17 April 2020

A ‘virtual tour’ of a dozen
monasteries in Crete on
a lost ‘lockdown’ Easter

The monastery of Arkadi has a special place in the heart of all Cretans (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Each year, during my visits to Greece, I spend some of my time in a monastery. Last year, I spent some time visiting the monasteries of Meteora, and during Holy Week and Easter the previous year (2018), I spent time at Mount Athos.

I had planned to visit Crete for Holy Week and Easter, which falls this weekend in the calendar of the Greek Orthodox Church. But the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic has cancelled all my travel plans.

Hopefully, I can plan in a few weeks’ time to visit Crete later this year. Meanwhile, to mark Good Friday in the calendar of the Greek Orthodox Church today, I offer a ‘virtual tour’ of a dozen monasteries in Crete.

1, Arkadi

Arkadi remains a working monastery and a new museum opened in 2016 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I have visited Arkadi Monastery (Μονή Αρκαδίου) on and off, over the years, since I first came to Rethymnon in 1988. The monastery, on the edge of the Psilorítis Mountains, is 23 km south-east of Rethymnon. When I am staying in Platanias, it is a half-hour journey up through the bright and welcoming mountain villages of Adele, Pigi, Loutra, Pigi and Kirianna, through olive groves and vineyards, and along the side of the Arkadi Gorge.

The monastery has a special place in the heart of all Cretans because of its role in the Cretan resistance against Ottoman rule. During the Cretan revolt in 1866, 943 Greek people, mostly women and children, sought refuge in the besieged monastery. After a three-day battle, they blew up barrels of gunpowder, choosing to death rather than surrender.

Arkadi featured on the Greek 100 drachmai banknote until Greece joined the Eurozone. The monastery’s image was restored to popular currency with the issue of 750,000 new €2 coins in Greece in November 2016 to mark the 150th anniversary of the destruction of Arkadi in November 1866.

Today, only three monks live in the monastery. But, despite the constant arrival of tourists and visitors and the dwindling number of monks, this remains a working monastery.

The main church in Arkadi is unusual for its double-aisled interior (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The main church or katholikon dates back to the 16th century but shows Roman, Venetian, Renaissance and Baroque elements in its architecture. This church is unusual with its two aisles, and is dedicated to both the Transfiguration and to Saint Constantine and Saint Helen.

Since the 16th century, the monastery has been a centre for the sciences, art and learning. The church was built in 1587, replacing a smaller church dating from the 13th century. The façade, which was designed in renaissance style, was influenced by the work of the architects Sebastiano Serlio and Andrea Palladio.

In the monastic cloisters in Arkadi (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A new museum opened in Arkadi in 2016, and exhibits surviving books from the monastery library, the collection of icons, and liturgical items, including vestments, stoles, patens, chalices and crosses.

Most of the items come from smaller monastic houses (metochia) and chapels that were once dependencies of Arkadi. They date from 1629 to the mid-19th century, and the earliest are fine examples of the Late Cretan School.

2, Saint Catherine of Sinai, Iraklion:

Saint Catherine of Sinai … the monastic church is now a museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Catherine’s Museum, beside the Cathedral of Saint Minas in the heart of Iraklion, was once a monastic church that belonged to the Monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai. The Monastery of Saint Catherine was founded in the 10th century by monks from Mount Sinai, but all that survives of the monastery today is the main church.

The church was built during the second Byzantine period in the 16th century and was influenced by Venetian architecture. It became the centre of intellectual and artistic activity in Crete from the 15th to the 17th century.

Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai transferred the church to the Cathedral of Saint Minas in 1924.

Inside Saint Catherine of Sinai … the Divine Liturgy is still served here on Saint Catherine’s Day, 25 November (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Catherine’s is now a museum and exhibition venue owned by the Archdiocese of Crete. The museum’s displays tell the story of the Cretan Renaissance, with outstanding icons by Michail Damaskinos, the teacher of Domenikos Theotokopoulos, El Greco, and works by Georgios Klontzas and Theophanes the Cretan. Other displays also include collections of altar furnishings, books, vestments and detached murals.

But, technically speaking, this former monastic church is still a church, and the Divine Liturgy is celebrated in the church every year on 25 November, the feast of Saint Catherine.

