelled sections divided by rows of stars. Each triangular section has floral decorations surrounding two oval frames with icons of the 12 Apostles.

A magnificent Patriarchal Throne stands against the south wall, for this monastery comes under the direct oversight of the Ecumenical Patriarch.

The bell tower at the west end of the katholikon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

A long, enclosed chamber, once used as stables, now houses the museum of the monastery. The collection of icons covers a period from the early 17th century to the end of 19th century. The museum displays a large collection of vestments, sacred vessels, relics, manuscripts and books, although many valuable items from the past were sold in the 19th century to raise money for arms and ammunitions in different revolutions.

The best-known item in Preveli is on display not in the museum but in the katholikon. This is the large, richly decorated silver cross brought back to Preveli from Constantinople by Abbot Ephrem and now kept in a special shrine in the main church.

The monastery is built on a hill looking out to the Libyan Sea (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

It is said this cross was carried in the frontline in battles, but was lost in 1823 in a battle against the Turks at Amourgeles. It was found later that year in the possession of Genoese sailors. According to legend, they had bought the cross in Iraklion, but their ship suddenly stopped while sailing in the Libyan Sea near Preveli and for three days they could not continue their journey until finally they returned the cross to the monastery.

A similar story about the cross is associated with the German destruction of the monastery in 1941. German officers removed the Cross from the monastery and tried to send it in Germany. However, it is said the plane it was put on could not take off for Athens. The cross was placed on a second plane, but that too failed to take off. A few days after it had been looted, the cross was returned to Preveli, where it was put back on display in the church on 13 September, the eve of the feast celebrating the finding of the True Cross.

The cells where the monks live on the north side of the monastery courtyard … today the community has dwindled in numbers to three (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Today, the monastic community has dwindled in numbers so that there are only three monks living in the monastery. It is a crisis in monastic vocations that is hitting many monasteries throughout Greece.

However, I was warmly invited into the katholikon this week by one of the monks, who pointed out the main aspects of the church.

He quickly realised I was a priest, and asked me which Church I was from and who was my bishop.

“Michael Jackson,” I replied, “he is my archbishop,” and I handed him my business card.

“Michael Jackson?” he asked quizzically. And then he filled the vaulted church with hearty laughter.

But then he pointed out the icons, the patriarch’s throne, and other treasures in the Church. He told me the story of the Cross, put on his stole, took the Cross out of its shrine, and blessed me before I went on my way.

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