19 April 2020
A ‘virtual tour’ of a dozen
more churches in Crete
on a lost ‘lockdown’ Easter
I had planned to visit Greece 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.
I am still hoping to visit Thessaloniki and Halkidiki at the end of August and beginning of September. But still hope I can plan in a few weeks’ time to visit Crete later this year.
Meanwhile, to mark Easter in the calendar of the Greek Orthodox Church this weekend, I offer a ‘virtual tour’ of a dozen churches and chapels Crete, in the spirit of my recent ‘virtual tours’ of a dozen churches in Thessaloniki, a dozen monasteries in Crete, a dozen churches in Rethymnon, and a dozen restaurants in Rethymnon.
For historical reasons, Crete, like some other Greek islands, stands outside the Church of Greece and is part of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, and the Archbishop of Crete is based in Iraklion.
Christianity in Crete traces its origins to the mission of the Apostle Paul and his companion Saint Titus, who is seen as the first Bishop of Crete, and the head of Saint Titus is an important relic in one of the oldest churches in Iraklion.
The first church dedicated to Saint Titus was that in the old capital Gortyn, which also housed the metropolitan see of the island until it was destroyed in an earthquake.
1, Agios Minas Cathedral, Iraklion:
The Cathedral of Agios Minas (῾Ιερός Μητροπολιτικός Ναός ῾Αγίου Μηνᾶ) in Iraklion is the seat of the Archbishop of Crete.
Saint Minas the martyr and wonder-worker (285-309), is the patron saint and protector of Iraklion, the capital of Crete. His feast day on 11 November is a public holiday in Crete.
This is the largest cathedral or church in Crete, and one of the largest in Greece. This year marks the 125th anniversary of the dedication of the cathedral.
The site of the cathedral was once the garden of a local Turk. The architect, Athanassios Moussis, was also the architect of Agios Titos.
The cathedral was built over time, from 1862 to 1895, but building work was interrupted during the Cretan Revolution in 1866-1869. Building work resumed in 1883, and the cathedral was completed in 1895.
The church has a cruciform shape with a central dome. The external maximum dimensions are 43.20 metres long and 29.50 wide. Inside, this is a three-aisle basilica. The right aisle is dedicated to Saint Titos and the left one to the Ten Holy Martyrs of Crete.
There are two bell towers, one in the north-east corner and the other in the south-east corner.
The smaller, older church of Agios Minas and Pantanassa stands beside the cathedral. This church is known to have existed in the Venetian period. An interesting feature is a Gothic window in the north aisle, survives today. After the Turkish occupation of Crete, the church fell into disuse until 1735, when it was refurbished as the metropolitan church or cathedral of Iraklion.
The church had two aisles roofed with two arches. The north aisle is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and the south aisle to Saint Minas. The carved, wooden iconostasis or icon screen on the north aisle is gold plated. Many of the icons are the work of 18th century Cretan icon painters.
This church is connected with one of the major atrocities in the history Crete. In June 1821, the Turks slaughtered Bishop Gerasimo Pardali and many priests and lay people inside the church and in its precincts.
The church was damaged by an earthquake in 1856, and was restored and renovated a year later. However, by the mid-19th century, it was too small to serve as a cathedral for the growing Christian community in Iraklion.
Saint Minas and the church feature in a number of books by Nikos Kazantzakis, including Report to Greco, in which he writes, ‘whenever the Turks sharpened their knives and prepared to fall upon the Christians, Saint Minas sprang from his icon once more in order to protect the citizens of Megalo Kastro (Iraklion) ... For the Kastrians (the people of Iraklion), Saint Minas was not simply holy, he was their captain. They called him Captain Minas and secretly brought him their arms to be blessed.’
2, Aghios Titos, Iraklion:
The Church of Saint Titos on Agios Titos Square stands in a pretty square lined with cafés and bars, off 25 August Street. Christianity in Crete traces its origins to the mission of the Apostle Paul and his companion Saint Titus, and the head of Saint Titus is an important relic in the Church of Saint Titos, one of the oldest churches in Iraklion.
When the Byzantine Emperor Nikiforos Fokas took Crete back from the Arabs in 961, the seat of the bishopric was transferred from Gortyn to Chandakas (present-day Iraklion), which became the capital of the island.
A new cathedral was built in the city and dedicated to Saint Titos, the companion of Saint Paul. The skull of Saint Titus, the miraculous icon of the Virgin Mesopanditissa and other relics from Gortyn were moved to the new church.
When the Venetians took Crete, they installed a Latin-rite bishop, who made Saint his cathedral. In the centuries that followed, the church was damaged by fire and earthquakes, and the church was rebuilt in 1557. The church was a basilica, almost square in shape, with a central dome and a bell-tower in the south-west corner. Inside, it was divided into three aisles by two rows of columns.