Saint Matthew’s Church, Iraklion … once a dependency of Saint Catherine’s Monastery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Catherine’s once had a number of metochoi or dependent churches around Iralkion, typified in Saint Matthew’s Church. Archaeological evidence shows an early church on this site. But it was rebuilt in the second Byzantine period, and took its present form in 1503 after severe damage in an earthquake.

At the beginning of the ottoman period in Crete in 1669, the church was saved by becoming a metochi of Saint Catherine’s Monastery, although the Turks turned Saint Catherine’s into a mosque.

The churchyard holds the graves of many prominent Cretans killed during rebellions against the Turks and in the massacre of 25 August 1898, including the British consul, Lyssimachos Kalokairinos. The church now houses a collection of icons, including major works of the Cretan School.

3, Agia Irini:

The bells of Agia Irini are ringing out again after being quiet for decades (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Agia Irini is one of the oldest monasteries in Crete. Some accounts say it was founded sometime between 961 and 1204, and it was certainly built before 1362, when a Venetian document testifies to its existence.

But the monastery was destroyed several times during the many revolutions in Crete against Ottoman rule, and after the revolution of 1821 at the beginning of the Greek War of Independence, the monastery went into decline.

In 1844, the Schools Commission assumed the management of the monastery and in 1866, after it suffered great damage at the hands of the Turks, the monastery was granted to the nearby monastery of Chalevi.

However, during the last Cretan revolution of 1897-1898, the Turks burnt the monastery, the ruined monastery was formally closed in 1900, and the ruins remained deserted for most of the 20th century.

At first, the monastery lands were granted to the monastery of Arsani, but in 1925 the lands were distributed among local Greek war veterans. Sister Akaterina, who brought me on a recent tour of the monastery, told how the Metropolitan of Rethymnon, the late Bishop Theodoros Tzedakis, had a vision in 1989 for the restoration of the monastery and invited a group of nuns to form a new community at Agia Irini.

The nuns moved into the buildings and restoration work started in 1990. At the time, Agia Irini was a jumble of dilapidated buildings. Today, it must be one of the most beautiful monasteries in Crete, having been restored with great care, using the principles of monastic architecture from a bygone era. The restoration work was acknowledged in 1995 with the European Union award for cultural heritage, the Europa Nostra Award.

A quiet corner in the monastery of Agia Irini, 5 km south of Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

From the entrance, the monastery looks like a walled fortress. Unlike other churches, the main church is not in the centre of the enclosure but outside it on the higher level of the sacred rock.

Sister Akaterina recalled how the church was officially opened in 2003, and was consecrated on 20 August 2011 by Patriarch Theodoros of Alexandria.

On the ruins of an old olive mill stands the smaller chapel of Saint Raphael, Saint Nicholas and Saint Irene. The monastery also has a small museum, a refectory, and workshops for icon painting, embroidery and sewing. The nuns use olive oil and tsoikoudia from their own trees and grapes to make hand-made soap and herb extracts.

Outside the courtyard, an older three-aisled church of Saint Irene, Saint Catherine and Saint Euphemia is awaiting restoration.

Eight nuns now live in the monastery. In their shop, the nuns sell traditional handicrafts of weaving and needlework, their own almond-flavoured drink, candles, religious books and icons, including unusual icons written on odd pieces of ceramic.

The late Metropolitan Theodoros Tzedakis is buried outside the church in Agia Irini.

4, Moni Arsanios (Saint George), Pagalohori:

Moni Arsanios, 11 km east of Rethymnon, dates from the 16th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Moni Arsanios (Μονή Αρσανίου) or the Monastery of Saint George at the village of Pagalohori, 11 km east of Rethymnon, dates from the 16th century. Below, there are panoramic views out to the Cretan Sea; above are views up to Mount Psiloritis, the highest mountain on the island.

The katholikon or main church in the monastery is dedicated to Aghios Georghios (Saint George), and a smaller church is named after Saint Mark the Deaf. But the monastery probably takes its name from a monk called Arsenios, who built the monastery in the 16th century.

The katholikon was dedicated to Saint George in 1600. When the Turks occupied Rethymnon in 1646, the monastery may have been deserted. Bishop Neophytos Patelaros put the monastery under the protection of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1655, and the Stavropegic and Patriarchal status of Arsaniou was reconfirmed in 1778 and again in 1850.

But the Stavropegic status with the protection of the Patriarch of Constantinople did not save the monastery from natural and political calamities. Many of the cells of the monastery collapsed under a strong earthquake in 1856, and ten years later, in 1866, the Turks destroyed what they could in the monastery to punish the monks for their revolutionary activities.

