The Holy Fathers Monastery in Azogires
One of the most popular of the seven churches to visit in Azogires is the church at the Holy Fathers Monastery just a five minute walk south of Alfa Kafenion. Ask Prokopi, a regular human fixture at Alfa Kafenion to let you inside, as he has the Holy Fathers Church key.
The story surrounding Holy Fathers Church is as inspiring as the time-worn icons inside. Saint John the Hermit was the leader of 98 Holy Fathers, but somehow they traveled to Azogires, without their saintly leader.
He got left behind for a time on deserted Gavdos Island. The Holy Fathers attributed their collective prayers to the return of their beloved John in 1300 CE. But being a hermit, he opted for his own cave and his followers for theirs. They settled for prayer inside the monastery.
The monastery's church always draws tourists. Its interior is a time warp of religious relics. Some say that it along with St. Theodor’s Church, another of Azogires’s ecclesiastic gems is deeply magical.
St. Theodor’s famous frescoes were painted by Ioannis Pagomenos; their Byzantine beauty is breathtaking yet understated. The Holy Fathers may have originated in Egypt, but they will always be associated with The Holy Fathers Monastery in Azogires, just seven minutes on foot from the table where you ate your omelet.
The Zoures Cave in Azogires, the Cave of the Holy Fathers
Although the Holy Fathers followers of John were instrumental in reactivating the ancient non-functioning monastery at that time, (now a museum of war memorabilia), they lived rather far from John, high up in another cave, known as Zoures Cave.
Intrepid travelers have a slew of caves to choose from in Azogires – each with its own name and accompanying legend, but it is the Holy Fathers Cave that excites the traveler. It is the most visited cave in Azogires and the wider area of Paleochora.
Not the 98 Holy Fathers, but priests at the local feast on October 7, the day of the Holy Fathers
Hiking to the cave of the Holy Fathers
Saint John the Hermit
The road to the cave is south of Alfa Kafenion just 45 seconds away. Your ascent by car takes about 15 minutes; you’ll pass signs marked by a cross to help you get there. Then you park the car on a gravel part. The rest of the way is on foot. It takes about 30 minutes walking at a slow safe pace to reach the cave area.
But accessing this spiritual cave has its own obstacles. Only the most determined will attempt to enter the cave. There are no stairs to assist you towards its rocky, steep opening, but if you do manage to arrive at its entrance, you may turn around and head back.
Inside it’s extremely dark and dank. You may be armed with the flashlight that Lucky, the owner of Alfa Kafenion gave you while wishing you luck, but the one I was handed was too weak - a perfect excuse not to go any further.
I ran into one caver who told me that inside there was a broken stair leading the second cave level, but he opted for turning around; he didn’t risk it. So, without a powerful flashlight or caver’s light, it might be a no-go.
However, do not let that deter you from getting up there. It is certainly worth trekking towards the cave if not to admire the incredible sage, the proliferation of yellow and purple mountain flowers, and in particular the panoramic view as you near the cave. You really do feel closer to heaven; it’s exhilarating, but at the same time an unearthly strangeness fills your soul.
One must be content to stand near its treacherous entrance and conjure up the scene that happened some 700 years ago: when Saint John the Hermit, the leader of the Holy Fathers died - that very same day - the bodies of the holy fathers lay lifeless in their cave.
Today, 99 pigeons inhabit the cave. Could they represent the lofty souls of the Holy Fathers?
A particular Plane Tree and No Ordinary Man in Azogires
It’s interesting that the Holy Fathers founded their monastery in a lush area with its own spring and stream marked by an astonishing centuries-old plane tree (platanos) that continues to flourish to this day.
It is a mutation of Platanus orientalis - one of 50 such plane trees in Crete. Azogires is blessed to enjoy its evergreen glow; it never loses its leaves. They cling to their gnarled branches throughout the entire year.
Uniquely wondrous are the 99 crosses that appear in this Azogires plane tree. The tree’s gnarled branches form a criss-cross pattern.
The devout claim this particular plane tree is paying homage to the Holy Fathers who settled into the ancient monastery keeping alive their spirit and the extraordinary man who continued their divine works 500 years later.
Double Dipping into Divinity in Azogires
The Holy Fathers' Monastery in Azogires, once dormant before the Holy Fathers arrival, continued to flourish under the humble guidance of Father Gavriel Papagrigorakis (1875-1930) from the village of Rodovani.
He managed to restart the monastery’s divine nature, populating it with nuns and monks. He moved into its meter- thick stone walls and for the next years, he worked putting Azogires back on its feet. He started an olive oil factory - still in situ near the monastery, as well as two flour mills.
He was a tireless giver who fed others before nibbling on his own meager pieces of bread. He fought the Turks, was wounded in man’s "holiest of body parts": No children for Father Gavriel Papagrigorakis.
That didn’t deter his magical powers which continued to - everyone’s amazement - long after he expired. His saintliness accounted for saving the monastery when a huge rock over its roof tumbled and swerved into the air thereby missing the people praying inside.
One nun who was particularly close to the powerful Father stated she wished to die on his 40th memorial anniversary, if – she said- this miraculous event of saving the people in the monastery was a sign from him. Her life came full circle, meeting its end the day of Father Gavriel Papagorakis 40th memorial anniversary.
His marble tomb lies next to one of the monastery’s external walls. Father Gavriel Papagrigorakis is deemed the guardian of the monastery, and among villagers he is at the top of the list of divine people and the miracles they make happen.
Unexplained events do indeed have supernatural elements, but people of Azogires attribute such extraordinary occurrences to the historical holiness in Azogires. Some of these events are permanently etched in the lore of the people; others take place without any warning and are of the less desirable kind.
* Article by Nancy Snipper - Copyright 2009 Explorecrete.com
If you happen to be in Paleochora on October 7, do not miss the local feast at the Holy Fathers Monastery in Azogires.