During the Turkish period, the church was converted into the Vizier Mosque, and the bell tower became a minaret. The earthquake of 1856 severely damaged the mosque, which was rebuilt to designs by Athanasios Moussis, who was also the architect of the Cathedral of Saint Minas.
The minaret was demolished in the 1920s, when the last Muslims left Iraklion with the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey. The Church of Crete repaired the church, and in 1925 it was dedicated again to the Apostle Titos.
After the fall of Iraklion to the Turks, all relics in the church were removed to Venice, where they still remain today. The single exception is the skull of Saint Titos, which was returned to Iraklion in 1966 and is now kept in a silver reliquary in the church.
3, Saint Mark’s Basilica, Iraklion:
The Basilica of Saint Mark, with its landmark portico, is one of the most important Venetian buildings in Iraklion. It stands close the Lion Fountain in Eleftheriou Venizelou Square (Lions Square) in the heart of Iraklion.
The basilica was built in 1239, opposite the Palace of the Duke, and was dedicated to Saint Mark, the patron of Venice. A tall clock tower at the south-west corner of the basilica, facing onto Lions Square, was a copy of the tower in Saint Mark’s Square, Venice.
This church was the venue for official ceremonies and Venetian nobles were buried here.
During the Ottoman period, Saint Mark’s was converted into the Defterdar Mosque, named after Defterdar Ahmet Pasha, the Supreme Treasurer. The Ottomans demolished the bell-tower, replacing it with a minaret, and destroyed the frescoes and Christian graves.
Saint Mark’s Basilica has a plain façade with a covered portico. The minaret was torn down again by the local population in 1915 after the liberation of Crete.
After the Turkish withdrawal in 1922, Saint Mark’s came under the jurisdiction of the National Bank and then the Municipality of Iraklion. The Society for Cretan Historical Studies restored the building to its original form in 1956.
Today, Saint Mark’s houses the Municipal Art Gallery and is open to the public almost all day, every day. It is used nowadays as a literary institute, an art gallery, an exhibition area and a concert hall.
4, Aghios Georgios, Panormos:
For some years, it has become something of a tradition during holidays in Rethymnon to spend lazy, sunny Sunday afternoons in the small coastal village of Panormos, about about 25 km east of Rethymnon, enjoying lingering lunches in the restaurants, including the Agkyra, Porto Parasiris and Captain’s House.
These lunches often become hours of uninterrupted bliss, sipping coffee, reading books and watching life in the small harbour and beaches below.
The recently built church, dedicated to the Ascension (Analipsi) and Saint George (Agios Georgios) has a splendid dome with a modern, majestic fresco of Christ the Pantocrator.
Behind the village are the remains of the Agia Sophia Basilica, once one of the largest basilicas in Crete. The site is fenced off and there are few signs indicating its importance.
The Basilica of Agia Sofia was uncovered following research by the theologian Konstantinos Kalokiris, and the site was excavated in 1948-1955 by the archaeologist Professor N. Platonas.
The basilica was built in the fifth and sixth centuries According to archaeologists, this was the seat of the Diocese of Eleftherna, which transferred there after the destruction of the ancient city of Panormos. In time, the name Agia Sophia was given to the entire area around the basilica.
5, Church of the Metamorphosis, Piskopiano:
I spent weeks on end in the 1990s in Piskopianó. When I returned recently, I got a warm welcome from old friends and from the priests of the parish, who gave me time on a sunny afternoon to show me around both the old church, which I once knew intimately, and the large new church, which was built in 2009.
This new Church of the Metamorphosis (the Transfiguration) stands above the village of Piskopianó with the mountains as a stunning backdrop.
Piskopianó, at the foot of the mountains above Hersonissos, is a parish within the Diocese of Petras and Cherronisou. Like all dioceses in Crete, this diocese has had the status of a metropolis since 1962. Its cathedral is in Neapolis, the historical capital of the Lasithi province, and home of the only Cretan to ever have become Pope.
For a short time, Piskopianó was the centre of a diocese. While the Bishops of Cherronisou were seated in Piskopianó, they are mentioned in official documents from the eighth to the tenth centuries, and the Bishop of Cherronisou took part in the Seventh Ecumenical Council in Nicea in 787 AD.
When Arab pirates started attacking Crete, Hersonissos was abandoned and the see of the diocese was transferred to Piskopianó, and remained there until the ninth or tenth century, when the diocese was relocated to Pedialos, and in the 19th century it was seated in the Monastery of Agatathos.
The name of Piskopianó may hint at this historical, early episcopal importance, or it may describe the village’s location looking out as a balcony over this stretch of the north coast of Crete.