The dome in the katholikon, built in 1888 and decorated in 1988-1990 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A new Church of Saint George was built in 1888 on the ruins of the old church, but the Turks returned in 1896 to burn and plunder the monastery. A year later, they murdered the monk Father Gabriel Klados, hanging his head on a tree in Rethymnon to use for target practice.

By 1900, it looked as though the monastery could not survive, but it was reconstituted in 1903. Further woes came with World War II, when the Germans executed Abbot Damianos Kallergis in 1941 for the support the monks gave to the Greek partisans and the resistance to the Nazis. But the monastery survived an it was renovated in 1970.

The katholikon is a cruciform basilica with a dome. There is a fine carved wooden ikonostasis (icon screen) and the walls were decorated with vivid frescoes in 1988-1990 by Georgios Xristidis from Rethymnon.

Along with the visitors to the new conference centre and museum, the monastery has had a steady daily trickle of tourists. But the future of Moni Arsanios must be a matter of faith today as there are only three monks living permanently there. The two I met when I visited were in their mid-80s, the third monk was in his mid-40s.

5, Preveli:

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

The Monastery of Preveli is 37 km south of Rethymnion, 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.

The monastery is famous among Greeks for its role in struggles against both the Turks and the Germans in the 19th and 20th centuries, and is celebrated in Greek lore and in books and movies for its part in helping allied soldiers escape Crete in World War II.

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 and fenced off and closed to visitors. It is another 3 km or so to the second living, active monastery, known as the Upper or Rear Monastery (Piso Moni), 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.

The original name was ‘The Monastery of the Great River at the Island of Crete.’ Some stories 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. At least three or four 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 the monastery of Preveli. But the monastery was restored, and in the centuries that followed became a centre for education and a centre for resistance to Ottoman rule.

Abbot Efraim Prevelis took part in the revolution led by John Vlachos or Daskalogianis in 1770. He was sentenced to death but was finally pardoned in 1798 after Patriarch Gregory V intervened with the Sultan.

To secure the monastery’s privileges and estates, Abbot Ephrem sought the protection of the Patriarchate, and Preveli received 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.

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

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 in Rethymnon.

Preveli was active again in organising rebellions against the Turks in the 19th century. The disaster at Arkadi 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. The revolutions were instrumental in securing Crete’s eventual autonomy in 1896, followed by political union with Greece 100 years ago in 1913.

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 Preveli and others were hidden in homes and farms nearby.

The Abbot, Agathangelos Lagouvardos, helped organise their escape to Egypt on two submarines on the nights of 31 May and 1 June 1941 and 20 and 21 August 1941. 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 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. Meanwhile, Abbot Agathangelos had joined the Greek Army in the Middle East as a chaplain. In the courtyard, a series of monuments recalls the role of the monastery in World War II.

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 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. This is a large two-nave building, unified internally by a sequence of three arches.

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 best-known item on display is 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.

Today, 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 by one of the monks, who quickly realised I was a priest, and asked me which Church I was from and who was my bishop. 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.

6, Anastasias Monastery, Tsesmes:

The main church in the Monastery of Saint Anastasia looks largely unfinished (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A road sign in the Tsesmes promises it is a mere 1.5 km walk to the Monastery of Saint Anastasia the Roman. With this promise in mind, two of us set out a recent summer morning to walk along the mountain track to the monastery.

The waking distance was more like 3 km, and we felt it in the heat of the morning sun as we left Platanias and Tsesmes behind us and climbed up through the olive groves and the rustic landscape.

The monastery is off the beaten track, down a side road off a minor road. No tourist buses or guided tours ever reach here, and in its simplicity and its stillness we found a spiritual welcome.

The Monastery of Saint Anastasia the Roman is the first monastery in Greece dedicated to this saint. It was founded in 2008 by a visionary monk from Rethymnon, Father Vassilis, who had spent some time on Mount Athos, and it has been a full monastery – albeit a monastery with only one monk – since July 2009.

The unfinished appearance gives the monastery church a stark and simple spirituality (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The large katholikon or main monastery church is still unfished. Outside, the concrete walls have still not been rendered or plastered. Inside there are no frescoes on the walls and the icon screen has a few simple, modern icons.

