Blog 24 19/01/2016 Crete under Ottoman Rule. Part II: The Massacre at Arkadi
Crete under Ottoman Rule. Part II:
The Massacre at Arkadi.
In the breathtakingly beautiful Amari region of Crete, Mount Psiloritis, the largest mountain in Crete, rises majestically out of the Idean Mountain range, its peak often hidden beyond the clouds. Bathed in a diaphanous blue light, it is easy to imagine how the mystery of the gods could be created here. Zeus himself was born and raised in these mountains and it was from here that the Pancacrian bee nourished him as a child. Everywhere, the deep blue sea, the powerful mountains and the translucent light, inspires man towards eternity; the world that Henry Miller describes as being conceived in perpetuity.
In the middle of the valley lie the ruins of the once powerful 16th century Monastery of Arkadi. During its heyday, this monastery, with its Renaissance inspired architecture was renowned for its science and arts and it boasted an extensive library. Amidst such tranquillity and beauty, it is hard to imagine the tragedy that unfolded here in 1866. In the 19th century, as Crete tried to free itself from Ottoman rule, the monastery played an active part in the Cretan resistance – as indeed did many monasteries throughout mainland Greece at this time.
By 1866, the Sultan, completely fed up with the troublesome Cretans, sent orders that the insurrection be put down once and for all. On the night of November 7th 1866, Giritli Naili Mustapha Pasha, two times Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire and ruler of Crete for over thirty years, left Rethymno with a regular army of 15,000 men and thirty canons for the Monastery of Akardi which had become the focal point for the Cretan revolutionaries. On the morning of November 8th Mustapha Naili’s troops were deployed before the monastery and in the surrounding hills, although he himself chose to stay in the nearby village of Messi and handed the negotiating skills over to Mustapha Suleiman. Faced with such a formidable army, the Cretans must have known this would be a fight to the end. From a nearby hill, Suleiman pleaded with the Abbot to release the Cretan fighters, promising that the women and children would go unharmed and the monastery would remain untouched.
Inside, only 259 of the 325 men were armed. In defiance, two banners proudly flew over the monastery walls – the sacred banner of the monastery and the blue and white flag of Chieftain George Daskalakis. Inside the church, Abbot Hadzi Gabriel Marinakis was conducting early morning mass and on hearing that the Turks had surrounded the monastery, rallied his people with cries of “my children there is no death. Let us fight heroically, and then let us appear before our Maker with clean hands. Long live the war, long live freedom.” Suleiman’s pleas were met with defiant gunfire and the battle began. By the end of the first day, bodies lay everywhere. From a nearby windmill, seven palikaria – brave young men – had shut themselves inside. Aware that this meant certain death, they were determined to cause widespread destruction among the Turks. Finally, at the end of the first day, all except one were killed.
The following day, the western gate collapsed under canon fire and the Turks charged into the compound. At this point, the remaining men without arms barricaded themselves into the refectory and most of the women and children fled to the gunpowder storeroom. By then, hundreds of Turks had swarmed the monastery and many gathered outside the storeroom trying to break down the doors. Constantine Giaboudakis, from the village of Amnatos, who had earlier said goodbye to his wife and brother vowing to fight the Turks until death rather than surrender to the Turks, took his pistol and with a careful aim, fired at the gunpowder kegs. Within an instance, a loud explosion blew up the area. The explosion was heard far way and ballads sung later told of mutilated bodies of men, women and children being flung towards the heavens, the monastery becoming a heap of stones and Mount Psiloritis shuddering in the blast.
Although much of the monastery lay in ruins, other sections were untouched, including the refectory. The Turks eventually broke down the door and slaughtered everyone inside. In the aftermath, 114 men and women were captured and four escaped. Everyone else died including Abbot Gabriel who, despite orders from Suleiman “to take the old goat alive” was hit in the stomach and died instantly. Twice as many Turks were killed. According to some accounts, Salih, one of the Pasha’s youngest sons, took care of the prisoners releasing them the following day. Other accounts tell of cruelty at the hands of their captors. Accounts of extreme bravery were told by the survivors, one of which tells of the heroine, Hariklia Daskalaki, who constantly risked her life by running to the dead to retrieve ammunition and guns for the fighters. And Adam Papadakis who, dressed as a Turk, escaped through a window and passed through the soldiers to take a message to the rebel leader, Koronos. Rather than stay away, he chose to return once his mission was accomplished, again walking through enemy lines. Fate was certainly in his favour as he was one of a handful of survivors who managed to escape. Fate had not been so kind to Abbot Gabriel. His body was decapitated and the heard paraded through the streets of Perivolia.
For Mustapha Naili, this was a public relations disaster and after a further six months spent fighting the insurgents in the mountains through the cold, harsh winter, the Sultan summoned him back to Constantinople in March 1867. He was now persona non grata as the Sultan declined to speak to him. After all those years of trying to hold Crete together, Mustapha Naili Pasha died in 1871 and was buried in the Fatih Mosque in Constantinople.
In this great monastery, once the largest and richest in Crete, the men, women and children did not die in vain. There was a renewed empathy for the Cretan cause from European powers and especially from the United States who had just struggled through their own devastating Civil War. But it would take another thirty years of bloodshed until Crete was finally liberated from the Ottoman Empire, and a further fifteen years until it was unified with Greece in 1913. Today, the Heroes Memorial now stands in the place of the windmill. It houses the skulls of those killed. Amongst other artefacts housed in the museum is the sacred blue and white banner, riddled with bullet holes. An inscription reads “Nothing is more noble and glorious than to die for one’s country. Fire and the sword, and all else it defies for its sake.