The Monastery of Savathiana is less than 20 km west of Heraklion. You may easily drive there from Heraklion, Amoudara or Agia Pelagia by following the roadsigns to Rogdia.
We touch the edge of the village of Rogdia, while following the sign showing a left fork, up to the Monastery of Savathiana and “Aetofolia” (Eagle’s Nest). Ignore the signs to Aetofolia because they lead to a property with a fence and a locked gate.
A long narrow dirt-track this one, there are diggers at work, cutting heavy slabs of stone from the roadside. We will later discover the purpose of this labour. The landscape typically rugged and hilly, although it gives a sense of openness, as valleys slope away from us and we continue to be treated to great views all around.
From a car-park at the monastery’s entrance, see immediately a group of stonemasons, cutting and shaping great slabs of stone, just outside the gates. A new church is the reason for the work on the road-side, and it already looks very impressive. White stone from Messara in the south of this region is mixed with local red stone, expertly re-creating the elegant style of Crete’s Byzantine architecture.
Following a gentle path on foot, we arrive at the grounds of the Savathiana Monastery, a large collection of buildings that house the order of nuns who live here. The harmony of these buildings, and the fine old church among them, allow the visitor to experience a great sense of calm. We are able to explore a large and beautiful garden, rich in its variety of colour and texture, and it is a delightful discovery. It is possible to walk on shaded paths, where tall cypresses in tidy rows give way to strong plane-trees, fruit trees, flowers, cactus and shrubs. The vegetable garden shows further evidence that the nuns here must work hard to maintain these surroundings.
Some archaeological finds exist here, and the small bridge over a seasonal river that we cross dates from 1535, as can be read on the key-stone. A more tranquil place would be hard to find, and being here for an hour or so, in the cool shade, enjoying the scent of pine, is a memorable experience.
Walking along a path through the gardens, we come to the small chapel of Agios Antonios, projecting outward from an overhanging rock that forms the church’s back wall.
This provides a tranquil moment, in a cool, cave-like sanctuary, where the visitor can offer a few coins and feel the atmosphere of devotion and serenity in this place. Dark stained wood, finely carved, and some interesting, very old, icons, add to the calm ambience. An enormous cypress tree stands like a sentinel over the church, and this whole area gives plenty of shade, even on the hottest day.
The monastery buildings are dated from an inscription over the church door to 1635, but documents show another date, and we know that there was a holy place here in 1549.
Inside the monastery walls, the visitor will usually be offered a glass of water and a loukoumi, as we were. Sister Pavla kindly led us through some of the convents’ history, pointing out figures from photographs we inside a simple reception room.
History of the Monastery of Savathiana
Inside the nearby gorge of Almiros, there used to be the Monastery of Agios Savas with 300 monks, who were slaughtered by pirates. Two of these monks escaped and founded a new monastery here at Savathiana. Such devastation cannot have been far from the thoughts of the builders of this monastery; it is so well hidden in the folding landscape that it cannot be seen from the sea, or even from 50 metres down the road leading up to it.
The Monastery of Savathiana was severely damaged during the Turkish attack in 1648, though in 1745 reconstruction work commenced with a special permission from the Turkish authorities. (NOTE. The Turkish authorities by law forbade the restoration and repairing of damaged Christian churches and monasteries. It was one of their many ways to suppress Christiananity).
The Monastery of Savathiana managed to survive over the centuries, but after World War 2, only the Abbot and one monk lived here. Vassilios, The Archbishop of Crete, happened to meet in a hospital of Athens a nun, who was hospitalised with frostbite because she lived in a monastery high up on the mountains of Peloponnese. She complained that all the nuns in that monastery were suffering during the freezing winters and they prayed for a solution to their problem. The nuns in that monastery were of Cretan origin and the Archbishop had the idea of offering them the monastery of Savathiana in Crete, which would be turned to a nunnery. The nuns accepted willingly and they moved to Savathiana in 1946.
After our refreshment, we were able to see Sister Pavla at work on a piece of embroidery. This is a typically Cretan method called kopanelli. Her skilled hands juggle the weighted bobbins, the kopanakia, between fingers that know the complex sequences required for this pattern, and the finished article will not be seen for at least a year, perhaps more, but will be appreciated for many generations to come.
Time passes slowly in the grounds of this monastery. Nonetheless, we must make our way back by the same narrow road to the village of Rogdia, first saying ‘efharisto, Adelphi Pavla’; thank you, Sister Pavla.
Visitors should avoid the midday hours, between 1am and 4pm, when the grounds will be closed. At all times, dress should be respectful and modest.
On the way back to Rogdia, we notice, looking down to the coast, the beach at Ligaria, and out on the sea sits the island of Dia, which I would like one day to explore. Turning to face the mountains we notice the brilliant white speck against a blue sky that is the chapel atop Mount Strouboulas, another feature of Heraklion’s impressive skyline.
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