Today is the 150th anniversary of the Holocaust of Arkadi. This little known event is actually a significant date in Hellenic history. We remember the brave souls who lost their lives on this day.
The Holocaust of Arkadi
The Holocaust of Arkadi, which took place on November 8, 1866, is an important precursor to the emancipation of Crete from the Turks in 1898, and in enosis (union) with Greece in 1913. The chilling details of this story may be difficult to read, however, we must never forget these brave souls.
The Holy Monastery of Arkadi
The Holy Monastery of Arkadi is one of Crete’s most acclaimed symbols of freedom. Here, hundreds of people perished in the fight for freedom. According to traditon, this fortress-like monastery –which dates back to Byzantine times — was named for Arkadios, a monk who founded the holy order. By the 16th century, the monastery played an important role in the cultural life of Crete, as it contained a library and a school. This legendary monastery still stands today, as a reminder of the great sacrifices made by these brave individuals for freedom. One can visit the monastery, located in the area near Rethymnon. There is a museum inside, which houses relics from the holocaust as well as some beautiful icons. Currently, two monks reside there and a massive restoration effort began a few years ago.
Cretans and Turks
The Cretans and the Turks had a long history of frequent and bloody uprisings. Cretans, long known for their bravery and survival skills, were determined to fight with every available tool, like rifles and farm implements. They wished to defend family and country, with the ultimate goal of gaining independence and union with Greece. Steadfast in this mission, by 1866, a 16-member revolutionary committee had formed, and with its strategic placement, made Arkadi Monastery its headquarters.
When the Turkish Pasha that ruled in Rethymnon became aware of the committee, he ordered Abbot Gabriel Marinakis to disarm the committee immediately and eject the rebels, or the monastery would be destroyed. Little did the Pasha know, the abbot himself was acting as chairman of the committee. Therefore, Abbot Gabriel refused the command. The rebels began to prepare, as they knew a Turkish attack was imminent.
Early morning attack
In the early morning hours of November 8, 1866, the rebels awoke to the sight of 15,000 Turkish soldiers surrounding the monastery, and at least 30 cannons ready to fire. Only 259-armed men, of whom 45 were monks and 12 were revolutionary committee members, were guarding the monastery walls. To further complicate matters, there were 700 women and children within the confines of monastery, who had sought refuge from the Turks.
The Turkish commander demanded surrender. The Cretans responded with gunfire, and the battle ensued. Turkish forces attacked the monastery and met with heavy fire from the Cretan rebels, as well as snipers hiding in a windmill. As that first day drew to a close, the area was filled with Turkish corpses. The snipers were killed, but somehow, the gate and walls were held.
During the night, two of the rebels snuck out, dressed as Turkish soldiers. They went for help in a nearby town. Unable to secure reinforcements, one of the rebels actually snuck back into the monastery, to continue the fight.
The next morning, utilizing heavy artillery, Turkish troops smashed the gate and destroyed the entry walls. The abbot gathered all the people into the chapel to administer the last sacrament. He advised them to die bravely, as he himself was going to do.
Undaunted, Abbot Gabriel went out on an unguarded terrace and began shooting at the Turks. The Pasha ordered the abbot to be taken alive. The Turks tried to follow orders, but one Turkish soldier found the ease of murdering the abbot too tempting. The abbot was shot in the stomach and fell to his death. Shortly before dying, the abbot gave his blessing to a rather desperate plan, developed by rebel Konstantine Giaboudakis. The refugees preferred death to falling into the hands of the Turks, so they went along with the plan. The committee unanimously approved and they moved forward.
Though the rebels waged a fierce battle, resulting in hundreds of Turkish casualties, they knew they couldn’t continue indefinitely, as munitions were running low. By nighttime, the Turks launched a massive assault, storming the monastery and entering the inner courtyard. Fearless, the rebels fought them in hand-to-hand style combat.
During this time, Giaboudakis led the women and children into the gunpowder storage room. They prayed together and waited until the Turkish troops were pounding at the door. As the door began to break, Giaboudakis lit a gunpowder keg. The massive explosion killed the refugees, as well as hundreds of Turkish soldiers. The final death toll was 864 Cretans, including men, women and children, plus 1500 Turkish troops. The Turks put to death all 114 prisoners. Somehow, three rebels escaped and lived to tell of the astonishing events that took place.
News of the holocaust rocked Europe, and won much support for the Cretan freedom movement. The assistance of Greece, England, France, Italy and Russia, in 1898, led to the withdrawal of Turkish troops. Their occupation of the island, which dates back to 1669, ended. By 1913, they achieved their ultimate goal: unity with Greece.
This is yet another tale of the bravery and unwavering courage of our Hellenic ancestors in the fight for freedom from the Turks. May these brave individuals rest in peace and may we always remember their courage and determination. May their memories be eternal.
Commemorations for the 150th anniversary of the Holocaust of Arkadi
Visit when you’re in Crete. The Arkadi Monastery is located about 18 kms (11 miles) southeast of Rethymnon. Visitor hours are 8:00 am – 8:00 pm (summer) and 9:00 am – 6:00 pm (winter). Website
A version of this article was published in November 2006.