The stark simplicity adds to the spiritual atmosphere of the church. Beside it is smaller chapel of Saint Kosmas the Aetolian.

Father Vassilis worked away quietly in the gardens as we moved around freely admiring his flowers and plants. There is no museum, no souvenir shop, and nothing to detract from the tranquillity and the peace we had found.

The coastal plain east of Rethymnon spreads out below as a joyful vista. From the balcony, we could pick out familiar features in Tsesmes and Platanias. To the west, clearly visible, the dome and the fortezza basked in the late morning sunshine. The blue Mediterranean sea was beyond, calm and peaceful as far as the distant horizon.

7, Saint George, Karydi:

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

The Monastery of Saint George in Karydi is about 2 km south-east of the village of Vamos in western Crete, and 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.

The Monastery of Aghios Georgios in Karydi was founded around 1600, and took its name from this settlement in an 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)

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. 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.

The last monk left the monastery of Aghios Georgios in 1900, and five years later, in 1905, part of the monastery land was 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.

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 to restore the monastery and the church, and welcoming visitors.

8, Aghios Panteleimon, Adele:

The church of the Monastery of Aghios Panteleimon in Adele (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Adele is a small village 9 km east of Rethymnon, with a population of fewer than 450 people. Yet it is the seat of the Municipality of Arkadi, and here too is the Church of the Monastery of Aghios Panteleimon (feast day 27 July).

Adele was also the home village of Kostas Giamboudakis, the hero of the destruction of the Monastery of Arkadi, which is one of the formative incidents in Cretan history. His statue stands near the Porta Guora, the last surviving Venetian gate in the city walls of Rethymnon. (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

9, The Monastery of Panagia Chalevi:

The church at Chalevi is known for its magnificent flame or teardrop-shaped windows (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Monastery of Panagia Chalevi is near the village of Chromonastiri, about 12 km south of Rethymnon. This Venetian-era monastery dates from the 16th or 17th century, but all the monastery buildings have been abandoned since the end of the Turkish occupation and only the single-aisle church remains in repair and in use.

The church is dedicated to the Dormition of the Virgin Mary (Panagia) and has magnificent flame or teardrop-shaped windows. Beside it stand the ruined monastic buildings, which were built like a fortress and since 1980 it has been a protected monument.

The monastery once had stavropegic standing, which placed it under the direct authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Although the stavropegic standing was lost in 1725, it was restored in 1850 by Patriarch Anthimos IV, and the church which had been abandoned once before was restored in 1864.

However, Chalevi ceased to function as a monastery once again in 1900, and in 1935 it became a dependency of the Arsaniou Monastery. In 1991, the monastery was attached to the restored monastery of Agia Irini.

10, The Monastery of Chryssoskalítíssa (the Golden Step):

The Monastery of Chryssoskalítíssa is perched on rocks above the Libyan Sea (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Monastery of Chryssoskalítíssa (Μονή Χρυσοσκαλιτίσσας) is perched on a rock cliff above the sea, close to the island of Elafonísi at the south-west tip of Crete. The monastery is built on rocks and is 35 metres high, overlooking the Libyan Sea.

The monastery, which dates from the 13th century, is dedicated to the Holy Trinity (Agia Triada) and the Dormition of the Virgin Mary (Koimisis Theotokou). But the popular name comes from a local tradition that one step in a set of 90 appears as a golden step (chryssí skála) – but only to those who are pure of heart.

This monastery once had a community of 200. But like many monasteries in Crete, numbers have dwindled and today there is only one nun and one monk living there.

11, The former Saint Barbara’s Monastery (Kara Musa Pasha Mosque), Rethymnon:

The Kara Musa Pasha Mosque is one of the surviving treasures from Ottoman Crete in the old town of Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Kara Musa Pasha Mosque, at the corner of Arkadíou Street and Viktoras Ougo (Victor Hugo) Street, is one of the surviving treasures from Ottoman Crete in the old town of Rethymnon.

The mosque, with its domes and part of its ruined minaret stands close to Plateia Iróon or Heroes’ Square, which was once a chaotic traffic roundabout but is now a pleasant paved square that marks the east end of the old town.

For many years, the Kara Musa Pasha Mosque and its grounds have housed the Inspectorate of Byzantine Antiquities, but is generally closed to the public. In the past, I have sought to catalogue the surviving former mosques of Rethymnon, but I only managed to gain access to the Kara Musa Pasha Mosque once in 2014 for an exhibition, The Ghosts of Mediterranean by the visual artist, Professor Marianna Strapatsakis.