Meanwhile, the Church of Aghios Ioannis (Saint John) was built in the 16th century, and has been renovated a few times since then.
6, Agios Vasilios, Koutouloufári:
Koutouloufári is the neighbouring village of Piskopianó. I have stayed there on three occasions, going to church in the village church of Aghios Vassilios (Saint Basil). The present church was built in 1840, but it incorporates part of a smaller church that was built many centuries before.
Ancient maps and records indicate that there has been a settlement in the Koutouloufári area for hundreds of years. However, local historians say the present village has its beginnings in the Byzantine period after a severe earthquake that destroyed the settlement where the port of Hersonissos now stands.
The residents moved east to a new settlement, close to the Hotel Nora and they named this settlement Zambaniana. However, the village suffered severely from constant pirate raids, and the villagers were forced to move on once again, further inland and uphill towards Mount Harakas.
On reaching the church of Saint Basil, they told a local priest named Koutifari what had happened. He gave them land around the church to build a new village, and they named it Koutouloufári in his honour.
As the village prospered and became wealthy, many large buildings were erected. During the Ottoman period, the village was renowned for its oil, wine and almonds.
Koutouloufári was almost deserted by the 1970s, with only 150 inhabitants left in the village, and until 1980, the inhabitants were mainly farmers. However, the development of tourism on the northern coast of Crete brought investment and work to the area and the population grew once again. The new prosperity also attracted city people who bought old houses Koutouloufári and restored them.
7, Analipsi Church, Georgioupoli:
Georgioupoli is a resort village with a long sandy beach that stretches for 9 km and many cafés, tavernas, small hotels and apartment blocks. It takes its name from Prince George, the second son of King George of Greece, who was appointed High Commissioner of Crete in 1898. Prince George built a shooting lodge here, and there was a vision of creating a Brighton of Crete at this spot.
The two main churches in Georgioupoli are the large parish church dedicated to the Ascension (Analipsi), with its splendid flurry of frescoes filling the walls, the ceilings and the dome, and the tiny white-wash chapel of Aghios Nikolaos.
Analipsi Church is back from the seafront, away from the main square and shops, and set in its own gardens.
On the outside, it looks like a confident statement of Greek and Orthodox identity in this town, built with a greater capacity that the needs of a small resident community. The church is cruciform in shape, has two tall bell towers, and porches on three sides.
But inside, the dome and the frescoes covering the walls are an almost-overpowering example of contemporary Greek iconography at its best.
They are modern in style and approach, yet maintain a clear continuity with the Byzantine traditions of icons and frescoes.
8, The Chapel of Aghios Nikolaos, Georgioupoli:
The most photographed landmark in Georgioupoli is the tiny white chapel dedicated to Aghios Nikolaos at the end of a rocky artificial breakwater that juts out into the bay between the harbour and the beach.
It is said the chapel was built about 100 years ago by an anonymous sailor to give thanks for his rescue. Today, it is a much-photographed landmark that has become a symbol of Crete in the way that the Vlacherna Monastery close to the southern tip of the Kanoni peninsula has become an image of Corfu.
It is worth taking time to watch people picking their way along the rocky, narrow breakwater between the harbour and the beach that leads out to the small islet with the tiny Chapel of Saint Nicholas – a venture that is guaranteed to end in a wet soaking and that has its risks as the rocks become wet and slippery.
The rocky outcrop of Aghios Nikolaos is officially listed as a Greek island, and the chapel of Aghios Nikolaos is a popular choice for weddings on Crete. But it is difficult to imagine how the bride and the wedding party can arrive in a dry and pristine condition.
It is everyone’s ‘blue and white’ image of Greece in summer sunshine, and has become the symbol of Georgioupoli and the most photographed scene in this area.
It is popular with tourists who are encouraged to make their way out to the chapel and to light a candle there, and sometimes it is a popular venue for weddings, although it is difficult to imagine how a bride could make her way there in a full wedding dress, even if she used a boat and the waves were calm.
9, Saint Barbara, Georgioupoli:
Tucked into a small corner near the harbour of Georgioupoli is the older, small, traditional Church dedicated to Saint Barbara (Αγία Βαρβάρα).
Few tourists notice this church. Perhaps they think it is closed, but a gentle push on the church door leads into a peaceful and calming space for prayer and reflection.
The walls and the iconostasis or icon-screen of this small are covered with a large number of icons of Saint Barbara, and a lamp with incense is kept burning before her shrine.
Saint Barbara was martyred in the Syrian city of Heliopolis during the reign of the Emperor Maximian (305-311).
She is a popular saint in Crete, and for over 30 years I have been familiar with Saint Barbara’s Church in Rethymnon, close to the cathedral in the old town.
