History of Toplou Monastery

Locals also refer to Toplou Monastery as the “Great Monastery”. However, its official designation is Panagia Akrotiriani (Our Lady of the Peninsula), while the name Toplou dates from the Turkish period – top means “cannon” in Turkish.

toplou monastery built like a fortress
Toplou Monastery was built like a fortress to face its enemies

This is because during the final years of the Venetian occupation, Toplou Monastery was allowed to equip itself with a small cannon to drive off pirate raids and Turkish attacks.

Let us not forget that the east coast of Crete offers many good landing-places for enemies, and monasteries were often attacked and looted for the valuable relics they contained, as well as from motives of religious fanaticism and intolerance.

Toplou Monastery experienced many such attacks throughout its history: it was looted and destroyed by pirates in 1498, by the Knights of Malta in 1530 and by the Turks later on.

The monastery had always been rich and many enemies coveted its enormous wealth. It was also often targeted by the Turks as one of the main supporters of the struggle for Cretan independence.

Toplou Monastery in the Venetian period

The original site of Christian worship was the small chapel in Agionero Cave, near Toplou Monastery. There is no information on the date of this church, which no longer survives.

We also know that the north aisle of the monastery church contains 14th-century wall paintings. It seems that it was once the church of an older monastery, looted by Turkish pirates in July 1498.

In the 16th century, in spite of constant raids, the monastery acquired a great deal of property, founding churches in Crete and annexing many smaller monasteries in Sitia, such as Kapsa Monastery, which faced financial difficulties or external threats.

The old monastery of Panagia Akrotiriani was plundered in 1530 by the Knights of Malta. It also suffered serious earthquake damage in 1612, when the Venetians pledged 200 ducats for its repair.

The Catholic Venetians were not kindly disposed to the Orthodox Cretan dogma and never encouraged it. So why would they spend money on restoring an Orthodox monastery?

The answer lies in the historical circumstances: a few years before the Turkish invasion of Crete (1645), the Venetians accorded the Cretans more privileges and helped them build new churches and monasteries. This was because they wanted them on their side, building up their religious sentiment so that they would be allies in the approaching war with the Muslim Turks.

The abbot at the time, Gabriel Pantogalos, decided it would be best to demolish the old, earthquake-damaged buildings and built a new, fortress-type monastery which would offer better protection from the enemy.

Old photograph of Toplou Monastery
Old photograph of Toplou Monastery

The old church of the Virgin had not been destroyed, so it was retained and a south aisle dedicated to St John the Divine was added. So the full name of the monastery is actually the Monastery of Panagia Akrotiriani and Agios Ioannis Theologos. Pantogallos’s additions and restorations led to the impressive result we see today – the lovely church with its tall Renaissance belfry.

Toplou Monastery combines Byzantine and Renaissance stylistic and architectural features. It is said to have 100 doors, though the hundredth has not yet been found.

As with medieval castles, over the main gate of the monastery there is a “murder-hole”, through which the monks could pour boiling oil on any besiegers. The main gate was also reinforced to withstand a siege and was opened with a special mechanism due to its great weight. This is why it is called the “Wheel Gate”.

Toplou Monastery continued to flourish and was recorded as having 40 monks in 1639. Unfortunately this prosperity was rudely interrupted by the Turkish invasion of Crete in 1645.

Toplou Monastery during the Turkish occupation

In 1648, a few years after its restoration, the monastery was looted by the Turks once more. To ensure its survival, the Patriarchate of Constantinople declared it a stavropegiac foundation (one directly under the control of the Patriarchate rather than the local episcopate).

In 1798, the Patriarch of Constantinople Gregory V declared the monastery property free and undisturbed, and forbade its sequestration by the Turks without the permission of the Ecumenical Patriarch. This was because the monastery was heavily in debt due to high taxes, and was threatened with confiscation of its property.

swords and guns in the toplou monastery museum
Swords and guns in the Toplou Monastery Museum

But the greatest disaster came with the Greek revolution of 1821, when the monks of Toplou were “pre-emptively” slaughtered by the Turks.

Although Sitia did not participate in the 1821 Revolution, the Turks killed all those they believed might provoke and support a rising. This happened not only at Toplou Monastery but across Sitia Province, and even in Heraklion (where bishops were murdered in the cathedral of St Minas).

Toplou Monastery lay empty from 1821 to 1830, when new monks arrived. Many of the monastery relics were looted while it was abandoned, especially the gold and silver items.

In 1840 a school was established for the children of this remote part of Crete. It may have operated illegally at an earlier date, but there is no information to support this.

Unfortunately the recovery of the monastery was not to last. In 1866 a new rising broke out in Crete, and this time the monks seem to have played an active role in support of the revolutionaries. The Turks found out and the monastery was abandoned again; any monks arrested were tortured to death.

Once the Turkish troops had left, the surviving monks returned to continue their work, but they were impoverished.

Toplou Monastery in World War II

During the German Occupation, Toplou Monastery played a leading part in the Resistance, as a wireless base in communication with the Allied HQ in Cairo and as a refuge for resistance operatives.

When the Germans discovered the monastery’s activity, they arrested Abbot Gennadios Syllignakis, the monks and any resistance fighters they found there. They were taken to Agia Prison and executed.

Although the Germans originally planned to blow up the monastery, they eventually limited themselves to confiscating its property.

* Bibliography: Nikos Psilakis – Monasteries and Hermitages of Crete

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