The Kara Musa Pasha Mosque stands on the site of a Venetian-era monastery dedicated to Saint Barbara (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The mosque was built on the site of a Venetian-era monastery dedicated to Saint Barbara, and was named after an Ottoman admiral who commanded the naval forces at the Turkish capture of Rethymnon in 1645.

The mosque is named after Kara Musa Pasha, who was born in Vikoča near Foča, now in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Sultan Ibrahim I named him as his Grand Vizier in 1647 after the execution his predecessor. But Kara Musa Pasha was then at sea, taking part in the Ottoman war to capture Crete. The sultan also appointed him the Grand Admiral of the Ottoman Navy, but the imperial seal for his promotion was still on its way to him when he died on 21 September 1647 in front of the castle of Iraklion.

After the Turks captured Rethymnon, Saint Barbara’s Monastery was turned into a mosque. The central building has a typical square floor plan with a mihrab pointing towards Mecca.

Beside the mosque and the stump of the minaret is a domed, three-vault mausoleum that may have been the tomb of the founder of the mosque, but it was partly destroyed during building work on Viktoras Ougo Street many years ago.

The mosque complex includes a vaulted fountain – with a tasteless modern metal tap and cement basin – a courtyard and decorated columns that once stood over Turkish graves but now lie flat on the sun-baked ground.

12, Capuchin Friary, Chania:

The Capuchin Friary in Chania is the only Roman Catholic monastic house in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Capuchin Friary in Chania is the only Roman Catholic monastic house I have visited in Crete, and this is the only Roman Catholic religious community on the island. Although technically this is not a monastery but a friary, and the members of the community are friars, not monks, the Greek word μονή (moní) is used indiscriminately for both a friary and a monastery.

The Capuchins founded their first house in Chania in 1567, during the period of Venetian rule, and remained there until the Turkish conquest of the city in 1645. French Capuchins moved in Chania in 1674, registering as officials of the French Consulate, and, at first, they lived in the Kasteli area, not far from the old harbour. They built a small chapel, dedicated to the Dormition or Assumption of Our Lady, and this was functioning in the Capuchin residence by 1675.

During the short period of the Egyptian rule in Crete (1830-1841), Father Serafim da Caltanissetta obtained a license to build a single-nave church with a small wooden bell tower. The new church opened in 1844, and from 1855 access was provided from Halidon Street through a gate at the Capuchin friary.

Inside the Cathedral of the Assumption in the grounds of the Capuchin Friary in Chania (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In the early 18th century, the Capuchins acquired a large plot of land near the Yusuf Pasha mosque, the former church of Saint Francis. There they built a new monastery at No 46 Halidon Street.

The church became the cathedral for the new Diocese of Crete in 1874. A new, triple-nave basilica, with neo-classical and renaissance features, was designed by the architect Vitaliano Poselli and opened in 1879. Meanwhile, the old monastery was demolished in 1880 and a larger one was built to designs by Poselli. The bell tower was built in 1882.

Two Capuchin friars – Father Angelo in Chania and Father Antonino in Iraklion – risked their lives and saved hundreds of Christians during the slaughters in the years 1896-1898, during the Cretan struggle for independence.

A shop in Chania selling icons and religious goods produced in the monasteries on Mount Athos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

There are many more monasteries I have visited in Crete and that I could have invited you to visit on this ‘virtual tour,’ from Toplou Monastery in the east to Gonia monastery in the west.

I visited Toplou in the mid-1990s when I was staying in Piskopiano, in the hills above Hersonissos. Toplou is 85 km east of Agios Nikolaos, at the east end of island, and near the palm beach at Vai, once renowned as a location for the ‘Bounty Bar’ ads on British television.

Gonia is on the edges of Kolymbari village and 26 km from Chania. I visited Gonia and the Orthodox Academy of Crete in the late 1980s, when I was staying nearby in Kolymbari.

Today is Good Friday in the calendar of the Greek Orthodox Church. I had hoped to join the processions and parades in the streets in Crete this evening. But, as so many of the frescoes in monasteries and churches remind us, Good Friday always brings with it the joys of Easter and the hope of the Resurrection.

When this pandemic passes, I hope to be back in Crete later this year.

The Resurrection in a fresco by Georgios Xristidis in Moni Arsanios (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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