10, Trimartiri Cathedral, Chania:
The Orthodox cathedral in Chania, the second city of Crete, is on Chalidon Street, the main street that crosses the old town from Eleftherios Venizelos Square in the harbour to 1866 Square in the new town. The cathedral faces Platia Mitropolis or Cathedral Square, a small square on the east side of the street, with a statue of Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras facing the harbour.
The cathedral is dedicated to the Panagia Trimartyri (the Virgin of the Three Martyrs), the patron of Chania, and the cathedral celebrates its feast day on 21 November, the feast of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary.
The cathedral is popularly known as the Trimartyri or the ‘Three Witnesses.’ The central aisle is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the north aisle is dedicated to Saint Nicholas, and the south aisle is dedicated to the Three Cappadocian Fathers.
There has been a church on this site since the Venetian period, and perhaps earlier. After the Turks captured Chania in 1645, the Ottomans turned the church into a soap factory, and the boiler for the ingredients was where the bell tower now stands. However, on the sufferance of the Turkish Pasha of Chania, the icon of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary was kept in a storeroom inside the church, with an oil-lamp always lit before it.
In the mid-19th century, a man named Tserkaris worked at the soap factory. According to a local legend, the Virgin Mary appeared to him in a vision and told him to leave, because she did not want her house to be used as a soap factory. Tserkaris left, taking the icon with him, but the church remained a soap factory until the business failed.
A little later, the child of Mustapha Naili Pasha accidentally fell into a well south of the church. In despair, Mustapha Pasha called upon the Virgin Mary to save his child, in return for which he would give the church back to the Christians of Chania.
The child was saved, and the soap factory was handed over to the Christian community to build a new church, with financial support from the Sultan and the Veli Pasha, the Turkish commander in Crete. Tserkaris then returned the icon of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary.
The cathedral was completed in 1860 in the style of a three-aisled basilica. The architectural details represent the tradition developed in the Venetian era: sculptured pseudo-pillars, cornices and arched openings. The east wall is decorated with large and impressive icons.
The cathedral was frequently used as a place of refuge and suffered much damage during the Cretan revolt of 1897. It was restored at the expense of the Russian Tsar, to make amends for the Russian bombardment of Akrotiri. The bell-tower on the north-east side was also a gift from the Tsar.
Trimartiri was damaged during the German bombing of Chania in May 1941. It was carefully restored in the post-war years, and until recently, because of its central location in the old town and the attractive square in front, it is constantly visited by tourists.
11, Agios Ioannis Theologos, Élos:
The small village of Élos is 60 km south-west of Chania in west Crete, on the road to the Monastery of Chrissoskalitissa and the sandy beach of Elafonissi. Élos is one of the nine villages that are known collectively as the Enneachora, and is known for its chestnut forests.
Behind a taverna in the village, an old arch is said to have been part of an ancient Roman aqueduct. But the real hidden treasure in Elos is the Byzantine Church of Saint John the Theologian (Agios Ioannis Theologos).
This is a single-room, vaulted church, measuring 11.20 x 4.46 meters, and probably dates from the first half of the 14th century.
The frescoes of Christ and the saints are attributed to Ioannis Pagomenos, a well-known icon writer and painter from Kissamos.
This tiny church, hidden in a shaded corner among trees behind a taverna, is almost dwarfed by the neighbouring modern parish church of Aghios Nikolas of Élos.
12, Two unusual churches:
Every village, every suburb and every town in Crete has at least one church, and every city has a cathedral. But sometimes I have come across churches in the most unexpected and hidden of places.
Gramvousa (Γραμβούσα) is not only small island, but two small uninhabited islands off the Gramvousa Peninsula west of Chania, in the western part of Kissamos Bay. This means the Gramvousa peninsula is one of the most remote places in Crete. Yet this was once the home of the small monastery of Saint John, dedicated to the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. The domed cells and rooms of the monastery can still be seen, and there is a water spring nearby.
Today there are legends and stories about hidden pirate treasure on the island, but the one rusty shipwreck at the end of the beach that looks like a pirate shipwreck is nothing of the sort. The Dimitrios P was wrecked over 50 years ago in a winter storm early in 1968 while it was carrying a shipload of cement to Libya.
The tiny church above the sandy beach in the bay is not the pirates’ church, but a later church dedicated to the Twelve Apostles, and the iconostasis has a complete set of icons of the 12 apostles.
The Church of Agia Dynami (Holy Force) is inside a cave in the mountain village of Argiroupolis. Inside the cave, the spring of Holy Force that feeds into the water supply for the Province of Rethymno.
The chapel once had had an impressive mosaic of Christ, but this has been moved to the museum in Rethymnon and has been replaced with a simple icon.