The Holocaust of Arkadi
Across Europe a hundred and fifty years ago, Arkadi was a magic word. It inflamed intellectuals, angered thousands and touched the hearts of millions.
For more than two hundred years, Crete had been swallowed by the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish yoke had suppressed the great intellect of Crete, the poetry died and art was left abandoned. People lived miserable lives burdened by heavy taxes and unfair demands on their families. Turkish Pashas and officials grew rich while the people starved. And yes, there were uprisings from time to time, but nothing much came of them, except death by execution, burning or even worse.
High in the mountains southeast of Rethymnon, at the head of a gorge approaching the Psiloritis foothills, there was a monastery. It was a special and historic monastery and it was called Arkadi. All round were vineyards and olive groves. Close by were small gardens tended by the monks which grew tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers and beans. Five hundred metres above sea level, the monks of Arkadi wrote manuscripts, copied texts and produced their own books. Monastery life was good, hearts were pure and the sun shone above an architectural miracle.
The walls of Arkadi are strong. It is built in a rectangle that encloses the cells of the monks, the refectory, the magazine and other rooms. In the centre of this rectangle stands the church of Arkadi. The front wall is just beautiful. It is of Venetian design, built in 1587, and the masonry is outstanding. High above the doors stands the bell tower with three bells. Dedicated to Saint Constantine, the church is just exceptional. You really need to see it. Everywhere there are flowers, I cannot list them all but the rose garden is very special.
In 1866 following two hundred years of brutality and theft by the Turks, the Christians of Crete decided to react. Following meetings at Omalos and Askyfou in Sphakia the Cretan revolutionary committee decided that the Turkish authority in Crete would no longer be recognised and that they would seek Enosis, unification with Greece. It was clear that there would be armed conflict. The Turks brought in military reinforcements as well as forces from Egypt. These forces attacked various places in Crete in order to suppress any form of proposed rebellion.
The Cretans, widely supported by the Greeks, threw themselves into the conflict with passion, feeling that at last the yoke of the Ottomans would be overthrown. The revolution spread into the area of Rethymnon because Arkadi, a strategic and fortified monastery, became its heart. Here were speeches delivered by, among others, Hadji Michali Giannaris who helped to ignite the patriotism and the anger of the Cretans so long suffering under the Turks. The revolutionary Council was now based at Arkadi Monastery the Abbot of Arkadi, Gabriel Marinakis, as chairman.
As word spread, Arkadi became the central meeting place for Cretan revolutionaries, the Paliakari of Crete for whom the time was now. This attention to Arkadi as the centre of Cretan uprising provoked a huge rage in the Turkish commander of Crete, Ishmail Pasha who did all that he could to dissolve the meetings at Arkadi saying that failure would provoke the Porte to send the army to crush Arkadi for ever. In July 1866 a Turkish detachment was sent to Arkadi but they failed to arrest the leader of the revolution, Abbot Gabriel, so they vandalised and terrorised local villages causing many of the local people to become refugees and to seek shelter behind the walls of the monastery.
The situation was becoming more serious every day. The Sultan sent Mustafa Pasha to Crete to quell the uprisings and return the island to peace. By the time he arrived the revolution was springing up all over Crete. Mustafa Pasha realised that peaceful means to quell this rebellion was fruitless so he started to undertake military raids wherever he saw fit. This in turn caused even more anger in the Cretans.
In order to support the Cretan’s military operations, a leading soldier from Greece was summoned to Rethymnon. On the 24th September 1866 he was proclaimed the Commander in Chief of the Rethymnon area. His name was Panos Koroneus and he worked hard to help organise the Cretans as a military force. Installed at the Arkadi headquarters, Panos Koroneus trained men to fight in a military way, he distributed weapons among the fighters at Arkadi and he organised reconnoitering missions around the local area. He also sent for anyone who could help the revolution, to come to Arkadi for training.
His opinion of the monastery as a fortress, however, was low. He did not feel that the size or the armaments that they had would be enough to beat a sizeable Turkish force. His ideas about reconstructions and changes at the Arkadi monastery were not received well by the Revolutionary Committee. The result of this was that Colonel Panos Koroneus and his men left Arkadi and headed for the Agios Vasilios area. Before departing he appointed Ioannis Dimakopoulos from Gortyn in his place as garrison commander.
By the seventh of November 1866 Arkadi could boast 250 well trained men along with a huge supply of war materials including gunpowder stored in the monastery’s magazine.
Meanwhile from the end of October 1866, Mustafa Pasha had left the Turkish fortress at Aptera Apokoronas and was marching eastwards toward Arkadi. They stopped for a while at Episkopi which was looted by his men. He had realised that the only way to crush the revolution in Crete was to destroy Arkadi, the heart of Crete. He sent a letter from Episkopi to Arkadi warning them that he was on his way and that they should be ready to surrender when he arrived. Pasha and his army arrived in Rethymnon on the fifth of November.
On the night of the seventh of November, reinforced by all the forces available in Rethymnon, both Turkish and Egyptian, Mustafa Pasha arrived at Arkadi with a force of fifteen thousand men and at least thirty cannon.
Within the walls of Arkadi were 964 people of whom only 325 were men. The rest were woman and children hiding in the monastery from the destroyed villages around the area.
From the nearby village of Mesi which gave a panoramic view of the area, Mustafa Pasha gave the order to attack at dawn on the eighth of November. As the monks celebrated mass for the feast of the Archangels the air became full of the sound of trumpets from the advancing Turks.
The Abbot Gabriel and the commander Dimakopoulos organised their defences as well as they could. They were asked to immediately surrender the monastery of Arkadi and their reply was: ‘We prefer war.’
From that moment on the battle for Arkadi commenced. The walls were defended with courage as shots rained upon them from all directions. The Turks concentrated canon fire on the main western gate and the smaller eastern gate. The external windmill was the first loss as the Turks set it on fire along with the snipers inside. However the Turkish side suffered great losses from the gunfire from the walls of Arkadi where the snipers were well entrenched but the Turks were in the open with nowhere to hide.
On the second day of the siege, the ninth of November, things looked bad for the monastery. The sheer force of so many Turks and cannon were wearing the defences down and soon the gates would be blown. Abbot Gabriel ordered that once the Turks gained entry to the monastery, they should blow the gunpowder in the magazine. By then a huge cannon had been brought up from Rethymnon and the gate was breaking under its force.
The defenders fought man to man as the Turks entered the monastery and all who could retreated to the magazine where the powder was blown by Konstantinos Giamboudakis. The explosion killed most of the Christians and a large number of the Turks who were by now swarming all over the roof of the magazine.
Of the 964 Christians within the monastery, 114 were taken prisoner, three or four escaped but all the rest were killed. At least 1,500 Turks died.
Across Europe and in America there was indignation. The great newspapers of the world printed the story and there were many services for those who died. Support for Crete against the Turks was supreme in the public mind and some individuals even paid for a ship, renamed the Arkadi to send supplies to Crete. The word Arkadian entered the English language.
Articles written by Garibaldi and Victor Hugo honoured the dead of Arkadi and many foreigners came to Crete to help. In the rebellion that broke out three years later in 1869 the years of Cretan struggle were finally vindicated and the struggle for Arkadi had tolled the death blow to the Ottomans on the island. At last, Crete was free.
The monastery of Arkadi lies 23 Kilometres south east of Rethymnon. Just follow the signs or a local map to find it.